If geeks love it, we’re on it

A deeper look at Android 4.0: Ice Cream Sandwich

A deeper look at Android 4.0: Ice Cream Sandwich

Android 4: Ice Cream Sandwich

After Apple’s recent product launch, many unimpressed iOS users have been tempted to look at their options. Google, having scheduled the launch of the next generation of Android, code-named: Ice Cream Sandwich, had the unique opportunity to charm potential new customers with a cadre of innovative new features. Did they succeed in evolving the most popular smartphone platform enough to make the disbelievers think twice? Is there a new groundbreaking feature or features that will give Apple’s Siri a run for its money? Let’s take a look at the next generation of Android and you can decide for yourself.

The presentation of Android 4.0 was given by Matias Duarte, who managed projects for Danger, Helio and Palm before joining with Google after Palm’s sale to HP. Most notably, Duarte gave birth to the innovative WebOS smartphone platform, which developed an almost cult following by its small user-base. Recognizing Duarte’s background with Palm is important to understanding some of the new features that have been implemented into Ice Cream Sandwich. What’s most interesting about him, however, is his ability to talk about his designs and ideas in a way that people can understand; an empathetic approach to a press conference that can be compared and contrasted in many ways to the presentation style of the late Steve Jobs.

Matias Duarte

Matias Duarte: Project Manager for Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich

“We asked ourselves for the first time: what is the soul of Android?”

Matias opened up the presentation with some deep, stimulating thoughts.

“While people like Android, and while people need Android, people didn’t love Android.”

These sentiments set the tone for the redemptive theme of the rest of the presentation, and the three principles used to define the changes that were made; enchant me, simplify my life and make me awesome.

Android 4.0’s interface

The first announcement was a new look and feel to the Android user interface, which was accomplished simply by changing to a new font, named Roboto. A modern, yet pragmatic design, Roboto was built from scratch and optimized for paper density displays.

Next came an explanation of the approaches that were used to make UI changes, comparing the new interface to a magazine layout. These changes focused on eliminating unnecessary interfaces, and making them more approachable through elegant animations. They started with the unlock screen, by using the Roboto font on the clock and adding animations that they felt were more inviting to the user. All buttons have been eliminated on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, the flagship product for Ice Cream Sandwich, just like their tablet OS. The home, back, menu and search icons are all located on the screen, rotate with the view, and are hidden when not needed.

Android Calendar Widget

source: developer.android.com

Noticeable changes have been made to the way Android handles widgets. A list of available widgets can be brought up, similar to the list of apps that is currently available. Widgets are also resizable, giving the user a better command over their home screen experience.

Home screen folders allow the user to logically organize their apps, shortcuts and contacts on the home screen. A favorites tray was also added to place frequently used apps and shortcuts in a place where they can be accessed easily from every page.

Quick response is one of the more powerful features of Ice Cream Sandwich. This enables you to take a conversation from one medium, and instantly transfer it to another. For instance, let’s say you are driving and someone calls you. You can setup pre-determined responses like, “I’m currently driving, call you back soon.” As your phone rings, you will be given the option to swipe the call towards the automated response, and the caller will be notified instantly of your current status. Quick response also allows you to take a conversation from Facebook and transfer it to Google Talk, or from SMS and transfer to Twitter, which can be very useful if moving in and out of an area with poor cellular reception into one with a good WiFi connection.

Technology upgrades in Android 4.0

While not quite on par with Apple’s Siri, Ice Cream Sandwich shows definite improvement to the current implementation of talk-to-text. Features added to the voice input system include continuous talking, punctuation, multi-language support and spell check on-the-fly.

For those of you with tiered or metered data plans, Ice Cream Sandwich implements a comprehensive data monitoring and control feature that will save you from painfully high phone bills. Real-time monitoring allows you to zoom in on certain time periods, and lists the apps that were using data during that time, ordered by throughput. This will make it easier to target and pinpoint which apps are using the most data. You can also set warnings and hard limits on data usage, on a per-app basis.

New accessibility features have been added to make the device more usable for people with disabilities. Some of these features include an Explore-by-Touch mode which allows you to navigate your screen audibly without having to look at it, as well as an audible screen reader in the browser, for perusing content. The font size can also be changed throughout the entire system for improved readability.

The new People App brings a whole new level of integration to your contacts list. Wherever contacts can be selected, Android brings up a full docket of information, including status updates and the ability to connect through integrated social networks. Your own contact information is stored in the Me profile, allowing you to easily share your information and connect with others through social media from a single source.

