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After using Android 2.2 Froyo on the Samsung Galaxy Tab, the newest version of the operating system -- Android 3.0 Honeycomb -- on the Motorola Xoom is a bit of an eye opener. Where Froyo on the Tab felt like a glorified phone, Honeycomb on the Xoom feels like a more complete OS for a tablet.
Honeycomb offers five customizable home screens that can be accessed by swiping to the left or right. Out of the box, a few of these home panels were littered with app shortcuts and widgets, but they can all be moved around or deleted. The design of these home pages is far more "tablet-like" than what was available on the Galaxy Tab. The larger display and extra real estate also help to legitimize the feel of Honeycomb as a separate OS from the smartphone version of Android.
The central home screen offers a number of new control elements. You can more or less toss any ideas you have about Android 2.3 or 2.3 out the window when it comes to the basics. The drop-down notification shade has been killed off, the phone controls are gone, and everything has been moved to the bars at the top and bottom of the screen.
The bottom action bar holds most of the controls, and persists even when you have apps open and running. On the left side, three software buttons let users go back one screen, access the home screen, or open the new multitasking bar. The multitasking bar pops up on the left side of the screen and shows the last five apps a user has accessed. Jumping back to one is as simple as pressing it.
The right side of the action bar is where the clock and other notifications have landed. App alerts, new message alerts, and all the settings are accessed here. It's not exactly user friendly, and takes some hit-and-miss style navigation to figure out exactly how to operate this revised set of settings tools.
In the upper right corner of the display, there is a drop-down tool that lets you access some options for whatever app or activity is on the display. This sort of replaces the menu function that's available to Android smartphones, but it isn't as extensive (or as useful). There is also a software button here to access all the apps on the device. Apps are placed into one master set of apps where all of them are stored, and a user-defined set of favorites. Personally, I don't see the point in offering this set of favorites, as you have to open the main app menu first, and then swipe over to see your favorites. Chances are the app you want is on that first app screen.
In terms of using the OS to move around and perform tasks, it is reasonably good. I noticed a lot of jitters, app crashes, and herky-jerky movement of the software. It feels as though it hasn't been optimized quite yet. The Android Market was on board, but there are barely any apps present that work with Honeycomb, and it was rather crashtastic.
The browser offers some nice amenities that the iPad's Safari browser doesn't (real tabs, for instance), but it was frustrating for several reasons. First, Web developers haven't had time to figure out how to handle incoming requests from Honeycomb. The result is that most Web pages rendered in Honeycomb are the mobile-optimized versions of those apps rather than the desktop versions. That really takes away from the Web browsing experience. (The iPad, in comparison, gets this right.) The browser also lacks Flash, so embedded video content doesn't play.
My favorite feature so far are the improved widgets. The Gmail widget, for example, lets you swipe up and down through your in-box to see unread messages. Too bad you can't actually read them from the widget. Pressing on an unread email in the widget opens the full email application (which in and of itself is a decent mishmash of the HTML5 version of Gmail that Google offers to WebKit browsers and what Apple has done with its email app on the iPad). The larger screen available on the tablet form factor means developers can go wild with their widgets. Right now, there aren't enough available to really get excited about.
After playing with Honeycomb for a few days, my overall first impression is that it is in a 0.9 beta state. It's not 100% baked, but it is close. I fully expect Google will offer updates (hopefully in the near future) that solve many of the issues I noticed as user feedback begins to pour in.
Stay tuned for InformationWeek's full review of the Motorola Xoom in the days ahead.