Time for some fresh flavors, Android fans: Google has just announced the launch of Android 4.2, an update to the Jelly Bean platform that'll show up over the next couple weeks alongside the new Nexus 4 and Nexus 10 devices. Android 4.2 is a relatively minor upgrade from 4.1, but fear not: It packs plenty of exciting new features.
So what's Android 4.2 all about, and what'll it mean for you? Here are answers to all of your most pressing questions.
Does Android 4.2 look any different?
Yes and no. The core interface of Android 4.2 is basically the same as what's in the Android 4.1 version of Jelly Bean -- except, that is, for users of large-sized tablets.
As was rumored, tablets in Android 4.2 take on an interface similar to what's on the Nexus 7 now: Instead of having tile-style notifications in the lower-right corner and the app drawer in the upper-right -- a setup introduced with Android 3.0, Honeycomb, and carried over into Ice Cream Sandwich -- tablets will utilize a UI that more closely resembles the current Android smartphone interface. The interface features a top-of-screen notifications pulldown and a bottom-of-screen Favorites Tray with a centered icon for the app drawer.
On 10-inch tablets, the Favorites Tray will have six spots -- three on either side of the app drawer icon -- when oriented in landscape mode. There's also a Google Search bar at the top of the screen that provides one-touch access to the Jelly Bean Voice Search feature as well as the Google Now intelligent-assistant utility.
(A footnote: Given Android's open-source nature, it'll be up to each tablet manufacturer as to if and how the new interface is implemented. Some manufacturers could very well choose to stick with the older-style setup for their devices.)
Okay. But that aside, some things look different in Android 4.2, right?
You bet they do. The three tweaks I'm most excited about:
• Widgets on the lock screen! Android 4.2 has a new and improved lock screen that features native widget support -- something that's previously required the use of a third-party add-on like WidgetLocker. The implementation here appears to be a bit different, though: With Android 4.2, you actually get multiple lock screen panels to use for widgets. You can place some on the main lock screen and place others on panels that you access by swiping to the left.
• Quick settings! The icon in the notification pulldown that used to take you to the main system settings menu now pulls up a quick-list of options for common tasks like adjusting your device's brightness or volume, checking its battery level, or toggling airplane mode. The quick settings section can also be accessed by swiping down with two fingers from anywhere in the system (a one-finger swipe-down will still bring up the notification panel, as it always has). Seems like a nice way to implement that kind of functionality without resulting in the visual overload that we see with many manufacturer-made solutions.
• Native screensavers! Android 4.2 has a new feature called Daydream that lets you set up stuff to be shown when your device is idle or docked -- things like photo slideshows, news headlines, and so forth. Probably not something you'd want to use when toting your phone around during the day, but it could be very cool for phones or tablets that are docked at home.
There are also a lot of nice subtlement refinements throughout 4.2 that add an extra layer of polish to the platform.
What's the deal with this multiuser support I keep hearing about?
Well, Mr. Seinfeld, it's exactly what you'd think: As of Android 4.2, Android tablets can be shared among multiple users. When you switch users, it's as if you're switching tablets: Each person gets her own set of settings, complete with home screen, apps, and everything.
You can switch users with a couple of taps, too -- no cumbersome log-in, log-out procedure required.
Will multiuser support come to phones with Android 4.2?
No -- the feature is only for tablets. That kind of makes sense, when you think about it: Tablets are far more likely to be shared among multiple users, while phones are typically more personal devices.
How about new features? What else can Android 4.2 do?
Quite a bit, actually. Here are the highlights:
• Android 4.2 has a new Photo Sphere feature that lets you capture interactive panoramic images. They're kind of like what you see on Google Street View: You (or anyone else) can navigate around within an image to see views from all sorts of angles. You capture the images by snapping multiple photos in different directions; the Photo Sphere feature then stitches them together into a single cohesive sphere and gives you the option to upload the final product to Google Maps for everyone to see. (You can view some sample Photo Sphere images here.)
• Android 4.2 enables support for a new wireless display-sharing protocol called Miracast: With a Miracast adapter, you can stream audio and/or video directly from your device to any TV. Once connected, the TV will mirror everything happening on your phone or tablet. The adapters will be available soon and are expected to sell for under a hundred bucks; some TVs are also expected to come with integrated support for the protocol in the future.
• The latest Jelly Bean release features swipe-style typing on the stock keyboard (yes, like what you get in Swype, a popular third-party keyboard replacement). That's combined with the text-prediction functionality introduced in Android 4.1 to make for a far more powerful stock keyboard than we've ever seen before.
• The 4.2-level Gmail app automatically formats messages to fit horizontally within your screen. It also introduces pinch-to-zoom functionality within emails. Finally!
• The 4.2-level Play Store app has a new personalized music-discovery tool called Music Explorer.
• Android 4.2 introduces a powerful new multilayered security system; see my exclusive report for details.
Is there anything new with Google Now?
Why, yes, there is (my, you're wise!). Google Now gets a nice boost of power in Android 4.2. One of the neatest-sounding features is integration with Gmail: Google Now will use your email (provided you opt in, of course) to automatically pull up cards with things like ongoing flight-tracking information, package-tracking details, hotel reservation status, and entertainment recommendations.
Google Now also integrates with the new Photo Sphere feature to recommend interesting locations for you to snap sphere-style photos.
[UPDATE: The new Google Now features are now available for users on Android 4.1 as well.]
All right, smartypants: So when will my device get Android 4.2?
That's the million-dollar question, isn't it? Android 4.2 will ship on Google's new Nexus 4 and Nexus 10 devices, both of which are scheduled to launch on November 13. One would imagine the Nexus 7 and Galaxy Nexus will both be upgraded to 4.2 around that same time, along with the Nexus S, but Google has yet to release any official rollout plans for those devices.
As for non-Nexus devices, it's the usual game: Upgrade timing and availability is up to each manufacturer, and no specifics have been announced thus far. For now, you can track your device's Jelly Bean upgrade status in my Android 4.1 upgrade list. New information is always posted there as soon as it becomes available.