Although the big Google Android NYC event got cancelled because of hurricane Sandy, we have been able to catch up with the Android team at home in San Francisco and get a hands-on demonstration of the Google Nexus 4 by LG. The Nexus 4 name comes from the 4.7 inches screen of the handset. In terms of hardware, it is very comparable to the recent LG Optimus G which was launched in Korea last month, and in the USA shortly after that (read our full review of the LG Optimus G).
The Google Nexus 4 uses a different industrial design, which is inspired from the Optimus G, but with the design language of the Nexus series (round corners, completely clean and unbranded front). Inside, you will find the same Snapdragon Pro quad-core chip from Qualcomm, but Google opted for a unique HSPA+ penta-band radio that works worldwide (yes even on T-Mobile USA), instead of several variants of modem to support LTE worldwide. Finally, the price of $329 should make a lot of people happy – this is just about half the price of unlocked phones.
We will work on a full review of the Nexus 4, but for now, let’s look at these new Android 4.2 features.
The New lock screen can now run widgets. This makes complete sense and we have been waiting for programmable lock screens for a while. Google has implemented it in a cool way: it uses the same home screen widgets, so you can really customize this right away – it is compatible with all the existing Android home screen widgets. While the phone is locked, you can scroll left and right to see more widgets, but you cannot open items like emails and calendar, which require your password.
Android 4.2 supports Wireless Display via MiraCast, a WiFi-based protocol that Google is backing. The idea is simple: none of the previous wireless standards have been able to become a de-facto standard, and Google would like to promote MiraCast in Android so that we can finally get wireless displays going. LG will be among the first display manufacturer to announce MiraCast support in their HDTVs. For older televisions, there is a MiraCast to HDMI adapter that receives the MiraCast stream and converts it into HDMI signal.
The notifications panel has been updated to allow for a quick access to either the notifications, or the settings. This is done by using a one-finger swipe (shows notifications), or a two-finger swipe (shows settings). I use the settings quite a bit, so this is important to me.
The visual accessibility has been improved by a quick magnification option. To quickly zoom and pan, you can triple-tap and hold/drag. Upon release, the screen returns to the normal zoom level. A triple-tap without holding leaves the screen zoomed in until the context changes.
As you may know, we always review the smartphone keyboards because text entry is so critical to the user experience. In Android 4.2, Google has introduced gesture typing, a feature in which you swipe your finger from one letter to the other to form words. It is similar to apps like SWYPE, but it seems faster and better integrated. As you swipe, Android displays its “best guess” as to what you’re trying to type. If the suggestion is correct, just release the swipe and the complete word and a space will be added to the current text. It’s neat. The current word suggestion follows the finger as you swipe to stay close to the finger that your eyes are tracking. The gestures are completely integrated in the regular keyboard, and surprise – it’s possible to swipe with TWO finger at once. “Making both keyboard modes (normal+gestures) work together was a challenge” says Google.
The camera app gets a new minimalist design which is extremely clean and focuses on snapping photos. Yet, it is quick and easy to access many options. I’ve seen this type of user interface in 3D modeling software like Maya. It is very efficient at shortening the fingers movements, and at displaying a lot of useful information at once – it’s a proven concept. After capturing photos, it’s also very easy to sort them and discarding a photo is as easy as a swipe up.
That’s not it for the camera: it also gets a featured called Photo Sphere which allows users to snap 360 degrees panoramas by stitching photos taken all around you. It is similar to Microsoft PhotoSynth. After capturing the photos, the Camera app can work in the background to stitch them. In the meantime, you are free to use your phone in whichever way you like. When it’s done, you can look at your 360 degrees photos.
Google Voice Search has been updated too. with this feature, you can ask any question using natural language. Google Search will try to find a consensus of replies on the Internet by crawling search results page and will tell you what the answer is with a synthetic voice. The beauty of this is that it is not “baked”. Google is simply smart enough to understand the question and extract a result from the best search results. Here are a few questions that we tried live: “Who invented Linux?”, “What country’s capital is Baku?”, “Who was the second man on the moon?” — all answered vocally and properly by Google Search. More: “when does the Hobbit come out… This new version of Google Voice Search is going to be released this week.
Google Now has been getting some love too: for instance, the “Photo Spot Nearby” feature lets you review nice photos taken near your current location. If you are visiting a new place, you may find interesting places to visit so that you don’t miss out on the trip. The service can also remind you of Movies as it knows when you tend to go to the movies, thanks to past movie time searches… Package tracking: by crawling your emails, Google Now knows that you’re waiting for a package and creates a reminder card. Flight status: and Hotel reservation also work in the same way.
These are the highlights of Android 4.2, and they can be experienced first with the Google Nexus 4, which by the way has wireless charging. We wonder if it is compatible with the Nokia Lumia 920 charger… let’s wait and see. What do you think of Android 4.2 (for smartphones) so far?