In the world of mobile technology, things change fast -- and there's no better example than Google's Android operating system. In the span of three and a half years, Android has evolved from a rough and limited newcomer into a sleek and polished platform that dominates the smartphone market.
With the release of Android 4.0, a.k.a. Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS), late last year, Google ushered in a new era for its mobile OS. Android 4.0 gives the platform a unique visual identity and a long-overdue coat of polish. It introduces a host of powerful features, too. Like any major OS update, Android 4.0 can require a bit of adjustment, whether you're coming from a previous version of Android or from another smartphone platform.
Not to worry, though: We're making your ICS transition easy. This guide has all the info you need to get comfortable navigating through Android 4.0 and utilizing its updated features. And the accompanying cheat sheet provides quick reference charts that show you how to perform an array of tasks in Android 4.0.
Note: For the purposes of this story, we're focusing primarily on Google's stock Android 4.0 software as it applies to phones. Many manufacturers modify the software with their own custom interfaces; depending on your device, some elements of the operating system may be slightly different from what's described here.
So sit back, relax, and get ready for a treat: It's time to tuck into Google's Ice Cream Sandwich.
Just want to know how to do a specific task in Ice Cream Sandwich? Check out our Android 4.0 cheat sheet.
Home screen and system navigation
As with past versions of Android, the heart of Ice Cream Sandwich lies in its home screen; it's the main way you'll get around and get things done. If you've used Android before, the first thing you'll notice is how different the home screen looks in the 4.0-level release: With Ice Cream Sandwich, Google phased in a completely new graphic design, revolving around a blue-and-gray "holographic" interface and a custom font called Roboto.
Appearances aside, some things work a little differently in ICS than they have in the past. Follow along for a guided tour of the Android 4.0 home screen.
Status/Notification bar: The status bar always sits along the top of your phone's screen. On its right, you'll see the current time along with your battery level and data connection status; on its left, you'll see alerts and notifications, which have gotten a serious boost in Android 4.0.
Search bar: Android 4.0 features a Google search bar at the top of every home screen panel. You can tap here and begin typing a search term, or tap the Voice Actions icon on the right to initiate a voice search or perform other voice commands.
Home screen: You can fill this area with any combination of app shortcuts, folders and live, dynamic widgets (more on those in a bit). Android 4.0 gives you five home screen panels; just swipe left or right to move to the next or previous panel and access whatever you've stored there.
Favorites tray: The Favorites tray is like a dock for your home screen: The shortcuts or folders placed there stay present as you swipe from one panel to the next. By default, the tray includes commonly used items such as your Phone app, People app, Messaging app and Browser, with an icon for launching your app drawer in the center -- but you can customize it to include any items you want.
Navigation buttons: Instead of relying on a phone's physical buttons as in previous versions of Android, ICS has three main navigation buttons built into the interface at the bottom of the screen:
The Back button, which looks like a left-facing arrow, takes you back one step from wherever you are.
The Home button, which looks vaguely like a house, returns you to your home screen.
The Recent Apps button -- a new addition to Android 4.0 -- allows you to multitask and switch among recently used applications. You can tap the button from anywhere in the system to get a list of recently used apps, then tap on any app to jump directly to that program. You can also swipe left or right on any app to dismiss it and remove it from the list.
If you've used Android before, you might be wondering what happened to the Menu button. As of Android 4.0, the Menu button is a thing of the past: All options and commands now appear on-screen instead of being hidden away like they were with previous-generation devices.
If an application has more options than can fit on the screen, you'll see an icon that looks like three vertical dots; tapping that icon will bring up a list of additional functions relevant to your current activity.
(Curiously enough, the location of the vertical-dots icon is not always consistent, which was one of my criticisms of ICS in my initial review of the software.)
If your phone has hardware buttons: It's worth noting that while Google's Android 4.0 design guidelines call for virtual on-screen buttons, some phones still use hardware buttons instead -- either because they're older devices that have been upgraded or newer phones whose manufacturers have opted to stick with the older-style setup. If you're using an Android device that has physical buttons, those buttons should more or less correspond with the same functions described above.
A couple of exceptions: If your phone has a physical Menu button, some options in applications will remain hidden behind that button, as they have in the past. You can press the Menu button in various applications to see what additional options are available to you.
