When Google announced its new Nexus tablet and smartphone line, the search giant also announced, almost in passing, that there's a new version of Android on its way: Android 4.2.
While Android 4.2 isn't a major upgrade, it does bring significant improvements to the popular, open-source mobile operating system. Android 4.2, which will still go by Android 4.1's name Jelly Bean, will first ship on Google and LG's new Nexus 4 smartphone and Samsung's Nexus 10 tablet on November 13. I expect, but I have been unable to confirm, that the Nexus 7 and Galaxy Nexus will also be upgraded to 4.2 then. As for the rest of the Android device family, as always it depends not on Google, but on your smartphone carrier or tablet vendor when, if ever, you'll see an Android upgrade.
Some of the Android 4.2 upgrades are minor. Sure, it might be nice to use the Photo Sphere feature to stitch together photos to from Google Street View style panoramic images, but you're not going to do that more than once every blue moon. It's also nice that the 4.2 Play Store app includes a personalized music-shopping function, Music Explorer. Thanks to personalized music services such as Pandora, I really don't need more help in finding new music.
Other new features, however, will want you to make the jump. From least to most important in my book these are:
4) Smart Screen-Savers
Android 4.2's Daydream is actually a smart screen-saver. It lets you display photo slideshows, news headlines, and the like. While you're not likely to use this on a smartphone I know I'll set up a news feed screen-saver on my Nexus 7 tablet and I know my day-trader friends will be setting up market wires on their devices as well.
3) Gesture Typing
Do you use Swype, the popular third-party on-screen keyboard replacement? If you do, then you'll find the same basic functionality to make on-screen keyboards more useful in Gesture Typing. This probably won't be enough to sway hard-core Swype users away from their favorite virrtual keyboard, but it will show screen-typers that there is a better way than using a display keyboard than just as a QWERTY glass keyboard.
2) Miracast: From Tablet and Smartphone to TV
Apple recently introduced AirPlay Mirroring in iOS 5 and Mac OS X, Mountain Lion. With it, you can throw your screen to any Apple TV-equipped television. Android 4.2 will let you do the same thing with any TV, DVD-player, or other media device that supports Miracast.
Miracast is the trade name for Wi-Fi Direct or WiDi. This is an 802.11n compatible network protocol for display-sharing. With a compatible device or a Miracast adapter, you'll be able to stream Internet TV shows and movies from your smartphone or tablet to your TV. Miracast adapters will be available this quarter.
1) Multi-user support
On Android 4.2-powered tablets, but not on smartphones, you'll be able to have multiple users. Each user will get his or her own setup. That means, for example, you can have your own home-screen, background, widgets, apps and games, while your spouse or office partner can have their own unique tablet experience. You can set this up so a new user must login to the tablet or they'll be able to simply hit a button and away they'll go with their own tablet take.
So, why isn't this available for smartphones? We don't know. There's some speculation that it's to avoid a Nokia patent on multi-user phones.
There may be something to that, but since multi-user functionality on computing devices goes back to the 60s, I'm inclined to think that Google didn't bother with it because there's almost no demand for it on smartphones. I, for one, have no problem letting someone use one of my tablets for a few minutes, but I'm far more hesitant about letting anyone borrow my phones.
Taken all-in-all this is indeed just a minor upgrade. That said, I know for a fact I'll be using the screen-saver, Miracast, and the multi-user functionality almost every day. OK Google, smatphone and tablet vendors, I'm ready for it. Let's have it!