Android Ice Cream Sandwich: The complete FAQ

Ladies and gentlemen, dessert is served.

Google unwrapped its new Android Ice Cream Sandwich operating system at an event in Hong Kong this week. The OS is a massive step forward for Android, bringing a revamped design and staggering number of fresh features into the platform.

So what exactly is new with Ice Cream Sandwich, and what'll it mean for you? Here are answers to all of your most pressing questions.

Android Ice Cream Sandwich

What looks different in Android Ice Cream Sandwich?

So much has changed with Ice Cream Sandwich, it's hard to know where to begin. The first thing you'll notice with ICS is its completely reimagined design, especially compared with Gingerbread and other past phone-centric versions of the platform.

Ice Cream Sandwich is an evolution of the holographic interface introduced with the Honeycomb tablet OS earlier this year. It has a far more sleek and polished look, all the way down to a brand new font created specifically for the software (Google calls it "Roboto").

Android Ice Cream Sandwich Interface

With ICS, Google is trying to give Android users a more intuitive and consistent experience. Gone are the hidden and layered menus of commands; instead, an on-screen "action bar" presents you with contextual options relevant to the specific process you're performing.

The need for physical buttons like the home, back, and menu keys is completely eliminated, as a matter of fact; Ice Cream Sandwich, like Honeycomb, places these functions on-screen, rotating them to fit any way you hold your device and displaying them only when they're needed. That's why the new Galaxy Nexus flagship phone has no physical buttons; presumably, most future ICS phones will follow that trend.

What'll happen on phones that do have physical buttons, then? Will Ice Cream Sandwich work on those types of devices?

Yep -- only instead of getting the on-screen navigation buttons, you'll use your phone's physical buttons in the same way you do now. The menu key will load any contextual on-screen menus, and long-pressing the home key will load the multitasking tool, just like it has in past Android releases.

So what's the home screen like in Ice Cream Sandwich? Can I still set it up the way I want?

Absolutely -- the ICS home screen is really just an improved version of the home screen you have on your phone now. It still provides an open, customizable space that you can fill with any number and any combination of apps, shortcuts, and widgets. There are, however, a few noteworthy changes:

First, for phones, the dock at the bottom of the screen -- called the "favorites tray" -- now features four icons in addition to a link to your app drawer. You can change the four icons to point to any apps or shortcuts you want.

Second, widgets are now a whole new game. Ice Cream Sandwich introduces support for scrollable, interactive widgets, like we saw with Honeycomb -- meaning you can scroll through your inbox right from your home screen or flip through the latest news stories without having to ever open an app. Widgets in Ice Cream Sandwich are also resizable, so you can make them as large or as small as you want. All of the included system widgets are completely redesigned to reflect those changes and the new graphical look.

Speaking of widgets, the way in which you customize your home screens is all new in Ice Cream Sandwich. Apps and widgets now live together in one centralized customization tool; you can drag and drop any item from that tool directly onto any home screen panel. It's a simpler, easier, and much more intuitive setup.

Android Ice Cream Sandwich Apps and Widgets

Finally, folders are worth mentioning: With Ice Cream Sandwich, you can create folders simply by dragging one app on top of another. Function aside, folders have a new and improved look as well, making the feature even more appealing than it was in past releases.

I heard notifications are different now. What's up with that?

For tablet users, notifications will be similar to how they are with Honeycomb: They'll appear in the bottom system bar as icons with pop-up messages.

For phone users, notifications will continue to exist in a pull-down bar at the top of the screen -- but they'll have a new look and some new functions as well. For example, with Ice Cream Sandwich, you can dismiss any individual icon by swiping it left or right. You can also perform advanced functions like controlling music playback right from the notifications panel -- no third-party widgets required.

Android Ice Cream Sandwich Notifications

How does multitasking change with Ice Cream Sandwich?

Ice Cream Sandwich carries over the multitasking tool introduced with Honeycomb, which is a significant change for phone users in particular. With ICS, you tap a new multitasking button from anywhere in the system -- it's one of those virtual buttons that appears on the bottom your screen -- and that causes a new Recent Apps bar to appear. The Recent Apps bar shows you thumbnails of all your recently used applications; you can scroll through it and tap any app to jump directly to it. You can also dismiss any app from that list by swiping left or right on it (see the consistency with that gesture?).

