Android versions have made no sense this year. Originally, a higher version number meant a newer OS. With The release of Honeycomb however, tablets were given a dedicated version of the OS that ranged in version numbers from 3.0 to 3.2 while phones were stuck at 2.3 being the highest version number they could run. Ice Cream Sandwich is the solution to that confusion, bringing both phones and tablets onto the same version of Android: 4.0. This is the OS that Google just showed off to the world, at a very disturbing 5 in the morning my time. Hit the jump to see what’s new.
As with iOS 5, Ice Cream Sandwich is not revolutionary in any way – it’s evolutionary. Also like iOS 5, this version of Android includes a lot of catching up with the competitor. Among other minor things, that includes the ability to take a screenshot using the power and volume key – an extremely useful feature that has only been available through third party apps so far.
They also put in a new font for the OS, called Roboto. I wasn’t too impressed with it myself, but I’m sure it will grow on people. 4.0 also has the same on-screen buttons that Honeycomb introduced, but now also for phones. Widgets now have their own tab in the application list, and can be resized as you yourself want on the home screen. App folders can be made by dropping apps onto one another (another “borrowed” feature) and also work for contacts, so you can create a kind of speed dial using app folders. The keyboard has been improved and text editing (cut/copy/past and auto correct) has been improved and made more consistent.
Voice recognition was also part of the demonstration, likely due to the inclusion of Siri in iOS 5, but that demonstration didn’t go to well. When the guy said “hey man” the phone transcribed it to “map”, but got the rest of the sentence right – including inserting a question mark and smiley. Then it went a bit crazy again and randomly inserted the word “yahoo” out of nowhere, possible interpreting murmurs from the crowd or something like that.
After the slightly flawed voice recognition demo they proceeded to show off a new way to unlock the phone – face recognition. Apparently this will recognize your face using the front camera and only let you into the phone, no one else. I say “apparently” because that demo failed completely – it wouldn’t recognize the guy at all. The guy blamed his makeup.
They then went on to talk about updates to a range of core apps. Gmail, calendar, browser etc. Nothing really interesting; offline search, zoomable calendar views etc. They didn’t actually go into much detail with a lot of the updates apps, so mostly minor stuff.
One very neat feature they presented is called Data Usage. This is part of the settings, and basically a very detailed data use monitor for cellular data. You can set your billing period and see data usage over time during the period, set a data cap to warn you or even deactivate data once the cap is reached, and also see which apps use your data. If you see a sudden spike in the graph showing your data use, you can select just that short period of time to see details for, find the app that caused it, see how much data it used while actively running and in the background, and even deactivate the app’s ability to use cellular data while in the background. An extremely neat feature as keeping up with monthly data caps is a pain.
The camera app also got an upgrade in form of some added features and a speed improvement. They also added a panorama feature that lets you take a panorama by simply moving the device slowly from one side to the other, but this turned out to be the third demo fail of the day. It stitched it, sure, but the resulting image was not good. You could easily see the stitches and misaligned images and it has absolutely nothing to show for itself compared to existing third party panorama apps. A rudimentary photo editor has also been implemented, just as in iOS 5. They also showed off some time lapse and video footage, but that had nothing to do with Ice Cream Sandwich and everything to do with the new Galaxy Nexus phone they announced. As with iOS 5 and the iPad 2, Ice Cream Sandwich won’t magically make your tablet’s crappy camera better.
The photos app also got an overall, using a new tiled view that you’ll find several places in Ice Cream Sandwich. You can sort images by the people in them, geotags, album etc. In other words, bringing it closer to iOS.
And entirely new app is the People app. It’s essentially a contacts application which aggregates content from social networks. If they update their info on a social network, the People app will find it and fetch it for you.
The final demonstration fail of the day came when they tried to show off a “sorry I’m busy system”. Basically it’s a menu for sending text messages to someone who calls you when you’re busy, so that they know you didn’t just blow them off. The phone screen was all over the place during this demonstration, but it seems like a nice feature – if you’re using Ice Cream Sandwich on a phone, that is.
The last feature they showed off was a nice one: NFC. Or rather, NFC controlled by Android Beam software. NFC is a wireless information sharing system that is getting quite popular and requires a lot less messing around that e.g. Bluetooth. The way that Android Beam uses this feature is that you hold two NFC equipped devices together while in an app, and then choose to beam whatever you’re doing over. If you’re reading a web page, Android Beam will cause the page to open on the other device. Using Google Maps will beam the location over. Playing a game will open the Android Market page for that game, and so on. The whole point is that NFC lets you initiate a secure transfer using close contact, so you don’t have to scan for nearby compatible units and all that. They mentioned some potential uses for Android Beam, including initiating multiplayer games.
I find it highly amusing that we’ve had two competing OSes be updated in a short period of time now and both updates have been very similar. Sure there are differences, but iOS 5 borrows from Android and Ice Cream Sandwich borrows from iOS, before they both go off and “independently” improve the camera software and things like that. No release date on Ice Cream Sandwich though – the Galaxy Nexus phone will ship with it in November, and any updates to existing hardware is in the hands of manufacturers.
For a full rundown on the new features, check out Engadget’s live blog.