First Look: Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich review

0 out of 5

For

Sophisticated look and feel, great features added to the browser, it still feels fun and exciting, makes native Android a stronger offering

Against

There isn't much that is essentially new as we've seen a lot in one form or another previously

Ice Cream Sandwich is the "biggest release" of Android "in terms of code that we wrote", Hugo Barra, product management director at Google told Pocket-lint in our second session with Ice Cream Sandwich on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. Barra told us it was the first step in rethinking Android, designed to take it forward for the next 2-3 years.

We've now spent time with Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) in the Googleplex in Mountain View, and the company's London headquarters, so we've seen a lot of what Ice Cream Sandwich has to offer and we thought it was only fair to put pen to paper and bring you our first impressions. 

What is Ice Cream Sandwich?

It's an OS that merges Android on phones and on tablets, ending the brief dalliance with an operating system based on the same foundations and fundamentals, but divided in look, feel and devices that we saw in Gingerbread and Honeycomb.

But if Ice Cream Sandwich has a flavour, that flavour is honey. Honey from Android 3.0, because much of what we've seen in Android 4.0 behaves like Honeycomb. Barra told us that development on Ice Cream Sandwich was underway before Honeycomb launched and it's obvious that the two walked the same path.

Moving forward you won't have Android for phones or Android for tablets, it will be the same scalable platform. At least that's the intention, although as Android users will be aware, there are a huge array of devices already out there, some Google certified and some not, so we suspect there will legacy devices with older software circulating for some time, or residing at the bottom end of the market. 

General controls and home interface

Ice Cream Sandwich offers you three control buttons: back, home and recent. This is the same as Honeycomb and ICS uses the same design for these controls, although the high pixel density of the Samsung Galaxy Nexus means these are incredibly crisp and sharp, whereas on a 10-inch tablet they can look a little soft, almost like a neon glow.

Ice Cream Sandwich will support devices with hardware buttons as well as the software buttons of the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, Barra told us. We suspect that some manufacturers will keep buttons to continue their line of differentiation and some will choose to do away with them completely. 

Across the top of the display you get your normal notification and connection icons which match those you'll find in later Gingerbread builds, but now in blue. As before, you have a selection of home screens to modify to your liking, so as always with Android, you can add widgets, people, app shortcuts and so on, to make the device your own.

One interesting change is the adoption of a dock across the bottom of the screen. Central to this dock is the apps menu button, flanked by shortcuts you can change as you see fit. It isn't new: native Android previously had a similar arrangement but only offered two slots. It's been a feature of manufacturer skins on Android since they first appeared as well as something that you get on the iPhone and here, like all those devices, you can drag and drop what you want onto the dock for easy instant access no matter where you are in the home screen. 

In the case of the Galaxy Nexus, you get space for two flanking apps either side of the central apps menu. The app menu itself has changed too, now divided into two sections, one for your apps, the other for your widgets. There is now a persistent link to the Android Market at the top of the apps menu, which is really handy for instant access when hunting for that app you thought you installed. 

Heading into the widgets tab lets you add them to the home screens. Previously this was done with a long press, which is now reserved for wallpaper changing. Widgets now behave very much like they do in Honeycomb - they are interactive, scrollable and can be resized too.

Lock screen and notifications

The lock screen of a smartphone at times seems like the front line of the OS wars. Android devices have been adding features to the lockscreen for some time and recently we saw Apple add to theirs; ICS has added unlock to camera, features a music widget and will also give you access to your notifications which you can drag down from the top.

This means you'll be able to head straight to particular notifications easily, although this existed previously in various different Android skins. It isn't a loophole to bypass device protection either, as engaging any of the security options will disable this.

When it comes to security, Google have introduced a fun new feature in Face Unlock. This isn't designed to be Pentagon-style retina scanning, but as Hugo Barra said "soft security". It's fun and lightweight, but Barra did admit that you could possibly unlock it with a photo, if you had one of sufficient size, resolution and quality. At least that avoids the need to tear off someone's head to unlock their phone. 

You still get the option for pattern or PIN security and these options still exist as a backup if the Face Unlock doesn't work - for example if you are in a dark place, like bed, or walking down the street late at night. 

