Featured: Android Tablet Love Story; Why I love my Xoom

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First things first, I am an Android fan boy. I've been into Android since I first saw it on the G1, tried early ports of it on my AT&T Tilt, and ended up getting the original DROID on launch day. I'm still waiting for a suitable stock replacement for my DROID on Verizon, but it looks like they are "afraid" of the Nexus phones so far. When the XOOM was first announced, it immediately caught my eye. I was out of work when it launched, but THE DAY I got a new job I went to the Verizon store to pick one up, even before my first day of work! I've had the device for over 2 months now, and I wanted to post my thoughts on it. I wouldn't call this a review (especially since it's been out for a while), but I guess I'd call it "Why I love my XOOM", hehe.

Honeycomb is a vastly different OS than Gingerbread and back, and is one of the main reasons I like it so much. While the "other guys" decided just to stretch out their OS for larger screens, Android realized that wasn't the best way to make use of the screen real estate and the different experience one has with a tablet vs. a phone. I have used the original Galaxy Tab and while their "skin" tries to make better use of the size, to me it does not translate well. While a good amount of Honeycomb features will be present in the next iteration of Android (Ice Cream Sandwich), I'm sure they will still have their differences.

The XOOM has been my go to device for pretty much everything. I watch videos on it, check my RSS feeds on it, and play most of my games on it. It's almost hard to picture life without it. The device is very fast, and I've seen little to no hiccups since the update to 3.1.  The stock OS apps are great with the new interface, with items such as the action and menu bar. They show how well and productive a larger sized screen can be for doing fun things like checking out videos on YouTube while reading comments and seeing the other videos the person has made. Some of the stock apps have this great "virtual wall" look, it reminds me of The Matrix Reloaded scene with The Architect (YES, I like Matrix 2 and 3!). The included apps really shine, and I'm happy that third-party devs are taking a page from their book (when get around to it) and fully updating their apps to Android 3.x (if you see a menu button in the menu bar, they're doing it wrong!).

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While I do love my XOOM, there are still a lot of developers that haven't taken the time to pretty up their applications for the new OS. Sadly, one of those developers is Google. While I love the way Gmail, YouTube, Books, Videos, Movie Creator, Body, Earth, Calendar and Music look, some of their apps (like Reader, Docs and Goggles) look just awful. I realize that they have plenty of applications to work on, but with some of their bigger applications looking this bad, it's no wonder developers have been taking their time to update. While some third-party apps help ease this pain (like Newsr) it's still unfortunate. The lack of updates don't make the applications unusable in Android 3.x, but it does make them stand out in a rather negative way. In a month or two that little detail will surely go away, but its a current point of contention with some of the un-updated applications, and Google should lead by example.

