CES: Google previews Honeycomb features

Google showed off the first preview of features in Honeycomb, its upcoming version of Android designed for tablets, during a keynote speech Thursday at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

“We wanted our tablet experience to be better, not just bigger,” said Mike Cleron, principal software engineer for Google.

Honeycomb requires no physical buttons on a tablet. Instead, it displays buttons on the screen. The advantage to that design is that the buttons appear on the bottom of the screen no matter which way the user is holding the tablet.

Cleron showed off the way that widgets work in Honeycomb, saying that they are more powerful. A Gmail widget let him scroll through e-mail messages quickly from the home screen. A calendar widget works similarly.

Honeycomb also allows for widgets for individual contacts. That means a user can pin a widget to the home screen for a friend and see updates about that person appear automatically. The feature is reminiscent of the tiles that Microsoft features on Windows Phone 7 which allows users to create a tile for a person that updates with recent information about the person.

“It shows you want you can do with an OS designed from the ground up for multitasking,” Cleron said.

Gmail has been completely redesigned for tablets with Honeycomb. It displays columns with the left one listing folders, the middle a list of contacts and the right column showing recent messages.

Cleron also showed off Google Maps 5.0 with new features that were recently added. The audience sounded impressed with the feature that lets a user drag two fingers on the screen to tilt the map and show drawings of buildings.

Honeycomb receives notifications of new messages but includes a bit more data than in previous Android versions. For instance when a user receives an email, the notification that pops up includes a small photo of the person who sent the message.

Cleron said there’s a video preview of Honeycomb up on Youtube.

The tablet he displayed had a front-facing camera that allowed him to show off a video call using Google Talk.

Motorola is one hardware maker that has announced a tablet, the Xoom, based on Honeycomb at CES.

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