The 5 Honeycomb Features Currently Missing In Action

I’m currently wrapping up a review of the latest Honeycomb tablet, the Toshiba Thrive. Quick spoiler, it’s one of my favorite Android tablets yet, but I still wouldn’t buy it nor recommend it to anyone outside the dedicated Android fanbase. Just like the rest of the Honeycomb tablets, it lacks any compelling feature over the iPad.

Don’t mistake what I’m saying here. I like the Thrive. It’s well built, has a low price, and more I/O ports than other tabs. I also like Android as a whole — I love my Droid X — but outside of several Google services which are available on the iPad, Honeycomb tabs still don’t have a legitimate advantage over the similarly priced iPad. That said, not all is lost. Google is committed to the platform, as are the dozens of CE brands with Android tablets. The addition of just the following five features would help move Honeycomb tablets closer to mainstream.

Tighter Android phone integration

It should be pretty much accepted that Android 3.x tablet buyers own Android 2.x phones. That’s the target demographic and so there should be some inter-platform love. RIM does it with the PlayBook and even the Touchpad talks to webOS phones. Why not Android tablets then?

Receive a call on your phone? How about a pop-up on the tablet. A SMS message? That should be readable on the tab. It just needs to be simple things. Even tethering isn’t a necessity although it would likely make the cut, seeing as how it would allow carriers to more easily sell data plans.

The best part, from Google’s and OEM’s perspective at least, is that this feature set is highly marketable. These functions show consumers how a tablet would fit into their life differently from a laptop.

To be fair, it’s likely that this kind of integration is forthcoming in Android 4.0, but that’s not much comfort to people thinking of buying a tablet today. A few features in this area would make the whole Android lineup stronger.

Native support for external storage

The Xoom takes a lot of flack for featuring a non-functional microSD card slot. But it’s not Motorola’s fault. It’s Google’s and an issue that needs to be rectified immediately.

The US-market Xoom is a Google Experience Device, which means Google controls system updates and features. External storage support is not built into Honeycomb. Other manufacturers use their own Android modifications to include working USB hosts and flash memory card readers. Motorola does the same thing with Xoom sold in other markets.

The lack of external storage support is still one of the iPad’s most talked about downsides. Most Honeycomb tab buyers at this early stage want an anti-iPad and that means the ability to use the tablet how they see fit.

Tablet makers have found a way to work around Google’s ignorance. That’s silly. Google needs to bake the support directly into the OS and include a competent file manager.

Robust media file support

Buying a tablet for media playback is surprisingly hard right now. Your best bet, if playing back media is your primary goal, is to stray from the mainstream and look at Archos’s offerings. You see, each tablet supports different media formats, but tabs from smaller companies tend to support the most. Several Marketplace media apps solve the lack of support by including a 3rd party software decoder, but I’ve found most of those apps to lack basic functionality and tend to randomly freeze the tablet.

There isn’t a silver bullet here as it’s not all up to the OS; media format support often depends on the tablet’s hardware platform. But something needs to be done. Once again, Honeycomb tablets need to be a sort of anti-iPad and feature capabilities not found on its biggest competitor.

Killer apps

Google did a decent job on Honeycomb’s standard apps. I really like 3.1’s beta browser navigation and the mail app. What Google needs is a killer, must-have app, even if it’s from a 3rd party. Skype comes to mind.

Skype’s Android app is fine. It works well even on Honeycomb tablets, but the company has been slow updating the app to support video calling. It’s limited to just a few phones now. Skype alone would make a new use case for Android tablets as millions of users would be able to video chat with people on computers, iPads, iPhones and Android phones. There’s no need for Google to build a Facetime clone when Skype can do it for them.

Of course Google might not want anything to do with Skype now that Google + is all the rage. For better or worse, Google wants people to video chat in Hangouts. Skype’s massive user base still makes it a better killer app for Honeycomb.

Lenovo sort of solved this issue by adding Netflix in the just-announced IdeaPad. It’s the first Honeycomb tablet that’s Netflix-certified for media streaming. Chances are, thanks to the required hardware-level DRM, the app won’t find its way onto other previously-released tabs — at least not officially. Still, at least one killer app is here.

More apps

As much as Honeycomb tabs need that one special app, the platform just need some more damn apps to begin with. Android 3.0 was released six months ago and there are still just a handful of Honeycomb apps. Most are ports of existing apps and even less have a user interface that takes advantage of the larger screen.

Part of this is because the Honeycomb marketshare is just so small right now. Why spend R&D money on a platform that only a few hundred thousand people use when you could develop for iOS and reach millions? Google needs to do something, though. Without apps, a tablet is just a slate device with a web interface. That’s a hard sale to even dedicated Android fans.

The Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet is the first Android tablet I’ve been excited about since the Xoom. It seems to pack most of what I want out of a tablet sans the Android phone integration. It’s priced right at under $500, has an affordable digitizer pen, and is loaded with quality apps. (besides Netflix, that’s in the IdeaPad)

Android 3.x tablets are better than Android 2.x tablets. Likewise future Android tablets will outclass the current crop in every way. It’s just sad, at least to me as an Android fan, to watch Honeycomb tablet after Honeycomb tablet fail to live up to its potential. It seems that manufacturers wasted their budget on design and marketing rather than innovative or compelling functions.