Android 2.3 Gingerbread OS has finally gotten real, well, at least for those of us with a Google in our pockets. Of course, that’s all going to change in less than a day, when Best Buy officially kicks off sales of the Nexus S through all their brick-and-mortar and online stores. But, is Gingerbread as cracked up as all the hype would indicate? What new features really shine in the latest version of the Google mobile operating system? Is Gingerbread a game-changer? Let’s take a deeper look at the Android 2.3 OS and try to nail down an answer to those question, shall we?
(if you don’t want to bother reading, scroll to the bottom for our HD video)
Oh, and make sure to check out our Nexus S video tours (in 1080p HD) here.
Android OS has come a long way since the early days when the platform was seldom talked about outside enthusiast circles. Today, Android 2.3, also known as “Gingerbread” boasts more features and has been optimized far beyond what the early Android OS offered. Gingerbread, building on the same speed optimizations that made Android 2.2 Froyo OS the speed demon that it is, offers even more performance enhancements over its predecessors. Of course, you also get a refreshed UI, new text selection and copy/paste tools, new live wallpapers, new default apps, and support for NFC tech.
Gingerbread is fast. Sure, Android 2.2. Froyo was fast, thanks to its JIT (Just In Time) compiler and web browsing enhancements, but Gingerbread is faster. More importantly, everything seems to run a bit more smoothly. Menus pull up nice and fast, screen swipes are fast and accurate, and lists scroll with an almost iPhone-esque silkiness (almost). We can’t really quantify how much faster or smoother Gingerbread feels compared to be Froyo, but the subtle differences are definitely there.
The user interface in Gingerbread is not the drastic UI overhaul that we once expected from the Android 2.3 update. Instead, we’re given subtle changes to hold us over until Android 3.0 Honeycomb hits the scene. That said, the UI tweaks in Gingerbread are a welcome change. New are the color schemes applied to all menus and the notification bar. Black, orange, and green are the new go-to colors. The notification bar is now completely black, and boasts icons clad in bright, Android green. Menus throughout the system are now set against a black background. Until Froyo, all menus and the notification bar were trimmed in white.
One of the biggest changes you’ll notice is the new homescreen menu. From the homescreen, simply tap the “menu” button on the front of your Nexus S and you’ll be greeted with a new menu option: Manage apps. The ability to manage apps is not new, but the option to go directly to the app manager from the homescreen is new for Gingerbread. You can use the app manager to kill any currently running apps, uninstall apps, move apps to the SD card (note that the Nexus S has no removable microSD card slot).
You’ll also find that scrolling through lists is a bit more “fun” than it used to be. How could scrolling through any list be “fun,” you ask? Well, when you reach the top or bottom of a scrolling list, Gingerbread will flash an orange bar across the top or bottom of the list to let you know that you’ve reached the end. It gives the list a softer “bump stop” feel than previous versions of Android. Call us suckers for detail, but it’s details like this that make a mobile OS feel coherent and intuitive.
Finally, Gingerbread also offers up a snazzy new text selection and copy/paste tool. No longer will you have to tap around your text box, trying desperately to get that tiny little cursor to drop in just the right place to correct an error. Simply tap on the text and a large, orange-colored cursor arrow will pop up. You can then drag the cursor to any position in the text in order to delete or add text as you see fit. Or, if you’re looking to select text in order to copy/paste, a long-press on the text will bring up a pair of cursor arrows that you can use to select the exact piece of text that you’ve got your eye on. Previously, you’d have to tap-and-hold at the beginning of your desired text, then drag a tiny little cursor to highlight your target text. This new method is much, much easier/better/faster/better. Did we mention the new text selection tool is better?
New live wallpaper
Even if you’re not a fan of live wallpapers, we dare you to not waste at least a minute of your life playing with the new “Microbes” live wallpaper. It ships by default with Android 2.3, and it basically fills the screen with blue, orange, red and yellow “microbe” dots. You tap you finger on the screen to drop white “food” dots, towards which the microbes will gravitate. They’ll eat the food until they grow big enough to divide into two. Those two microbes go get more food and continue this Google-powered circle of life.
The star of the Nexus S and Gingerbread show is NFC. The Near Field Communications chip inside the Nexus S allows the handset to read NFC stickers, like those Google HotPot stickers that the folks in Mountain View are starting to distribute to various business in the US. The NFC stickers contain information that can be read by the Nexus S, and is automatically processed by the new “Tags” app that you’ll find in Gingerbread.
The idea here is to give users one-tap access to all kinds of information. From in-store promotions to dinner menus to promotional videos to maps, the possibilities for NFC technology are endless. Heck, NFC-powered mobile payments are also on the horizon.
As mentioned above, the new Tags app is bundled with Android 2.3 OS. The app basically serves as a “reader” for NFC stickers that you might encounter on a daily basis. The Tags app takes the data from an NFC sticker and provides you with options to interact with that information. If the sticker links to a video, Tags will offer you various options for viewing that video. If it contains a PDF dinner menu, the app will ask you how you want to view that PDF, and so on and so forth.
Also new is the Downloads app. Previously, you’d have to hunt down recently downloaded files by manually searching through your Android phone’s file system. With the Downloads app, you can keep track of any videos, music, PDFs, or any other documents you download to the phone. The app allows you to sort the downloads by date or size and gives you the option to batch delete files.
So, is Gingerbread a game changer? Not quite. While it’s more usable and intuitive, Android 2.3 is not all that different from previous versions. The UI is still not good enough to replace some homescreen skins from the likes of HTC, but it will definitely hold its own, if need be. We’re waiting on Honeycomb (Android 3.0) to make a bigger splash in this regard.
As for features, the integrated support for NFC and WiFi-based VoIP phone calls represent a big step for Android. You won’t find this tech on the iPhone, which, in itself, says a lot about how far Google has come with their mobile OS. The built-in NFC tech should help drive adoption of this relatively new (for the US, at least) technology. It’s for this reason alone that we think Gingerbread is an important milestone for Android.
It may not be a game changer, but Gingerbread is certainly playing the game in top form!
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