On October 19 in Hong Kong, Google took the wraps off Android 4.0 (aka Ice Cream Sandwich), the biggest update to the company’s popular mobile operating system since the tablet-optimized Android 3.0 (aka “Honeycomb”) debuted in early 2011.
The Ice Cream Sandwich release brings a new focus on ease-of-use and aesthetics. While Android 3.0 focused solely on large-screen mobile devices, Android 4.0 improves many of those features and scales them down for use on mobile phones, too. “We tried to create a palette and a language and a sense of being that’s clean and modern and graphic, but isn’t a straightjacket.” Matias Duarte, who head Android’s user experience team, told This Is My Next. “We’ve taken what Honeycomb has done and pumped up the snooty design quotient, and we’ve toned down the geeky nerd quotient. We’ve made it a lot more accessible. But we haven’t taken it in a new direction.”
See the biggest new features Google’s Android 4.0 has to offer (below), then check out Samung’s Galaxy Nexus, the first device built specifically for Ice Cream Sandwich.
- More Camera Features - What’s different about camera functions in Android 4.0? A whole lot, starting with Instagram-esque photo-editing tools and deeper integration with social networks. TechCrunch is gaga over the improvements, lauding the “image stabilization, improved autofocus, and integration with other apps for sending photos or instant upload to Google+. Oh, and who could forget built-in face detection, panorama and time lapse modes, and on-the-fly photo retouching and enhancements.” Like Apple’s new iOS 5, Android users will also be able to access the camera right from the lock screen.
- Sleeker Look - Ice Cream Sandwich’s totally revamped interface places even more emphasis on Google’s search bar and aims at making Android more user-friendly. Among the new features are a new typeface called “Roboto” with more rounded letters, as well as scrollable and re-sizable widgets. The snazzy UI also places more of an emphasis on finger gestures.
- New Security Feature - Android 4.0 users can rest easy, knowing that their devices will feature the nifty Face Unlock, which scans the user’s face before unlocking the gadget.
- Data Management - A data management tool will help the user understand the amount of data their favorite apps use. This tool will also let the user set data limits for herself, and it will send warnings to notify the user when her data use approaches those limits.
- Revamped Browser - Not only will it look sleeker on handsets, Android’s native browser will now place more emphasis on tabs and offline productivity. “Users can keep up to 16 tabs open, view a live preview of each and quickly switch between them,” explains By Genius Report. “Tabs can be closed by flicking them off of the screen much like webOS or RIM’s tablet OS. Google also automatically syncs bookmarks to your Android browser from Chrome, and users can save pages for offline reading.”
- More Robust Gmail - Gmail users, rejoice! Here’s what’s new with Google’s celebrated email app, according to TechCrunch: “Gmail now supports two-line previews, and sports a new context-sensitive action bar at the bottom of the screen. Gesture support allows you to swipe left and right between emails.” Boy Genius Report notes that Gmail will support offline search, too.
Improved Voice Dictation - Though it’s no Siri, Google has upgraded its hands-free speech recognition feature, which lets users dictate text, send messages, open media files and more. Per PCWorld: “ICS voice command software now has a hands free feature that lets you activate voice actions just by speaking to your phone instead of pressing a button.”
“play music, search the web, and dictate notes, SMS and email messages.”
NFC Sharing - Google touts the security of its Android Beam wireless transfer system, which lets users share content between devices equipped with Near-Field Communication (aka NFC) technology. Engadget explains how the system will work:
Much like HP’s ill-fated Touch-to-share functionality, it will let you simply tap two NFC-enabled devices together to share a piece of information. That will work with a range of apps and services in Android, including YouTube videos, contact information, maps, web pages” and more. While you can transfer content from apps, you can’t transfer the apps themselves, but Engadget notes that Android Beam “links to apps in the Android Market.
Virtual Buttons - Designed with an eye toward button-free Android handsets, version 4.0 of Google’s operating system relies more on finger gestures and integrates navigation buttons and music controls into the user interface. The feature could lead to a new generation of sleeker devices with fewer hardware buttons.
But will these virtual buttons get in user’s way? TechCrunch says no: “[T]hey smartly disappear when viewing video or in widescreen mode.”
- Notifications Upgrade - ”The notification window is now slightly translucent with a glowing dot when you pull it downward,”according to This Is My Next. “Notifications can be swiped away one at a time, mirroring webOS 3.0 behavior. You can access your notifications on the lock screen if you’re not using a passcode, and you can jump quickly to your settings through the window shade.”
- Universal Android OS - Version 4.0 will work on any Android device, be it tablet or smartphone. “Ice Cream Sandwich is the OS that’s supposed to put a damper on all that fragmentation talk,” writes VentureBeat. “[T]he 2.X OS for phones and the 3.X OS for tablets will give way to the 4.X OS for all Android devices.”
- Social Integration - ICS bakes deeper social integration into many apps. Perhaps the most social is the “People” app. BGR writes that this new app “pulls in contact information and photos from social networks for your whole address book. Whenever a contact updates his or her info, it is also automatically updated on your phone.”
When Will It Be Available? - Though Ice Cream Sandwich officially launched on October 19, many Android phones won’t run the new software immediately. The Galaxy Nexus will ship in November with Ice Cream Sandwich preloaded. But when will it be available for other devices? And for which? Google’s Gabe Cohen offered Engadget some insight into Google’s plans for the OS. “Currently in the process for releasing Ice Cream Sandwich for Nexus S,” he said, adding that all devices running Android 2.3 (aka “Gingerbread”) should “theoretically” be able to run Android 4.0. However, he didn’t share a timeline.
Pocket Lint obtained confirmation that ICS will be coming to the newly announced Motorola DROID RAZR “at the start of 2012.”
HTC phones may not be ICS-ready for some time, though. According to an HTC statement, posted by Engadget, the manufacturer is “currently reviewing its features and functionality to determine [its] upgrade plans.”
- Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich now official (engadget.com)
- Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich: Brilliant Thievery? (informationweek.com)