Google and Samsung recently took the wraps off of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich and to say that the search giant has stepped up its game is an understatement. Ice Cream Sandwich covers many of the bases that Android needed tending to, and keeps going. This update shows that the Android operating system is maturing in ways that we knew it could but always questioned when it would happen. That time is now and Ice Cream Sandwich is unquestionably the best Android release to date, as it puts people first, simplifies the entire experience, all while unifying Android phones and tablets.
Without further adieu, let’s just jump right in.
Android 4.0 features a brand new type face found throughout the OS, Roboto. This simple font is modern but hardly overwhelming, and easy on the eyes. It’s hard to get excited about a font but it just goes to show how much attention to detail was put into Ice Cream Sandwich.
The latest version of Android has revamped the lock screen that not only fits the ICS aesthetic but adds some nifty features along the way. Similar to the Honeycomb lock screen, ICS brings the circular lock screen along for the ride and you can now quickly access the camera application by sliding to the left, giving you a few extra moments to capture a picture of a fleeting scene. The lock screen also allows you to drag down the notification bar while still locked, eliminating the need to unlock the device just to see what emails you’re missing out on.
One of the most interesting features you’ll find available for the lock screen is the ability to unlock your device using only your face. Using the front-facing camera, the camera will recognize the user and will unlock the phone for the owner only. Just how accurate this feature works remains to be seen and you may just end up physically unlocking the phone. Either way, the idea of having facial recognition may be nice bit it’s one of those things that you probably won’t use frequently. Kind of like over-hyped voice recognition.
After getting past the lock screen, you’ll be greeted by a familiar, yet significantly revamped home screen layout. You’ll still find the dock with the phone and browser icons adorning it but there’s room for two more icons that you can customize to your heart’s content. Another new feature within the dock is that you can now add folders (more on those later), which will allow for quick access to many more applications with just a tap on the dock.
While handsets with physical Android buttons need not worry, the flagship device running Ice Cream Sandwich, the Galaxy Nexus doesn’t have these buttons since the latest version of the OS no longer requires them. Instead, you’ll find three soft keys below the home screen dock for back, home, and multitasking. Gone is the need for a dedicated menu button, as Google has done a good job displaying most actions you’ll need right in front of you.
Folders have been available in the Android OS since day one but I can’t say that I knew many people who used them (remember live folders? exactly.) Google has taken a cue from Apple with its new folder implementation by simply dragging one application over another to create a new folder. From there, you can rename and rearrange the applications as you see fit. Folders aren’t just for games and applications but your favorite contacts and bookmarks as well.
Multitasking has never been easier or as enjoyable now that Android 4.0 is here. The dedicated soft key on the bottom of the screen will show all of the applications within a thumbnail view like Honeycomb but you can now free up some RAM but just swiping the applications to the left or right to dismiss à la WebOS.
The notification bar has been tweaked in a few ways that makes for a better experience. Small touches like contact photos will sit alongside a text message and you can dismiss specific notifications with the same swiping gesture for multitasking. You’ll also find a dedicated setting option on top of the notification panel.
App Drawer and Widgets
The application launcher has undergone some tweaks as well in the best of ways. Applications no longer scroll vertically like you see on Android phones today but horizontally. When swiping through pages of applications brings a 3D animation to the upcoming page. It’s subtle but nice. The new way of navigating through applications is obviously taken from Android 3.0 Honeycomb but it’s looking even nicer on a phone.
The application launcher also houses a new tab on the top dedicated to widgets, and you’ll be able to see a live view of the widgets before you add them to your screen. Again, this is very much like Android 3.0 Honeycomb but we’re still digging it more on ICS.
A feature that many people have been waiting for concerning widgets is that they are now both resizable and scrollable.
Google has updated a few things with the keyboard and has added some features that should certainly impress. First, the keyboard itself is said to be overall more accurate and now includes a built-in spell-check. Simply tap on a word and you can either change the misspelled word or add it to the dictionary.
Small tweaks have been added to Copy and Paste as well with the latest keyboard. The main idea remains intact: hold down on a word to select it and drag the two handles to the desired text and you can either copy, paste, or drag the selected text somewhere else in the note, email, etc.
One of Android’s novel but useful features is the talk to text. In previous versions of the OS, you’d need to tap on the microphone button, speak your text, and wait for it to appear before you could make edits if needed. Ice Cream Sandwich makes the operation much quicker for you and will now automatically begin to write what you’re saying. So if you noticed that the voice to text feature misspelled a word you can stop then and there to correct it. I rarely use this feature but I’m eager to see it in action.
