Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich Review: How does the new face of Android stack up?

Ice Cream Sandwich

By now, hopefully you’ve taken the liberty of reading our Samsung Galaxy Nexus review, which covers a chunk of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. We also told you that we just skimmed the top in favor of a more in-depth review of the latest version of the OS.

Below is an excerpt from the Galaxy Nexus review’s software section, along with a break down of more features found within Ice Cream Sandwich.

* I’m running a custom ROM on this phone at the moment, so disregard any inconsistency you’ve seen on the stock Galaxy Nexus. There is no dedicated search option on the soft keys but is just an option for this ROM*

Obviously, the Galaxy Nexus has Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich as its main weapon and the latest version of Android is definitely enough to choose Samsung’s latest offering over the competition. Ice Cream Sandwich is a dramatic departure from any other version of the OS found on a phone today and will forever change the way you use and see Android. In a good way.

Goodbye, buttons

One thing that will immediately change the way you use Android on the Galaxy Nexus is that fact that there are now on-screen keys for navigation instead of physical or capacitive buttons. Ice Cream Sandwich also does away with dedicated search and menu buttons in favor for in-app options, which can take a bit of getting used to.

The three buttons that made the cut for Ice Cream Sandwich are back, home, and multitasking. The multitasking option will display your most recent applications via thumbnail and you can simply swipe apps away if you’re done with them. This doesn’t actually kill the task but it allows you to get at what’s most important to you more quickly. You may find yourself ignoring the multitasking option in the beginning but once you get the hang of it, you’ll wish it was always there for Android. More on multitasking later.

 Lockscreen

The changes begin at the lockscreen and it now features the familiar look and feel of Honeycomb. A small ring is found at the bottom of the screen and you can drag it to the right to unlock the device or slide it to the left to immediately open the camera application. Unfortunately, Google has removed the option of silencing the device from the lockscreen.

A nifty feature for unlocking the device is Face Unlock. It’s there for novelty more than security but it’s certainly an interesting feature. Face Unlock allows you to take a picture of yourself and will scan your face when you turn on the phone to unlock it. If you have a very good picture of the person, it can be tricked, but it’s definitely a feature to show off to some friends rather than securing your device.

Ice Cream Sandwich now allows you to drag down the notification bar while your screen is locked and dismiss them if you so choose. Last but not least, if you’re listening to music, the lockscreen will have music controls, along with the album cover art for easy access.

Homescreen

The Android Homescreen is familiar enough but it’s full of new features. You’re still given the same five screens to customize with applications and widgets but there’s definitely enough differences to get excited for.

Similar to Honeycomb, the you’ll find the static Google Search bar up at the top of the screen at all times. For some reason, even though you can’t remove the Google search from the top of the screen, there’s still a Google search widget available.

Moving to the bottom of the screen, the favorites tray now has two more slots to place applications or folders and is completely customizable. The only option in the favorites tray that is non removable is the all-apps soft key.

Folders have also been revamped for ICS and the new method takes heavily from iOS, as you simply need to drag one application over another to create a folder. From there you can customize the icons where you want them and rename the folder. Even better, after you have your brand new folder created, you can now put it into your favorites tray.

Multitasking

The way you switch between applications is unlike anything you’ve probably seen on a phone before. Similar to Honeycomb, Ice Cream Sandwich shows you thumbnails of the application to give you a quick glimpse of what screen you left off on in the app. Unlike Honeycomb, however, dismissing applications can be done with a simple swipe gesture, just like dismissing emails, texts, etc. in the notification panel. This gesture is universal throughout Ice Cream Sandwich and you can also dismiss browser tabs in the same way.

 

Keyboard

If you thought the updated keyboard in Gingerbread was nifty, you haven’t seen anything yet. It seems that Google has actually implemented the BlindType tech this time around, as the keyboard is a joy to use.

The mix of the large screen and the updated keyboard make typing on the Galaxy Nexus a pleasure. Luckily, because the updated keyboard software is that nice, phones with smaller displays will likely be able to enjoy it just as much as larger phones.

Just like previous versions of the OS, Ice Cream Sandwich features voice-to-text right from the keyboard but Google has taken it to the next level. Voice dictation is not only more accurate but it’s also nearly instant.

As a lover of physical keyboards, for the first time ever I think I’m done with them for good.

Apps and Widgets

Accessing all of your applications hasn’t changed in Ice Cream Sandwich but the way you navigate through them has been tweaked quite a bit. With Android 4.0, you scroll through applications horizontally now and swiping to another page will produce a nice animation. Adding an application is done in the same way as previous versions of Android but when you long-press an app you’re presented with an option to uninstall said app on the top of the screen.

Another Honeycomb feature that made its way to Ice Cream Sandwich is that Apps and widgets now live in the same place and widgets now have their own dedicated tab at the top. You can also get to your widgets by swiping past your last page of apps. You’re now given a preview of how your widget will look on the homescreen, which is pretty nice. That said, it can be a bit overwhelming if you have a lot of widgets.

The new way of moving through apps and widgets may take some getting used to but it’s cleaner and much easier on the eyes.

