Hands-on with Google's Android 3.1 update

Image rendering gets fixed, and widgets can be resized. But there's still room for improvement.

Google's long-awaited Android 3.1 update is slowly rolling out over-the-air to the Motorola Xoom, the first of the Honeycomb-based tablets to get the update. The non-3G Xoom on my desk finally got its update, and I got a chance to finally get some up-close time with the OS.

The update is a feast for the eyes, literally, since it corrects one major issue -- the image rendering snafu in the Gallery app -- and provides the flexibility of resizable widgets. However, in spite of the many niceties integrated into the front face of Android 3.1, I'd consider this update just a baby step towards fixing a wider swath of rough spots in Android Honeycomb.

Fixed: Image Rendering

Interestingly enough, the Android 3.1 developer revision notes don't appear to specify anything about fixing the image rendering problem. It's a problem I've written about multiple times before, simply because it was so confounding and unexpected to find in such a basic, core app. And because, frankly, Android 2.2-based tablets had no issues; who'd have expected Google to mess up something it was already getting right?

Of course, I had another reason for noticing the issue -- and wanting it fixed. As a photographer, I can foresee a world in which a tablet can be a handy and unobtrusive tool in the field for spot-checking exposures and sharpness. Mind you, this can only be done if the image is being rendered properly -- and the Gallery app struggled to do just that pre-3.1 update.

With the 3.1 update in place, I checked the same images on 3.1 and on 3.0. The difference was striking, to the point that colleagues even questioned whether it really was the same image. My high-resolution shots (photographed on a Canon 1D Mark III) looked crisp and sharp, and displayed terrific detail on the Xoom's 1280 by 800 pixel screen. I'd go so far as to say it displayed better detail than the lower-resolution Apple's iPad 2. The iPad 2 appears to be better at color reproduction than the Xoom, although this seems to be thanks to the iPad's display, not how Android or iOS render images. I say this simply because the screen grabs of the Motorola Xoom's image gallery, seen below, both exhibited better colors on an Apple iMac display than they did on the Xoom itself.

New: Resizable Widgets

This new capability unlocks a whole new world of functionality. Who knew the ability to resize would make such a difference? But yes, the ability to manually adjust the widget size is freeing, and makes the e-mail widget infinitely more useful. Resizing is simple. First, drag the widget to the home screen you want it on. Then, press and hold to reposition it, and to bring up the blue rectangular box with points you can drag out to enlarge the widget in any direction.

Improved: Web Browser

Embedded HTML5 videos now can play in-line in the browser. Previously, they launched out to a full-screen browser. Also, a hot addition for those who want to stock up on Web pages for offline reading (i.e., before it's time to turn off all electronic devices before takeoff): the browser can now save Web pages. The pages are saved to the revamped Downloads view, which now can show downloads by date or size. The Quick Controls (accessible in the browser's Settings/Labs options) now hide Application and URL bars. Lastly, in the Labs section, you can now enable Google Instant.

Improved: Contacts and Calendar

Contacts now let you search an entire record for a term, not just the name fields. This is terrifically handy if you want to add a keyword to help refine searches when you're looking for contacts whose names may not be on the tip of your tongue. The calendar apps tweaks are subtle, to the point that you might miss them if you blink. But the graphical fixes (for example, adding a "Today" label to the button you tap to return to today's date on the calendar) enhance usability.

Improved: Navigation

The Home screen button now returns you to the last home screen you accessed. The quick access button -- one of the three main navigation keys at the lower left of the screen -- now lets you scroll through your recently opened apps. The most recently opened app appears at the bottom of the list, with the older apps scrolling up and off-screen. Still, the finger-flick access makes sense -- though I still find I ultimately may need to move my fingers more to use the so-called "quick access" feature than if I had just reopened the app from one of my home screens.

Improved: Android Market

Again, some subtle interface tweaks really help boost usability. For example, now the version date of the app appears right next to the version number. The addition of movie rentals at the top expands the Market's functionality.

Added: USB Host

As reported before, Android 3.1 lets USB ports on tablets now act as USB hosts, officially adding support for peripherals such as flash storage, cameras, and keyboards. Unfortunately, most of the tablets out today don't have a USB-A port; instead, they may have microUSB, which is what the Motorola Xoom has, which means you'll need to scare up an adapter or find a rare peripheral that relies on microUSB for a host device (none actually come to mind). I'll eagerly give this a go, but that will have to wait until the update reaches the tablets that can take advantage of this. Meanwhile, Bluetooth pointing devices are now supported; just pair the input device with the tablet and you're on your way.

Bottom Line

To be honest, I found it hard to take Android 3.0 seriously when image rendering was such an issue. The Android 3.1 update fixes that and helps the OS grow up some. But there's still plenty of room for improvement. Before Google I/O and the announcement of Android 3.1's availability, I identified five things Google needed to fix in Android 3.0. Of those five, only the first was addressed. And those aren't the only outstanding things that needed improvement, to be sure. Hopefully some of these tweaks will come with time -- and we won't have to wait for Ice Cream Sandwich, the great unifying operating system that will be used for both phones and tablets -- to see more improvements.

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