Google's latest version of the Android operating system is here and will be rolling out to a precious few devices later this month. Unlike the last iteration, Android 4.1 Jelly Bean is more about refinement than revolution, but a new feature called "Google Now" has the potential to finally achieve some of the promises we've all heard from smartphone companies for years now. Beyond that, if you're one of the (sadly small) number of people who have used stock Android 4.0, there's nothing here that will throw you off.
Within that familiar framework, however, are changes both subtle and not-so-subtle that make Jelly Bean feel robust, grown-up, and most of all fast. Android development is beginning to look like Intel's processor development: there's a "tick" with major UI paradigm shifts that re-imagine what an Android device is and then there's a "tock" with refinements that iterate on what was done before.
Is Android 4.1's "tock" on top of 4.0 enough to convince Android users to switch to a Nexus device (or agitate to get manufacturers speed its deployment on current devices)? Read on for the full review.
UI and design
Google isn't messing with a good thing in Jelly Bean. Continuing a trend that started with the transition from Honeycomb to Ice Cream Sandwich, there's a bit less neon blue throughout the OS. The notification area, for example, is now accented in white instead. The majority of the OS is still themed with dark backdrops and basically clean lines. In general the attempt at a Tron-like futurism that was introduced in Honeycomb has been almost entirely excised in Jelly Bean.
With those elements removed, what we're left with is a modern-looking OS that's no longer trying so hard to broadcast itself as such. Jelly Bean has an understated look that's every bit as identifiable as iOS or Windows Phone, if a little less in-your-face about its aesthetic decisions.
The attempt at a Tron-like futurism that was introduced in Honeycomb has been almost entirely excised in Jelly Bean
Android's custom font, Roboto, shows up with a bit of variation in different spots throughout the OS, most notably in the new Google Now feature. The variation here feels intentional, not haphazard, and adds to your sense of place as you navigate through what can be an intimidating OS to a new user.
There are still a few places where the design could be tightened up. The Share menu, for example, displays in different ways depending on which app you're using. In some cases, you get a large, thumb-able list of icons to share with, in others the traditional vertical list. Other dialogs have been made clearer, though. For example, the pop-up dialog for selecting default apps is much easier to parse now, with buttons for "Always" and "Just once."
Other subtle additions since Android 4.0 include more animation, including one for launching and closing apps that pops up from where you tapped. Hitting an icon on the lower-left, for example, leads to that app rising up from that corner, and selecting an app from the multitasking menu has the thumbnail grow from that spot to take up the screen before going into the live app. These animations aren't any more time-consuming than the screen refreshes in Ice Cream Sandwich, but instead add a sense of place and spatial positioning.
Google isn't messing with a good thing in Jelly Bean
Android 4.1 feels much smoother and faster than Android 4.0
Though the look and feel of Jelly Bean is all about small refinements, the actual experience of using the OS feels quite different. That's thanks to something Google calls "Project Butter," which is its attempt to once-and-for-all quell the complaints over stuttering in Android. As Matias Duarte put it, Google "declared a war on lagginess," and it shows.
For the technically-inclined, the changes in Project Butter involve a few different improvements. First off, there's VSync, which sets the framerate for the entire OS at 60 frames-per-second. That may not necessarily make anything run faster, but it will improve the perception of speed and responsiveness by making everything consistent. Second, "Triple Buffering" means that the CPU, GPU, and the display are able to run independently without waiting for each other. Lastly, Jelly Bean ramps up the CPU to full speed whenever you touch the screen instead of waiting for an app to demand it — that may cause a small hit in battery life, I imagine, but it also should remove small delays here and there. In my testing, battery life on Jelly Bean is no different than what I experience on Ice Cream Sandwich.
For the non-technically-inclined, here's what really matters: Android 4.1 feels much smoother and faster than Android 4.0, which itself felt smoother and faster than the version the large majority of Android users are still using, 2.3 Gingerbread. Scrolling in particular has much less lag in pretty much every app I've used, and the overall feeling of responsiveness is just plain better. Note that I'm trying to distinguish between the feeling of speed rather than quantitative values here. Benchmarks on my Galaxy Nexus with Jelly Bean weren't appreciably different from those on Ice Cream Sandwich, but the sense that the OS and all the apps in it are generally more responsive to my touches is very real and very appreciated. One place in particular where Jelly Bean feels much faster is multitasking — the list of recent apps pops up much more quickly than before and app switching from there is just as speedy.
