Android 3.1 review

 

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Well it looks like the folks at Google decided to do things right with the new version of Honeycomb. The 3.1 update started its roll out to Verizon XOOM owners last Monday, and then found its way over to wi-fi XOOM owners this past weekend. If you haven’t received it yet, sit tight as it should be coming. Of course I haven’t heard any word of other Android tablets getting the new update yet, so we still have some time to see if Google will better implement their updates across all Android tablets compared to how they handle their Android phones. The new version will also be tied to Google TV. Either way, let’s dive in to see whether 3.1 is good enough to pull the half-baked Honeycomb out of the oven.

Improvements

The new 3.1 update promises to bring stability and performance enhancements across the board. Page scrolling, browser rendering and speed, and the overall fluidity of the UI is said to be greatly improved. The new movie rental program through the Android Market, full support for Flash 10.2, re-sizable widgets, USB product support (keyboards, mice, etc), expanded Bluetooth features, and PTP protocol for easier transferring of photo files. All in all, a pretty nice little update for the Android faithful.

Day to day use

The new update does deliver on most fronts. Widgets are easy to resize, though support isn’t there for 3rd party apps (or even all of Google’s own) yet. It will come as time goes on, and really just one more way to customize your desktop setup. The speed and responsiveness has improved greatly across the whole system. Gone (mostly) is the lag and the stuttering found on the original firmware. I can scroll easily back and forth from screen to screen with a comfortable, non embarrassing smoothness that won’t make iPad owners grin with delight. This performance improvement is probably the greatest benefit of the new update as it really gets passed the half-baked feel of Honeycomb.

Of course things still aren’t perfect though. I have still had my browser crash a couple of times since the new update was installed, as well as GMail crashing this morning twice on me before I had to reset the hardware. That’s completely unacceptable in this day and age. The GMail crash is annoying, but when you have 5 or 6 tabs open in the browser and lose it all, it kind of makes you delegate the XOOM as a toy as something you can’t count on for real work. I mean that. I don’t trust the XOOM to perform any real tasks that I NEED to get done. The same isn’t so on my iPad 2.

The browser was supposed to get speed enhancements (as well as performance and stability) but it’s nothing I noticed in normal browsing. Flash performed OK, but I still had to go to my laptop to do some shopping at nike.com which is a full flash site. Needless to say, not there yet (of course this is impossible with the iPad though). Scrolling seemed just as fluid as it always had though, so no big surprises here.

One of the strange omissions of the wi-fi update is the lack of movie rentals from the market. This is available for the Verizon version, so why not the wi-fi? No wonder the fragmentation bells ring loudly around Mountain View. There should be no reason this happens. Of course would it really matter though? Rentals are ranging in price from $3.99-5.99. I really couldn’t care less about having that option on the XOOM as I could just use Netflix on my phone, or my iPad 2. Most people don’t have the benefit of having multiple tablets in their home, and not having Netflix on your Android tablet should give you pause knowing it’s available for the iPad. I think this might be more geared for Google TV, but I don’t believe many people will opt for these rentals.

I didn’t have a chance to test the other features such as PTP or the Bluetooth options. I have already used the Motorola XOOM keyboard and found it’s not a fun experience having to peck at a keyboard, then back at a tablet screen, then back down to the keyboard. If that’s something you are considering, check the Transformer for a more seamless experience. I also don’t have a micro usb to micro usb cable to unload my pictures onto my XOOM, so that’s one more thing to think about with say the Asus Transformer and the keyboard dock which has standard USB ports.

Conclusion

So the new update does end up improving Honeycomb. The overall feel and polish have been greatly improved from the original software. This still doesn’t put the Android tablet world anywhere near iPad usability territory as there is still frequent (enough) crashes and bugs throughout to make it not feel there yet. Fragmentation exists in tablet form already like it or not. It’s a big step for the green robot, but many more must be taken to fight Apple. The polish is now there, now the stability must improve for anyone to really stand behind Honeycomb.

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Allen Schmidt

Allen is a former contributing editor at Nothing But Tablets, which was merged with Pocketables in 2012.

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