Android Ice Cream Sandwich Multitasking

Are system apps like Gmail different in Ice Cream Sandwich?

Why, they most certainly are; the new look of Ice Cream Sandwich carries through to all parts of the platform, including apps like Gmail. Those apps have on-screen menus instead of button-hidden commands and also support functions like the left-and-right swipe for navigation. In Gmail, you also gain expanded message previews, the ability to select and manage multiple emails at once, and offline search capability.

The Calendar app gets a major makeover, too, with a much more appealing design and the addition of pinch-to-zoom functionality so you can hone in on specific dates or events. At a glance, it looks a bit like the excellent third-party Business Calendar app, which has been one of my must-have add-ons for ages.

Another system app refresh worth noting is that of Contacts, which is now known simply as "People." The People app puts a much more visual spin on the text-based Contacts of yore, showing you large, high-resolution photos of your various acquaintances and automatically compiling their social network connections into a single, centralized profile. Google describes it as a "live window into your social world."

If you use Google Voice, voicemails are even compiled within your friends' People profiles -- and, in a subtle but nice new twist, you can now speed up or slow down voicemail playback to help with the slow- (or fast-) talkers in your life.

How's about that browser? Can I sync bookmarks? And is it Chrome?

The Ice Cream Sandwich browser isn't actually Chrome (not yet, at least -- that might one day change), but it does have a lot of new Chrome-like features.

The ICS browser supports up to 16 tabs with live, thumbnail-based previews that let you toggle among your open pages. You can scroll through the tabs and swipe any of them left or right to close it right there.

Android Ice Cream Sandwich Browser Tabs

The browser does offer automated syncing with your Chrome desktop bookmarks. It also has incognito mode -- not that you need that, of course -- and an option to switch quickly between the desktop and mobile view of any website you're viewing. Another cool new feature is the ability to save any page for later offline viewing, right within the main browser app itself.

In terms of performance, Google says its new ICS browser has "dramatically improved page rendering performance," with V8 benchmarks nearly 550 percent higher and SunSpider benchmarks nearly 70 percent higher than the Gingerbread browser when compared a Galaxy Nexus phone.

Translated out of geek-speak: This thing's freakin' fast.

Is the Ice Cream Sandwich Camera app anything special?

Google's actually made some pretty impressive improvements with the Camera app in the Android Ice Cream Sandwich release. In addition to a new look and redesigned settings section, the Camera app now features "zero shutter lag" -- meaning you can take one photo after another in rapid succession -- as well as a suite of built-in photo-editing tools. You can also now capture full-resolution snapshots while you're recording video.

Android Ice Cream Sandwich Photos

Oh yeah -- and then there's the new panoramic photo feature. You can pan your camera across a wide area, and the system will automatically stitch it all together into one gigantic panoramic image.

What's all this face recognition mumbo-jumbo I keep hearing about?

Android Ice Cream Sandwich has an option to secure your phone with your face. In short, you take a snapshot of your face -- then, anytime you want to unlock your phone, you look into it and it recognizes you. You can also use a PIN or pattern code as a backup.

What are some other neat new bells and whistles in Ice Cream Sandwich?

Geez, you sure have a lot of questions, don't you? I kid, I kid. Ice Cream Sandwich is loaded with interesting new stuff. Take a deep are some highlights:

Okay -- so Ice Cream Sandwich works on both phones and tablets, right?

Yessiree Bob: From here on out with Android, it's one OS for everything. Ice Cream Sandwich looks a little different on a tablet compared to a phone, of course, but it'll have the same basic feel and the same exact method of operation.

Will my phone/tablet get Ice Cream Sandwich?

Well, it took you long enough to ask! That, of course, is the million-dollar question -- and slowly but surely, we're starting to get some answers.

JR Raphael writes about smartphones and other tasty technology. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

Article copyright 2011 JR Raphael. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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