Ice Creamed Apps and Features
Most of the core Android applications have been updated to shine with the Ice Cream Sandwich. From Gmail to the Camera application, there are quite a few sweet treats in store for you.
The browser in Ice Cream Sandwich looks like you’d expect it to: The Honeycomb browser optimized for a smaller screen. While this much is true, there’s still a lot more to love about what Google has done.
Open web pages are now handled in a different way. A dedicated soft key lies on the top of the page, allowing for quick access to your open pages. Tapping this button will give you a set of thumbnails similar to what you’d see when pressing the multitask button. To close a window, you can either tap on the ‘X’ on the thumbnail or use the swipe to dismiss gesture you find on multitasking and notifications.
When surfing the web on smartphones, if available you’ll be taken to the mobile site first. Instead of having to change the user agent to desktop so you can get the full desktop site or scrolling down the page to see if there’s a link to the desktop site, an option in the action bar will allow you to request the desktop version. This is obviously a minor feature but we’re glad to see it’s been handled in a simple way.
One of our favorite features within the new Ice Cream Sandwich browser is the introduction of Chrome Sync. Now all of your bookmarks can be synced up with Google account so you’ll never lose them again. This will be most helpful when you get a new phone, as your bookmarks will be waiting for you upon first sync.
Lastly, you can now download pages for offline reading so you can catch up on that article when you don’t have a data connection.
Camera and Gallery
The camera application has seen one of the biggest updates and has features that have never been seen built-into a mobile OS’ camera app. The overall look and feel of the camera application remains similar but has touches of glowing blue you find throughout the OS.
Ice Cream Sandwich has optimized the camera application so that it will no longer have any sort of shutter lag. Since all we have to go on is the Galaxy Nexus and its fancy schmancy sensor, we’ll have to see what this means for other handsets with inferior cameras.
The updated camera application also features continuous and touch-to-focus, as well as improved image stability when taking photos. You’ll also find nice features like face detection when taking photos.
Video recording has also received some incredible improvements through and through. The live video effects that we saw at Google I/O earlier this year have finally made their way into the final software and you can make a subject’s eyes larger in real-time, along with a handful of other (small eyes, big mouth, big nose, face squeeze, to name a few) fun and silly effects. Video recording also allows you to take snapshots while recording video by just tapping on the screen and add in a static background picture.
..And we’re not done yet! Ice Cream Sandwich’s camera application also allows for a single-motion Panoramic mode, allowing the user to take panorama of their surroundings with one fell swoop. When you’re done taking your masterpiece photos you can head to the gallery for even more enhancements.
The gallery application for Ice Cream Sandwich has added quite a nice assortment of photo effects to choose from. From your standard sharpen FX to the uber-hipster (Mission, represent!) effects, you’ll find them built into the new gallery application. Simple editing features are included, like red-eye removal, set levels, rotate, and even angle adjusting. There are quite a few more filters and fixes you can apply to photos, giving Ice Cream Sandwich one of the most powerful camera and gallery applications out of the box.
Of course, when you’re done with your photos you’ll be able to immediately share them with any application that has implemented Google’s open-sharing API, which is quite a few. If you’d like to keep your pictures to yourself but not confined to your gallery, there’s a new, stacked widget available so you can scroll through your favorite pictures in a snap.
This simple feature that has been available on competing OS’ and other Android phones with custom skins running on top has finally made its way into the Android stack, natively. A simple combination of hardware buttons will capture a screenshot of whatever screen your phone is currently on, produce a nifty Polaroid animation of said screenshot, and will be saved into the Gallery. From there you can share and edit your screenshots with ease.
If you haven’t noticed, Android 4.0 has a big focus on the consumer this time around (finally) and put people right in the middle of it. The new people app replaces the existing Contacts application by making it more beautiful, personal, and social.
The look and feel of the new People application is bright, with white and light blues found throughout. You’re contacts are still there but are just displayed in a more simple and nicer way. A quick swipe to the right will bring you your favorites screen but it’s now displayed in a grid of photos, which looks very similar to something you’d see on Windows Phone 7.
Tapping on a contact will show you the new layout for the People app. A large, high-res photo (if available, obviously) of the selected contact will adorn the top part, with all of their contact information, including social networks right in front. Another quick swipe to the right within a the contact card will show you the contact’s social network updates. Status updates, photos, and more are all pulled from the networks said person is linked to within the phone.
Not only does the People application put your favorites front and center, it also put you in front and is why you have your very own profile at the top of your contacts list at all times.
