Google gave us a glimpse of Android 3.0 Honeycomb at CES earlier this year, but today they released their new SDK and some details on the upcoming OS. Here's a look through what we can expect from the next version of Android.
The Tablet UI
The biggest change in Android 3.0 is the general layout of the UI. Since it's built specifically for tablets, you have much more space on your home screen for icons and widgets. This is a pretty stark contrast to the iPad, which just enlarged the iPhone's 4x4 grid with big, spaced out icons — as you can see in the screenshot above, you actually have a much denser grid than you would on an Android phone, meaning you can pack a whole lot of stuff into one home screen.
The Notification Bar
The notification bar has been moved to the bottom of the screen, and they've added a few navigation buttons to it that seem to take the place of the capacative hardware buttons we all know and love on our Android phones. The three buttons, from left to right, are Back, Home and Recent Apps. The new recent apps window is pretty handy, taking advantage of the extra space to show you the current state of each running app.
The Home Screens
The home screens themselves are pretty similar to regular Android as far as functionality — you can add app shortcuts and widgets wherever you want, swipe between five different screens, and expand your app drawer to access anything not already on the home screens. That said, the entire thing has this new 3D look to it that's really awesome (which we caught a glimpse of in our first look). As long as the hardware can keep up with the new UI, it'll be pretty awesome (we all remember how laggy the original Motorola Droid was).
The Action Bar
Probably the most welcome change in the new UI, however, is what Google is calling the Action Bar. In every application, the top bar is reserved for contextual options, navigation, or other buttons. The Email app, for example, has a new message button and a refresh button at the top. When you select a message, that action bar changes to display a move to folder button, a mark as read button, a star message button and a delete button. Of course, it also has dropdown menus for any buttons that overflow off to the side.
Why is this so awesome? These are the kinds of buttons that, on the 2.0 cycle of Android, are usually buried in menus that you access with your phone's Menu button. Now, instead of having to hit Menu (and God forbid a "More" button), those options will be available right at the top of your screen. Really, this is one of my biggest complaints about Android, and it makes me wonder why we don't have this action bar in 2.x, too.
Keyboard and Copy/Paste
The new soft keyboard is an improvement over the iteration we're all familiar with, including larger, reshaped keys for easier targeting. What's cooler is that it also includes some keys we're more familiar with on full keyboards, like Tab, which will make us desktop users more comfortable.
Copy and paste on Android has never been the most friendly feature, but 3.0 takes a step in the right direction by making it a much faster affair: just long-press on any text and it will select that word. From there, you can drag the selection area to include more text. The action bar will also show Select All, Cut, Copy and Share buttons while you're selecting text too, which is fantastic (seriously, why isn't that action bar in Android already?). Overall, working with text in Android 3.0 is going to be a much more pleasant experience.
Tablet-Optimised Core Apps
There aren't any Google apps in the SDK (like Gmail or Google Talk), but the non-Google core apps like the Browser, Camera, Contacts, and Email have all been updated to more efficiently use the extra space you'll get with a tablet. The browser has tabs built in (hallelujah!), bookmark syncing with Chrome (double hallelujah!), Incognito mode (ahem), and automatic sign in to Google sites using the Google account tied to your device. I don't need to tell you guys how cool all these features are. These are usually things we have to download an alternate browser for, both on Android and iOS. This is a big step forward.
The other core apps aren't quite as revolutionary, but still nicely redesigned. The camera app is definitely cool (see above), and the Contacts and Email app are basically two-pane versions of the same apps we already know and love—not unlike the difference between the iPhone and iPad versions of Contacts and Mail in iOS. They're a good use of space, but nothing revolutionary (unless you're counting the aforementioned action bar that I still can't get over).
The most recent Android 3.0 SDK and screenshots over at the Android Developers site barely scratch the surface of the brand new OS, but I gotta say, it looks really exciting. I'm a happy iPad user that, until today, was 100 per cent uninterested in an Android tablet, but I've eaten my words for breakfast. Plus, a lot of these features fix some of Android's biggest annoyances, so if we're lucky, maybe we'll get to see some of them in the smartphone versions of Android. Here's hoping.
What do you guys think? Do you like the look of the new Android OS, or do you still have reservations about Android tablets? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.
Android 3.0 Platform Highlights [Android Developers]