Google Apps

Maps

Google Maps is just one of the many applications Google has revamped for Ice Cream Sandwich. Since a physical or capacitive menu button is no longer needed, most of your options are displayed on the screen.

Most of these revamped Google apps all share the same dark grey bars lining the top and bottom of the apps, which is where you’ll find the action bars. The bottom gives you the option to search, immediately jump into directions, go to the built-in Places app, layers, and the new on-screen menu option, which reveals options for My Places, Clear Map, Latitude, and settings.

The latest update of Google Maps adds more options to the top action bar for quick access to other Maps features.

Gmail

Probably my most-frequented application on any Android phone, Gmail has received a great facelift with Ice Cream Sandwich.

If you haven’t noticed the trend, these newer Google apps have most options found in the action bars on the top and bottom of the application. Gmail’s bottom action bar allows you to quickly compose a new email, search, change labels, refresh Gmail, and the menu option to show more settings. The top bar will allow you to quickly switch accounts.

When one or more emails are selected, the options on the action bar change. Once selected, an email can be archived, deleted, have its label changed, be marked as unread, or starred. The on-screen menu found on the bottom right of the action bar will allow you to mark the selected emails as important, mute, or report spam.

Navigating through emails is now easier than ever, as all you need to do is swipe to the left or right to get to your next email in your inbox. Sadly, Gmail still doesn’t support multitouch.

Calendar

Google Calendar has been tweaked a bit but not as dramatically as some of the other Google applications.

Probably the nicest tweak found in the calendar app is that when you’re in the week view, you can pinch to zoom on the screen to show more or less information on your appointments. So if you have many appointments on your plate for the week, you can expand the view easily to get just the right amount of information displayed for you at one time. However, the new zoom feature can not be used when the calendar is in the month view.

Only one action bar is used in the calendar application, which is found on top. The action bar allows you to easily jump into day, week, month, or agenda views, and the menu soft key found on the right allows for search, adding a new event, refresh, calendars to display, and settings.

Movie Studio

The Movie Studio application from Honeycomb has made its way to Ice Cream Sandwich and offers up all the features you’d expect. Once a video or picture is added to the current project, you can trim and edit the video, as well as add a music track on top of it.

Movie Studio isn’t the all in one video editing software but it’s a great start and coupling it with the decent photo editing in the gallery as well as video recording options in the camera app makes for a powerful set up.

YouTube

If you’re someone who used YouTube frequently, you’ll love the changes made in the Ice Cream Sandwich version of the application. The changes aren’t as dramatic as other Google applications, as one could tell YouTube was leaning in this direction when it was updated late last year.

The main screen on YouTube, like the previous versions, will show trending videos but if you’ve set up your account on the application, it will display suggested videos that are more relevent to your YouTube viewing habits. A quick swipe to the left will show you a new Browse option, which breaks down videos into the standard YouTube categories. Another swipe will bring you to your account page, which shows your uploads, favorite videos, playlists, and subscriptions. You’re also given the option to upload a video right from the gallery on this screen.

Selecting a video will bring you to a familiar screen, which displays the video on top and information of the video on the bottom. You can +1 the video, give it a thumbs up or a thumbs down, and  view the description. Related videos and comments for the video are just a few swipes away.

Data Usage

Ice Cream Sandwich not only sets out to make the user experience easier on the user but to keep them in control of their experience as well. This is where the new Data usage manager comes into play and if you consume a lot of data every month, you may have just met your new best friend.

The Data usage manager will not only show you the amount of data you’ve used for the month, but it will break it down into what applications are using the most data. Because we live in a world of tiered data plans, the data usage manager will allow you to set a mobile data limit on your phone, which will warn you when you’ve hit a certain amount of data for the month and completely turn off data once you top out. Better yet, if you notice a specific application that is sucking down data like oysters on a half shell, you can block the application from using data altogether.

Notifications

The notification bar has been revamped in many ways and we’re loving what Ice Cream Sandwich brings to the table. If available, texts, emails and others will show a picture of the sender next to the notification. This adds a more personable touch to the notification panel and it simply looks nice.

While you’ll still be able to clear all of your notifications with the simple “X” symbol on the notification bar, Google has made it easier than ever to dismiss specific notifications by using a simple gesture. The gesture is found throughout the entire OS, which is a simple swipe. The new way of dismissing individual notifications is definitely a nod to WebOS, and custom ROMs like CyanogenMod have had this method implemented for some time now.

One small tweak that has been added to the notification bar is that there’s now a dedicated settings option that’s found right next to the date. This will alleviate the need to dig through your applications or even go to your homescreen to get at the settings menu and we’re more than happy to see it.

In addition to the many new navigational methods found within Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, virtually every core Google application has been revamped. Stay tuned for a more in-depth review of Ice Cream Sandwich in the coming days.

Browser

The web browser is a joy to use on the Galaxy Nexus and just makes one of the best experiences even better in Ice Cream Sandwich. The look and feel has been refined in the browser and since there’s no dedicated menu button any longer, you’ll find everything you need at your fingertips.

