Trying out Android 'ICS' 4.0 on the Nexus S

Trying out Android 'ICS' 4.0 on the Nexus S

Summary: Yesterday I upgraded my Nexus S to Android 4.0, or Ice Cream Sandwich.

TOPICS: Telcos

Yesterday I upgraded my Nexus S to Android 4.0, or Ice Cream Sandwich. As Google's over-the-air rollout is gradual, I thought I would share my experiences thus far for the benefit of those who have not yet made the leap.

The Nexus S is one of Google's more-or-less-annual flagship phones and the immediate predecessor to the Galaxy Nexus that is on shelves now. Like the Galaxy Nexus, the Nexus S was the first phone to sport a major new version of Android, in stock form, sans manufacturer skinning.

In the case of the Nexus S, that version was Android 2.3, or Gingerbread. The Galaxy Nexus has provided the debut for Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS). But the beauty of Google's flagship phones is that they are the first existing handsets to get upgraded to a new version.

CyanogenMod had already put out builds of their take on ICS, but I wanted to wait for the vanilla version. This was duly announced on Friday, with the news that a gradual deployment had begun.

Now, I'd been happy to wait out the mod phase, but I was too impatient to wait for my phone's turn for OTA. I found a link for the upgrade file download here (I take no responsibility for the instructions on that forum, but they worked for me) and very quickly found myself with an ICS-ified Nexus S, complete with all my apps and settings in place as before.

(Note: I have a GSM Nexus S. I don't think the CDMA device upgrade is out yet.)

The change is quite profound; certainly the biggest upgrade Android has received since the leap to 'Eclair' 2.1 and — in UI terms at least — probably the most fundamental since Android phones first came out.

Everything seems to have changed, some in bigger ways than others. One big UI change is the importance of swiping between left and right in ICS (see here for a list of uses), but the most immediately visible change is the customisable dock at the bottom of the screen:

This is a good thing — I use it for phone, Gmail, texting and web. You will also notice the Google search bar at the top. That's for searching the phone and the web, and it is more or less omnipresent.

Here's the settings page, to show off the new font, Roboto. It is one of the reasons why everything in Android 4.0 seems so refreshed:

The clock and dialler have a more, um, drastic font. I'm not sure if it's an exaggerated Roboto or something else:

As you can see, what once was green is now blue. This last screenshot (oh yeah, ICS does those natively now) features the volume control over the revamped browser, and shows how the colour change couples with other new stylings to make the whole Android experience feel different from before:

That browser, by the way, feels faster in some respects but seems to take an annoyingly long time to resolve some text when I zoom in — it stays blurry for longer than I like. It offers more windows than before, though, and Flash et cetera all seem to work.

What also works is Swype, which was a pleasant surprise as the Swype team tweeted on Thursday that they did not yet support the Galaxy Nexus, due to "changes in how Android reports screen resolution in ICS". That must have to do with the Galaxy Nexus's far superior res, then.

Some of the changes are, at first, more annoying than anything else. It will take a while to get used to scrolling sideways in the apps menu, rather than up and down. Also, there's a new method for picking up calls and — as I learned to my frustration — a new method for rejecting them. But overall, it's almost all a change for the better.

The Gmail and Calendar apps are pretty radically different too, and also in a good way, but I've refrained from showing you screenshots of those because, well, that stuff's personal.

Of course, you'll want the developers of your third-party apps to keep in line with the move to ICS. I generally found no problem here, with the glaring exception of Worms, my favourite mobile game, which now features my players walking off cliffs, jetpacking off into distant seas and playing hopscotch in minefields. Team17, please update the app.

I am very much looking forward to trying out ICS on a tablet. It is of course the first version of Android to be designed to work across smartphones and slates alike, and I expect great things, particularly as I suspect we will see much cheaper Android tablets coming out in 2012.

So yes, I am very happy with the upgrade. Not that there was anything wrong with Gingerbread, and I'm not sure I'll ever use some of the new ICS features, such as NFC-based tap-to-share, but it's a welcome refresh and a pleasure to get for free.

I do wonder, though, how much of the design aesthetic behind ICS was inspired by the Windows Phone interface. I don't mean "inspired by" as in "nicked from", because they still look very different, but I strongly suspect that Microsoft's impressively clean UI was taken into account as Android 4.0 was put together. Either way, I approve.

Topic: Telcos

David Meyer

About David Meyer

David Meyer is a freelance technology journalist. He fell into journalism when he realised his musical career wouldn't pay the bills. David's main focus is on communications, as well as internet technologies, regulation and mobile devices.

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  • They've stolen the clean line from Windows phone, what they haven't managed to steal is a proper update process. has reported that the update has been stopped for now due to upgrade problems.
  • Er, Windows Phone had much worse update problems earlier this year:

    Regarding these latest problems with the ICS upgrade, I can't comment on the apparent OTA bug as I did a manual update, but I can say I am not experiencing the battery life issues some people have reported. The battery life on the Nexus S has never been great, but I don't think it's worsened since I upgraded.
    David Meyer
  • I have to take back what I said about battery life. After further use, I can confirm that the battery life on this build of Android 4.0 for the Nexus S is very bad, and requires a recharge by the early afternoon. They clearly do have some stuff to fix.
    David Meyer
  • Windows Phone did have a problem with the February update, which turned out to be 'unexpected modifications' by the handset manufacturers; I think it's fair to say Microsoft did a good job of addressing that and fixing the update process for Mango. It will be interesting to see if Apple has dealt with its authentication server issue for the next iOS update (that left phones bricked until the servers were available). All the mobile OS makers have update issues sometimes - look at Google and the Gmail for iOS debacle - and I think how they address them may be what matters most in the long run.

    Simon Bisson and Mary Branscombe