Android Camera

source: developer.android.com

The camera in Ice Cream Sandwich has seen vast improvements. Camera speed is now instantaneous, with continuous focusing, zero shutter lag exposure, and quick shot-to-shot speed. One-touch zoom has also been added, allowing you to easily zoom in-and-out, even while recording video. You can also capture larger scenes with the single-motion panorama feature, by slowly turning the camera after starting exposure. The camera than assembles the images into one continuous panoramic picture.

The gallery app has been redesigned to make it easier to organize, sort and tag photos. Also added to the gallery app is a photo editor, enabling simple features that allow you to resize, rotate and crop photos, as well as more enhanced features like red-eye removal, level adjustments and effects.

Android 4.0 Browser Benchmarks

Source: developer.android.com

Browser performance has been drastically improved through updates to the WebKit core, as well as the V8 Crankshaft compilation engine for JavaScript. The benchmarks shown give an idea of some of the performance improvements you can expect to see with Ice Cream Sandwich.

You can now share just about anything from one Android phone to another using the new Beam feature. This is done by touching two devices together (do it slow, and sexy) and tapping on the screen of the source device to send the data.

One of the only parts of the conference that failed during the live broadcast was the face recognition security feature. Matias blamed it on the makeup, but I heard similar buzz coming up on my Twitter feed, about how face recognition can be thrown off by anything from a hangover to beard growth. Nonetheless, it should recognize and detect your face most of the time and can be bypassed with a password when it fails.

Standout features of Android 4.0

One of the new features that seems to have eluded most of the press is the default hardware acceleration that is coming with Ice Cream Sandwich. This will finally put to rest the complaint that iOS is “smoother” than Android. Hardware acceleration not only causes apps to run more smoothly, improving performance and user response, it also is more efficient and will save battery life. All applications with API level of 14, which includes all stock and included apps with ICS, will have hardware acceleration turned on by default.

Android: Tasks

source: developer.android.com

The last new feature I wanted to talk about was something that, in my opinion, has been one of the greatest innovations in mobile device technology for more than two years. This is Android’s implementation of the card system that was once made famous by Matias Duarte when it was first implemented on WebOS. The problem with most mobile devices is that you have a smaller screen than normal, and instead of having a mouse, where dragging-and-dropping is efficient, you’re using a multi-touch screen where sliding is more convenient. This is why mobile devices lack the “Windows” that you see on desktop graphical user interfaces, and makes it very difficult to see which apps are running, switch between them and close them, in real time. The card system on WebOS would organize your apps into cards, at the push of a button, that you could slide between, or flick off of the screen to close.

There are only a couple of differences between the Android and WebOS implementations. On Android, instead of scrolling horizontally through your app cards, you scroll through your apps vertically, which appears more like a list than cards. You can still switch between apps and flick them off the screen to close them just like in WebOS. The major difference is that they’ve taken the design of the app manager and applied it to other areas of the OS, like email and their new tabbed browser.

The notifications area has also changed to the same format as the task manager, making it more like the WebOS notifications system. These new features will entice many WebOS users to switch to the Android platform, if they haven’t switched already.

Join in the discussion! What do you like about the new Android? What do you think you might not like? Did Google do a good job of answering to the wahs of forlorn Apple fanatics? Will this device indeed solve world hunger? How do you think the mobile landscape will play out over the next year?

Comments

  1. Thrax
    Thrax Android 4.0 sold me at webOS cards and hardware acceleration. The former was a pipedream come true, and the latter was desperately needed.
  2. HC
    HC Great article. One of the best I have read on ICS. Makes me yearn for it even more :)
  3. A fan
    A fan Good article. Google is doing great. Good hardware will make Android phines & tablets a deadily alternative to Apple.
  4. TheAlertHusky
    TheAlertHusky This story is awesome!
  5. Rodd Clarkson
    Rodd Clarkson Can't wait to get ICS on my nexus s. Here's going the hardware acceleration benefits are seen here too.
  6. Woody
    Woody I'm sorry, but adding a dock to the bottom of the home screen (wherever did they come up with that?) with new butt ugly icons, making the Google search bar invisible, resizable widgets, and adding a more obvious task killer is only enough to make the most ardent fandroids happy. Regular people are going to see things like this, face unlock, and beam, and they are simply not going to be that impressed. The Galaxy Nexus is on track to be a non-starter like the rest of the Nexus line. The truth hurts.
  7. LarryV
    LarryV This is the phone that will make me switch from my iPhone 4. It has everything I wanted. Apple is screwed. The iPhone4S was a huge disappointment with no 4G speed and still the super slow 3G, and no NFC. Goodbye Apple and good riddance.
  8. djmeph
    djmeph
    Woody wrote:
    I'm sorry, but adding a dock to the bottom of the home screen (wherever did they come up with that?) with new butt ugly icons, making the Google search bar invisible, resizable widgets, and adding a more obvious task killer is only enough to make the most ardent fandroids happy. Regular people are going to see things like this, face unlock, and beam, and they are simply not going to be that impressed. The Galaxy Nexus is on track to be a non-starter like the rest of the Nexus line. The truth hurts.

