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Android 4.1 Jelly Bean hands-on impressions (update: video!)

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Gallery Photo: Google Nexus 7 by Asus hands-on pictures
Gallery Photo: Google Nexus 7 by Asus hands-on pictures

We've shown you the Google Nexus 7 by Asus and told you about the surprising quality you'll get starting at $199, but the most important part of the tablet is arguably the software that's inside. Android 4.1 Jelly Bean is here at Google I/O, and we've just spent some quality time with the new revision of the OS. As you'd expect from the ".1," it's not a giant leap forward from Ice Cream Sandwich on phones, but it brings some fairly exciting new features, major tweaks, and brings the tablet version of the OS (at least at this Nexus 7's screen size) closer to that of the smartphone.

First and foremost is Google Now: The search company is trying to turn your phone into an intelligent companion by keeping track of your location, search results and habits to generate real-time data that you'd probably want. To activate, you simply hold down on the home button, then swipe up, and you'll be greeted by a series of cards: one has the local weather results, for instance, and Google Places results for the hours, location and phone number of stores you've searched for, but Google claims it's smart enough to figure out your favorite sports teams and provide scores, or even record your commute and give you a picture of local traffic and an ETA to your destination.

Unfortunately, indoors, on an extremely congested Wi-Fi network, and on very short notice, the tablet wasn't able to figure out where we were or who we are. Apparently, the weather in Los Angeles is sunny and will stay sunny, though. We'll definitely be hoping to try this at length soon.

Swipe down from the top of the tablet screen, and you'll pull down the notification bar, whose utility has been greatly expanded beyond previous versions. Not only is it no longer relegated to the lower-right-hand corner, but it's more useful, too: for instance, when your email refreshes, you'll see a number of subject lines, not just how many messages you missed, and you can compress those headlines and expand them by pinching with your fingers. Without having to go to my full inbox, I realized that my mother has a birthday party I should probably attend, for example. Also, those Google Now cards appear as notifications in the tray; we were able to check the weather, and you should be able to see real-time sports scores and more without having to switch away from your current application. Speaking of that, the pull-down notifications tray doesn't obscure what you're doing, like you might expect: it only fills the middle of the screen and is partially transparent, further aiding multitasking.

Also, following the "companion" theme, is enhanced speech to text: from the omnipresent Google search bar at the top of every homescreen, from the Google Now app, from the Google Voice button, or from the software keyboard, you can tap the microphone to instantly begin monitoring your spoken words and process them locally even if you don't have a connection. It's definitely not robust enough to follow regular speech in a crowded environment — "We get your hair and kisses why don't you look forward to it" was one reaching result — but if you deliberately say a phrase carefully with the intent that it be dictated, it's not bad. Google's also trying to provide more answer-based results. When we asked "Who is the prime minister of the United Kingdom," it not only conducted a search, but gave us a nice big confident answer at the top: a picture of David Cameron.

If you like to customize your homescreens with apps and widgets galore, you'll be happy to know that they jump out of the way if you need them to: drag even a large 3x3 widget into a space that's populated with icons, and they'll stand aside to let your new selection take that space. Speaking as a user who doesn't like to dive into the app drawer often to get to my favorite apps and hates having to drag and drop a whole bunch of them to fit something new, it relieves an annoyance for me personally.

Last and perhaps least noticeably, Google's Project Butter UI is behind the scenes smoothing all the animations out, triple-buffering frames in order to provide a more fluid experience. On the Nexus 7, however, it was a little hard to tell without having an Ice Cream Sandwich device side by side, and still didn't keep up with our swiping fingers as quickly as they do on a recent iPad.

We're looking forward to bringing you a more in-depth look at the entire experience when we conduct our full Nexus 7 review.