I wish I could say that Android 4.1 is on par with iOS on an iPhone 4S when it comes to its reaction to my finger's taps and swipes — but iOS still takes the crown here. However, as compared to previous versions of Android (especially 2.3), it's night and day. Before, I would pounce on devices with new and beefy processors and increased RAM because that brute-force method was the clearest way to speed up Android. Now, Google has just improved it directly, making relatively old hardware feel new again.
As noted in our hands-on with Google Now, it’s not fair to simply write this feature off as nothing more than a Siri-clone. Instead, it’s Google’s attempt to create an intelligent, constantly updating, ambient information system. For many years, executives from various smartphone companies have waxed ecstatic about the possibilities offered by a device that’s constantly aware of who you are, where you are, and where you’re going. With Google Now, Jelly Bean is actually attempting to realize that dream. It’s actually incredibly ambitious and fitting that it’s Google that is trying to do it.
The main feature of Google now comes by way of "Cards" that are presented in a vertically-scrolling list. The idea is that they appear naturally as you go about your day, giving you information that you were about to search for anyway. Within the interface, you can swipe them away or tap on them for more details, but you cannot directly re-order them.
It’s actually incredibly ambitious and fitting that it’s Google that is trying to do it
To get to Google Now, you can swipe up from either the lock screen or the home button. The interface looks like Android’s Holo theme, but from an alternate reality where blacks and neon blues are replaced with clean whites and grays. It’s really quite beautiful, with large, readable fonts and dropshadows that are just prevalent enough to distinguish stacked cards without becoming garish.
Google Now also includes a beefed-up voice search as compared to previous versions of Android. As with Siri, you can dictate questions and searches and in some cases instead of just presenting a Google search, you’ll get information that directly answers your query. This feature isn’t as robust as Siri — Apple’s solution plugs in to multiple sources, including Wolfram Alpha’s massive database of information, whereas Google Now is depending on the company’s still-nascent "Knowledge Graph" system. In all cases, Google Now will give you the option to scroll down to a traditional web search for your question, with classic Google search categories like Places and Images at the bottom.
With voice search, you can also perform some on-device actions just as before, including listening to music, navigation, voice dialing, sending messages, and setting alarms. It doesn’t reach quite as deeply into the guts of the OS as I would like — but when it works, it works well. Specifically, voice recognition is great even in windy and noisy environments. Your query won’t always give you the result you’re hoping for, but it will usually be transcribed accurately.
The notification drop-down in Jelly Bean received a few feature tweaks that take what's already a good system and make it better. First off, notifications simply look better. Jelly Bean drops the blue highlighting and bland bold font and replaces it with a better looking version of Roboto. It also shows you the day of the week and the time. Beyond aesthetics, the main difference you'll notice is that some notifications can be directly expanded into a double-tall size, showing you more information without having to open the app. You can drag down on any single notification with two fingers to expand it or drag up to collapse it.
In addition, some notifications now let you take action directly. You can tap a share button on photos, calendar appointments give you a snooze or email attendees option, missed calls provide direct call-back buttons. Unfortunately, there's no action that can be taken on email messages — I'd say the vast majority of my incoming Gmail gets archived almost immediately and I'd really like to be able to do that from the notification area. Google has introduced APIs for actions on notifications and I hope that app developers take advantage of them, because it would be nice to have more actions on a variety of different apps.
One feature that's completely non-intuitive but nevertheless present and useful is the ability to toggle notifications on and off for specific apps. You do this by going into the "App Info" screen and unchecking a box. That helps explain what would otherwise be a completely inexplicable feature: you can long-press on an individual notification to pop up a button that links you to that app's info screen. Once there, you're a tick-box away from completely quieting a persistently annoying app. It's a far cry from the granular and unified notification controls that iOS offers, but at least it's something.
From here it looks like Google wants to put as much of Honeycomb's "emergency landing" UI behind it as possible
The homescreen on Jelly Bean still consists of five horizontal screens above a 5-icon dock. Google search still persists across the top of each screen, but the background is now white (for whatever that's worth). What's mainly new is that Google has improved how icons and widgets get added and moved. You still tap-and-hold from the app drawer to drop items into the launcher, but now widgets will automatically move icons around to make space for themselves. Resizeable widgets will also resize when necessary, but the sad truth is that very few Android widgets are resizable.
