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Android Ice Cream Sandwich – a Preview For the Rest of Us

Posted by on December 7, 2011 at 12:09 pm

ICS (Ice Cream Sandwich), or Android 4.0, is due to drop any day now, and if you read our Article on Why You Should(n’t) Buy a Galaxy Nexus on Verizon, or are wondering what it will perform like when it’s on older hardware, like the Samsung Nexus S, that’s only running a single core processor and 512mb of RAM. Well, wonder no more! Read on to see how well ICS performed.

I’ve been using a ROM from the enterprising kwiboo over at the xda developers forums for the past few days. Sadly the ROM doesn’t have support for Sprint’s 4G built in, but since Colorado Springs only has 2(!) WiMax Locations, I think I can live without it. Google has been so kind as to provide a breakdown of what’s new, and they’re using the Galaxy Nexus to do it. Well, I’m going to pit those points against my Nexus S and see how much truth there is in Google’s PR then.

Refined, evolved UI

Focused on bringing the power of Android to the surface, Android 4.0 makes common actions more visible and lets you navigate with simple, intuitive gestures. Refined animations and feedback throughout the system make interactions engaging and interesting. An entirely new typeface optimized for high-resolution screens improves readability and brings a polished, modern feel to the user interface.

That’s PR jargon for “We made it shiny and usable.” Which is actually a pretty accurate description. It’s definitely a refined version of Android 3.x Honeycomb. Depending on personal taste that may be a good thing, or it may be a travesty. On the Nexus S, animations were generally smooth with the occasional stutter when I entered the All Apps Launcher. The Whole user interface does seem like it all belongs to the same system. The Color scheme is blue on grey on black. Everything looks very clean, trim, and functional. It looks like Android had a design cue or two from Windows Phone 7.

Virtual buttons in the System Bar let you navigate instantly to Back, Home, and Recent Apps. The System Bar and virtual buttons are present across all apps, but can be dimmed by applications for full-screen viewing. You can access each application’s contextual options in the Action Bar, displayed at the top (and sometimes also at the bottom) of the screen.

Multitasking is a key strength of Android and it’s made even easier and more visual on Android 4.0. The Recent Apps button lets you jump instantly from one task to another using the list in the System Bar. The list pops up to show thumbnail images of apps used recently — tapping a thumbnail switches to the app.

These are more examples of the underlying Honeycomb influence. Contextual Virtual buttons offer more flexibility. On the Galaxy Tab 10.1, there are no physical buttons, unlike the HP Touchpad, Nook Tablet, iPad, etc. The drawback of a physical button on a tablet is orientation. On the HP Touchpad, the button is designed for Landscape mode. On the iPad, the button is designed for Portrait. On a Honeycomb or Ice Cream Sandwich Tablet, the software buttons always render on the bottom left hand corner. On a phone, the difference is less impacting. The Back, Home, Search, and Menu Buttons all act and function as they have in the past. and with a device that is only a few inches across, orientation is a moot point.

Holding down Home will bring up your Recent Apps instead of a dedicated virtual button. On the Nexus S there was a bit of lag whenever I was switching from one app to another. It was very minor and didn’t impact my experience substantially. The Search button is redundant, since Google slapped a persistent search bar at the top of the screen. Back and Menu don’t have any other fancy functions that I’ve found.

Home screen folders and favorites tray

New home screen folders offer a new way for you to group your apps and shortcuts logically, just by dragging one onto another. Also, in All Apps launcher, you can now simply drag an app to get information about it or immediately uninstall it, or disable a pre-installed app.

On smaller-screen devices, the home screen now includes a customizable favorites tray visible from all home screens. You can drag apps, shortcuts, folders, and other priority items in or out of the favorites tray for instant access from any home screen.

Holy Spicy Jeebus! THIS is what Android should have had from the beginning. Custom ROMS like MIUI have had Folders and Drag-to-Uninstall capabilities for a while.

