Ever since Google acquired a small startup company by the name of Android changes to mobile phones, smart phones, and various tablet devices have come at such a dizzying speed it is hard for developers much less the average buyer to keep up. Before you head out to your local electronics store or sign a new contract with your mobile provider it’s a good idea to take a little primer on what Android is what it offers, and what’s new in the Android market.
Most of us are familiar with the basic operating systems available on our PCs or MACs. Based on Linux, with the exception of the iPhone, Android is the operating system of just about every smart phone on the market as well as the new generation of tablets like the Samsung Galaxy Tab, Dell Streak, and even the new NOOK Color from Barnes and Nobles.
When purchasing any of these smart phones or tablets many buyers are learning to ask what version of Android the device uses. Developers love catchy names for their software platforms and Android is no different. There have been a number of updates to Android, all nicely names after deserts. These updates included:
- Eclair (2.0/2.1) – Offered an improved user interface and introduced HTML5 for web applications.
- Gingerbread (2.3) – Enhanced the user interface, the soft keyboard, copy/paste features, and added support for Near Field Communication
Assuming the model Android smart phone or tablet you are looking at is not over a year old, here are the main features that have attracted so many buyers.
- Android Market – A virtual catalog of applications that can be downloaded and installed to Android devices without the use of a PC or MAC. An application program called “Market” comes preinstalled on most Android devices that enables users to browse and download apps developed by third-party developers, hosted on Android Market. As of the end of 2010 there were over 200,000 applications, games, and widgets available that had been downloaded an estimated 2.5 billion times. Google’s compatibility requirements along the low price (often free) of these apps have made Android the success it is.
- Handset layouts – Larger VGA, 2D and 3D graphics allow for the screen layouts on newer smart phones.
- Storage – Android offers a simplified version of a relational database, is used for data storage purposes
- Connectivity – A smart phone would hardly be smart with Wi-Fi.
- Tethering – Allows a phone to be used as a wireless/wired hotspot. Prior to Android 2.2 this was supported by third-party applications or manufacturer customizations. College students and others have quickly discovered they have no need for high speed internet because their smart phone already has the capability of become the Wi-Fi hot spot for their laptop or home computer.
- Messaging – traditional text messaging along with integration with Instant Messaging services and gMail.
- Web Browser
- Java Support
- Media -Android allows for a number of media formats such as MP4 and allows you enjoy Streaming Media to enjoy everything from Pandora radio to your favorite TV shows on Hulu Plus.
- Hardware support – Android allows for apps that provide you with everything from a GPS, to video and still cameras, to thermometers, and just about whatever else you can imagine.
- Bluetooth – Allows you access by voice your phone book, do voice dialing, and send contacts between phones. Blue tooth also opens up adding a keyboard, mouse and joystick for games and other apps. Voice actions for calling, texting, navigation etc. are supported on Android 2.2 and up.
- Multitasking – unlike the iPad, Android devices allow you have more than one app open at a time.
Android 3.0 – The Next Big Deal
Keeping with the desert theme, Google has just introduced the latest generation of Android (3.0) known as Honeycomb. If you watched the Super Bowl you may have seen Motorola’s serious and yet satirical commercial letting you know that Android 3.0 features Xoom accessories. The point of the commercial, which parodied Apple’s iconic ad that introduced the MAC a generation ago, is that the iPad is no longer the only player in the game when it comes to amazing applications on a hand-held device.
While the developers and techno-geeks are salivating over what lies under the hood of Android 3.0, what you as a consumer needs to know is what a device using Honeycomb will do for you. Most importantly, Android 3.0 has been designed from the ground up specifically for devices with bigger screens, most notably tablets. With its new “holographic” User Interface design, Android 3.0 has an elegant feel built on the foundation of what people have already been flocking to Android devices for (home screen customization, advanced multitasking, cool widgets, etc…) but transformed into a vibrant, 3D experience with expanded interactivity. As a result, if you are moving up from an older Android device, everything will feel only better.
The best idea is to visit your electronics store and see if you can give what is new Android 3.0 on several difference devices. Here are some of the best features this newest version of Android adds to the user experience.
System Bar, for global status and notifications.
Users have quick access to system status, notifications, and soft navigation buttons in a System Bar accessible at the bottom of the screen in all applications. Just like in PC operating systems like Windows 7, the system bar is always present. A new “lights out mode” allows everything to be dimmed for full-screen viewing. When viewing videos or flash delivered streaming video like Hulu Plus this is a big step up.
