Android 4.0: Ice Cream Sandwich

Android 4.0, Ice Cream Sandwich, is the biggest reworking of Android that we've seen yet. Android users may sound a little crazy, squabbling over incremental updates to their phones, but now they have a reason: Ice Cream Sandwich is different and certainly worth chasing.

Of course not many Android users get the pure experience that you'll find on the Nexus line. There are some manufacturers, mostly SIM free (in the UK) that offer you this, but the vast majority of phones from the likes of HTC, Samsung, Sony Ericsson or LG are all skinned, adding to the foundations that Google lays.

Ice Cream Sandwich draws inspiration from a number of sources and you see this written out across the page as you explore it. In some cases there is a flash of Windows Phone 7, some of the innovation feels like it has come out of the skins of HTC or Sony Ericsson. There may even be a spoon of Apple puree in the mix too.

Some may liken it to Honeycomb because Honeycomb has been around for a while, but in a briefing we had with Hugo Barra, product management director at Android, he revealed that actually some of the distinctive Honeycomb features came out of the ICS development process.

The comparison is a valid one, many of the common interactions you'll have with ICS look, and feel, like they do on Honeycomb. Sophisticated, futuristic and in some cases funky. Ice Cream Sandwich pushes Android forward, but it still feels and behaves like the mobile phone operating system that we all know. It's familiar, but it's different enough to be exciting.

Start up, sign in, Google out

The start-up process is probably familiar to Android users by now and not much has changed in practical terms for Ice Cream Sandwich, but it does all look neater than ever before. The use of colours helps as previously sign-in was predominantly a green and black affair, it's now lighter and more colourful, but covers the essential bases.

It walks you through connections and account sign-in, so you'll be ready to roll with your Google account in no time. It takes less than five minutes, we'd say, and you'll then have your phone filling with content. If you are a user of Google services then Android really does offer the most seamless integration, without compromise, hooking up your Gmail, contacts, calendars and all the rest.

If you've backed up your device with Google in the past, you'll find that a lot of your content is restored, so apps will fall back into place, although this depends what device you had before and what accounts you used.

Home is where the shortcuts are

The thing that defines Android is often the arrangement of home screens, fully customisable, with widgets and shortcuts as, and where, you want them. Essentially that hasn’t changed, and you still get that same look, albeit refined.

The home screens are limited to five, but we think it’s a shame you can't remove some of them. A long press on the background now only changes the wallpaper with the same options as before.

Beyond that, you can add app shortcuts in the same way as you could in Gingerbread, by opening the app tray and pressing and holding the app icon until you return to the home screen when you can dump it where you like. If you want to add a contact, you have to do this via the widgets section, which now occupies a tab in the app tray.

The app tray is opened via the central icons, featuring six dots, flanked by four shortcuts that you can change to your liking, collectively this area is known as the favourites tray. You swipe through apps left and right on pages rather than scroll. We rather like the graphical way the next page pops-up from behind the one you've swiped off to the left. Strangely, once you've finished swiping though the apps you then go into the widgets. There is also a Market icon, always in the top right-hand corner, within easy reach when you want it.

The selection of widgets is pretty much as it was before, but they can now be resized - as they can in Honeycomb - so if you want a larger look at your calendar, so be it. Developers will have to enable resizing in their apps to get the full benefit.

Folders have had an update too, so you can now create them by dragging one app onto another, exactly the same way as you do in iOS. The folders look nicer though and you can name them as you see fit. You can rearrange apps in folders, the lead app is the first image you see, a useful reminder of what the folder contains for quick navigation.

I must have control

The biggest change in naked Ice Cream Sandwich is the move to three main controls across the bottom of the display in the System Bar. On the Samsung Galaxy Nexus these are on-screen and you get back, home and recent apps. ICS will support hardware buttons, but we're yet to see exactly how the common existing arrangement including a menu button will be integrated, we suspect the menu button will simply open the menu when it is available within apps.

The first two controls are self explanatory, but the third is new to phones and replaces the dubious long press on the home button which was the previous route to quick app switching. Now you press that recent apps buttons, and a thumbnail of all your recent apps opens which you can scroll up and down.