As expected, you’ll find the address bar along the top of the browser, as well as the soft key for showing all of your open tabs and the three dot menu soft key for settings options.
Not only is the browser within Ice Cream Sandwich significantly faster, it also brings along some great features along the way. One feature that many people have been waiting for is Chrome Sync, which will sync all of your bookmarks on the Chrome desktop browser to your phone. This feature is especially nice for those who flash custom ROMs and are used to manually backing up their bookmarks every time, as it’s all done for you now.

Another feature found in the browser is Incognito Mode, which doesn’t save browsing history or cookies. This is a simple feature that has been available in CyanogenMod for some time now and it’s just nice to see that the stock Android browser is sharing many of the same features found in the Chrome desktop browser. Another feature is the ability to request the desktop version of a website. This is very useful for websites that recognize you’re on a mobile device and don’t offer the option for accessing the desktop version of the site.

At the moment, Adobe Flash is not available for Ice Cream Sandwich but we do know it will become available before the end of the year.

People

The People application, which is Ice Cream Sandwich’s new Contacts application and the first thing you’ll notice is that it looks like it was taken right out of Windows Phone 7.

The People app is broken into three sections: Groups, contacts, and favorites. You can sync your Twitter and Google+ contacts and when viewing a contact with either of these services, their latest updates will be shown.

The favorites page is displayed in a thumbnail view and allows for high-res pictures for your contacts. You’ll probably need to manually update these photos, as the first time my contacts were synced, all photos looked rather distorted but you’re good to go after that. This would be completely alleviated if Google still allowed your Facebook contacts to be synced but that likely won’t happen anytime soon.

Below your favorite contacts is a list of your most frequently contacted people, whether its text, email, or calling. It’s pretty nice to find these contacts in the same place, no matter what way you communicate with them.

Beam

Android Beam is a nifty and novel way of sharing content from one phone to another. You can easily share YouTube videos, contacts, applications and more simply by putting two Galaxy Nexus phones together and tapping on the screen. Before we tested it out, it seemed as if Android Beam would fall into the same gimmick realm as Face Unlock but we walked away pretty impressed. Check out the video below to see Android Beam in action!

 

Screenshots

A feature that many have been requesting for some time in Android has finally arrived in Ice Cream Sandwich. Screenshots. While the feature isn’t necessarily the most useful, it can be helpful and just plain fun. Previously, screenshots were a bit of a hassle to get working on most Android phones, as it required the Android SDK and connecting the device to a computer. Now screenshots can easily be taken by pressing the volume down button and power button at the same time for two seconds.

To add a bit of visual flair to screenshots, a simple poloroid-esque animation is displayed on the handset when a screenshot is taken.

Gallery

The Gallery application has been significantly revamped and now offers a built-in photo editor. Also taking heavy cues from Windows Phone 7, photos are displayed in a magazine-style and doesn’t offer much spacing in between photos. This is easy on the eyes but can also make the gallery app feel a bit noisy.

Tapping on a photo will allow you to edit it and apply all sorts of filters and after-effects. The editing options are actually pretty decent for what you’d find built-in to any phone. HEre are just a few options you can choose from: highlights, Shadows, Auto-fix, Cross-process, Posterize, Lomo, Documentary,Vignette, Film Grain, Fisheye. There are also more color effects and other photo manipulation options, like straighten, sharpen, etc.

Conclusion

After using the Galaxy Nexus as my primary phone and adjusting to Ice Cream Sandwich, I doubt I’ll ever be able to go back. Android 4.0 is a dramatic update that still keeps surprising with these subtle, well thought out touches.

Ice Cream Sandwich is very easy to use but it can be a bit unintuitive to use at times. I’d almost say it may be harder for an existing Android user to wrap their head around some of the changes in ICS than a person that’s never owned any smartphone before. Existing Android users will have to break habits of previous versions that a new user simply wont.

Still, small things like the on-screen menu button not being in the same place in every app and other things of the sort can sometimes make Ice Cream Sandwich a bit messy but these issues are very minute and will likely get ironed out in time.

Overall, Ice Cream Sandwich really is the update that Android has needed for sometime. It’s still powerful enough to keep the hardcore users but easier to use and prettier to attract other people using different mobile operating systems. Android 4.0 is modern and elegant, with eye-candy found throughout. The latest flavor of Android changes the way you use the OS in almost every way for the better. Android has essentially been reborn because Ice Cream Sandwich is such a step up. Such a bold revamp of the OS could have had negative effects and we’re glad that Google went there because it paid off.

Matias Duarte did Google a huge solid with Ice Cream Sandwich and even though it’s essentially Honeycomb for phones, Android 4.0 is miles ahead from version 3.0 and much of its competition.

  • Jaime Ramirez

    if oem dont use skins this will be a huge succes this is just the beggining! it is gonna get better 3 things android needs to do to be on top 1.GAMES HUB 2.BETTER APPS 3.UPDATES

    • Victor

      I find the apps amazing, much better than the competition, and I do think all manufacturers should do is install apps and change the color scheme.

      My hopes when Google+ came out was that it would use its game functionality to make a cross platform game hub, as well, but it seems that’s not gonna happen.

  • Jan

    I think that new favorites contacts are bad, since you cant just swipe to call/message…

Back to top ▴