Google's venture into the tablet space begun in 2010 when vendors took the phone-optimized Android 2.2 Froyo operating system (OS) and skinned it onto their tablets. Turns out, it wasn't the best decision made. Besides a lackluster user experience, Froyo fared badly on tablets as it was not developed for use on larger screen devices.
To rectify this issue, Google took a more focused approach towards tablets in the following year and developed Android 3.0 Honeycomb. Some of its notable features include a "holographic" user interface (UI) design, rich notification system, home screen customization and widgets.
Android 3.0 is not without its shortfalls. As a rushed project to get a workable Android tablet platform into the market as soon as possible, Google cut a few corners. One of which, saw the fragmentation of the Android platform, forming a divide between its tablet and smartphone support. To prevent further fragmentation within Honeycomb, Google wasn't too liberal in distributing the Honeycomb source code, for the sake of getting its UI streamlined. This decision not only went against its open source philosophy, it also severely limited the growth of Android 3.0.
As a tablet optimized OS, Android 3.0 had no room for the mobile phone genre. This led to further platform fragmentation where there are different Android versions in multiple devices in the market. Confusion aside for the consumers, the platform fragmentation also posed a serious barrier for developers. To create apps for the Android ecosystem, developers had to consider the different Android versions and devices during the coding process.
Recognizing these limitations, Google begun work on developing a unifying platform that could be used on both phones and tablets. Google unveiled Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) on 19 October 2011, which is one of the biggest updates to the platform since its inception. Android 4.0 comes with a unified UI framework that provides new UI tools, consistent design practices, simplified code and resources, and streamlined development. This makes it easier for developers to create apps across the range of Android devices including phones and tablets.
Are there any significant changes to Android 4.0 on the tablet form factor? There are definitely some differences from the earlier Android Honeycomb UI, which we've reviewed and experienced throughout 2011. Fortunately, we got an opportunity to check out Android 4.0 through the ASUS Eee Pad Transformer Prime, so here's our take on Ice Cream Sandwich, tablet-style.
The Android 4.0 ICS lock screen adds a new shortcut to the camera app, on top of unlocking the tablet. Furthermore, ICS gives you direct access to manage music tracks and see album tracks on the lock screen without unlocking the tablet.
You will see a revamped All Apps Launcher where you can scroll left and right between Apps and Widgets. On Android 3.0 Honeycomb, you can only navigate through all the apps on the tablet. Previously, you have to long-press on a home screen panel to add widgets. Now, all you need to do is to drag the widgets from the All Apps Launcher onto any home screen.
With this change, long-pressing the Android 4.0 home screen will produce an option menu to change the wallpaper. By placing Widgets together in a central location with Apps, it is more convenient for the user to decide what he or she puts on the five home screen panels.
Folders, a long overdue feature is finally here on Android 4.0 ICS. Similar to Apple iOS, you can start a new home screen folder by dragging apps onto one another. You can then name the folder and place it anywhere on the screen.
Unlike Apple iOS's limitation of 12 apps in a folder, there's more room to work with on Android 4.0. We dragged more than 30 apps into a folder and it was still able to take in more. In reality, we do not foresee a need for anyone (including power users) to flood a folder with so many apps. After all, the main purpose of a folder is to provide quick access to a set of commonly used apps.
What do you get when you mix a bit of HTC Sense and Windows Phone 7 People Hub? Android 4.0's People App! According to Google, Android 4.0 strives to integrate rich social communication and sharing touchpoints across the system, making it easier for one to talk, email, text and share information.
The People app has three tabs (Groups, All, Favorites). By default, you will view the All tab, which shows you a list of all your contacts. Each contact can be identified by his or her name (sorted by first or last name) and a profile picture. There is a "Me" profile which displays the user's own information such as phone number, email, social network connections and address.
Multitasking on Android has finally caught up with Apple iOS. Instead of simply viewing the apps that are running in the background, you can now find out information about each app via App Info (by long-pressing) or remove an app by swiping left or right.
The updated Calendar app makes it easier for you to differentiate the various entries via color coding. Each calendar entry is now filled with its own color code instead of a small color box beside the entry in Android 3.0.
If you are looking for more options and tools when taking photographs, the upgraded Camera app is a nice fit for you as it comes with new features such as continuous auto focus and stabilized image zoom. A handy new feature is the single-motion panorama mode. The Camera app automatically pieces together multiple frames to create a wide image. We liked how the app will guide us throughout the shooting process and give pop-up warnings whenever we are going too fast.
Feeling creative or have the desire to pump up the images? Fret not as the Gallery app has a powerful stock photo editor which allows you to make adjustments to the images through a wide range of options such as adding effects and changing the levels. Think of it as an instant Instagram for your Android 4.0 tablet, with similar effects such as Lomo, Vignette, Fisheye and many more that are available on these image enhancing apps. Besides the standard effects, editing tools such as cropping, red-eye removal and even adding an afterglow effect on your images are just some of the things you can do right out of the box with Android 4.0.
One of the less emphasized but improved features of Android 4.0 is the virtual keyboard. Besides looking slightly different from the one on Android 3.0, the new keyboard has a spell-checker which we feel will be well-liked by touch typing enthusiasts. With typos being very common while working on a virtual keyboard, Google has gone a step further by helping you identify errors as you type. Tapping on the underlined word will present you with a list of spelling suggestions, delete or add to dictionary options.
While Apple has Siri to boast about on its iPhone 4S, Google has its voice input engine on Android. First demoed during the unveiling of Android 4.0, the voice input engine on the new platform is quite capable as it allows you to speak continuously for a period of time, even pausing when required, and then dictate the text using the language you want.
Unlike Siri which is limited to three English accents, German and French, the voice input engine is able to dictate in a wide range of languages (1) (2) (3). This means that its function is more readily accessible to users of different nationalities.
Despite being a unifying platform for Android devices, certain features of Android 4.0 aren't present on its tablet variant. Three main missing features of Android 4.0 are Face Unlock, Favorites tray and Android Beam.
Easily the funkiest feature of Android 4.0, Face Unlock is a cool way to unlocking your Android phone by using the front-facing camera and sophisticated facial recognition technology. While it is a novel way to secure your device, it is definitely not secure.
Google Android's developer Tim Bray commented on Twitter that it is impossible to hack the feature with photos but his claim was quickly shot down by a subsequent video by SoyaCincau showing that Face Unlock could be fooled by a photo. We put the controversy to rest after attempting it on our own in this video, where we managed to trick a pre-production Samsung Galaxy Nexus in unlocking itself with a photo.
According to an ASUS spokesperson, Face Unlock will not be featured on Android tablets and will solely be available on mobile phones for now.
According to Android Developers, the Favorites Tray remains an exclusive feature on smaller-screen devices such as the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. The customizable Favorites tray is accessible from any page on the home screen, giving you quick access to apps, shortcuts, folders and other priority items.
Leveraging on Near Field Communication (NFC) technology, Android Beam allows you to exchange data such as apps, contacts, music and videos between two NFC-enabled devices. You only need to tap one NFC device on another NFC device for it to work, making it a hassle free way of file transfer. For now, you probably won't see Android Beam on the Android 4.0 tablets, while the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, with its NFC capabilities, will be the first smartphone to support Android Beam. Who knows, in the near future, we might see a tablet with NFC capabilities, and with it, Android Beam.