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Review: Android 4.0.3 ICS for Tablets (Eee Pad Transformer TF101)

ASUS is one of the manufacturers that doesn’t change the original Android look too much with a skin like HTC Sense or Samsungs Touchwiz. This is not only good news for anybody preferring the pure Google look, but also helps keeping the complexity low when it comes to updating to new Android versions. ASUS rolled out the Android 4.0.3 ICS update for the Eee Pad Transformer TF101 some time ago. Let’s see if Ice Cream Sandwich for tablets plays out as well as it did on Android 4.0 smartphones.

Android 4.0 ICS for tablets – Homescreen

The homescreen didn’t change all that much visually. As with Android 3.0 you can place app shortcuts, widgets and folders on the pages. Creating folders is much easier now by just dragging and dropping one app shortcut on another, and notifications can now be swiped away separately. Using the multitasking view you can still see a vertical list of screenshots representing the recently used apps, and either jump directly to an app by touching the screenshot or swipe away the entry to close the app completely.

Scrolling between the homescreen pages is smooth, as well as opening apps and folders. I’m still a big fan of the Tron like UI footprint which can be seen through the whole Android 4.0 OS. ASUS redesigned only some details like the navigation icons, but other than that everything looks very much stock Android, which is a good thing.

Android 4.0 ICS for tablets – GMail

Using GMail on a tablet is really fun thanks to the multi-panel view which can show a list of folders and emails at the same time. Labels, conversations views and nearly all other GMail features we know from the desktop browser version are perfectly supported here. One new feature is switching between emails by swiping horizontally, which makes navigating through a lot of unread emails easier.

One of Androids strong points was always the Google service integration and GMail for tablets proves it.

Android 4.0 ICS for tablets – Email

Google still holds on to the concept of having two separate email clients for GMail and all other mail accounts. Both apps share the same general layout now, but there are some feature differences.

Using the regular email client you can pinch to zoom within emails which is a very nice and handy feature. This is not possible in the GMail app. On the other hand you won’t be able to go through your emails by swiping horizontally, instead you have to make due with regular arrows to navigate to the next or previous email. I’m not sure why there are still feature differences between the email client and the GMail app, but hopefully we will see them merged in future Android versions.

Android 4.0 ICS for tablets – Contacts

The contact list is finally nice to look at, after years of neglecting on Googles part. It adapts the general blue ice cream sandwich theme and provides big contact pictures on the detail pages.

Furthermore it’s possible now to link contacts to Google Plus accounts which will result in a second page for each contact showing recent status updates from Googles new social media service.

Android 4.0 ICS for tablets – Calendar

Similar to the smartphone ICS version the calendar app provides four different views. Day view, week view, month view and agenda view which is an infinite scrolling list of upcoming appointments. I like the month and agenda views especially as they provide the most information within one view.

This is one of the best Google apps out there IMHO because all views make sense and you have a large amount of options to configure calendar entries and syncing to Google, Exchange server as well as other accounts.

Android 4.0 ICS for tablets – Browser

It seems like Google is going to integrate Chrome for Android as default browser sooner or later, but at this point the Android 4.0 browser doesn’t have to shy away from a comparison. Chrome is still in beta stage and lacks some important features of the ICS browser like dynamic text wrapping and flash support. Ice Cream Sandwich also introduced the incognito tabs which allow anonymous browsing and the possibility to easily switch to desktop views of web pages. Another handy option is the offline saving feature which can be used to store pages and read them later.

Rendering speed and overall performance is very good, although not as fluid as the Safari browser on an iPad. But you have flash running pretty stable within the ICS browser, which is an important feature for many customers. Compared to the smartphone version you’ll notice that the tabs are always visible on the top of the screen, so there is no real full screen view, unless you activate the quick controls in the browser labs options. By swiping from the edge of the screen inwards you will be then able to access a popup menu with all relevant navigation options. This way you can always browse in full screen mode as the tabs are not visible with quick controls activated. I started out with the classic view, but after a while I tried out the quick controls and they really work nicely so I stayed with them.

