Honeycomb: Did Android just become prettier and easier to use than iOS?

Yes, I think so. While some people are focusing on whether Honeycomb was rushed to market (which I think it needed to be) or minute details like how much you have to move your eyes to tap the Home button, I’d rather focus on how much it improved compared to previous versions of Android and how it stacks up against the competition. There’s one particular area where Honeycomb improved the most, and that’s its looks and ease-of-use. In fact, it improved so much, it might have just taken the crown away from the king: iOS.

New Android vs. old Android

Android’s Achilles’ heel since version 1.0 has always been the user interface and experience. It has always been the ugly duckling of the smartphone world. When Android was released in 2008, there was no shortage of people that simply dismissed the OS because of how bad it looked. With some help from OEMs – sometimes for better and others for worse – it managed to get through those 1.x dark times. However, that led to the mess of several different flavors of Android that we now have today.

Not Pretty.

Android started to look better with version 2.1 Eclair, then it got a crazy speed boost with Froyo and finally Gingerbread added a handful of UI tweaks coupled with improved responsiveness across the OS. However, none of those updates was a radical overhaul of the OS’ look and feel like Honeycomb is. This time around the Android team – headed by the new Android UI czar, Matias Duarte – paid a lot of attention to the OS’ aesthetics. One could say it was the main focus of Honeycomb. They thought very hard about how people use Android and how to make the experience more consistent. There’s no longer the chaos of different colors and UI elements Android used to have. No more bright oranges, bright greens, gray gradients and a Gallery app that looks completely different from the rest of the OS.

The predominant color across the whole OS is now blue, with some touches of Android mascot’s green here and there. Highlights, shadows, tabs, buttons, and scrollbar; everything has some shade of blue. Basically, the OS seems designed by one person or a small group of designers, and not something put together in a hurry by different teams with different visions. Furthermore, that highlight Android now uses under its tabs is the same used on the new Google navigation toolbar. Meaning, Google is trying to unite at least some of its products under the same design umbrella – something it has never managed to achieve.

With the goal of also making third-party apps more consistent, Google introduced the Action Bar with Honeycomb. Everything you’ll ever need to do on an app can be found up there. There’s no more digging through menus or even using the Menu button, everything is right there for you to use. The Action Bar basically killed the Menu button for Android – and I won’t be surprised when this summer the first Honeycomb or Ice Cream phone ships without a Menu button. It’s a great improvement and I can’t wait for every Android phone to be able to use the Action Bar. Side note: Google could be planning to get rid of physical buttons on phones altogether. The first Honeycomb phone could launch with software buttons like the Xoom has. A phone with just a screen from top to bottom, imagine that.

The Action Bar also changes depending on what you’re doing. If you’re selecting text it changes to a text selection mode. Which means, I no longer have to tap and hold text to copy, cut or paste. Tap and hold is another aspect of Android that Google is trying to get rid of or at least use in situations where it makes sense. To customize the home screen, Honeycomb has a “plus” button on the top-right corner. To multi-task you can now use a button in the System Bar, without the need to tap and hold the Home button anymore. Little details like that add up to making the experience on Android much better and dare I say “magical”.

With Honeycomb, the Android team also managed to get rid of Android’s horrible gray gradients and glossy buttons. Instead, they went with a more dark, 2D and minimalistic style. Take this picture for example, everything  except the widgets is either a line or text. There’s no glossy surface or realistic looking button. That’s not to say Google didn’t add any cool, realistic or flashy graphic to Android. The YouTube, Books, and Music app are a good example of what the OS is able to do in terms of eye candy and 3D graphics. But overall, Honeycomb feels like a mix between Windows Phone 7 and iOS – and I love it.

Phone OS vs. tablet OS

So we’ve seen how Honeycomb managed to fix Android’s user interface and experience issues, but how does it compare to the competition? Pretty good, I’d say. The obvious opponent to compare it to is Apple’s iOS. Apple’s software products have a reputation for being generally very well designed and easy to use. It’s the main reason people buy them: they’re easy to use and just work. But iOS is starting to look a little long in the tooth when compared to Honeycomb. Maybe it’s because iOS on the iPad is not that different from iOS on the iPhone. In fact, it looks a lot like how Android 2.2 looked on the Galaxy Tab – a phone OS blown up to the size of a tablet. It’s basically a grid of icons with plenty of empty space around them. Topped with lots and lots of glossy surfaces and highlights, a style that is fast becoming boring and overused.

User experience it’s not only about how good things look, but also how they get out of your away when you need to or how they help you get something done faster. This is what Android excels at. With Honeycomb now released, I’m amazed that people still call iOS an easier to use OS than Android. When it usually takes you more steps to accomplish something in iOS than on Android. I could give you a hundred examples of things you can accomplish faster in Honeycomb than on the iPad – but that would be a waste of time. How does Android help you get the job done faster? Multi-tasking, notifications and widgets.

Multi-tasking is now done very easily with Honeycomb, tab a button and switch to the app you want. On the iPad? Double tap the Home button. This might work when your iPad/iPhone is brand new. But with time that Home button starts to get harder and harder to press due to heavy use. Which makes double pressing the Home button very annoying. I’m saying this from my own personal experience as a long time iPhone user. Double pressing the Home button worked half the time for me.

Next up is notifications. Talk to any iPhone/iPad user and one of their main annoyance with iOS is notifications. They interrupt whatever you’re doing and require you to take action right away. On Android they’re unobtrusive and you can take care of them whenever you feel like. Additionally, now with Honeycomb you can even change oft-used settings right from the Notifications bar (now called System Bar). Turning airplane mode on for example, on iOS requires several steps. On Android, it’s right there in front of you.

Last but not least, is Widgets. On iOS they’re non-existent – but it’s just a matter of time before Apple follows Google and adds some type of widget system. On Android, they help you check your email right from your home screen or even upload a video to YouTube. They’re fast, efficient and once you get used to them you can never go back to good old grid-o-icons. On Honeycomb, widgets have now become even more useful. They’re scrollable, easier to use and look better than ever.

Bonus: The Honeycomb browser now has tabs on top, making it very easy to switch between them. Again, on iOS this requires several steps.

Last piece of the puzzle

With Honeycomb, Android has now reached a new level of maturity. If you look back a year or so, there were a lot of areas in which iOS performed better than Android. Google’s OS wasn’t easy on the eyes, it was hard to use, media management was horrible, it was slow, it didn’t have any games or apps, I could go on and on. As it stands today with Honeycomb, Android has fixed almost all these issues. It looks better than (gasp) iOS, it’s very easy to use, the media player rocks, it’s pretty fast, the Market has games to choose from but one thing is still missing. Good, exclusive, quality apps.

The last thing that Android needs to win the mobile war is more high quality apps that take advantage of everything the OS has to offer. Apps like Google Voice, GMail, and Google Maps. Those kinds of apps is what will make people choose Android over the competition. The Android Market has been growing steadily for the last two years, but it’s still behind the App Store in terms of quantity and quality. The gap is even more apparent now with Honeycomb, which only has a handful of third-party apps designed for it. Once Android reaches an iOS-like level of third-party apps quality, it’ll be nearly impossible to stop Android from taking over the world.

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