Google is gunning for the tablet top spot with the latest 3.0 update to Android (dubbed ‘Honeycomb’), which was officially unveiled at a press conference overnight.
Unlike previous versions of Android, Honeycomb is specifically designed for tablets. This gives it a serious leg up on the iPad, which essentially runs the same iOS operating system as the iPhone save for a few minor tweaks.
This naturally begs the question: how does Honeycomb stack up against the latest iOS 4.3 Beta for the iPad? To pit the two against one another mano e mano, we threw the two into a cage for five rounds.
Google has added a couple of new features to the app-buying process which aren’t specific to Honeycomb, namely a new web store for downloading apps from a web browser and in-app purchases.
Apple has supported in-app purchases since iOS 3.0, so Android is really only playing catch up in that regard. The big news here is that desktop app purchases can be made over the air for Android, compared to the need to tether the iPad to a computer to download apps through the desktop version of iTunes.
Android also lets you download apps outside of the official Market, giving you more flexibility as to where you source apps from. Is that enough to topple this round in Android’s favour? Not so fast. The iPad is still far in the lead with regards to the number of tablet-specific apps available (there are hardly any tablet-specific apps for Android - yet), and when you factor in all of the iPhone apps that work on the iPad, it’s clear that the iPad is still the more attractive tablet in this particular aspect.
iOS is still rocking the same tired old icon-driven interface in iOS 4.3, which looks almost comical on display the size of the iPad. Boring!
Even before the launch of Honeycomb, Android has always had the better homescreen system, moving the program launcher to a separate section and giving users complete control over multiple homesceeens that can be populated with widgets, app shortcuts, and many other custom icons.
Google has tweaked the homescreen experience in Honeycomb further to make better use of the larger viewing area of a tablet, and there are a handful of new 2D and 3D widgets (such as a YouTube panel and a Gmail messages preview) out of the box, with APIs for developers to offer even more compelling tablet-optimised widgets.
The Achilles heel of iOS - its antiquated notifications system - doesn’t seem to have gotten any love in the iOS 4.3 Beta. New notifications still appear as annoying foreground pop-up boxes that distract from what you're currently doing, and/or as a small number on top of the relevant app icon. They're either too intrusive or not intrusive enough.
The notifications system for Android has always been one of our favourite things about the platform, and it's been made even better in Honeycomb. Notifications now appear as pop-up bubbles in the lower right hand corner that display more information and icons to launch related actions. Importantly, these bubbles don't take control away from the app you're currently using, and you still have access to the complete list of notifications as well.
The latest iOS 4.3 Beta introduced some cool new multi-touch gestures for accessing the Fast App Switching dock, saving you from the clumsy double-clicking that's currently required to bring the dock up. Whether these are actually included in the final 4.3 build is another question; documentation included with the Beta suggests that the multi-touch gestures were included for developer feedback only, and won't make it into the final build of 4.3.
Android has always been ahead on the multi-tasking front due to it's support for full multi-tasking (compared to the partial multi-tasking in iOS). Honeycomb improves on Android's multi-tasking capabilities by adding a dedicated multi-tasking button on the left; this brings up a vertical reel of running and recently-used apps, with a preview of each app in action.
This round will be a quick one. Honeycomb supports camera fuctionality out of the box, along with video chat in Google Talk, while iOS 4.3 beta doesn't show any indication of supporting a built-in camera. Time will tell whether Apple introduces a camera feature in the iPad 2 (this is currently tipped as one of the most likely feature additions for the next version of the table)t. But for now, Android wins this one with a TKO.
This is by no means a definitive comparison between the iPad and forthcoming tablets that will run Honeycomb, and there are certainly other areas that the iPad still excels in. However, for these five particular categories at least, it's clear that Honeycomb tablets will have the upper hand over the existing iPad running iOS 4.3 Beta.
That said, it's not unknown for Apple to save a few surprises for its upcoming products right up until the official launch, so while we're salivating over upcoming Honeycomb tablets like the Motorola Xoom, we're not going to rule the iPad 2 out of the game just yet.
What's clear, though, is that Apple will definitely have a fight on its hands.