    The only thing that hurts is my head after reading your response. You gloss over the least important new features with a negative tone, and completely ignore some of the more notable improvements that were made. The truth must be hurting you more than it hurts me.

    Mark my words. Applying the WebOS card system to tabbed browsing is something people will be talking about once more people are using Android 4.0. Mobile tabbed browsing has seen little improvement, and no one has quite figured it out yet. It needed a visual method for scrolling between tabs and easily closing them. The uniformity between the task manager, notifications and browser tabs was a great idea, and I think it's very possible that this will become a part of the API that developers will be able to use in their own apps in the future.

    Aside from the Task Manager and Quick Response, I didn't find that any of these new features were groundbreaking in any way, in fact, a lot of them are obligatory updates meant to keep Android competitive with the other platforms. What was most interesting to me was the importance they put on organization and integration. Apple seemed to be focusing on this in their recent press conference as well. It will be hard to tell if either of these companies will hit their mark in either of these areas, but I think we can all expect to see integration and organization features improve with the next versions of platforms. (iOS 6? Android: Chaco Taco?)
  9. djmeph
    djmeph I'm actually getting a raging boner thinking about the possibilities of the task manager format becoming available in the API. I can see an immediate need for it in an office suite, to switch between open documents.
  10. xprof
    xprof I never liked the Android platform, it doesn't not have a friendly interface compared with IOS of the Iphone. Hopefully Nokia will come up with interesting devices in cooperation with Microsoft this week which can offer a good alternative to Android and Ios phones. I am waiting for something new, something different and most of all more advanced.
  11. pnkr0cker
    pnkr0cker Okay, you are looking for something more advanced, yet you want something as easy as dirt? That's a bit of a conundrum. That's just like a person dreaming of being a computer troubleshooter, and not wanting to have to learn anything about computers. IOS may be easy to use, but it is also disgustingly limited on what the user can do. Sorry, but if one had an iPhone with a limited data plan, then why in the hell would you want to have to use the cloud for all of the data that apple is too stingy to let you use?
  12. Thrax
    Thrax I don't know how much simpler Android could be. Turn it on, press icons, open menu to find more icons, drag icons to desktop, find more apps in the market and press "install."

    You know, just like any other computer interface we've been using for, oh, thirty years. Or, hey, like pretty much any other smartphone.

    It's not that complicated.
  13. Tomas - University Place,
    Tomas - University Place, As a webOS early adopter, fanboy, and recent Android nOOb, I'm thrilled to hear that some of the more brilliant features of webOS are creeping in.
  14. Sonny
    Sonny Great article. As a former webOS original Palm Pre owner/user, happy to see the card system being implemented in Android, along with swipe away. Mainly, what excites me is hardware acceleration. Hoping it'll make a drastic improvement on the lag perception on my Nexus S 4G.
  15. Muzzer
    Muzzer I just can't find ANYTHING that could be remotely described as a full user guide for ICS. How can this possibly be? Google isn't short of a penny or two and they have a full development team on ICS. So how come the best I can find is little more than an overview of the features? I can't think of any other product be it hardware or software that doesn't come with documentation - it's part of the requirement for a professionally developed product isn't it?

    Do we have to wait for an "Idiot's Guide to Android ICS" to appear?

    I got a Transformer Prime recently which came with a user manual but of course this gave little info about the OS itself. Hopefully I'm missing something obvious but if so I must be remarkably blind and/or stupid.

    (Rant over)
  16. Thrax
    Thrax The user manual for each Android device contains a full walkthrough. Android in and of itself is not an end-user product. The device that it runs on is, and each device may have something different to say about how their version of Android is supposed to work.
  17. djmeph
    djmeph Where do you find the walkthrough if it doesn't come with the device?
  18. Thrax
    Thrax You could download any old PDF from one of the ICS devices. :)

Howdy, Stranger!

You found the friendliest gaming & tech geeks around. Say hello!