The latest version of Google's mobile operating system is Android OS 4.0 (aka "Ice Cream Sandwich"). This debuted recently on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, but will eventually be running on a wide array of smartphones.
After developing separate operating system editions for smartphones and tablets, Google has finally introduced a unified version of Android which will be used on both types of devices. In practice, the users may have not felt the differences between Gingerbread (Android OS 2.3 intended for smartphones) and Honeycomb (Android OS 3.x intended for tablets), but third-party app developers sure have. Android OS 4.0 brings a unified user interface, as well as unified API for developers.
The changes even go beyond combining the best of both worlds (Honeycomb and Gingerbread). Some improvements are features previously seen in the alternate user interfaces created by device manufacturers, like HTC's Sense UI, Samsung's TouchWiz or Sony Ericsson's Timescape. In addition, some of the bundled apps offer improved functionality and an increase in their available number of options.
Slim lines, bigger images, and more pronounced contrasts of objects like icons, letters, and other markings on the screen are the main features of the new Android OS design. ICS looks more like Honeycomb than Gingerbread, which means those who have been working with tablets containing the Google platform will switch over to it very easily.
In accordance with mobile user interface trends, the old Droid font has been replaced with a new one called "Roboto" with exceptionally slim lines, but wide letters and numbers; this makes Android OS 4.0 look more like Windows Phone than iOS.
Multitasking manipulation has been borrowed from the previous tablet edition. By pressing a key (now located at the bottom of the screen and not on the device casing, according to Google rules), a thumbnail toolbar of the recently opened applications appears. This shows a small image of what was on the display when the app was last active, not just an icon. Background apps can be closed by simply dragging them "off the display" with a simple finger flick to the side. Incidentally, all entries in any list can be deleted similarly in Android ICS.
The lock screen now gives you direct access to either the home screen or the camera application -- you drag an icon with a padlock to a suitable position in order to select one of the two offered options. This is a detail borrowed from HTC's Sense UI and Samsung's TouchWiz. A likable new feature, which I haven't seen before, is the option of unlocking the phone with your own face -- the device can learn what you look like and unlock itself by engaging the camera to "check" if it is really you.
It is possible to see the notifications panel on lock screen, and it's not necessary to fully "awaken" the device to find out if any messages have been received, if a call has been missed, or if something else has happened.
All items on the notifications panel related to a person are marked with the person's image, and you can remove them one by one from the panel, again by simply dragging them off the screen with a finger movement. Even the music player control keys can be set here, and can be managed without unlocking the device.
Homescreen and Apps
The size of desktop widgets can now be altered, which previously was only possible with Android OS 3.x or Samsung's TouchWiz 4.0 (for instance, Samsung Galaxy S II has this option). A usual set of widgets comes with the operating system (weather, analogue clock, calendar, the messages panel etc.), which are now grouped in a special tab inside the applications drawer. The applications are represented as a matrix with icons, just like before.
These application icons can now be grouped in folders in a much simpler manner -- to be precise, the system Apple put in iOS has been "borrowed". Thus, the icons can be dragged and dropped on the homescreen one on top of the other in order to create a folder, or directly to an existing folder to add them. By touching the folder, its contents appear while the icons can be rearranged inside it or dragged out.
It seems clear that Google didn't just take the ideas of previous Android versions and HTC or Samsung user interface improvements, but was also inspired a bit by Apple. Lawyers will likely have their plate full with these two companies in the future, given that there is clearly an abundance of evidence to justifify a resumption the patent war. Or that's the way it seems to me.
Microsoft's attorneys will surely not be idle, either -- Google has omitted the Contacts application in Android OS 4.0 and replaced it with the People application, which is fairly reminiscent of the way in which contacts are kept on Windows Phone. The contacts now have a more modern and dramatic look than they used to, with a high dose of "socialization", thus their Gtalk status is featured, while images can be taken from Google+.
Facebook or Twitter integration has not been offered on the operating system level (because client applications for these social networks do not come with Android OS 4.0), unlike the API level -- this means that Tweets and Facebook statuses will appear here in the future, once the apps are installed.
This is Part 1 of a multi-page review. Keep reading for Part 2, which covers the web browser, SMS app, new camera features, and more. And don't forget our gallery of Android ICS screenshots.
This is Part 2 of a multi-page review. Part 1 covered changes to the user interface, especially to the home screen.
Previous Android versions had a very good web browser, thus it seems there wasn't much room for improvement in this area; nevertheless, some enhancements were made with Android OS 4.0. Most were realized in the background features -- the new browser is more efficient in using the new generation of dual-core and quad-core processors, which makes it significantly faster.
In addition, some new functions have been added: it is now possible to synchronize bookmarks with those on Google Chrome, while the option to always get the full desktop versions of web sites and not their mobile versions has finally been added too.
Saving a web site on the phone and accessing it later offline is possible with Android ICS, while switching between multiple windows with various sites is now done by choosing from a vertical thumbnail list. This is similar to the iOS, the only difference being that Apple's version is arranged horizontally.
Another novelty taken from iOS is creating screenshots with a combination of keys. The neat thing is that a screenshot created in this way can be sent via e-mail as an attachment with just a click, which an entirely new application for Gmail tasks is credited for.
With a more detailed elaboration of options and a more modern and serious appearance, another especially interesting improvement is the ability to dictate text messages with voice commands via the Speech-to-text option (sounds familiar? A hint: Siri and iOS 5.0). Furthermore, an image is shown next to received text messages if it is saved in the People application, which is a likable option.
Many improvements have been made to the camera app. It now comes with several useful options, like touching a point in the shot where the image will be sharpened, face detection, red eyes reduction, panorama images etc.
When it comes to recording videos, the options of zooming in and picture stabilization have been added to the operating system level. The application for previewing images and video clips has also been largely modernized, and this is a good example which shows that when Google developers worked on Android ICS, they made sure it functioned as well on smartphones as it does on tablets
It is important to point out that with all these improvements, Android OS 4.0 comes with a few frustrating flaws. For example, while dialing a phone number, the Dialer does not reduce the list in the People application to those contacts which match the entered digits. This is an option I would love to see borrowed from HTC's Sense UI and other user interface upgrades.
On the other hand, very practical knick-knacks have been added, like the option to limit the allowed monthly amount of data traffic through 3G networks -- this is great protection from receiving surprisingly steep phone bills from carriers.
All in all, Google's Android OS 4.0 is a mobile operating system which provides a very good experience compared to the competition. And thanks to its open-source nature, it is no wonder that it has enjoyed an unprecedented rise market share. As this latest version will make it easier for third-party software developers to write apps that work on both smartphones and tablets, it is clear that Android ICS will help speed up the rise.
Still, there is plenty of room for device makers to improve this platform with their custom additions, like TouchWiz and Sense UI.