Google’s latest version of the Android operating system is known as Jelly Bean, where the version number stands at 4.1. This is the latest version that will be built on top of Ice Cream Sandwich, and was first introduced officially to the masses when Google I/O kicked off. Basically, Android 4.1 Jelly Bean delivered a faster and more fluid user interface, a voice search experience that many would say pummels Apple’s Siri (to each his or her own), as well as improved search capability.
The SDK is already available since last week as a developer preview from developer.android.com. Android 4.1 Jelly Bean will arrive in mid-July onwards on select devices.
Android Platform Development Kit (PDK) is meant for hardware developers and it will be available to Android device partners 2 to 3 months before the release date of future Android versions. A beta version of the Jelly Bean PDK has already been made available to everyone on an ongoing basis.
Editor’s note: We already published this list of new features as part of our Nexus 7 review, but we thought that it would be useful to have it as a stand alone article.
This can be best described as Google’s latest attempt to tackle the thorn that has been in the flesh of the Android operating system for the longest time already, that is the responsiveness of the user interface which remains inconsistent across the myriad of Android-powered devices. While Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich has certainly made huge leaps in this aspect, it still lags when compared to iOS and Windows Phone platforms that have consistently smoother interfaces. One Achilles Heel about Android phones would be this – a clean Android smartphone starts off by running fast and smoothly, but over time, it will get bogged down by numerous tasks and notifications, resulting in choppy interface display as well as lag.
In order to overcome this niggling issue, Google has decided to fall upon frequently utilized techniques including VSync (vertical sync) and Triple Buffering. To put it in simple terms, VSync is able to synchronize whatever changes you make by refreshing the LCD screen. VSync is said to be a fundamental piece in the jigsaw, especially when screen-related work is concerned. Heck, we think that this should not even be listed as a feature, but should be made mandatory for any device with a display if decent visual performance is the minimum benchmark one is looking for.
As for Triple Buffering that sound Greek to some, this is basically an extension of its “predecessor” which is unimaginatively called Double Buffering technique. The premise is this – what you see on your display is part of what has been stored in the computer memory known as the “front buffer”. Each time there is a change, the graphics hardware will draw all the pixels. Users do not want to see what is going on in the background, so what is presented would be the new image when the entire gamut of pixels have been drawn. In order for this to happen, the new display will come with a “back buffer”, where it remains pretty much in the background until its “services” are required. In the ideal world, that would translate to once every 1/60th of a second, where the back buffer and front buffer are then reversed.
There might be instances when a process interrupts or slows down the composition of the “back buffer”, and when that happens, the display is unable to call upon the “back buffer” for the next display refresh cycle, resulting in a visual lag. Here’s a great idea to over come this – how about adding yet another tier of buffering just to be safe? This is where Triple Buffering comes in handy, ensuring there is always a layer of buffer ready whenever the display refreshes for a far smoother user interface experience. I wonder whether the day will come for Quad Buffering, but we will cross the Rubicon when that happens.
Google also touched on (pardon the pun) Touch Responsiveness. Basically, in the real world, we touch physical objects all the time, gaining an immediate response of sensation. Google wants the same concept to apply to a touchscreen display, and Android is not the best example to tout, as iOS and Windows Phone platforms are superior in this aspect. Well, a faster response time can only mean one thing – greater firepower is required underneath the hood, and Google’s Jelly Bean-powered Nexus 7 tablet sports NVIDIA’s Tegra 3 which will work in tandem with software improvements so that the touch display latency is reduced, resulting in a faster response time.
We no longer ahve the Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich powered Galaxy Nexus as it has been sent back, so there is no way for us to test Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich against Android 4.1 Jelly Bean. However, through our time spent with the Nexus 7 tablet, we found the interface and user experience to be extremely fast, responsive and fluid, which is definitely a pleasant surprise.
Widgets get automatic resizing
At the Google I/O Conference, we also managed to see how widgets are now able to resize automatically whenever they are shifted over to a different home screen with far less real estate to work with. Not only that, the rest of the icons are courteous enough to make way for the new widge. When we tested out this particular feature, it worked without a cinch, and when you think about it further, automatic resizing for widgets is an extremely practical feature to have, while it also increases the overall fluidity of the user experience.
No, Android 4.1 Jelly Bean will not have a keyboard that types itself based on your thoughts alone, but at least Google has announced an improvement in the predictive keyboard capability. We did make the new Jelly Bean predictive keyboard go through the paces, and after comparing it with the one found in Ice Cream Sandwich, we concluded that the difference was negligible at best. At least the keyboard’s force feedback has a very comfortable feel to it, and it does not lose points in terms of responsiveness, either.
So, you are a huge fan of Apple’s Siri voice assistant, are you? Perhaps when you check out Google’s Voice Typing, you might not want to return to Siri any more. This is one of the hot ticket items from the Jelly Bean announcement, where you no longer need to rely on an active data connection in order for your smartphone to work, as everything is processed locally on your smartphone. No longer does your Android-powered smartphone need to send the spoken phrase to a server, have the server interpret it and return the response to your handset. While speaking to your phone is more often than not faster than typing, the previous versions of Voice Typing required an active data connection – not to mention the accompanying “lag” due to the server working hard on a response.