If your phone has a physical Home button but no Recent Apps button, meanwhile, you can access the app-switching function by pressing the Home button and holding it down for a few seconds.
Android 4.0 notifications
Notifications have always been a strength of Android, and with Android 4.0, they become more powerful than ever. Notifications appear on the left side of the status bar at the top of your phone's screen. The icons you see here indicate everything from new email and text messages to missed calls and calendar appointments.
To view your notifications in detail, touch your finger to the Notification bar and swipe downward. A panel will pull down over your screen showing you all of your pending notifications; you can tap on any notification to view more information about it or swipe your finger left or right on it to dismiss it from the list. You can also tap the "X" at the top-right of the notification area to dismiss and remove all of your pending notifications.
The type of notifications you get depends on what apps and accounts you have configured on your phone. With any app that's capable of sending notifications, you can customize what events trigger notifications or even disable notifications altogether; just look in the settings of each individual app to find those options.
In Gmail, for example, you can tap on the vertical-dots icon at the bottom of the screen (or press the Menu button, if you're on an older phone) to access the app's settings.
Within the Settings menu, tap on the line representing your Gmail account -- if you have more than one Gmail account configured, you can control notifications separately for each one -- and then check or uncheck "Email notifications" to enable or disable notifications for that account. You can also configure whether a sound and/or vibration will accompany each new mail notification.
Similar controls exist in other notification-capable apps, including the Messaging app (for text messages), Google Voice, Google+, Facebook and most Twitter clients.
In addition to basic activity-based alerts, the notifications area can display active controls for certain types of apps, such as the Android Play Music app; when you're playing a song in that app, pulling down the notification panel will reveal a set of interactive playback controls that allow you to pause, play or stop the music, or navigate through the album's tracks.
Apps in Android 4.0
If the home screen is the heart of Android, the apps are the blood that pump through its veins. Much of the Android experience revolves around applications, whether they're basic system apps like the Phone and Browser apps or third-party apps like Dropbox, Flipboard and Google Reader.
If you've used an earlier version of Android, you'll find that installing apps works the same way in ICS, so you can skip directly to "Accessing and organizing apps" below.
Finding and installing apps
Android allows you to install apps from any source you wish. That said, most people use the Google Play Store to get new applications; it's the official Android market for apps (formerly known as the Android Market, fittingly enough) and the simplest and most direct way to get new programs onto your phone.
You can access the Google Play Store directly from your phone, via the Play Store icon (it looks like a shopping bag); you can also access it online from any PC by going to play.google.com. Whichever interface you use, just follow the tab for Android apps to browse through categories of popular and recommended applications. You can also use the Play Store's search function if you're looking for a particular title or type of application.
When you find an app you want, touch the Download or Install button to put it onto your phone. If you're using the Play Store website, the app will be sent wirelessly to your device. If you have multiple Android devices connected to your Google account -- a phone and a tablet, for example -- the website will prompt you to select the device you want to use via a drop-down menu.
If you see a price in place of the Download or Install button, that means the app isn't free; tap the button with the price if you want to buy it, and the cost will be charged to whatever credit card you have connected to your Google account. (The Play Store prompts you to set up a payment method the first time you connect or attempt to purchase an application.)
Accessing and organizing apps
You can always access all of your applications by tapping your phone's Apps icon -- the circled cluster of dots located in your Favorites tray at the bottom-center of your home screen.
This opens up your All Apps area, commonly called the app drawer, which contains a complete list of apps installed on your phone; swipe left or right to scroll through the list, and touch any app to open it.
If you want easy access to an app, you can add it as a shortcut on your home screen. Just press and hold the icon in your app drawer, then use your finger to drag it around until it's in a place you like. You can move the shortcut between home screen panels by sliding your finger to the very left- or rightmost edge of the current panel -- and if you decide you want to move a shortcut somewhere else later, all you have to do is press and hold the icon on your home screen to pick it up and relocate it. To remove a shortcut from your home screen, press and hold it, then drag it to the Remove icon that appears at the top of the scren.
Want to completely uninstall an app from your phone? Easy: All you have to do is press and hold it in the app drawer, then drag it to the Uninstall icon that shows up at the top of the screen. You'll also see an App Info icon; dragging the app there will allow you to view detailed info about the program's usage and permissions as well as clear its cache or data storage.