Android Honeycomb: A detailed tour of Google's tablet OS

Google's new Android Honeycomb OS will offer a whole new kind of tablet experience. Here's the lowdown.

Google's Android operating system is about to get a lot bigger -- literally.

Google took the wraps off Android Honeycomb, the latest edition of its mobile OS, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas this week. So why serve up another new version when the last one, Android Gingerbread, is barely out of the oven? It's simple: Unlike Gingerbread, Honeycomb isn't made for your phone.

Honeycomb, as Google explains it, is "built entirely for tablet." It'll appear on devices like Motorola's Xoom Android tablet and a slew of other products set to launch soon. Make no mistake about it: The Android tablet army is here, and it's ready to do battle.

Think of Honeycomb as the tablets' secret weapon. Here's the lowdown on what it's all about and what it'll bring to the table.

Android Honeycomb: The Interface

The first thing you notice about Honeycomb is that it's a whole new experience from the Android we've come to know. The software was "designed from the ground up," Google says, with a focus on delivering an enhanced version of Android made specifically for large-form gadgets.

Honeycomb features a revamped interface Google engineers describe as "truly virtual and holographic." In place of hardware buttons, the software features an on-screen navigation bar that appears at the bottom of the display, regardless of which way you orient the device. Simple multitasking and customization take center stage. And the home screen itself takes on a very different look from previous smartphone-focused Android releases.

The updated appearance is partially due to the prominence of new punched-up widgets, redesigned for a more interactive experience: You can scroll through your inbox with the new Gmail widget, for example, or browse through your upcoming appointments with the updated calendar widget. Honeycomb can also create a custom widget for any person in your contact list; once on your home screen, it displays a comprehensive stream of updates and activity for that person on all of the services where the two of you are connected.

One question currently unanswered is how Honeycomb's robust interface will affect Android battery life. So far, things sound promising: Motorola, for its part, says its Xoom tablet can provide 10 hours of video playback on a single charge. Until some of these units are available to be tested out in the wild, though, it's difficult to say what real-world performance will be like.

This video, put together by T-Mobile to help promote its upcoming LG G-Slate Honeycomb tablet, does a fairly good job showing the new interface in action:

Android Honeycomb: Multipaned Apps

Apps in Honeycomb will be able to take full advantage of the tablet display size by expanding into multiple panes that show up side-by-side on your screen. In the new Gmail app, for example, you can pull up individual messages while keeping an active view of your inbox on-screen at the same time. Other programs will be able to utilize the multiple pane concept on their own terms, as each developer sees fit.

Check out this clip to see how it'll look:

Android Honeycomb: Video Chat

While video chat has been available in Android for some time now, via third-party tools, Honeycomb will introduce an integrated solution using the Google Talk platform. With the tap of an icon, you'll be able to pull up your list of friends and initiate voice or video chat with any of them -- whether they're online via a tablet or through a normal PC.

Here's a demo:

Android Honeycomb: The Browser

Android's stock browser gets a serious upgrade in Honeycomb. The app gains the ability to handle multiple tabs, automatic form-filling, private browsing, and Chrome-based bookmark syncing. You can also access a scrollable list of your bookmarks right from your home screen, thanks to the included Honeycomb browser widget. All together, the updated browser will definitely rival the functionalities offered by the various third-party alternatives in the Android Market.

Click play and see for yourself:

Android Honeycomb: Everything Else

There are countless other nuances to the new Honeycomb OS, including a redesigned YouTube interface and a tablet-optimized version of Google's eBooks marketplace. This final video, produced by Google, shows some of these features as part of its overall preview of the Honeycomb release:

Google has yet to announce a formal launch date for Honeycomb, but Motorola says its Xoom tablet -- which is the flagship device Android engineers are using to develop the software -- will debut sometime within this quarter. So if all goes as planned, the Android tablet army will be invading very soon.

JR Raphael is a PCWorld contributing editor and the author of the Android Power blog. You can find him on both Facebook and Twitter.

This story, "Android Honeycomb: A detailed tour of Google's tablet OS" was originally published by PCWorld.

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