Android 4.0 on tablets: Better, but still needs work

In October, Google(s goog) debuted Android 4.0, also known as Ice Cream Sandwich, for tablets and smartphones. The platform has two purposes: unify the software for use on both devices, and make the tablet experience better. Prior to Android 4.0, large Google tablets ran on version 3 of Android, called Honeycomb, but the overall effort seemed rushed and incomplete.

Long time Android user Jason Perlow has run Android 4.0 on his Motorola (s mmi) tablet for the past two weeks and shared his impressions on Tuesday. Although I don’t currently have Android 4.0 on a tablet here, I’ve used Google’s platform for about as long as Perlow, and we both use a Galaxy Nexus phone, which runs the Ice Cream Sandwich software. I’m concerned, because Perlow is already finding usability issues with an Android 4.0 tablet.

“Is it better than Honeycomb? Yes. But it’s not without its own share of problems. It’s going to take some time for apps to catch up to it, and you might want to consider using hardware that is actually up to the task of providing an optimal experience with the new OS.”

Perlow points out some of the same positives I’ve seen when using my new handset: The user interface is more consistent, elegant by comparison to prior versions and more responsive overall. I see that on my Galaxy Nexus on a daily basis. But even if Perlow didn’t point it out to readers directly, it’s clear to me there are still inconsistencies within Android 4.0 on different devices.

For example, at CES last week, a vendor was showing me an Android tablet running on Intel’s(s intc) new Atom chip. I asked if it was Honeycomb or Ice Cream Sandwich. He said the latter, but then I noticed the Apps button at the top right of the display. On my Android 4.0 phone, that button is on the bottom of the screen, so I questioned the tablet version.

He checked, and sure enough, it was Android 4.0. Why would the same operating system have two different ways to access apps? Notifications on the tablet are on the bottom right, but on the top of the phone. How does this unify the platform?

Perlow’s other main hang-up is the task-switching functionality in Android 4.0. I actually like it on my Galaxy Nexus, but I see his point about the purpose of the feature: It’s not clear to end-users how it works. Honeycomb used the same method, but it’s enhanced in Android 4.0.

Here’s how it works: A dedicated button pulls up small application snapshots of your most recently used apps. To switch, you simply tap on one of the apps. That’s intuitive and effective. But you can also swipe these little app windows off the display. Does that mean those tasks are killed? Not likely, says Perlow, which my own research confirms:

“[T]he “Recent tasks” button is in fact a task switcher that can in fact stop tasks, but it’s not a particularly useful one because even though it is supposed to “nice kill” the processes when you stop them, it doesn’t stop services from re-spawning and it won’t necessarily kill badly-behaving applications, like say, Facebook, which has to be one of the most awfully written pieces of garbage since iTunes. So you have to end up using the real task killer in the Settings menu anyway.”

Swiping the tasks, at least on my Android 4.0 smartphone, simply removes them from the recently used task list. As Perlow says, you have to go to the actual task-killing function in Settings. An alternative I’ve found is a bit of a shortcut: Tapping and holding a recently used app provides an “App Info” option. Click it, and you’re taken to the settings for that particular app so you can kill the task.

I’m not going to pass judgment on Android 4.0 for tablets until I get time to extensively kick the tires. I have an Asus Transformer Prime loaner on the way, so hopefully, I’ll be able to soon validate or refute what Perlow is experiencing. In the meantime, I’ll be looking to manually upgrade a Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 tablet to Ice Cream Sandwich to speed up my research.

It’s clear to me Google has taken huge steps forward with Android 4.0. I interact with it daily on a phone that sees far more use than my iPhone 4S(s aapl). That doesn’t imply one is better than the other — we all have different needs — but it appears Google may not be able to rest on its Android 4.0 laurels just yet. Offering a seamless software interface between phones and tablets appears to be working quite well for iOS devices and the iPad in particular: There was never a learning curve for Apple’s tablet for those who had used an iPhone or iPod touch.