I've always loved how customizable Android is, its one of the main reasons it first stood out to me. The XOOM has five home screens, each one is 8×7 (on 2.3 and back,  they are 4×4). They have made it easier than ever to customize them with the new zoom-out feature, that lets you place widgets, icons and shortcuts while being able to see all 5 screens at once. For some reason, possibly because of the large amount of screen room, they haven't brought over folders to 3.x, but the third-party cure for that is the highly customizable SiMi Folder. Widgets are better than ever with 3.1 thanks to the option to re-size widgets (when coded to do so) and the "stacked" widgets look where you can flip through the widget without opening up the actual application. You can also scroll through list widgets as well, such as Calendar, Gmail and Grocery IQ. On the center screen, you have a dedicated transparent Google Search/Voice Search widget, and on the right a dedicated "Apps" button, as well as a + icon for quick access to adding items to the home screen (you can still long press). This might be a little thing, but its big to me. If you tap the furthest end of a home screen it will scroll over to the next screen on that side, a nice alternative (to me at least) from having to swipe over.
The App drawer in Honeycomb has been redone, and while I like it, it looks like it has a feature I'd love but it actually does not.  As you can see in the pic above, you can see the "All" and "My Apps" tabs on the left. On the right you have the Market icon (the word "shop" was added to the left of the icon with 3.1 to bring more attention to what the icon is for). My Apps shows only the items that are installed by you from the Market (or manually), while All obviously shows… All. With all of that additional room up there I assumed you can make your own categories (such as Games) but you cannot currently do that. Google if you are reading this, please give us this in 3.2! If you have more than the 35 icons you will see a subtle outline of the icons on the edge of the screen. A nice little way to tell you there are more items, and you can also swipe or tap the edge to get to them. I'm not sure if people would call this last part about the App drawer a feature or a bug, but if you tap under the last row of icons it takes you back to the home screen.
Deciding to go with no face buttons on 3.x tablets was a great move in my opinion. The bottom Menu bar is perfect since it has your back button, home, running applications and the notification bar all in one static place on the bottom of your screen. It can be set to go dim when you are doing things on your tablet, such as watching videos, but are always still just a tap away. The notification part of the menu bar shows the battery icon, signal indicator, and (for most of the time) the clock. When you are on the lock screen the clock is replaced by the name of the signal you are on (Verizon, wifi router name), but other than that it is shown when it's not dimmed. Tapping the clock once shows you the date, signal name and actual percentage of battery and tapping it again shows you a mini settings menu. Next to the clock will also show you any notifications you have, but at this time you can only close them one by one, or click their name to open what you are being notified about. The back and home buttons are known from previous versions of Android, but the running applications button is far better than the recent apps option on the phones (on most phones, press and hold the home button) which only shows the past 8 apps by showing their icon. By clicking the running applications button you get a scrollable (since 3.1) list of all running apps, with lil' screen shots of the program at its last used state.
The most overlooked feature in Honeycomb, to me at least, is the new web browser. The only negative thing I can say about the browser is the fact that it reports to sites that it is a "mobile" device, which means it shows the pages by default that are made for phone (small) screens. The browser is very fast, and Adobe's Flash 10.3 works perfectly in it. You can enable bookmark sync from Chrome if that is your computer browser of choice, which surely beats trying to set up a separate application to manually sync them. You have tabbed browsing, multi-touch, and overall ease of use. The feature that the Browser has that simply trumps the rest is actually a feature they hid in the labs section. It's called Quick Controls. By tapping on the right or left sides of the screen, it pulls up the quick controls. Here are all of your browser options, without having to move the placement of your hands! The little thumbnails for the tabs make it easy to pick the right page to go back to, as well as literally every other browser function, right at your thumb! Once I enabled this feature in labs I never looked back, and the only reason I can think that they decided to not make this the standard experience is that most people fear that kind of change. This is one that I fully welcome into my nerdy little world! If you know someone who has a Honeycomb tablet, or if you are in a store and see a demo system for you to try out, give this new take on mobile browsing a whirl, and I'm almost positive you won't look back.
A new addition to the XOOM with 3.1 is the ability to rent movies directly on the device. You get them from the Android Market app, and watch them in the new application simply called "videos" as well as any personal videos you have on there. The rental library is rather large, and is most of the same library as the one on YouTube. The current exception is the movies that are free to rent on YouTube have not been able to rent on the XOOM, which seems kind of silly to me, but hopefully that process gets some symmetry over time. Like everything on the XOOM, you'd be able to HDMI out to a television if you wish to share your rental with the rest of the room.  You can "pin" the movies you rent to be available to watch without an internet connection, but you'll still only be able to watch it in the time allowed with the rental.

While writing this I asked some of the other staff if they had any specific questions about the XOOM and Honeycomb. The two big ones were if 3.1 has improved overall stability to the operating system, and more specifics about using USB devices, such as game controllers. The update fixed most of the force closes that some of the stock programs had, as well as tweaked little things I've mentioned such as the scrollable running apps list, resizable widgets and brought Movie downloads to the Android Market. At the time of this writing I still haven't received my USB host cable, so I was unable to test USB controllers.

I realize that I went on a bit of a tear on the specific features and UI of Honeycomb, but like I said, I am a fan boy. These are the things that to me get overlooked by a quick little review by someone who, in most cases, does not use the device personally after their story is written. Games and apps are getting better and more customized for Honeycomb on a daily basis, so while I did complain a bit about that, i'm sure those are only temporary growing pains. Android has been proving that it has what it takes to be THE OS to program for, and it shows all of the time. Android is more than a phone and tablet operating system, and it will eventually have its place in most electronics. Give Honeycomb an honest chance and you will probably enjoy using it as much as I do. Agree or disagree with me on any of the points in  this article? Please let us know in the comments.

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