We've seen a large number of manufacturers add shortcuts to the drop down notifications bar to toggle things like Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. ICS doesn't give you any of these offerings, but does offer you access to the settings. 

If you've been paying attention, you'll have noticed that there is an absence of a menu button in the controls, so you can't press menu>settings from the home screen to get to these things. Now you'll have to drag down the notifications and hit the icon.

One new feature in ICS that we haven't seen in Android before is the ability to swipe things away. It's a feature we liked in WebOS and we like the way it has been implemented in Android. From your notifications you'll be able to delete alerts by swiping them to the right. This removes them from the notifications list, so you don't have to look at them any more.

Multitasking, folders

The same swiping action that you get in notifications can also be used in your Recent list. Recent apps is a neat take on task switching. Previously you'd have to press and hold the home button to pop up a grid of recent apps. Now you'll be able to tap the Recent button and you get a live thumbnail of that app appear in a list. You can hit what you want to move to, or again, swipe to the right to get rid of that app.

It makes Android 4 feel more like an operating system that's been designed to multitask, rather than one that merely supports it. At this point we're not entirely sure if swiping a task off your Recent list actually closes it, suspends it, or just removes it from view, something we'll have to investigate in more detail when we get the chance to do a full and thorough review of Ice Cream Sandwich.

Folders have been available in Android for some time, but now you can drag one icon on to another to create a new folder. Yes, it's something that seems to have come from iOS and it works in exactly the same way. The nice thing about folders is that you can create them out of anything, so you can make a folder of your friends and dump it on your dock, so all your important numbers are just a couple of presses away.

Now, rather than having an icon with a label telling you the contents, the first app is the icon, with the other icons stacked behind. It is much more visually engaging than previously.

Those core Google apps

The Android experience is very much built around the core apps that it contains - Gmail, Maps, People, Calendar. It's these things that underpin a lot of what you do in Android, contacting people, arranging your life, staying connected. With Ice Cream Sandwich comes a run of changes. Of course, things like Gmail and Maps act as independent entities so have been refreshed regularly, but ICS adds a little more to the mix.

We have had a good look at Gmail and the biggest change is how you control the app. This is something that runs through ICS to reflect the loss of that menu button. Now you have a set of controls across the bottom of the screen - compose, search, labels, refresh and then those three dots that indicate you have more options to choose from.

This is one area that scaling of ICS is going to affect. On smaller devices you might not have the space for all those icons, so more will be in the "three dot" menu, with less on the bottom of the bar. On a tablet you will get more. It was clear to us that Google would like apps to operate in this way, presenting the immediate options where they can be seen, rather than requiring an additional button press to access them. That's not always the case, however, with ICS. One thing we can say about iOS is that it is very consistent in operation, and in some cases Android isn't, so you do still find menu options in different places in Google's core apps.

One area that has been revamped is People. Formerly Contacts, People now contains more integrated information aggregated from social networks. This isn't a new idea, as we've seen HTC Sense, Motoblur and others, incorporating details into contacts, but you now get a neat swipe action to navigate around the People app, moving from groups, to your list of contacts to favourites.

Big graphical icons are used, so there is a hint of Windows Phone 7 in the new People app, and entering a person's card will let you swipe across to see their social network updates. Interestingly, ICS moves on from using simple lists of names for people in address fields (in Gmail for example), instead using what Google is calling "People Chips".

Rather than having a list of addressees, you'll have their Chips, with a picture, which you can delete easily, or tap to change the address you're going to use. We didn't really get a chance to see this working in anger, something we'll have to put to task when we get another chance to play with Ice Cream Sandwich.

Calendar now behaves more like Honeycomb, so you can swipe from day-to-day, as well as being able to pinch to zoom in and out to get more or less detail on your calendar. These aren't especially new features as they were in Honeycomb and they seem to behave the same way as iOS calendars do on the iPhone.

Finally we had a good play with the browser. The thing we like about the browser is that it basically fills the whole screen and on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, that's a lot of screen. The browser is now better equipped for handling the Internet and acknowledges that people want a full internet experience.

One of the features we're most excited about is desktop mode. This has been a feature of third-party browsers for a while (Dolphin Browser HD, for example), but it will let you tell a website to offer you the full version of the site rather than the mobile version. It is easily toggled via the options, changing from mobile view to desktop view. Having this feature will be a real benefit now that screen sizes of phones are starting to expand.

