Android 4.0's Five Best New Features for Users

The new Android, Ice Cream Sandwich, looks great at first sight and it should make both Android smartphone and tablet users happier.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Welcome to Android 4: Ice Cream Sandwich

Welcome to Android 4: Ice Cream Sandwich

Silly name aside, Android 4.0, Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS), is perhaps the most important Android release to date. With this release, Google has brought its tablet Android fork, 3.x, back into sync with its smartphone trunk, 2.x. In addition, all of ICS will soon, as I understand it, be made open source.

What that means for you is that independent software vendors (ISV)s can stop wasting time in developing two different versions of programs and focus their energies on making the best possible Android applications. Since, at the end of the day, the success of any operating system is all about its applications, this bodes well for Android.

Like Google told its developers, "Android 4.0 is a major platform release that adds a variety of new features for users and app developers. Besides all the new features and APIs [application programming interfaces] discussed below, Android 4.0 is an important platform release because it brings the extensive set of APIs and Holographic themes from Android 3.x to smaller screens. As an app developer, you now have a single platform and unified API framework that enables you to develop and publish your application with a single APK that provides an optimized user experience for handsets, tablets, and more, when running the same version of Android-Android 4.0 (API level 14) or greater."

Don't get too excited about Android 4 quite yet though. While Android 4 has lots of good features--the most important of which I'm going to talk about here--it's also not going to be available for most of you on your existing smartphones and tablets.

Ten great Android 4 features (screenshots)

Curiously enough, Google doesn't spell out anywhere exactly what the hardware requirements are for Android 4. What we do know is that it will run on the new Samsung Galaxy Nexus, the ICS launch device. This new smartphone comes with a 1.2GHz dual-core TI OMAP4 CPU, front and rear-facing cameras and 1GB of RAM. It also includes Bluetooth, 802.11n Wi-Fi, and NFC (Near Field Communications). This device will start shipping in November.

But will you need a 1.2 GHz dual-core processor and a gig of RAM to run ICS? Good question. To get the full Android 4 experience, I think you will need at least that much in the way of hardware resources. According to Google's Director of Android operating system User Experience, Matias Duarte, ICS "theoretically should work for any 2.3 device."

That's all well and good, but I'm not holding my breath that Verizon will be upgrading my Motorola Droid 2 to ICS anytime soon, or ever, for that matter. Besides, even if they did, can my hardware support NFC? Nope, so I wouldn't be able to trade data with a buddy by bringing my phone next to his anyway. If you really want to get ICS, and certainly to get the most from it, you're going to need a new smartphone or tablet.

So what will you get from ICS? Well for my money, here are the top features.

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Ice Cream Sandwich's Best

1) Better, more universal, interface

Some people, and I'm one of them, aren't crazy that every vendor's version of Android looks and works differently. It's annoying to re-learn how the basics work every time I switch from one manufacturer's device to another. In ICS, the physical back, home, search, and menu buttons have been replaced by virtual buttons that appear at the bottom of the screen in the System bar and you can always navigate instantly to Back, Home, and Recent Apps. Contextual options for the app you're running in the foreground are always in the Action Bar at the top of the screen.

Android 3.1's scrollable multitasking interface shows up in ICS and it comes with a persistent soft button. A related and neat feature is that you can close an application by swiping its thumbnail off the screen.

The new Android also automatically enables you to drag one app icon on the home-screen onto another to automatically create folders. This makes organizing your interface much easier. I confess I've envied iPhone and iPad users this feature for a long time and I'm glad to see it finally make it to Android.

ICS also comes with Android the easy-to-read "Roboto" font. Of course, while vendors will still make their own tweaks, the over-all effect seems to me to lead to an improved and more consistent interface.

You don't have to take my word for it, see it for yourself in Unwrapping Google Ice Cream Sandwich 4.0, ZDNet's ICS photo tour.

2) Better applications.

ICS has more than just developer unification going for it. ICS includes many APIs that are going to lead to some very handy applications. For example, the new universal social networking API will soon lead to better social networking applications no matter whether your favorite social network is Facebook, Google+, or Twitter.

Some nifty applications are already built-in. For instance, the People app. is a universal address book that collects not just your usual e-mail addresses and phone contact lists, but can also add in your social network contacts. The camera user-interface, which has also been a weak spot in Android as far as I'm concerned, has also been greatly improved.

Another kind of application that any business user is going to welcome with open arms is that Android finally makes it easy to use virtual private network (VPN)s. In addition, ICS comes with standard VPN client that supports the Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol (L2TP) and Internet Protocol Security (IPsec) IPSec protocols.

3) Speech transcription.

OK, it's not Apple iPhone 4s' Siri voice-powered assistant, but voice transcription is done in real-time with surprisingly little latency. While I haven't used it myself, all the demos I've seen of it are very impressive.

Looking ahead I can see some bright developers creating their own version of Siri using ICS' voice to text feature. It's only a matter of time. I look forward to the day when I can say "Earl Grey, Hot." to my phone and, if it can't make it, it can at least point me to the nearest coffee shop that also brews a decent cup of tea.

4) Better and faster Web browsing

While Google hasn't brought its Chrome Web browser over to Android yet, there is a lot of Chrome goodness in Android's built-in Web browser.

The Android Browser is built around updated versions of WebKit core and the V8 Crankshaft JavaScript engine. Google claims that, "In benchmarks run on a Nexus S device, the Android 4.0 browser showed an improvement of nearly 220% over the Android 2.3 browser in the V8 Benchmark Suite and more than 35% in the SunSpider 9.1 JavaScript Benchmark. When run on a Galaxy Nexus device, the Android 4.0 browser showed improvement of nearly 550% in the V8 benchmark and nearly 70% in the SunSpider benchmark." That wicked fast compared to where it once was.

On top of that you can now sync the ICS native browser with Google Chrome bookmarks. You also can set options so that you always get the full "desktop" versions of your favorite Web sites, rather than their mobile versions. There are many other minor improvements; the net effect is to make Web browsing much nicer.

5) Data use monitoring

OK, it's certainly not sexy, but with every phone company in the world adding some kind of restrictions to your data subscription, knowing exactly how much data you have left before you run out of "free" time or bandwidth is becoming a necessity. You can also use this tool to see what applications are sucking down your data allowance. I can already tell you that you'll be surprised to see some programs using the net when you think your phone is sitting there idly.

Put it all together and what do you get? I think you get not just the best Android ever, I think you get the best mobile operating system of them all to date.

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