Android 4.1: Jelly Bean

Android 4.1, known as Jelly Bean to its friends, isn't the huge step change that its predecessor was. Where Ice Cream Sandwich ushered in button-less controls and a change in look and feel to Android, Jelly Bean is much more of an incremental update.

With that said, and with the numeration putting Jelly Bean at 4.1, it begs the question of whether it deserved a new name at all? Android users complain about the version they have on their device and with Ice Cream Sandwich still very much in the process of rolling out to existing handsets, moving 4.1 to Jelly Bean, surely exacerbates the problem?

Launching a new version, with a new name, gives the sense that everyone is out of date again, or in some cases, two-steps behind. If nothing else, this plays into the hands of those who want to denounce Android, which putting more pressure on manufacturers preparing updates and dealing with customers.

But we're not here to discuss the marketing or PR of Google’s mobile platform, we're here to look at Jelly Bean. If you're coming to Jelly Bean from a Gingerbread device, it's well worth reading our Ice Cream Sandwich review too for context, as we won't cover all the changes from Gingerbread in detail here.

We've been playing with Jelly Bean on both the Nexus 7 and the Galaxy Nexus where there are a few minor differences, with Android accommodating increased screen sizes better than before, with some core apps making better use of space.

Design and UI

The look and feel of Jelly Bean is very much the same as Ice Cream Sandwich. You have three on-screen touch controls across the bottom of the display, first introduced with Honeycomb on the Motorola Xoom. On the Nexus devices, these are on-screen controls, but as we've seen with ICS, we suspect that many manufacturers will use buttons instead.

As it happens, it makes little practical difference, so we'll see a variety of approaches to control. As some of the current generation of ICS devices will likely see an update to Jelly Bean, you can already see the variety of controls that will be on offer.

 

Jelly Bean on the Galaxy Nexus (left), Nexus 7 (right)

From a design point of view, things feel slightly more refined on Jelly Bean, some of the fuss of Ice Cream Sandwich has been stripped away, such as the slashed end to on-screen switches.

There is still some inconsistency across apps and icons, which stands in contrast to the uniformity of Apple's iOS. Android 4.1 opts for a dark background at the OS levels, so settings menus have a dark background. But then in core Google apps, you have a mixture, some are light, some are dark. Some use pop-up boxes to make selections, some use check boxes.

In some cases you’ll find an icon that’s different, like a simple refresh button, so we still have this slight feeling that Android could pull together a little more cohesively. We’re not saying that there’s anything hugely wrong, but there’s space to make it just a little more glorious from a visual point of view.

Project Butter

The comically-named Project Butter was designed to pick up on some of the lag that Android can exhibit and make the touch response more fluid. Long-term Android users will know that adding more power has made a difference, with recent devices being much more fluid in navigation than older ones.

With Android 4.1 being slightly limited in it's current distribution, it's difficult to assess this objectively: the Nexus 7 is very smooth, it makes the Xoom feel really sluggish, but the real test of Project Butter will be how it performs on less powerful devices.

On the Galaxy Nexus the difference Project Butter makes is much more marked. Compared to a high-end device like the SGSIII, the Galaxy Nexus now feels very quick. Project Butter is about bringing OS-wide speed improvements and this can be felt across every aspect of the Nexus handset.

The app tray opens instantly and scrolling is ultra smooth both within apps and outside. Menus and applications also seem to open a lot faster. Although it’s all under the hood, the improvements Project Butter brings make for a much needed and much slicker experience in Android 4.1.

Changes notified

Visually, notifications is one of the biggest changes in Jelly Bean. Google almost got it right with Ice Cream Sandwich and in Jelly Bean they have filled in most of the gaps. Think of the notifications like as stripped down on the surface, but much more flexible should you need them to be.

Notifications are stacked according to relevant applications with the uppermost being expanded. Below that, each individual notification can be expanded using pinch to zoom. It definitely works, but in practice can get a little tight, particularly on the Galaxy Nexus, should you have a lot of notifications pouring in.

 

Notifications also are connected to things like Google Now. Take the weather for example, where updates will pop up in notifications showing you a brief overview of its card. Screenshots and sharing are also hard wired into notifications as are all the usual things like email and messages, Google Music and Google Talk.

A long press a notification will let you control whether or not it will appear in future. On the Galaxy Nexus, the quick launch button for settings sits in virtually the same place it did on ICS. We would have liked to see a few quick links to phone functions, like Wi-Fi or GPS toggle, etc, but these can be controlled by the stock Android control widget don’t forget.

In terms of getting rid of notifications. Swiping them away just like closing recent apps is possible. All in all this is one of the best notifications systems we have seen on a smartphone or tablet. Google has done a great job polishing notifications in Jelly Bean.

Seek and you will find

Google is synonymous with searching, so it’s no surprise to find search heavily integrated with Android. This has always been the case, but with Jelly Bean, Google is making a twist on straight search results with the introduction of Google Now.

