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Innovation

Android 4.0 (Ice Sandwich) on Nexus S 4G (review)

Thanks to the homebrew effort I have installed Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) on my Nexus S 4G. It is the best smartphone version of Android to date.
Written by James Kendrick, Contributor on

The Galaxy Nexus is the first smartphone shipping with Android 4.0, aka Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS), and thanks to the homebrew community the latest treat from Google is available for other phones. My Nexus S 4G has been happily running the previous version for a while, but I decided to pull the trigger and installed ICS to see how it works on phones. I am impressed with Google's latest version of Android, as it is a polished system that brings the platform up to date.

I won't detail how I installed the ICS custom ROM on my Nexus S 4G as that is beyond the scope of this article. While the ROM I am using is based on stock ICS, it is not the official ROM so I am not reviewing it in detail. I am instead offering my impressions of Android 4.0, and highlighting what I like about it.

ICS is not a huge evolution of the Android platform, rather a lot of little improvements in both operation and appearance that turn using the phone into a pleasurable experience. Everything looks crisper and cleaner, and using the phone is more intuitive than with previous versions.

The new version of Android uses soft buttons on the screen instead of the four physical button arrangement with earlier versions. This custom ROM, however, recognizes the presence of the four buttons on the Nexus S and uses them instead of the soft buttons from ICS. I prefer this method as the elimination of the soft button controls frees up screen real estate.

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Home screen landscape

I have not been a fan of Honeycomb (Android 3.x) on tablets, as I find the interface to be inconsistent for the tablet screen. ICS takes the good parts of Honeycomb and ignores the parts I don't like. The end result is an attractive smartphone interface that is fun to use.

Common interface features that are ingrained into Android are still there but improved for better utility. Multiple home screens are still available with resizable widgets and a clean dock that is accessible from any home screen. App shortcuts can be added to any of the home screens along with widgets to provide all sorts of information at a glance. Nice visual touches are noticeable in the interface, such as 3D tilt effects and a blue edge effect when trying to scroll left/right when it is not possible.

[caption id="attachment_5821" align="alignnone" width="168" caption="App drawer (widget access)"]

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The familiar app drawer is still there, but augmented to also give access to widgets and the Android Market from one place. App icons placed on the home screen can be dragged on top of other icons to automatically create folders for organization as desired.

TIP: Drag a folder onto the dock for easy access on any home screen.

The good Android notification system has been improved in ICS. The old faithful notification shade is still there, but it is now possible to swipe individual notifications off the shade to get rid of them. Tapping any notification takes you to the appropriate place to deal with it.

System settings are now organized for better access, and this area now provides more information about the phone. The new information includes extensive battery usage information, and a detailed breakdown of mobile data usage.

The browser in ICS is very similar to the latest version in Honeycomb, and works as expected. Some web sites (including this one) with multiple columns of information do not render to fit the columnar space properly; turning off Auto Fit Pages in the browser settings solves that problem. The browser uses page thumbnails in the bookmarks, and handles multiple tabs in the background.

TIP: Long-press the Back button in the browser to instantly open the bookmarks page.

TIP: Enable Quick Controls in the browser Labs setting to enable swiping a control wheel in from the left or right of a web page to give easy access to any open tab or the settings.

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Browser Quick Controls (in Labs)

The ICS onscreen keyboard is the best Android version yet, and in fact may be the best on any platform. The predictive text is good out of the box, and for the first time I have not installed a third party keyboard such as SwiftKey.

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Keyboard with predictive text entry

The new camera app in ICS is full featured and includes a good method for shooting panoramic views with ease. All controls are easy to access, yet get totally out of the way when not needed to provide better use of the display.

See also: Hands-on with the Samsung Galaxy Nexus with Android 4.0 by Matt Miller

Since this ROM is not the official version from Google, it is not appropriate to make determinations about the performance of ICS on the Nexus S 4G. It is performing on par with the official Gingerbread version it replaced. Using the same reasoning, the only observation I will make about battery life is it has been as good as the previous version.

I am enjoying Android 4.0 on the Nexus S 4G the longer I use it. It is more intuitive during prolonged usage, and much more attractive than previous versions. I am looking forward to the official release of ICS for the Nexus S 4G, which Google has promised real soon now.

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