Voice Typing has the same idea in mind, although it has decided to do everything locally. This means you can even use Voice Typing when roaming, as no active data connection is required, and you need not receive a bill shock at the end of the month. The amount of lag time has also been reduced, so you should receive a faster response as well – resulting in an increase of productivity. Definitely those in the higher ups would love to see more of their Android-toting workers be more efficient with Voice Typing.
As mentioned earlier, Google’s voice recognition has been deemed by some parties to work better compared to Apple’s Siri (which rides on Dragon Dictate technology). After all, Google’s Voice Typing is able to capture nuances and details such as punctuation, and has the smarts to recognize far longer phrases during the dictation process. Non-native English speakers who have their own accents will not have too much trouble with Voice Typing’s voice recognition either, which means the best right now has just pushed its neck further ahead of the chasing pack.
New Camera Application
The Nexus 7 lacks a camera at the back, so there was no way for us to give the new navigation between the Gallery and the Camera application a go. The live demonstration at Google I/O did show us the myriad of possibilities, where one can even review captured photos while shooting, straight from the camera application. This is made possible by swiping your finger to the right. In previous versions of Android, you could not do so, as you were required to switch to the Gallery before you are able to go through previous images. Not only that, deleting an image has just gotten far more intuitive and easier – all you need to do is just swipe it away, and it would be deleted. Hopefully there is an option to confirm the deletion process, as you can never quite tell whether an accidental brush to the side might result in your precious photos deleted – for good.
Android Beam enhanced
NFC might be the new buzzword, as is cloud computing, and Google recently announced that the number of NFC-enabled Android-powered devices shipping stands at over a 100 million each week. In order to ride on the crest of this wave, Android 4.1 Jelly Bean will carry a couple more NFC features, and they are the ability to pair the phone with a Bluetooth headset, or to perform an image transfer through the tapping of two devices. We did not get a chance to give either a go, but we will take Google’s word for it.
Notifications see improvement
What good is a smartphone if it is unable to notify you of the latest happenings such as incoming calls, missed calls, text messages and emails sitting in your inbox? It would be worthless then, which is why Android’s already great notification system has received an improvement, allowing you to read your email straight in the notification panel (as seen in the accompanying image) itself without having to launch the Gmail app. The notifications are also able to expand on their own as they bubble to the top. You can also choose to expand or collapse it depending on your preference via a simple 2-finger gesture.
Not only that, you can send an email or make a call directly from the Notifications screen as a response in a given situation, say, when you are running late to a meeting and do not have the time to compose a lengthy reply, using the included commonly used presets. We, too, did not give that a go, but judging by the applause on the showfloor when it was announced at Google I/O, it does seem to have its fair share of fans.
Search gets a new user interface
Google must have taken a page out of Palm’s book by displays search results in “cards”, a concept that was first introduced by Palm with the Palm Pre.
Better Voice Search
As demonstrated on the stage, Voice Search on Android 4.1 Jelly Bean is faster, better, able to understand natural language better, and will relay the answer you are looking for via speech. After all, search is Google’s bread and butter, so you can rest easy knowing that most of the time, the search results would be the most relevant ones.
Another major update in Android 4.1 Jelly Bean would be the introduction of Google Now. As its name implies, Google Now will offer you the information you want, anytime, anywhere you require it – automatically. Automatically? That sounds almost uncanny, as though it were a living operating system. Well, Google intends to achieve this by monitoring your search history, location history and calendar, returning the best and most matching results possible all the time.
Google Now can be accessed via the Google Search app, where you are presented by a clean interface, complete with a preloaded card that tells you the weather of your current location. From here, you are able to run a search within the tablet or through the Internet, taking one of either two routes – through voice or typing.
We managed to test it out by searching through a list of restaurants (you can tell that we are big fans of food, don’t underestimate our voracious appetite even though we aren’t fat!), and were happy with the fast speed and relatively accurate results. Presented with a card that carries the restaurant name and a small map, you can click on the card to be redirected to the Maps application, from where you are able to check out the location in addition to relevant information on the restaurant tucked away into a box (reviews, photos, etc).
We also gave voice search a go, looking up a bunch of high profile politicians, as well as the demo that Google showed on stage by asking, “Who is the Japanese Prime Minister?”. That “investment” of a question was rewarded by a sizeable “return” – the card showed off Yoshihiko Noda’s photo, with the Nexus 7 tablet spoking his name as well. Not all politicians have their own cards, and it seemed rather strange that the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, lacked a card to call her own.
Instead, her results are shown off in a regular Google page. At least the most powerful man in the world, President Barack Obama, has his very own card though. Should you opt to scroll down further, you will be treated to additional results. Clicking on the card will redirect you to his Wikipedia page, although that is not exactly the most infallible source of information online. We do scratch our heads wondering just why some cards are missing, as they were constructed from Wikipedia pages. Through it all, all of our searches that involved voice typing were done in a foreign accent, and Google Voice Search managed to work flawlessly, recognizing each sentence.