Customizable Home screens – Honeycomb has 5 customizable home screens that give you instant access to all parts of the system. Users can choose and manipulate app shortcuts, home screen widgets, and wallpapers in the dedicated visual layout mode. Visibility has been improved through visual cues like drop shadows. Every home screen offers a recognizable launcher for access to all installed applications along with a search box to universally search for apps, web content, contacts, media files, and more.
Action Bar – Users can gain access to needed options, widgets, navigation, and other types of content by way of the Action Bar that is displayed in every application at the top of the screen. The Action Bar is continuously visible while an application is in use. Content, theme, and other properties are managed by whatever application you are using at the time. When using multiple applications the Action Bar shines in ways you will truly welcome.
Recent Apps – Android 3.0’s multitasking is a key feature and fundamental what sets it apart from older generations of Android. When you launch applications for various tasks you can use the Recent Apps list in the System Bar to view the tasks underway and quickly navigate from one application to another. To help users rapidly identify the task associated with each app, the list shows a snapshot of its actual state when the user last viewed it.
Redesigned Keyboard – If you find the soft keyboard on an older device difficult to use the redesigned keyboard will be a welcomed addition. You will, no doubt find you can type faster and with increased accuracy. The softkeys have been repositioned and reshaped and for improved targeting. Some new keys have also been added (like a Tab key) for more efficient text input. Users can also now touch-hold keys to access menus of special characters and toggle between text and voice input modes from a button in the System Bar.
Improved Text Selection / Copy and Paste – The new User Interface allows users to quickly select a word by press-hold and then adjust the selection area as needed by dragging bounding arrows to new positions. Users can select an action from the Action Bar. Some of these include web search, copy to the clipboard, share, paste, and find.
Better Connectivity – Built-in support for Media/Photo Transfer Protocol has been added that allows users to instantly synchronize media files with a USB-connected camera or desktop computer without connecting a USB mass-storage device. This will allow you to connect full-size keyboard by way of either USB or Bluetooth offering a more familiar text-input experience. Wi-Fi connectivity has been improved through a new combo scan that reduces scan times across filters and bands. New support for Bluetooth tethering means additional types of devices can share your network connection of an Android-powered device.
Camera and Gallery – The Camera application has been redesigned to take advantage of a larger screen for quick access to exposure, focus, flash, zoom, front-facing camera, and more. To let users capture scenes in new ways, it adds built-in support for time-lapse video recording. The Gallery application lets users view albums and other collections in full-screen mode, with easy access to thumbnails for other photos in the collection.
Contacts – The Contacts app employs an innovative two-pane User Interface and Fast Scroll to enable users to easily organize and locate contacts. The application gives enhanced formatting of international phone numbers as user types, based on home country and an international number parsing library. Contact information is presented in a card-like User Interface making it easier for users to read and edit contacts.
Email – The Email application uses a new two-pane User Interface to make viewing and organizing messages more efficient. The app lets users select one or more messages, then select an action from the Action Bar, such as moving them to a folder. Users can sync attachments for later viewing and keep track of email using a home screen Widget.
Summing It All Up
While the Motorola Xoom is an elegant device using Anroid 3.0 other devices take advantage of changes made in Android that eliminate the need for external navigation buttons at all. This is excellent or several reasons, the main ones being the ability for manufacturers to use equally thin borders on all sides of a device. Another advantage to “soft buttons” is you as a user can pick up such tablets or smart phones and begin work immediately since in such devices there is no need to learn any new buttons. Android 3.0 also has improved support for dual core processors, 3D graphics adapters (like the GeForce) and hardware decoders/encoders for smoother gaming and video viewing experience. Since Honeycomb is just now debuting there will surely be many more features revealed along the way.
For now, take this review along with you and head out to the store of your choice. Nothing is more educating than seeing for yourself so insist on a sales person demonstrating the power of Android 3.0 on the device of your choice. Then go a step further and ask to try the device out yourself. Try of few of the features described in this article and see how intuitive everything is. If you don’t understand something, ask questions. Hands-on is the absolute best decision maker of all. When you see the responsiveness of a tablet or smart phone using Android 3.0 you’ll understand what all the buzz is about. From the beauty of the splash screen and logo to the speed and variety of new apps, 3.0 has been worth the wait.