The day that all Android fans have been waiting for has finally arrived. Google has finally pulled the wrapper off its latest operating system: Android 4.0, better known as Ice Cream Sandwich. This time around, Google has decided to focus on making the operating system “enchanting”, easy to use and appealing to more people. And from what they introduced at the unveiling, I think they’ve managed to hit the spot with Ice Cream Sandwich.
Ice Cream Sandwich will feature a brand new user interface (UI) that will make use of common gestures across the whole operating system. One of the most prominent new gestures is the swipe left/right motion. Users will be swiping the screens to the side when browsing through screens of similar content i.e. different emails, different parts of a user’s profile in the contacts app etc.
Another noticeable feature of Ice Cream Sandwich is the brand new “Roboto” typeface. Since the operating system has been built specifically to take advantage of 720p HD displays, they created a high resolution font that stays sharp no matter if you’re viewing it from a distance or close up.
Ice Cream Sandwich really changes how Android looks and behaves. Since the core Android buttons (back, home, menu) will be on the display itself, this means that they can rotate depending on the device orientation, light up when pressed, and even disappear when running a fullscreen app i.e. watching a movie.
Widgets are now more powerful, with the ability to support scrolling, stacks and all of them can be resized to any size you like, which brings customization to a whole new level. But one of the best features about Ice Cream Sandwich is that your widgets are now shown in a page, just like how all your apps are displayed when you open your app drawer. This makes it so much easier to see what widgets you’re adding to your homescreen instead of going through the multiple menus like you normally do on Android.
Folders are now easier to create – users can just drag an icon onto another one to make a new folder. Yes, it feels like it’s been lifted off iOS, but it definitely is more intuitive and takes less steps than the previous method of going through the menu.
With Ice Cream Sandwich, Android finally has a built-in app switcher/task killer. With the app switcher, users can easily scroll through all the apps they have open and use the simple left/right swiping gesture to close anything they don’t want open.
Taking another page out of the iOS book, Android now has an inbuilt screenshot function (yay – no more rooting necessary). Users can just hit the power + volume down key to take a screenshot of what’s happening on screen.
The notifications bar in Ice Cream Sandwich is now accessible from the lockscreen – great for people with complicated unlock patterns who just want to check their latest notifications.
The Android keyboard has also been improved, with more accurate prediction, better correction, and improved editing (users can now drag and drop text). Voice to text has also been upgraded. Speech is translated into text as soon as users start speaking. Users can also hesitate or pause without being cut off by the system.
Ice Cream Sandwich also has a new way of unlocking the phone: using advanced facial recognition technology, users can unlock their phones by just looking into the front facing camera. While it seems like a good idea, I foresee some problems: unless users have an external light source or a front facing flash – it’s basically useless in the dark. And is the software smart enough to differentiate a person’s face from a photograph? I guess we’ll find out when it’s released.
Besides the new features of the operating system, Google has also revamped all the core apps for Android Ice Cream Sandwich:
The default web browser has been given a facelift, and the addition of some useful new features. Tabbed browsing has been introduced (up to 16 tabs supported), and they can be easily switched to in the same manner the app switcher works (tap to select, swipe to close). The browser can also request for desktop sites (when mobile sites don’t give you what you want), automatically sync your bookmarks with Google Chrome on your desktop/laptop, save pages for offline reading, check your most viewed pages and launch an incognito mode.
The Gmail app has also been revamped, this time it features two line previews (great for skimming through your emails), and the same swiping gesture for moving forward/back through your messages. Contacts are now displayed as chips – little boxes with names and a display picture, and offline search is finally available on the app. Gmail now has an action bar that displays your most frequently used actions.
The default calendar app has also been updated, this time around it features a less cluttered, more readable interface, pinch to zoom for expanding event details on the calendar itself (no more having to jump in and out of the events screen).
Data usage monitor
Ice Cream Sandwich now has a built-in feature that lets users monitor their data usage. It can record usage history, and based on the past it can project what your data usage will be like for the remainder of the month. Users can set warnings, automatically cut data, see how much data an app users over a selected time period, and even cut off background data for specific apps. A real handy tool for people who have trouble controlling their data intake.
Photos, Video and Gallery
While more of a feature of the Samsung Galaxy Nexus instead of the camera app, users will be able to take photographs with zero shutter delay. Multiple shots can be taken in a very short time, and the camera can also be accessed from the default lockscreen. The app now has a slider for zooming and a tap to focus mode. Sharing has also been streamlined, making it an almost instantaneous process. A nifty panoramic shot feature is also present.
Videos can be recorded in 1080p HD resolution, continuous focus, and zooming while recording are all present. Users can also shoot time lapse videos, and they can also take high quality snapshots while video recording simultaneously.
The stock gallery app looks gorgeous, with its magazine-inspired layout for all the thumbnails, categorizing options (choose by location, people, date etc), and new built-in editing tools (apply “hipster filters, crop images, rotate, resize etc all from the gallery app).
The contacts app has evolved into what Google calls People. It features a bright new look (no more black screen), the same swiping motion to browse through different pages, and a person’s contact details all aggregated in one location. In addition to showing a person’s contact details, People can also display their latest social network activities.
People has also been integrated into other app such as Gmail in the form of contact cards that show a person’s details in a condensed format. This makes getting in touch with people through different means a very simple process.
Visual voice mail has been integrated directly into the call lists, and users can now speed up or slowdown any voicemail they have on their phones. From the incoming call screen, users can also perform a simple swipe up gesture to reject a call and send a canned text message to the caller at the same time so users can decline calls politely.
Using the power of NFC technology, Google has really kicked it up a notch with Google Beam. Instead of just turning your phone into a digital wallet, Google Beam lets users easily share content with each other. From websites, maps, and even a game that you’re playing on the phone – sharing with Google Beam is literally just a tap away. In the future it can even be used to start multiplayer games, and to share photos.
Ice Cream Sandwich definitely is a huge upgrade from Gingerbread and Honeycomb but it looks like Google is trying to make the complete Android experience as good as it can get without the use of third party apps, custom ROMs and launchers. Definitely something that unadventurous Android users (i.e. most consumers) will welcome though it looks like it’s going to leave the hardcore users wanting more. After all, Google did mention that this update was mostly about “beautifying” Android at the beginning of the presentation. We’ll just have to see what the future updates to the operating system will bring.
The Ice Cream Sandwich SDK is available now, so if you want to tinker around with the tools or find out more about the operating system, you can head over to the official Android developers blog for more details.