Android 4.0 ICS for tablets – Gallery

No big surprises here. If you know the gallery app from the smartphone Android 4.0 versions, you know the tablet version too.

The gallery seems to be a tad faster than the Honeycomb version, but it’s not a huge difference.

Android 4.0 ICS for tablets – Youtube, Google Music

Furthermore Google updated most of its apps to adapt the ICS UI guidelines like the tab navigation on the top as well as soft buttons to access app options.

Other than that there are no big differences between the Honeycomb and ICS versions of YouTube and Google Music.

Android 4.0 ICS for tablets – Camera app

Using a tablet to make photos isn’t a very frequent use case as most people wouldn’t really want to use such a big and heavy device to take snapshots when nearly all phones today come with pretty good cameras. This is also the reason that no manufacturer has bothered yet to build a tablet with an expensive camera. But Google updated their camera app anyway with some UI changes.

It’s nice to see that Google didn’t forget this, but i doubt it will change the fact that people don’t seem to care about the camera feature on tablets.

Android 4.0 ICS for tablets – Video Studio

Basic video editing is of course also possible with Android 4.0, but don’t expect much more than some video cutting features.

Everybody experienced instances where some quickly taken movies with a mobile device looked nice, but you would like to delete or edit some shaky part of it before sharing with your friends and family. This is now possible with Android on-board functionality.

Preinstalled apps on the ASUS Eee Pad Transformer TF101

This review is based on the Android 4.0 update for the Eee Pad Transformer TF101, and while ASUS didn’t go for an own skin, they still added some additional apps and widgets to the mix. The good news is that they didn’t overdo it. Most of the apps are meant to provide functionality which is missing on Android out of the box. Like the ability to backup your apps and the settings, or streaming media to other devices.

But some of the additions aren’t that great though. It seems like every manufacturer wants to provide an own app/media store in some form, and ASUS is not different. You get a preloaded eBook reader with access to a store to download books or magazines. I just don’t see the need to use this service when there are much larger products out there like Amazon or Google Books. And of course a cloud storage service can’t be missing too, as you will get unlimited ASUS web storage (for a limited time). Since Google jumped into the file cloud storage business recently with Google Drive, I can’t picture a lot of people opting for ASUS. You can be sure that Google will integrate Google Drive in all of their services and most apps on the Play Store will support it too. But for ASUS and other manufacturers own cloud services this won’t happen anytime soon.

Android 4.0 for tablets – The Verdict

ASUS decided to keep most of the pure Android ICS UI in place and didnt change a whole lot. You’ll only find some preinstalled apps which aren’t too intrusive. I love the fact that ASUS doesn’t force their own skin on Android without any real need, as this also helps them to provide updates faster than others. Too many Android device manufacturers think that they need to have an own skin to differentiate from the competition, but at the same time most of them don’t have the experience or expertise to create good user interfaces. This backfires more times than not. I think pure Android 4.0 works very well on tablets, not only for tech savvy people but also for casual users. Google did a good job of fixing most UI issues that Android 3.0 Honeycomb had, while keeping the stylish Tron aesthetics. And you can clearly see the influence of webOS design mastermind Matias Duarte, as the whole user experience is much more streamlined and all Google apps have been revamped to fit the new UI direction. Android has finally achieved such a polished UI that 3rd party skins are pretty much obsolete at this point. While manufacturers like Samsung and HTC might not be too happy about this, it’s good news for the customer tired of the Android fragmentation issue. Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich for tablets doesn’t need to hide from the competition when it comes to user interface quality or overall performance, even though iOS and Windows Phone might still be somewhat easier to understand on first glance.

For more screenshots check out the Android 4.0 screenshot gallery and if you want further Ice Cream Sandwich details take a look at my Android 4.0 review for the Nexus S.