We've seen it on Honeycomb and it's neat enough, meaning you can easily switch from Maps to the Browser within a few presses. If there is something in the recent apps that you don't want you can swipe it off to the right, and it vanishes. It's worth noting, however, that not everything in your recent apps is running, it isn't a list of what is live. Getting used to recent apps is probably the biggest change for Android users and it is easy to forget about it, especially as pressing the home button and a shortcut pretty much gets you there anyway.

There is no function assigned to long presses on these soft buttons and some might argue that a long press on home could be a better way to see recent apps than a dedicated. With search lacking a button, you’ll see search boxes and icons appear all over – this is Google, after all - and you have to select the box or the search icon in the action bar to get going.

The home pages all have a search box at the top. This is a universal search (for text entry) with the option to customise what is searched. Results are delivered in real time as you type, from internet search suggestions, to music, contacts, the contents of Dropbox, Twitter or whatever else you've added to your search list. It's a powerful tool, although finding a way to integrate Gmail and Calendar searching here as well would appeal to us.

Voice search now delivers real time results, although only offers results for online searches, not local. It is fast and accurate, but not quite the same service as Siri.

Locked up

From the lock screen you now get a couple of neat options, the most talked about is face unlock. You are warned that it isn't designed as a top security measure, but more fun. Basically when you engage it, it scans your face and the next time you lift the phone up, it recognises you and unlocks it.

Behind this you'll need an extra level of security, so that if it can't see you, or doesn't recognise you, you'll use a normal security option, such as a PIN or pattern. Does face unlock work? Yes, it does, but we're pretty sure that within the first few hours of owning an ICS device you'll turn it off again. It won't recognise you in low light, when you are silhouetted and it didn't know who we were when cunningly disguised with a pair of sunglasses. As such it slowly moves from a fun feature into a two-stage unlock process: fail to get recognised, draw pattern, use phone.

If you choose to stick with a simple swipe unlock there’s a new option to unlock straight to camera. It's something that Android skins have added to the platform over the past year. It's convenient here, but certainly one of the things that won't ever be seen in this form by the likes of HTC Sense users, as HTC's lock screen options are already much more advanced than this, and will offer four direct unlocking actions, including camera, already.

Where is my menu?

A lot of Android interaction used to take place through that menu button. It was, for example, a fast route to the settings menu. Android users know that settings are something to be constantly fiddled with, so fast access to it is really handy. There is now a device settings shortcut permanently ensconced within the dropdown notification bar though, which changes things a bit.

The advantage this has over the previous menu>settings avenue is that you can go directly to the settings from anywhere you can access notifications, be that when browsing, using Twitter or whatever. You also know this is going to take you to the device configuration, rather than the options for the app you’re using.

But then the same question arises. How do I access app menu options when there is no menu button? This too has been moved on-screen and is represented by three dots, incorporated into the app controls, called the overflow menu. The overflow menu appears in every app that has options that don't all fit into the Action Bar, although it isn't entirely consistent. The Action Bar is sometimes at the top, sometimes at the bottom so the overflow menu moves around with it. In some apps, however, we've also seen the overflow menu drop into the System Bar, such as the Kindle app and ESPN Goals, for apps that have a graphical menu rather than one that's text based.

Putting it alongside the device controls effectively means you then have a menu button back again and is basically what Honeycomb does when an app hasn't been optimised for that platform. We can see that Google wants apps to be organised in a particular way, but currently this inconsistency is something that Apple users will probably point at and question.

Notifications

Notifications have long been a strong point for Android, only recently equalled, or perhaps bettered, by iOS 5. Notifications still reside in the dropdown bar at the top of the page and accessible a lot of the time by swiping down from the top of the screen.

In some areas, you can't access notifications, like in games, the Kindle app, in the camera or playing a video for example, but otherwise you can from things like the browser, during a messaging session or in Facebook. However, one new addition is access to the notifications from the lock screen, assuming you have no security in place. You can now just poke your device standby button and swipe the screen down to see what alerts you have. You can then touch them to go straight to them, or swipe to eliminate them.

Swiping things away is one of the running themes in Ice Cream Sandwich. We've already seen it in the recent apps and it appears here too. So, if you don't want that pesky voicemail notification you can get rid of it, but keep the message alerts.