The People application within Ice Cream Sandwich will hopefully make some manufacturers realize that their heavily customized applications are now needless. Anyone listening?
Android offers the Gmail solution you won’t find on any other mobile operating system today and you may be happy to hear that the Gmail application has undergone a rather nice update under the light of Ice Cream Sandwich.
Gmail is still the same application we’ve come to love from Android but this time around Google has added an action bar to the bottom of the app. The action bar gives easy access to compose a message search your email, change labels, and refresh the app. Gmail now offers offline search for your emails, allowing you to have access you up to a months worth of emails without a data connection.
When selecting emails, the action bar below display different options for archiving, deleting, changing labels, starring, and more. Once you either delete or archive a selected email, a quick animation will pull the remaining emails back together in the list.
When inside an email, you’ll notice that name headers a now blue, which just adds to the ICS aesthetic. switching between emails has never been easier, as the new universal Android swiping gesture will bring you to the next email without the need of a dedicated button or going back to your inbox.
Data Usage App
With very few carriers offering up true unlimited data plans these days, users have become painfully more aware about the amount of data they consume. Google is helping you to monitor your usage with a new application.
The application will track your data usage and provides a projection of the amount of data you will use based on previous month’s data usage. One of the best features within this application is that you can set limits for mobile data and can even turn off data altogether after a specified amount has been reached. You can even check to see the amount of data used within individual applications to keep yourself in control.
The new calendar application was lightly touched upon and while Hugo Barra did mention that there was more that wasn’t shown off, what we did see was nice. Using the same swiping gestures found throughout ICS, you can easily see what’s on the schedule for the next day. The other feature we saw demoed was the ability to pinch to zoom in on a calendar day to give a more detailed view of your appointments.
When you receive a call, a large picture of the contact dominates the screen and should look quite nice if it’s a high-resolution photo. If you’re too busy to take the call, instead of straight up rejecting it, you can quickly reply with an automatic text by swiping up on the screen and selecting a pre-written text that you can customize in the settings. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this feature, but it’s a much nicer way to deny a call.
The phone application now supports visual voicemail and displays and gives access to messages, voice transcriptions, and audio files with a single tap.
Thought NFC would just be used for Google Wallet? Think again. Ice Cream Sandwich introduces a great new feature for the platform, Android Beam. Android Beam will easily allow you to share content from one handset to another with a simple tap.
Applications, YouTube videos, contact information, music and more can all be shared by putting two NFC-enabled handsets next to each other and a simple tap of the screen. While it will likely take a while for NFC to become an expected feature, this new way of sharing likely won’t sit in the novel, unused features pile forever.
This feature has a bigger chance to catch on once more handset ship with NFC chips built in but we would imagine that a majority (if not all) Android Ice Cream Sandwich phones will ship with NFC going forwards.
We’ve covered most of what Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich has to offer and of course, it will first debut on the Galaxy Nexus with its gorgeous 720p display. Interestingly enough, Ice Cream Sandwich was developed with high-definition displays in mind and 1280×720 is Ice Cream Sandwich’s native resolution. This means we’ll likely begin to see many more HD displays for ICS handsets so the user can experience the latest and greatest version of Android in the highest-quality possible.
As I said before earlier this year, Ice Cream Sandwich is the future of the Android operating system and is the single most significant update ever seen for the platform. The features alone make this an awesome update but Google didn’t stop there, as it usually has. Android is now what some may call beautiful. Sure, it still has this Tron-like feel but there’s an attention to detail across virtually everything and Android has never been easier to use. There’s a modern elegance to Ice Cream Sandwich, even if you can tell that it was built by geeks.
The new universal gestures that work throughout the new OS proves that Android is a matured. Up until now, Android updates mainly focused on features and not necessarily usability. With Ice Cream Sandwich, you’re getting the most powerful mobile operating system around and it’s terribly easy on the eyes. Finally.
We still have to wait to see how manufacturers react to Ice Cream Sandwich, especially the likes of HTC, which heavily customizes the OS as it sees fit. While we understand the need to differentiate yourself from the competition, custom skins on Android were implemented mostly to cover up the rather stale looking UI. Now that we see how nice Android 4.0 is, we can only hope that these custom skins will be toned down significantly and let Ice Cream Sandwich shine through.
If you missed the official Ice Cream Sandwich and Galaxy Nexus announcement, be sure to watch it below!
So what are your thoughts on Android 4.0? Is it sweet enough for you?
Head over to the Android Developers blog for more Ice Cream Sandwich goodness.