Icons can also shift other icons and folders around as you try to place them. I found that sometimes I got caught in a game of cat and mouse when trying to drop an icon into a folder. Instead of dropping it, it would shift the folder over a spot and I'd end up chasing the darn thing across the screen. One feature that's less buggy is the ability to just toss an icon or widget to the top of the screen to remove it, rather than manually dragging it to the remove button.
There is one interesting note that I'd be remiss to not bring up. The 7-inch Nexus 7 tablet uses the same button bar on the bottom as the phone: back, home, and multitasking. Gone is Honeycomb and Ice Cream Sandwich's more robust tablet button bar with a dedicated settings pop-up on the right and regular buttons on the left. Notifications appear at the top on the Nexus 7, and the homescreen/dock setup is also the same. Jelly Bean (on a 7-inch tablet, at least) is virtually identical between phone and tablet. The only major difference I noticed involved keyboard layout and the addition of a rotate-lock in the notification area.
While the old hassle of having functionality scattered across all four corners of the OS is now gone, a new hassle is that the home screen on the Nexus 7 only works in portrait mode. I take it as a sign that Google is targeting the Kindle Fire and wants to keep the UI as clean and easy-to-understand as possible — the fact that the default homescreen on boot on the Nexus 7 is a giant Google Play widget seems to confirm my hunch.
Although power users might lament the change to how Google designs for tablets, it makes perfect sense to me and I much prefer it. We'll have to wait for a 10-inch Jelly Bean tablet to see if Google intends for this change to be permanent, but from here it looks like Google wants to put as much of Honeycomb's "emergency landing" UI behind it as possible. Since I was never a fan of Honeycomb in the first place, I think the change is for the better.
Camera and Gallery
Google made minor improvements to the Camera and Gallery apps, but taken together they make for a more unified and elegant experience. The main change is that the two apps are more closely linked together — you can swipe from the camera viewer directly into your most recent photo or video instead of tapping a small square. Once there, you’re fully in the Gallery app, able to swipe through your Camera gallery and back out to your other albums.
Pinch in to zoom out and you’ll be presented with a horizontal "filmstrip view" of your photos you can flick through, and flicking up deletes an image immediately (though there is an undo button). You can swipe back into the camera if that’s where you started from, as well. It’s behavior that takes from iOS, Windows Phone, and webOS in equal measures and feel natural. Here as elsewhere, the UI generally feels more responsive and smooth. Zooming, panning, and switching between photos outclasses Ice Cream Sandwich by a noticeable amount. Otherwise the Gallery app is virtually identical to Android 4.0 — excepting subtle tweaks like a more commonly persistent camera shortcut in the action bar and the removal of the thumbnail strip when swiping between photos.
Keyboard and dictation
The first Android keyboard that hasn't sent me running to third party alternatives
With Jelly Bean, there are more robust text entry options across the board. The default keyboard has been updated under the hood with improved autocorrect and more advanced text prediction. When typing, word suggestions appear up top as usual, but now it also presents guesses for what your next word will be after you hit the spacebar.
It's all quite a bit like SwiftKey, down to the ability to autocorrect multiple words with missed spaces and even Google's claim that "the language model in Jelly Bean adapts over time" (Unlike the situation with BlackBerry 10, it doesn't seem like that SwiftKey is behind Google's prediction technology). Digging into the keyboard's settings, you can choose how "aggressive" autocorrect is. I set it to "Very aggressive" and have been quite happy with the results.
It's all quite a bit like SwiftKey
Speaking of settings, the "Language & input" section now sports a slightly updated "Personal dictionary." Instead of simply aggregating the custom words you've added to the standard dictionary, now you can add custom shortcuts for words and phrases (for example, "om" for "On my way home"). When typing, you can tap out your custom shortcut and one of the three autocorrect suggestions will be your custom phrase. It's a great feature I've missed from other platforms, but as Josh Topolsky pointed out to me, it only works in plain vanilla text fields, not in specialized fields like "To" in email. It also doesn't work in the standard Google Now search field, a strange omission.
