Google has whetted our appetites by announcing the new version of its Android operating system, Ice Cream Sandwich.
The new operating system, also known as Android 4.0, was unveiled at a joint event with Samsung in Hong Kong. Samsung was there to reveal its new phone, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, which will run Ice Cream Sandwich. While the phone design and specifications are interesting, pushing the phone at the same time as the new operating system felt more like a marketing scheme than a true announcement. Or maybe Google just needed a phone to showcase its new redesigned OS.
And what an OS it looks! At the event, Google said it went and looked at everything that made up its OS and decided what needed to be changed. That looks like it might have been almost everything, as you can see from this overview demoed on the Galaxy Nexus:
A new look for the Android user interface
First up, Google announced that it’s changing the typeface on the device. It’s designed a new typeface called Roboto that corresponds with new high definition and density displays. The second change was the Home screen UI. Ice Cream Sandwich removes physical buttons and adds them to the interface.
Some of the Home screen takes cues from Honeycomb, but adds newly-designed resizeable widgets which now appear in with other applications. Folders are more customizable: they can be used to create speed dial contacts and other content on the device. Users can also customize the bottom favorites tray with different folders.
A missing piece in the Android puzzle has always been screenshots, but Ice Cream Sandwich finally adds native ability by holding the power and volume down buttons simultaneously.
Notifications, a big part of Android, are more intuitive and now feature music controls. One of the biggest user changes, however, is that everything is just easier. Closing apps is as simple as flicking them, rather than using a third party task manager or diving through settings.
Google also showed new texting options, like adding to the dictionary, cut/copy/paste, and even an interesting dragging method where users can drag visible text to new parts of the conversation. Ice Cream Sandwich also adds a smarter talk to type which is recognized and presented in real time. Google also (unsuccessfully!) showed off a new face unlock option, where facial recognition is used to unlock your phone.
Changes to native apps
The second half of today’s presentation was to preview the changes of the core Android apps.
The browser supports up to sixteen tabs and uses flick gestures to close them. Sites use mobile-optimized versions by default, but the option to request the desktop version is also available. Bookmarks are live synced with a user’s Google Chrome. The browser also supports saving entire web pages for offline viewing.
For Gmail, Google has added a two-line preview and inside the app there’s a one-click access action bar that collates information based on the most used associated actions and changes. Addresses have been changed from names to “chips” that contain the name and a picture of the person. Google also announced that they added offline searching with a default set at thirty days, but that this is user-customizable.
The Calendar received smaller updates with the aggregation of information being easier to read and pinch to zoom support to show more information about a specific event.
Google announced again that it updated all core apps in Ice Cream Sandwich while revealing that Google+ was now a native app in the new OS.
One part of 4.0 that Google made a point to note was that it was important for users to understand data usage. Now with Ice Cream Sandwich, users can find direct details on their data network usage – by default there’s a viewable chart. Users can set warnings or even specify a data cut-off point, critically important for tiered data plans. It’s also possible to drill down and find time ranges when specific apps were using a lot of data, specify the amount of data an app can use or even block the data connection entirely.
The next app was the Camera. The camera app is now featured next to the lock icon when the phone is locked. It also adds a developer API which will enable direct sharing on any supported social network. A photo editor was added with abilities like touch-up, filters, and angle changing. Google also demoed the new Panorama feature, which captures the image in real-time as opposed to taking multiple images. After finishing, the app combines the images into one high resolution image. Google+ also added an instant upload option.
Gallery on Android has always been a little plain, but with 4.0 it gains a magazine-style layout and allows for geo-tags or people-specific tagging.
The video function update announced was continuous focus, zooming while recording, video snapshots, and time lapse options.
Google has evolved the Contacts app into the People app. Favorite contacts are given the magazine style UI and more information shows different linked networks. Updates are aggregated on the person’s contact info page.
The Phone app allows for visual voice mail in the call log and the ability to speed up or slow down messages. When responding to calls, 4.0 give the option to respond by text. Some of the texts are common responses, but users also have the ability to create custom responses.
Ice Cream Sandwich is leading the charge with new ways to use NFC with Android Beam. With 4.0 and Android Beam, users can share any content through the phone. The demo showed was a website, Google Maps location, and a running game. By touching the backs of the phone and touching the screen on the device with the content, it’s instantly shared on the other device. When it involves an app that one user doesn’t have, it guides them to the Android Market.
Getting a bite of the sandwich
Google’s presentation of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich showed off a lot of interesting new features for mobile devices. While only the Samsung Galaxy Nexus supports it, the potential for the new OS is wide open. Even the apps that were updated are showing major growth and evolution in their usage.
It does look like Google can fix lingering issues with 4.0, but the rollout of the OS and the ability to install it on older devices looks grim. As many users are still stuck with Android 2.2, the paired announcement of the new phone and the new OS is like a call to buy new, much like Apple’s iPhone 4S reveal.