Putting this in context, the notifications bar behaves a little like it does in iOS 5. In Ice Cream Sandwich the notifications bar offers notifications and app functions that have been incorporated, like music controls. No doubt skins will add connectivity toggles in the near future too.

Gmail, Maps, Calendar

Of course being Android you'll find that Google apps the focus, and some have had a face-lift. Because Android handles apps in different ways and updates them independently, you'll find that some, like Google Maps, is pretty much the same as it is elsewhere in terms of function, but as we've already alluded to, in-app control is slightly different.

The biggest change is moving controls out of menus and onto the action bar, either at the top or bottom. Of course in this arrangement, controls at the bottom are lost when the keyboard appears, so you'll find controls moving from bottom to top, in some cases, depending on what you are doing. With Gmail, this means your main controls run across the bottom of the app, like compose, which previously took a press of the menu button to access.

In Gmail the reading window is now differently arranged and you can swipe left or right to move through your list of emails, where previously you had a couple of big buttons at the bottom. But we're not so keen on the layout with attachments being presented at the top, especially if you receive a lot of corporate emails where images are used to make up signature blocks. You might find a lot of this garbage sitting at the top of your email, creating the need for you to scroll to get to the meat of the email.

You can change the size of the font used, but you still can't zoom, like you can on the iPhone, which is a bit of a pain at times. Ironically, the "welcome to your Galaxy Nexus email" was a perfect example of images and text not really working together on Ice Cream Sandwich on a phone. On a tablet, the additional space would improve presentation of embedded images.

Calendars have been tided up and now feel a little more purposeful, but then we always liked Google's calendar anyway. Controls range across and a dropdown menu changes the view between the usual day, week, month, agenda. The menu then offers searching and options to tweak which calendars are displayed, amongst other functions. Importantly, address details can be searched in Google Maps, but when it comes to creating a new event you only get the date in the pop-up box, not the day, which is hugely annoying.

We also found that Gmail wasn't entirely stable, returning us to the home screen when we were trying to dash between messages, but we've yet to find an OS of any description that doesn't occasionally confuse itself.

People and Google+

One of the interesting changes is the way that people are now more important. This isn't exactly a new idea, as HTC and Motorola have been pushing this angle for a couple of years. This means that Contacts as an independent app is dead and something called “People” now lives. This integrates into Gmail and calendar addressing using a "card" with avatar (see the pictures below) for each person, rather than a straight email address or name, so it's easier to touch and swap email addresses for contacts.

People doesn't feel very Android-like, and is rather more, well, Windows Phone 7. It’s divided into three main tabs covering groups, "contacts", which is the most conventional list view and finally the starred, or favourites, view. You get various degrees of control over each section, with the central contacts list being the one you'd probably use the most to hunt out those less frequent contacts.

Groups integrates Google+ into it, with your Circles breaking down, so you can browse at will. You'll be able to open Google+ "friends" with nice big thumbnails and then link though to the Google+ app to see their updates. Otherwise, groups from your Google contacts will appear here and you can create new groups from the device. If you don't use groups in your Google contacts, or Google+, it soon becomes redundant. We can see, however, that groups could potentially be more functional with integration of all your social networks, not just Google's own.

The central contacts path is very much like the more traditional system, with options to choose which contacts are displayed, including straight contacts accounts, or other integrated social accounts, such as Twitter, Skype and of course Google+ and Google Talk. Facebook doesn't get a look-in, and although it appears in the "add account" options in the settings, it won't actually let you.

Initially we found that Ice Cream Sandwich hadn't linked all people with social accounts we signed in to: some were linked, some weren't and we couldn't determine exactly why. There is an option to manually "join" or link these accounts together in the "edit contact" option. At these times we miss HTC Sense's linked contacts suggestions, which pulls everything together for you.

Images are collected from various sources, and we found that Google+ became the default when contacts were joined together. That's not such a bad thing because the people system will update images from Google+ with a higher resolution image when you open a contact. Other image sources tend to be low resolution, and look poor when you open them up. We've criticised Sony Ericsson's Timescape and Motorola's MotoBlur in the past for offering pixelated low res images and it really takes the shine off things when your partner is a smear of colours rather than the crisp beautiful vision of perfection (s)he should be. You can manually change contact's images if you want to.