Another new feature is the option to read later. Essentially this saves the page, images and all, so that you can open it up and read through it wherever you are. There is also the perennial favourite of Incognito for those sneaky-beaky browsing moments and bookmark syncing with Google Chrome on your PC.

You'll now be able to support up to 16 tabs in the browser and, like notifications and the Recent list, you'll be able to close browser tabs by swiping them away.

Of course, all these apps are pulled together by the keyboard, which has had updates to the prediction and correction algorithms. The haptics are very fine and felt comfortable on the Galaxy Nexus and the keyboard was swift and fast to respond to our exploratory pokes.

Speech to text is also really impressive, and still accessed as an option through the keyboard. Previously it would write in phrases, so you'd speak a bit and some text would appear. Now it is real time transcribing, which it really clever, so you can see the message appearing before your eyes. Of course, this all takes place on Google's servers, so you need a data connection for it to work.

Camera, Gallery

If the lock screen is the front line of smartphone war, then the camera seems to be the left flank. Google is looking to make their smartphone cameras even better with a range of features and options. This is in stark contrast to the iPhone which essentially gives you no options: Android ICS comes with a bucket load of choices. You can tweak all sorts of settings, but it's the effects that we find most attractive as you'll be able to do a lot without needing a separate app.

You'll find a range of options from Lomo effects to a vintage vignette. You'll also be able to edit photos from the Gallery app, cropping, rotating and so on to change the image quite drastically. This isn't destructive, you'll get a new image to save alongside the original pictures.

You'll get tap to focus as well as face detection, so if you don't tell it otherwise, it will pick out the faces to focus on. We found it to be fast to take shots and like before, sharing is at the fore, with one click sharing options from the image preview to any installed app that lets you share (thanks to Android's sharing API). There is also a sweep panorama option, which seemed easy enough to use, but we don't know what resolution the final image is.

You'll be able to capture full resolution images whilst shooting video too, as well as apply a range of settings to change the look of your video. Time lapse is now on offer and the results we've seen from time lapse look really impressive.

Both video and pictures can be accessed through the Gallery app as before, which now has a much more engaging interface - the empty space and dubious blurred background is now gone, with a new look that now is much more like Windows Phone 7 tiles.

Finally, you'll be able to take screenshots from the device.

Beam me up Android

Finally we come to Android Beam. Android Beam is an NFC function that's designed to make it easier to share things between mobile devices. Where you might have once sent details via email, or even used a QR code on the screen, now you can put devices back-to-back to enable sharing via Beam.

We've not had the chance to play with this extensively in the wild, but the examples we've seen in a controlled environment have been pretty exciting. Sharing things like maps is simply a case of pressing the "touch to Beam" message on the screen when in contact with another device.

Taking this a stage further though, it could be used to launch multiplayer games. The clever thing about the demo we've seen is that when the game wasn't installed on the second device, Android Market launched instead, so the game could be downloaded. It's clever stuff, and thanks to Android's open source approach, could find its way into other devices - something we've already seen demoed by Nokia with various accessories.

Verdict

With each generation of a mobile OS, new features emerge. In the case of iOS, these features very often adopt something that was previously being done by an app. For Android, some of these features replace some of the tweaks made by manufacturers.

Having now spent a good couple of hours with Ice Cream Sandwich on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus we can't help feeling that manufacturers like HTC, LG and even Samsung themselves, face more of a challenge to bring their own stamp to Android. They will, we're sure, but so much of Android's core offering now looks very compelling as it is.

But with this pressure should come a great deal of innovation, which is what keeps Android exciting. If anything, Ice Cream Sandwich will make it easier for companies like ZTE and Huawei to release devices that feel sophisticated and complete. 

For users of Gingerbread devices, Ice Cream Sandwich feels like quite a change. For users of Honeycomb tablets it feels like a logical combination and the look and feel will be very familiar.

Ice Cream Sandwich will be appearing on 1 November on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus and from what we've seen so far, it's both an exciting update to Android, and a hugely impressive device. We will, of course, bring you a full Ice Cream Sandwich review when we have he Samsung Galaxy Nexus in the Pocket-lint labs. 

Additional reporting by Stuart Miles