Making folders is great for those of us who are really anal about app organization. I can put all of my Games, Messaging, Music, and Social Networking Apps into their own respective folders. I can then drag those folders, or a single app, down to the app drawer instead of the predetermined Phone and Web that was the Gingerbread app drawer.

Drag-and-Uninstall is available in Honeycomb, but it’s one of those features that should have been on Android 1.x. It’s smart, intuitive, and easier than attempting to manage apps. And the ability to disable pre-installed apps is going to be heaven to those who don’t want to root their phones, but don’t want to deal with the crap-ware HTC and Motorola feel like they need to smear all over their phones.

Resizable widgets

Home screens in Android 4.0 are designed to be content-rich and customizable. You can do much more than add shortcuts — you can embed live application content directly through interactive widgets. Widgets let you check email, flip through a calendar, play music, check social streams, and more — right from the home screen, without having to launch apps. Widgets are resizable, so you can expand them to show more content or shrink them to save space.

Widgets are cool. Resizable widgets are also cool, if that’s your thing. On a Phone, resizable widgets are a waste, but on a tablet they’re the best damn thing since sliced bread and a toaster. Oddly enough, the more widgets I had the slower the phone ran. So, you crazy widget lovers out there, on older hardware you may have to cut back a little. It may be tough, but you can’t fill up every screen with widgets.

New lock screen actions

The lock screens now let you do more without unlocking. From the slide lock screen, you can jump directly to the camera for a picture or pull down the notifications window to check for messages. When listening to music, you can even manage music tracks and see album art.

Another one of those “This should have been on the first version!” Similar to WebOS’s notifications, you can now see more details about notifications simply by swiping down on the notification bar, even if the phone is locked. “Big Deal,” you say? Well, think about all of those texts, calendar alerts, Kik messages, and Google Music Song that you wanted to skip or read. Before you HAD to unlock the phone first. Now, you can slide down and see the beginning of the text’s or messages, and with Google Music you can control song playback. Even Pandora is supported. I didn’t test Spotify, Rdio, or MOG because I’m lame, and lazy.

Swipe to dismiss notifications, tasks, and browser tabs

Android 4.0 makes managing notifications, recent apps, and browser tabs even easier. You can now dismiss individual notifications, apps from the Recent Apps list, and browser tabs with a simple swipe of a finger.

Very akin to WebOS’s swiping gestures, this is a welcome addition. I never felt the need to have it on Android, but after using it and becoming accustomed to it, I think it really adds a polish to the experience.

Control over network data

Mobile devices can make extensive use of network data for streaming content, synchronizing data, downloading apps, and more. To meet the needs of you with tiered or metered data plans, Android 4.0 adds new controls for managing network data usage.

In the Settings app, colorful charts show the total data usage on each network type (mobile or Wi-Fi), as well as amount of data used by each running application. Based on your data plan, you can optionally set warning levels or hard limits on data usage or disable mobile data altogether. You can also manage the background data used by individual applications as needed.

For those of you who aren’t on Sprint, this is probably the second most amazing concept for a smartphone. Since I am on Sprint I didn’t test this feature very heavily. It breaks down what apps use the most bandwidth (Damn you Pandora!) and it’s nice to see that Google is baking in excellent data controls, especially for those of us on Sprint if the time of Unlimited Data does come to a gruesome end. Trust me, we’ll need this.

People and profiles

Throughout the system, your social groups, profiles, and contacts are linked together and integrated for easy accessibility. At the center is a new People app that offers richer profile information, including a large profile picture, phone numbers, addresses and accounts, status updates, events, and a new button for connecting on integrated social networks.

Your contact information is stored in a new “Me” profile, allowing easier sharing with apps and people. All of your integrated contacts are displayed in an easy to manage list, including controls over which contacts are shown from any integrated account or social network. Wherever you navigate across the system, tapping a profile photo displays Quick Contacts, with large profile pictures, shortcuts to phone numbers, text messaging, and more.

