Android 4.1, Jelly Bean: Hands-on impressions

You may still be salivating for Ice Cream Sandwich, but today, there's a new Android dessert in town.

Google officially took the wraps off of Android 4.1, Jelly Bean, at its Google I/O developers' conference this morning. The new OS will ship on the Nexus 7 tablet also announced this week; it's scheduled to roll out to the Galaxy Nexus and Motorola Xoom in July (though upgrades for the Verizon versions of those devices, as you'd expect, will likely take longer due to Verizon's involvement). The Nexus S is also confimed to get the Jelly Bean upgrade at some point in the near future.

I've been spending the afternoon using Jelly Bean on both the Nexus 7 tablet and a GSM Galaxy Nexus phone. Here are my first impressions:

[SEE ALSO: Android 4.1, Jelly Bean: The complete FAQ]

Android 4.1 is a refinement -- not a ground-shifting upgrade.

Android 4.1 Jelly Bean - Home Screen

Ice Cream Sandwich was a massive upgrade to the Android platform. Jelly Bean is far more incremental. It's really more akin to the Froyo to Gingerbread (2.2 to 2.3) upgrade than the Gingerbread to Ice Cream Sandwich (2.3 to 4.0) bump.

That said, Android 4.1 is certainly not insignificant. It has some powerful performance enhancements and some sweet new features, too.

Android 4.1's performance improvements are definitely noticeable.

Google calls its Jelly Bean performance push "Project Butter" because it's meant to make everything run more smoothly than ever. Based on the time I've spent testing Android 4.1 so far, the buttery name is well earned.

So what's "Project Butter" all about? Take a deep breath: Google improved the system frame-rate and display refresh signal and also developed a new touch input system that anticipates where your fingers will land and gives the CPU an extra shot of power when you touch the screen. Blah, blah, blah -- that's all geek speak. What matters is that Jelly Bean is like ICS, only noticeably smoother and faster.

Some areas where you can see the difference are in rotating your phone, launching the "recent apps" list, and transitioning between the home screen and app drawer. I followed Google's suggestion and compared these processes on a 4.0-level Galaxy Nexus and a 4.1-level version of the same phone, and you can definitely see a noticeable improvement in the 4.1 device.

Android 4.1 has a new voice command system -- and it's actually really good.

Jelly Bean expands upon Google's existing Voice Actions technology to provide a more natural language-oriented system. The older command prompts still work -- saying "note to self" to send yourself a message, "navigate to" to launch turn-by-turn navigation, and so forth -- but now, you can ask regular ol' questions as well.

I'll be honest: I'm not usually a fan of voice assistant-type technology. Apple's Siri strikes me as rather gimmicky, and Samsung's S Voice flat-out sucks. So I've been pretty surprised at how impressive and potentially useful the new Jelly Bean voice system actually seems.

Android 4.1 Jelly Bean - Voice Search

The system resides in the Android search interface, which you can now access by touching the search bar on the home screen or by swiping your finger upward from the bottom of the screen (using a two-finger gesture positioned around the app drawer). You can also get to it directly from the lock screen, if you don't have a PIN or pattern set, by swiping upward from there. To activate the voice command function, you simply say "Google" -- while at the Android search interface -- and your device starts listening.

I threw a bunch of stuff Google's way, and with each query, its speed and accuracy blew me away. When I asked where a good Thai restaurant was nearby, the system presented me with a map and a list of places in the vicinity. When I asked how tall Adam Carolla is, the system showed me a card with his picture and height (and even read the answer out loud). It showed me a list of Web results beneath it, too, in case I wanted to read more.

The other interesting part of the Jelly Bean search experience is something called Google Now. With your permission, Google Now combines data from your activity and various Google services to deliver custom info cards catered to your needs. You might see a card showing the day's weather in the morning, for example, and one showing when the next train leaves from your platform in the evening. Google Now can even anticipate an upcoming calendar appointment, factor in the best method of transportation and current traffic delays, and alert you at the exact time you need to leave in order to arrive on schedule.

Google Now sounds really cool. Since it's based on ongoing usage and patterns, I haven't been able to test it out much yet, but it looks very promising.

[UPDATE: Google Now revisited: One month with Android's new secret weapon]

Android 4.1 notifications are noteworthy.

Android 4.1 Jelly Bean - Notifications

Notifications have always been one of Android's strengths. Jelly Bean makes them even stronger.

The entire Android notification panel gets a bit of a makeover with 4.1. The most significant change, though, is the addition of "active" notifications. You can see detailed info about multiple emails, for example, or full views of photos shared with you on Google+. You can even act on a meeting notification to email everyone else involved and let them know you're running late. Not too shabby.

Android 4.1 has a lot more worth exploring.

I'm just scratching the surface of what's new in Jelly Bean. The Android 4.1 upgrade has a bunch of other fresh stuff, ranging from a newly improved keyboard to widgets that automatically resize themselves to fit into your home screen. The Camera and Gallery have new simple photo-viewing gestures, and Android Beam allows for extra types of contact-free NFC interactions. And that's not even all of it.

I'll be getting to know Android 4.1 much more over the coming days. Stay tuned for more on my experiences with the OS and my impressions of how it compares to ICS and other Android releases.

And stay tuned tomorrow, too, for more from Google I/O. We still have another keynote ahead -- at 10 a.m. PT Thursday -- and plenty of other sessions and surprises. I'll be here covering it all; you can find my live play-by-play commentary of the keynote at Android Power in the morning and keep up with me via social media the rest of the day. (I posted a ton of fun pictures today, if you missed 'em.)

My contact info is all below.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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