The reason we likened people to Windows Phone 7 is that you get to left/right swipe in a contact to reveal their updates, using the "over the page" teaser where you see some information to tempt you. So from a contact, swipe right and you'll see what they've updated in full. Google+ integrates the best, hitting an update will take you through to the G+ app, whereas Twitter updates are static text only.

The final “favourites” section we have no issue with, as it’s helpful to be able to find close friends, family or co-workers in one simple place like this. We also like the way the OS automatically makes you a "frequently contacted" list, for those people that you don’t like enough to star, but speak to often. Overall we get the feeling that people will be reworked more interactively by other Android developers. Google's approach is great for its services but third party social networks are neglected.

Browser

The browser has been redesigned and now supports up to 16 tabs at a time. The address bar sits at the top with an icon for tabs. The icon in isolation is pretty meaningless, but the angled end mirrors the design of tabs of the browser in Honeycomb. Touch this button and you jump out to a thumbnail view where you can scroll up and down your open tabs, and again swipe off to the right those you want to close. In this view you can also open more tabs or access your bookmarks.

You can set the opening page to be anything you want, including "most visited" and assigning bookmarks is all very easy, as well as adding these bookmarks to your home pages. Bookmarks can sync with Chrome on your PC, through your Google accounts, with the option to hide these if you don't want them. You get three tabs in the bookmarks section, giving you access to your history and saved pages.

Saved pages is a new feature which lets you highlight pages you want to read later, perhaps when offline, or to save mobile data. It saves all the images, but all the links will be dead. An option in the menu will then let you "go live" to carry on browsing.

Sitting in the browser menu are another couple of cool options. You get a "request desktop site" which is a very welcome feature, so you can bypass mobile pages, something that was sorely missing from Honeycomb as tablets don't need to use mobile sites. You also get Incognito, so if you need to go off-radar, the option is there.

Obviously there are some day-one omissions: there is no current support for Adobe Flash, so some sites won't cough-up their video. Although we understand that Ice Cream Sandwich is brand new and Adobe needs to make a new version of the software to cater for this new OS, we're still disappointed. We also found some formatting issues with text column resizing, sometimes the text was forced into a narrower column than necessary.

Otherwise, the browser is nice and smooth, with fast double-tap zooming as well as pinch-to-zoom. There are also some experimental “Labs” features, like the thumb controls.

Keyboard

The keyboard has been redesigned slightly and we like its uncluttered finish. Long presses on the top line bring up numbers. To the left of the large spacebar is a contextual key, sometimes this will be @ for addresses, in the text boxes it will give you voice dictation. Again, this is real time and fairly fast, but you do need to speak clearly or you’ll end up with gibberish. To the right of the spacebar is the punctuation button, but you have to use the press, hold and slide technique to select the character you want, otherwise it just gives you a comma.

The keyboard is fast and accurate for typing and the settings menu gives you control over correction and suggestions. We also like the fact you can control the degree of haptic feedback, although we think this will probably be specific to the Galaxy Nexus and not all Android 4.0 devices.

Copy, cut and paste all work as you'd expect, with markers appearing so you can easily select the word range. The same markers also appear when you go to edit a body of text and it's now easier to get the cursor where you want it.

Gallery and Camera

The Gallery is still the place to go for all your pictures and videos, although there is the additional video app, which compiles local and rented content that you pay for through Android Market.

Gallery presents all your folders, including any Picasa albums and your G+ instant upload folder. We prefer the presentation of the gallery now, the previous dirty background version never looked any good. Now it's more jam-packed with your photos and video, with the option to sort by albums, tags, times, people or locations.

You also get instant access to the camera from the top album view, but this option changes to instant slideshow when you open an album. Open any image and you get options for sharing. Here is one of Ice Cream Sandwich's clever features: a sharing icon is now present in the action bar, alongside the usual sharing icon. This icon is Google+ by default, but it's a dynamic sharing list and icon, so if you only ever share to Facebook, it will change to Facebook, which is very handy.

The camera interface of naked, unskinned Android has always been rather basic. We're still not totally sold on the implementation here either. All the controls sit over to the right. The capture button is central, with a preview thumbnail at the top and the function switcher at the bottom (video, stills, panoramic). Then there is a second bar to the left which offers zooming, switching to the front camera and the rest of the settings.