Finally, another headline feature for text-entry is offline dictation. After toggling Airplane mode on (or heading into a dead zone), you can still compose and it still types your words out very nearly in real time. I did find that online results were very slightly better than offline results, but to be honest it was a slim difference.
Bottom line with text entry: Jelly Bean's keyboard is the first Android keyboard that hasn't sent me running to third party alternatives after a few hours. It's stellar.
There's a large set of other features that are packed into Android 4.1, from better support for custom calendar colors when syncing with Google Calendar to a slightly modified settings screen that foregrounds your accounts. They serve to round out some of the corners of the OS, but it's unlikely any of them will change your life.
Some of these additions have already made their way down to previous versions of Android: a Sound Search widget (now available on other devices) that works like Shazaam or Soundhound, "Smart app updates" which don't require you to re-download the entire app when it's updated, and a new push service for developers called Google Cloud Messaging that hopefully will mean more apps will support push notifications instead of timed polling.
Google Maps has also received a robust update that's available to Ice Cream Sandwich and Gingerbread users: a "Make available offline" feature. You enable it with a menu selection and then pan the map view out to choose your offline zone, but it can only save up to 80MB or so per zone. You can set up multiple offline areas, however, under the "My Places" section of the app. For what it's worth, I had no problem saving overlapping zones, but that's obviously an inelegant solution.
As for features that are specific to Android 4.1, there are a few. Android Beam, Google's system for directly sharing files after an NFC tap, now finally supports sending more than just URLS — you can sent photos and videos as well. Jelly Bean also supports NFC-enabled Bluetooth pairing, a feature already common on Nokia and BlackBerry devices.
Jelly Bean includes an enhanced accessibility feature for the sight-impaired called "Gesture Mode." When it's enabled, the phone reads out everything on the screen, lets you know what's currently selected, and uses a different touch UI that's designed for the blind.
Face Unlock also has a new setting, Blink Detect, which is a security feature that asks you to blink in order to prove that you're a real human and not just a photo held up to the screen. Samsung added this feature to its own devices after it was discovered that Ice Cream Sandwich could be fooled by a photograph.
While I'm on the topic of the lock screen, if you have a security password or pattern set up, you won't be able to jump directly into the camera app. Windows Phone and iOS have figured out how to offer quick and secure access to the camera app directly from a passworded lock screen. Google went to all the trouble to "borrow" the swipe-to-album motion from those platforms, it would have been nice if it had done the same with this feature.
Another set features that's sorely missing from Android: Find my phone, remote lock, and remote wipe. Google has been touting its cloud services and cloud apps for some time now and it offers probably the most robust online mapping solution out there too. With all that, you would think that the company could get it together and offer this feature — it's table stakes, really. There are third-party apps that do this on Android, but it should be baked in. I also wouldn't spit on a custom per-contact SMS ringtone feature, as long as I'm listing things that I feel are missing.
Google Now stands out as an example of what smartphones are capable of when you don't silo information into disparate apps
Android 4.1 Jelly Bean is one of the best products Google has ever produced. It's fast, fluid, and beautifully designed. It also does a better job of unifying all of Google's disparate services than anything else the company has ever offered. Everything from the Chrome browser, Google+, Maps, Gmail, and most of all Google Search — in the form of Google Now — is tightly integrated into a user experience that outshines even the company's web properties.
Google Now stands out as an example of what smartphones are capable of when you don't silo information into disparate apps. Location, identity, history, and personal preferences are all combined into an organic information system that's as promising as it is ambitious. I don't think that Google Now quite achieves what it's aiming for yet, but it's exciting to see a company try to do it.
Reasonable people can — and should — disagree about whether Jelly Bean bests Apple's iOS or Microsoft's Windows Phone. In truth, I don't think we've seen everything that either of those competing operating systems will bring to the table by the end of the year. However, compared to what they bring to the table today, I think Jelly Bean is a stronger offering, especially if you're a participant in the Google ecosystem.
Still, the Android ecosystem still faces a fundamental fragmentation question. The majority of Android devices in consumers' hands today are now two versions behind Google's latest offering and the outlook for when that will change doesn't look very rosy. As nice as Jelly Bean is as Google's smartphone OS, just how that can translate into a bright future for all of Android is another question entirely.