Whew! There sure is a lot to digest with Google's new Android Ice Cream Sandwich OS, officially unveiled in Hong Kong this week. The software, also known as Android 4.0, introduces the biggest changes we've seen to Android since the 2.0 release that launched with the original Motorola Droid. Make no mistake about it: Using Android is about to become a whole new experience.
I'll be exploring different aspects of the software and its accompanying new Galaxy Nexus phone in the days to come -- but to start, I thought I'd share with you 10 of my favorite new Ice Cream Sandwich features. The list of changes and additions is enormous, but these 10 items are among ICS's high points.
1. Ice Cream Sandwich has a slick and intuitive new design.
Building off the interface launched for tablets earlier this year with Honeycomb, Ice Cream Sandwich introduces a completely new UI for phones and tablets alike (though the change will be more extreme on the phone side, of course, since it's a larger leap).
In short, everything is prettier and more polished. Commands that used to be hidden in menus or layers of menus are now all on-screen; an evolving "action bar" gives you contextual options for wherever you are in the system, and on-screen command buttons allow you to return home, move back, or toggle among applications.
Speaking of app-toggling, multitasking gets a major makeover in Ice Cream Sandwich, with an interactive list that lets you flip through thumbnails of recently used apps. There and throughout the entire system, you can swipe left or right to eliminate an item from the list; the same concept applies on the revamped notifications panel, allowing you to dismiss individual notifications with a single swipe to the side.
2. Ice Cream Sandwich has cool new widgets.
With Ice Cream Sandwich, widgets are resizable and scrollable, similar to what we saw introduced with Honeycomb. That means you can put a live view of your inbox right on your home screen, for example, and then scroll through it without actually having to open the app. You can make the widget as big or as small as you want to fit within your own personalized home screen setup.
New scrollable widgets are included for the calendar, music, social streams, and other system functions. Third-party widgets will also be able to take advantage of the scrollable and resizable features; in fact, plenty of them already do.
3. Ice Cream Sandwich has major photo improvements -- like the ability to take panoramic pictures.
That's right: panoramic pictures. The ICS photo app lets you slowly pan your camera across a large area to capture a gigantic perspective; it then automatically stitches the image together into a single panoramic view. Pretty damn cool.
Aside from that, the photo app now features "zero shutter lag," meaning you can snap photos instantly one after another with no delay (sorry, Apple). It has advanced photo editing built into the camera app, too, so you can tweak your images right then and there.
On the video front, Ice Cream Sandwich offers stabilized zoom and the ability to take full-resolution snapshots while you're recording video.
4. Ice Cream Sandwich lets you unlock your phone with your face.
Yes, you read that correctly. ICS introduces a new face recognition security feature in which you can capture an image of your shiny happy mug, then simply smile into the phone to unlock it in the future. The software recognizes your face and lets you right in. (You can always use a backup PIN or pattern in case you get punched in the mouth or otherwise disfigured.)
5. Ice Cream Sandwich lets you "beam" info from one device to another.
In another futuristic twist, the new ICS OS has a feature Google calls Android Beam. Using Near Field Communication (NFC) technology, the feature allows you to tap the back of your phone to the back of another ICS phone and, in a split second, pass along any type of info from one device to the other.
If you're viewing a Web page, for example, and tap phones with someone else, the page will instantly pull up on their device. You could share an app, a contact, a song, a video, or practically any other type of data in the same way; you could even initiate multiplayer game play with one quick tap.
6. Ice Cream Sandwich has a new browser with tabs and sync.
Android's browser gets a major upgrade with Ice Cream Sandwich, gaining full tab support and native bookmark syncing with your desktop Chrome browser. It also introduces a new built-in page-saving feature, for offline reading, and the ability to quickly toggle between mobile and desktop versions of a website (finally!).
7. Ice Cream Sandwich lets you take screenshots.
Another "finally!" moment: With ICS, Google gives us an easy way to grab screenshots of our devices. All you do is press your device's power and volume-down button simultaneously, and an image of your screen is captured and saved to your storage.
8. Ice Cream Sandwich has a cool "quick response" feature for incoming calls.
Ever get a call and don't feel like answering? Ice Cream Sandwich's new "quick response" system lets you send a canned message right from the incoming call screen to the person trying to reach you. This way, you can let them know why you aren't answering -- telling them "I'm in a meeting and will get back to you later," for example, or "Get out of my life, you annoying twit."
9. Ice Cream Sandwich lets you disable preinstalled apps.
With the exception of Google's Nexus phones, bloatware is an unfortunate reality on many Android devices. Ice Cream Sandwich makes it easier to manage it, though, giving you the option to disable any preinstalled app on your phone. Once disabled, an app's resources won't run and its icon won't appear anywhere in your system.
So long, V CAST.
10. Ice Cream Sandwich has intelligent data controls.
More and more carriers are moving toward tiered data plans for smartphones, and that means we as users have to keep track of how many bits and bytes we're gobbling up. ICS does the work for you: Its new data usage control system lets you monitor your overall data usage and set limits to ensure you'll never get stuck with outrageous overage charges.
The Ice Cream Sandwich data control center shows you total data usage for the system and by individual app so you can see exactly what's burning through your kilobytes. And better yet, if you're on a limited plan, you can tell ICS to keep an eye on things for you: The system can warn you when you reach a certain level of usage, or even stop using 3G/4G data altogether once you hit a predefined limit. You can tell it to limit data usage individually by app, too, giving you an enormous amount of detailed control.
So there you have it: a quick taste of some of my favorite features in ICS so far. I'll be diving in deeper in the coming days and weeks and will be reviewing both Ice Cream Sandwich and the new Nexus in great detail as soon as Google makes review units available.
This is the beginning of a major new chapter for Android, and we're just starting to scratch the surface. Stay tuned: Exciting times are ahead.
Article copyright 2011 JR Raphael. All rights reserved.