Google Now is basically search evolved, and tries to second-guess what you might be coming to look for based on previous searches and contextual factors. It will draw out results, presenting things like weather, sports results or appointment cards.

 

Some might have some concerns about just how much Google is examining your coming and going, presenting your answers before you actually ask for them. The idea is to give you details of things like flight delays before you arrive at the airport, or the best route home, by assimilating what you’re doing into search. The results are very much dependant on what information you have in Google and what searches you make.

For simple things, like searching for a local restaurant, Google searching neatly presents the information in a card, free from clutter, much cleaner than the previous in-line search results.

Getting to search from the lock screen is also instant, as you can swipe up from the bottom to enter search directly, although we suspect that third-party skins will remove this features in favour of a more dynamic customisable shortcut unlock arrangement. The same swipe action also works on home screens, although you’ll also find a persistent search box at the top of the page. Once again, whether these features survive manufacturer tweaks remains to be seen.

Talk that talk to me

Voice has been integrated with Android for a number of iterations and the recent arrival of Apple’s Siri on the iPhone 4S has brought voice control into greater focus on mobile devices. Whether anyone actually uses these features or not is a separate issue, but when you do want to use it, you need to know it works.

Voice previously depended on a data connection, so that your speech could be interpreted on Google’s servers, the results then returned to your device. Android 4.1 now includes offline voice recognition. You’ll have to download the right language file to get it to work, English UK was only 15MB, so it’s no big deal.

The results offline are not quite as good as the online version, but if you want to dictate emails when offline, you certainly can and we’re sure that other third-party apps will be able to take advantage of this.

In straight searching you can also ask questions and be read the answers. It only works for basic things, like asking the definition of a word, time or weather, but it will return regular text results too, so if you’re driving and want to find something without too much tapping on the screen, you can.

Voice on Android 4.1 isn’t quite set-up to challenge Siri, which feels better-suited to application functions and device control, be we can’t fault the quality of recognition on Android, which we’ve found to be very good.

Entertain me

With the Nexus 7 as the Jelly Bean launch device, Google was very keen to push entertainment. Google knows that if it can crack the same nut as Apple, or Amazon on the Kindle, and sell you both the device and the content, then it will be on to a winner.

Google recently repositioned the Android Market to be an all-encompassing content area in Google Play, covering apps, movies, books and music. This is where geography plays a part in the experience and some of the entertainment value of Jelly Bean walks out the door. In the US you get the full offering: a connected music experience, magazines, movies to buy. In the UK (and other territories, we’re guessing) you’ll only get some of what’s on offer.

 

That means you can rent movies from Google Play and download books, but you miss out on the real beauty of the music offering, which is the chance to upload your music to Google’s servers for universal streaming across your Android devices. You can, however, just copy music via USB to your device and then use the app to play it back.

The music and video player are respectable enough, but given the leaning towards streaming (given the lack of external memory slots on current-gen Nexus devices, and lack of HDMI ports) we’re surprised that Android doesn’t offer any network media access at the core level. This is now a common feature on devices from the likes of Sony, HTC, Samsung, but on pure Jelly Bean, you’ll have to turn to an app to get access to media server content, or to share to a DLNA TV, for example.

Of course, entertainment isn’t only limited to what Google will sell you: as with any Android device, you can load your own content on and there are plenty of players that will expand the format support if the device doesn’t natively support your file type of choice. There are also plenty of other entertainment offerings, such as Netflix for movies or Amazon MP3 for music.

One thing to note is that it’s early days for Jelly Bean and some entertainment services, such as BBC iPlayer, aren’t available. Flash support has come to an end, so services dependant on Flash will have to update their offering for Android users. Early adopters might find that Jelly Bean doesn’t offer quite as much in this area as Ice Cream Sandwich, but with an eye on the future, it’s just a question of time.

Chrome and Browser

When it comes to browsers, things get a bit confusing for Jelly Bean. On the Nexus 7, Chrome is the default browser, whereas on the Galaxy Nexus it is included, but the stock Android browser remains in place, receiving a few improvements.

Looking at the new browser on the Galaxy Nexus first, Google says it has worked all sorts of magic with HTML and processor load. What we really care about is that, just like Project Butter, it seems to have sped up the browser no end. This means quicker page loading and a much smoother experience overall.

Stock Android browser on Jelly Bean (Galaxy Nexus)

HTML5 in particular runs a lot better on Jelly Bean, signifying the beginning of that final shift away from the laggy world of Flash. As for Chrome, which comes as standard on the Nexus 7, the browser has now come out of beta and is available for anyone running Ice Cream Sandwich or above.

Chrome is a great browser for Android, with nice handling of tabs and slick animations. It supports more tabs than you could possibly use, when some skinned manufacturer browsers will top out at six or eight. One of the neat tricks is letting you sync open tabs with other devices running Chrome.