This reminds me of WebOS’s Synergy. I could only get my Google+ contacts and normal gmail contacts to show up. Facebook, apparently, is either not working or dead to Google. That could also be a side effect of the ROM I’m using, so mileage may vary on this one. The Contact’s information is easier to read, and when one of them calls a large contact picture pops up. The clean and square UI choices also prevail here, with everything looking stark and sharp. Depending on if Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn can sync up to this as well will determine if it’s something to get hot and bothered by.

Powerful web browsing

The Android Browser offers an experience that’s as rich and convenient as a desktop browser. It lets you instantly sync and manage Google Chrome bookmarks from all of your accounts, jump to your favorite content faster, and even save it for reading later in case there’s no network available.

Lies! Filthy Lies! I couldn’t get the mobile browser to sync up to my chrome bookmarks. That’s not to say it won’t work in the near future, but as of this very second don’t expect all of your pornresearch bookmarks to sync back and forth. The read-it-later function is cool, but I don’t find myself without network access very often, so this was a minor thing for me.

To get the most out of web content, you can now request full desktop versions of web sites, rather than their mobile versions. You can set your preference for web sites separately for each browser tab.

Opera Mini has had this functionality since the beginning of time. It’s nice to see that Google’s learning that the Phone is becoming the conduit of vast media consumption, and that not all website’s have a well made mobile page.

Across all types of content, the Android Browser offers dramatically improved page rendering performance through updated versions of the WebKit core and the V8 Crankshaft compilation engine for JavaScript. In benchmarks run on a Nexus S device, the Android 4.0 browser showed an improvement of nearly 220% over the Android 2.3 browser in the V8 Benchmark Suite and more than 35% in the SunSpider 9.1 JavaScript Benchmark. When run on a Galaxy Nexus device, the Android 4.0 browser showed improvement of nearly 550% in the V8 benchmark and nearly 70% in the SunSpider benchmark

The browser is much faster. It feels faster, responds faster, and wouldn’t you know it, is faster. Reading Wikipedia and loading full versions of Facebook didn’t feel like agonizing torture anymore. I could finally uninstall Dolphin and Firefox and Opera, and actually use Google’s default offering. Be warned that Flash is not supported right now on ICS, so there will be some websites that just fail to function.

Face Unlock

Android 4.0 introduces a completely new approach to securing a device, making each person’s device even more personal — Face Unlock is a new screen-lock option that lets you unlock your device with your face. It takes advantage of the device front-facing camera and state-of-the-art facial recognition technology to register a face during setup and then to recognize it again when unlocking the device. Just hold your device in front of your face to unlock, or use a backup PIN or pattern.

Face Unlock worked once for me. Once! It sounds snazzy and neat, but really it’s just gimmicky. I’m not saying you shouldn’t use it, but realize that you’re more likely to be mashing in your PIN or scribbling out your pattern more often then your chiseled jaw will open the gates to your phone.

Conclusion
Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich is an improvement over it’s predecessors in many ways. The biggest changes are the UI. ICS is the first Android that I don’t feel the need to re-skin, or use a different launcher, or download a different browser. ICS is very usable and has all of the features/customizations that I ask for by default. This is also the first Android OS that all of the Google Apps look like they belong together and on the OS. As far as performance is concerned, anyone with a phone that has a mid-range phone or higher shouldn’t have any problems running ICS, and even the few hangs and stutters that I experienced were no more than when I had Android 2.3.7 Gingerbread installed. The most impressive feat is that the ROM I was using isn’t even finished. That means there’s plenty of time for Google to iron out the kinks, and perhaps improve performance even further.

It also seems that Google has been watching the competition and throwing all of the best parts into the mix. I really see WebOS’s influence the most with the swiping gestures and reworked notifications. The UI is sleek and sexy and has geometric shapes all over the place, much like Microsoft’s Metro UI. It seems that Google is stepping away from the iPhone inspired designs and is bringing something new and interesting to the table.

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