Make no mistake: Google Inc.’s tablet-optimized Android 3.0 represents a huge improvement overall over previous versions of Google’s mobile operating system. But that’s not to say it gets everything right. After extensive use across multiple tablets, I’ve identified five things that Google needs to address in Honeycomb.
1. Improve Image Rendering
Photos viewed in Android 3.0’s Gallery app appear fuzzy and washed out when compared to when you view them on other devices As I photographer, I noticed this problem immediately upon loading my own pictures on the Motorola Xoom. Ultimately, the problem comes down to Honeycomb’s apparent inability to correctly render images in the image Gallery-and elsewhere. After weeks of back and forth, a Google spokesperson acknowledged the problem, but couldn’t give a timeline on a fix. Thus far, there hasn’t been one.
The problem is striking when you view the same image displayed on the Honeycomb tablets side-by-side with Apple’s iPad 2 and even the Android 2.2-based Samsung Galaxy Tab 7-inch. On the Honeycomb tablets-Motorola Xoom, T-Mobile G-Slate, Acer Iconia A500, and Asus Eee Pad Transformer TF101-the images lack sharpness and detail. Colors appear off , too; they look muted and lack vibrance. While some of this can be attributed to differences among the actual displays themselves, I also have the sense that something is off-kilter with the color temperature and white balance in Honeycomb. it lowered the default color temperature in Android 2.3.3 to cause muted colors. The reasoning for messing with Honeycomb’s defaults would likely be the same, too: Just as in Gingerbread, the interface is darker, so too does Honeycomb have a darker interface. But the end result remains unsatisfactory.
2. Make the Keyboard Better
The stock Honeycomb keyboard is much improved over that in Android 2.x, and it includes a pleasing QWERTY design and useful context-sensitive keys (such as .com and @). But there’s no number row-a game-changer once you’ve tried it on tablets like the Asus Transformer (which has a custom Asus keyboard) and forthcoming HP TouchPad (which runs WebOS). And that color scheme has got to go: light gray characters inset on darker gray keys just don’t pop, so the keys don’t stand out enough. The subtle blue highlight that shows you’ve pressed a key is a good touch, though I personally like the pop-up letters that appear when you type on the Apple iPhone keyboard instead. However, the blue tint effect needs to be widened; as it stands, you can hardly see the blue glow because it’s covered by your finger that’s on the key.
3. Tweak the Interface
Those three core navigation buttons at the bottom left of every Honeycomb screen? Let’s send them back to the graphic designers for an overhaul. Of the three light trace designs, only one-the home button-is actually clear enough in its function. And even that’s debatable: One colleague admitted to me he thought that the default home icon was an up arrow at first.
From the outset, that “exit” button has been a problem. It looks like a sideways bookmark, but is intended to be an exit or back button. It behaves like a back button to move you back to the previously viewed screen, but only does so in some apps; and, according to Google, it will actually close you out of an app if you use it to back out of an app). Meanwhile, the recently accessed button at right is neither clear in its function, nor easy to view as a light tracing.
I much prefer the thicker, clearer redesign implemented by Asus on its Transformer; and that company isn’t the only one I’ve seen re-skin those buttons on its tablet. If more than one manufacturer sees it as a problem point, Google would do well to address a the issue itself.
4. Clean Up the Root Directory
As compared to other mobile operating systems, Android lets you have freer access to your files from within apps. This capability is key to interoperability with other computers and apps, and it allows a tablet to have the maximum possible flexibility in what it can do, and how far it can challenge more established desktop operating systems. It means that you can transfer files to the tablet via email, via an app, via a memory card, or even a direct connection to your PC; and then access those files using another app on the device to actually do something with them. It’s about creation, and not just consumption.
Take this real-world use example. While using the Asus Eee Pad Transformer as it was docked in its Mobile Docking Station keyboard, I attached a USB flash drive, opened a Word .docx file in the Polaris Office 3.0 software preinstalled on the tablet, edited the document, and then saved it with a new name directly to the directory of my choice-be it on the flash drive, or back to the tablet. I chose to resave it to the tablet, and then I opened the Gmail app and was able to attach that newly edited file to an outbound e-mail.
Here’s the rub, though: A number of file manager apps will let you access the Android file system, but by default, the file/folder organization looks like a mess. You have to be a developer to know where files are stored, and what’s in what directory. For example, on that Transformer tablet, the file manager showed that the USB drive folders were buried under the Removable directory, within the root directory.
The bottom line is that finding files manually remains a cluttered and arcane experience given Android’s plethora of installed files and folders, and lack of apparent, real-world hierarchy to those files and folder. A little housekeeping in presentation here can go a long way towards making tablets more functional.
5. Improve Handling of External Storage
Many of the Honeycomb tablets have, at the least, a microSD card slot for expanding storage. And some have USB ports, either directly built into the tablet, or built into a docking station that connects to the tablet. That’s a lot of external storage options. Unfortunately, Honeycomb appears ill-equipped for handling external storage. For starters, every time you insert a card or device, the Android OS needs to mount it-and that sometimes seems to take forever. Not that Microsoft Windows achieves this instantaneously, either, but then again, I shouldn’t feel the need to evoke comparisons to Windows when I’m talking about the lighter, theoretically more nimble Android OS on a mobile, flash-based tablet.
I’ve had Android 2.2 choke on an SD card I inserted, and return an error saying the card was corrupted (experienced on Dell’s Streak 7). On Honeycomb, I haven’t experienced that type of issue, but I have had to remove and reinsert media multiple times to get it to be recognized. And if I dare to remove the card without first unmounting through the Android operating system, Android 3.0 gets very cranky (either giving a “force close” error, or not recognizing the next media plugged into that port or slot).
Unmount media? Is that really a step Google has to insist on? The truth is cards and USB drives get inserted and yanked out all the time, and insisting on that extra step just bogs things down. One of Android’s big differentiators is the fact that in can give users file-level control (see point 4). But if Google can’t get the OS to play well with those files, that’s going to be an Achilles’ Heel, and one that limits whether the tablet can aspire to become an interoperable replacement for a laptop.
Where’s the Update?
The OS has yet to have more than a minor point update, so presumably the programmers at the Googleplex are working on how to deal with these points, and more. After all, I’ve only pinpointed a handful of weaknesses. Others issues I know about: Honeycomb also has to be able to better deal with standard Android 2.x apps on a tablet (too often, I’ll see such apps crash); it has to become more stable (the code needs to get cleaned up so “Force Close” errors on core, included apps are a thing of the past); it needs to enable HDMI output to support full 1080p output, and dual video streams, so you can do one thing on the device while outputting a separate stream via HDMI; and it needs to enable full rapid charging via USB. And that’s the just a short list I’m aware of.
Hopefully these points, and many more, are on the docket to be addressed. And maybe, we’ll hear a bit about them at Google I/O this week.