We knew it would be coming. Even 6 months before CES 2011 we knew the event would be host dozens of tablets from an endless mass of vendors. But the questioned on everyone’s mind was just how these tablets would manifest. 10-inch Atom-based affairs with Windows 7 like those from Asus? 7-inch ARM machines with Android like Samsung’s Galaxy Tab? Or something wholly different like RIM’s Playbook? Well this week we found out, and the good news is this: it’s none of the above, it’s something way better. CES 2011 has lead to the unveiling of Android 3.0 “Honeycomb” – the largest change to Google’s mobile OS yet and the future of tablets.
Android has been talked about as a possible tablet OS since its inception. The platform’s free access, endless customizable possibilities, and relatively efficient design makes it a well-rounded choice for really any mobile device, not just phones. However, as the Galaxy Tab has shown, Android in the current 2.2/2.3 state is not yet ready for tablets. The Galaxy Tab required extensive skinning and customization by Samsung in order to meet the needs of the larger real estate and horsepower of tablets. While Apple toiled over the iPad version of iOS in order to scale it to the 9.7″, 1024×768 screen; Android 2.x has no such enhancements. But while the iPad’s version of iOS is more optimized, it still feels like a replica of its younger sibling: the iPhone. The paradigms that were established by Apple’s UI in the iPhone transferred to the iPad – sometimes to the benefit of familiarity, and sometimes to the detriment of keeping the UI too simple.
That’s where Honeycomb makes a dramatic leap forward. Android has completely rebuilt the user interface of the tablet OS to meet the needs of larger screens and higher productivity. The core concepts remain similar to standard Android: 5 home pages can be customized to hold apps, widgets, wallpapers, photos, movies, and Google’s eBooks. Moving between the home screens has a great 3D rotation effect and changing what shows up in each page is very simple. The UI isn’t just different, it’s more powerful. Google has seen fit to introduce a real, native GMail client as a local app, not just accessible online. It looks fantastic. Honeycomb also links directly to Google Talk for live chatting with tons of people. The browser is straight up Chrome, skinned in a trendy, dark black skin. And when I say Chrome, I don’t mean a port. This is the browser, tabs, split process, V8 engine and all, on a tablet. Google has pulled off some great stuff here with 3.0. Unlike Apple who kept iPad iOS very similar to the iPhone’s version, Google has thrown out much of Android’s old design and leapt at the chance to build something new with Honeycomb. It’s no surprise really since the lead UX designer on Honeycomb is no other than Matias Duarte, the guy who boldly scrapped Palm OS and designed WebOS before being snatched up by Google.
Check out this early preview of Android 3.0 to see all the new enhancements:
But no great OS is complete without hardware. However, I think someone can oblige. Well over a dozen Android based tablets were shown at CES, with quite a few that stand out from the crowd. Motorola showed the Xoom, a 10-inch 1280×800 tablet using Nvidia’s Tegra 2, a dual-core 1Ghz processor and Geforce 9 GPU. This is a ton of power, enough to decode 1080p video and capture 720p from its rear camera. It also has support for LTE on Verizon. Dell has shown off the Streak 7 and teased the Streak 10, which will also run high-end hardware. There are plenty of different devices coming this year, all vying to take the crown from the iPad. Now, some may say that these devices are homogenized and lack uniqueness. I don’t believe that is a real problem. Tons of Android phones seem nearly identical, but some will rise above the others and lead the platform.
Apple better have a knock out on their hands for the iPad 2, in both hardware and software. Because the Honeycomb tablets are looking mighty fine.