Also included are effects, although they can’t be used in stills mode, in video you get a whole selection. They include silly faces and background and elsewhere you get time lapse.

We have to say it's all a bit odd. Silly faces picks a feature and distorts part of your face, be it your eyes, nose or mouth and backgrounds will try to change the background to disco, or a space scene (with little Android included).

Novelty value aside, it is clever that it can track your facial features, but we doubt we'll ever use these effects. We strung together the clips here using the Movie Studio app, which only took about 2 minutes.

And the rest

Ice Cream Sandwich does away with the need to "mount" memory any more, so on connecting your device you'll get the same live access as you do with Honeycomb. This means you'll be able to add files whilst listening to music, for example.

The music player now picks up the same design a Honeycomb, something we've previewed before. If you have access to Google Music then you simply have to select the account for it and you'll then have access to that music, which is incredibly simple. It has been reported that there is a bug in ICS that sees the volume changing of its own accord. We haven't experienced, or been able to replicate this bug.

Music controls find their way onto both the lock screen and the notifications bar, so control is never far away. There is an in-built equaliser giving you the option of tailoring the sound to your liking, with bass boost and 3D effect options. These don't work with video player though.

There’s a new screenshot function, accessed by pressing volume down and the standby button, which is useful for all those wanting to share nice crisp visuals of their Android phone. iPhone users have been doing this for years, and it's surprisingly useful. The dialler contains three tabs, one is the straight dialler, the second a call history and the third access to your favourites. You also get options to search for contacts from the dialler, although if you just start dialling a number it won't bring up suggested from your contacts.

Android 4.0 also supports NFC, although naturally this is hardware dependant and you'll need two devices, both suitably equipped to do so. Android beam essentially just sits and waits to be fired-up and can be disabled if you think you'll never use the function. If you do want to use it, you simply bring two devices together, back to back, and you'll be able to share via this route. We've not had multiple devices to test this out to any great extent, but we predict that come the next release of Android devices in February, Android beam will become and more established sharing option for Android users.

Ice Cream Sandwich also brings in a new data usage function. This doesn't just track the amount of data you use, but lets you set limits. You can view mobile and Wi-Fi data separately in tabs, dragging sliders to define the data usage cycle, as well as setting the reset date, i.e., the date your contract renews your data allowance.

 

You can set a maximum limit, as well as a warning level, so you can have mobile data turn off when you hit your limit. Scrolling down the page reveals what is eating your mobile data, whether it's use was foreground or background, with the option to disable background data for that individual app. You can also access app settings, so, for example, clicking on Music takes you through to the settings so you can tick that "Wi-Fi only" option.  

Verdict

We've looked in some detail at some of the new features in Android 4.0. In some cases there are few changes, but the message is clear. Ice Cream Sandwich is a matured version of Android, stepping forward from Gingerbread. We love the look and feel of things and feel more than ever that Google's OS offers more than enough functionality in it's own right. It's a more sociable OS than previously and it's more efficient with space, so everyday tasks are faster.

Of course there are areas that manufacturers will improve. Some of the minor points we've raised can be tweaked, additional functionality will be added to the notifications or the lock screen. The camera interface can be bettered and as always there is expanded scope for media format support. There is no out-of-the-box support for DNLA either.

This is early days for Ice Cream Sandwich and as such there will be apps that don't work. We saw the same with Honeycomb and so the attention turns to developers to upgrade their offering. Our favourite streaming app Skifta doesn't work, TV catchup services from ITV and BBC don't either. And, the lack of Flash support is another problem, but we're sure they'll all be ironed out soon enough.

As a package, Ice Cream Sandwich is stable. We've had a few minor problems (not including the reported volume bug), but we've had the normal run of apps quitting occasionally (such as Gmail) or functions not working, for example panorama, until we restart the phone. We expect some of these things: Google tend to push out software and then fix problems and most people won't be getting Ice Cream Sandwich for some time.

As a mobile OS, Ice Cream Sandwich really is worth getting excited about. And, although iOS still trumps Android in terms of consistency and simplicity, but we feel ICS looks more technologically sophisticated, and the diversity is exciting.



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