You'll have to logged into the same Google account, but then you’ll be able to open up the menu and access “other devices” and open pages from your desktop, tablet or wherever. Chrome isn’t limited to Android 4.1, but as we said, for Nexus 7 owners, this will be your stock browser.

With both browsers appearing on the Galaxy Nexus, we have a suspicion that Google will keep the stock Android browser in Jelly Bean, which will be modified by the likes of Samsung and HTC with updates to their devices, and continue to offer Chrome as a standalone browser app, as it currently is.

Snap happy

The Nexus 7 doesn’t come with a camera app, so don’t expect to see any of these changes there. On the Galaxy Nexus, however, you get access to Jelly Bean’s new camera application. Again it’s an improvement, paired with the Galaxy Nexus’s rather poor camera, which is a shame.

The viewfinder for the camera acts not only as a way to take pictures but also as a means to swap back and forth between the gallery. It works well enough and provides a quick way of checking on snaps, although we don’t really see why the change from ICS’s photo image in the bottom right corner was necessary.

The camera app, like everything else in Jelly Bean, is all about offering a slicker experience. New animations and a better looking gallery with a decent pinch to zoom and filmstrip which lets you see all your snaps, make for a much better shooting experience. Oh and taking a photo is still as instantaneous as it was with Ice Cream Sandwich.

It’s definitely as good as a lot of the camera apps manufacturers included in their Android handsets, but as we all know, with the camera being top of the hit list for new phones, there’s a chance you’ll never see what Google has done in Android 4.1.

Keyboard

The keyboard in Jelly Bean is all about adding yet more language functionality. Included is the ability to do things like swap languages instantly thanks to a dedicated language select button. Custom keyboard inputs are also there for those who need them.

 

While we haven’t had months with the keyboard in Jelly Bean, it is apparently adapting and learning all the time. This we definitely noticed after a few days of texting when it started getting more and more word predictions right. On the Galaxy Nexus it is also extremely responsive and one of the best typing experiences we have had with a smarpthone.

The same applies on the Nexus 7 and in this case, we found it worked nicely on a 7-inch device, so for once we weren’t scurrying offer to Google Play to download an alternative keyboard. It’s fast, and that’s the lasting impression it leaves.

Hard core app updates

One things that stands Android aside from platforms like Apple’s iOS, is that Google has broken out a number of core apps from the OS, so updates roll out across the platform. By core apps we mean those central to the Google experience - Gmail, Google Maps - for example.

Updates to Gmail see a better experience for, surprise surprise, those on a 7-inch tablet. It's a much nicer experience than on older versions of Android. Things like being able to swipe from message to message and having contact cards, rather than just names or dirty email addresses, makes everything look more refined.

Google Maps is always receiving updates, resulting in a detailed and smooth mapping experience. One of our favourite features has also jumped out of beta, or the experimental side of things, so you can now download maps and cache them. This will save you mobile data and makes for faster mapping in our experience. As we said, this is a development that isn’t exclusive to Jelly Bean users.

A core Android app is the People app. This is one of the first things that manufacturers tweak on devices (HTC Sense, for example), but the stock Android version is pretty good. Jelly Bean adds support for higher resolution images, so things now look nicer.

Again, it’s beautifully smooth to navigate, both on the Galaxy Nexus and Nexus 7, with the latter device getting an optimised layout to make better use of the space on offer. There are little tweaks throughout People, like the ability to clear the frequently contacted list, so if you’re calling someone you shouldn’t, this Android has your back.

All in all, the core app offering on Jelly Bean feels much slicker than previous version of Android. There is still some inconsistency visually, perhaps losing some of the edge to iOS, but we can’t question the performance of these critical daily-use apps.

Verdict

We’ve covered most of the major feature changes that have rolled out with Android 4.1 Jelly Bean. The takeaway message is that things feel much smoother across Android’s operating system in its raw form. The Galaxy Nexus is much improved; the Nexus 7 is a beautiful experience.

The changes that Jelly Bean has brought in makes other devices look a little sluggish. The Motorola Xoom, running Ice Cream Sandwich feels very slow by comparison. Sure, the Nexus 7 has new, more powerful hardware, but that experience doesn’t hold true on phones. Putting the Galaxy Nexus alongside the Samsung Galaxy S III, we can’t help feeling that the Galaxy Nexus is faster in many areas.

We’ve been saying for some time that hardware helps, but that it was operating system refinement that would really make a difference and in Jelly Bean it feels like that has happened. Whether that survives once it’s layered under customisation, we can’t say.

This new OS update doesn’t bring a whole load of changes to Android - and some, like accessibility, Beam enhancement, or blink detection on face unlock - we haven’t mentioned. But it does take Android an important step forward, into being a more refined experience for the user.

Android 4.1 Jelly Bean is slick, it’s fast, and although you might not have Ice Cream Sandwich yet, you need to keep your eyes out for that sweet JB hit.

Additional reporting by Chris Hall.