The Best New Features In Android Honeycomb 3.1

Android Honeycomb 3.1’s a small but totally excellent update for Android tablets. A slightly smoother interface is packaged with two substantial features: improved flash performance (it’s really, really better!) and USB device compatibility (like a real computer!).

Long story short, this update only makes way Honeycomb better in some key ways. Our favourite level ups:

Flash Doesn’t Suck (Much):

I didn’t think Adobe had it in them to improve Flash like this. Flash 10.3 takes advantage of hardware acceleration on the Xoom. I’m tempted to say that it’s objectively good. Watching YouTube vids on the desktop site isn’t the stuttery, glitchy pile of misery it used to be. 720p vids still lag a little, but as you can see in the video, 360p videos run much smoother. Obviously, you can just use the YouTube app, which is optimised, but for video sites without an Android app, this is proof that Flash can succeed, with a little optimisation (and hardware acceleration).

Better Multitasking

Previously, the bar for recently opened apps was a static stack of thumbnails. Now you can scroll up and down your list of apps you have open. Just hit the button on the homescreen and flick. Much better.

Movie Store

Unlike iOS, Android hasn’t had the luxury of Netflix and Hulu to provide streaming video, nor has it had any sort of rental store. Netflix is a work in progress, but Honeycomb now has a movie rental store that gives you access to thousands of movies (if you’re in the US). Standard definition rentals are $US3, and HD rentals are $US4, with no subscription plan available. It’s not as nuanced as Netflix—in selection or design—but if you need something to watch in a pinch, it does its job.

Resizable Homescreen Widgets

If you like widgets, but want more out of them, you can resize them to make ’em bigger. To do that, hold your finger down over the widget until a blue frame appears over it. then drag the diamonds to resize said widget as you see fit. A blessing for Gmail.

Pointer Device Support

For the first time, Android supports pointer devices, which includes mice, trackpads and trackballs. Apple’s Magic Trackpad even works with Honeycomb 3.1, although multitouch gestures aren’t supoorted. All you have to do is make your Bluetooth device discoverable, head to the settings menu and let Android handle the rest. It won’t replace the need to touch the screen, but it will make things more efficient when using a hardware keyboard.

USB Host

Android 3.1 now accepts USB devices as a host, meaning thumbdrives, cameras, keyboards and USB peripherals—like gamepads—are accessible/functional on the Xoom. Play games, access files, offload photos. We weren’t able to test this out, because the Xoom only has a micro USB port which requires an OBSCURE adaptor. But we do suspect that when working on other devices (or even the Xoom), it will be awesome.

Updated Core Apps

Browser has an updated Quick Controls UI that now lets you quickly view open tabs, and access settings, supports embedded HTML5 video and enables hardware acceleration. The Calendar app has been redesigned for easier readability and more accurate touch controls. The email widget now lets you access multiple folders (can’t do this with Gmail, however). And contacts are now fully searchable, meaning it will look for more than just name and number when searching.

For more on the Android 3.1 update, head over to the official Android Developers page.

[Music: “mandelbrotstet” courtesy of Time Wharp]

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