Android 4.1, Jelly Bean: The complete FAQ

Android 4.1 Jelly Bean

Just when you thought life couldn't get any sweeter, Google's new Android 4.1 Jelly Bean OS is making its way out of the oven and into the world.

Google's Jelly Bean release builds upon the foundation of Ice Cream Sandwich -- a.k.a. Android 4.0 -- and adds plenty of polish, performance enhancements, and fresh features into the mix. It isn't as transformational of an upgrade as ICS was, but it's certainly significant -- and certainly something you'll want on your tablet or phone.

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

Does Android 4.1 look any different?

If you're coming from Ice Cream Sandwich, the visual differences in Android 4.1 are subtle -- more refinements than revolutions. (If you're not yet on ICS, you've got some big changes in store; see my Ice Cream Sandwich FAQ for the full scoop on the 4.0-level revamp.)

Jelly Bean keeps the basic look and feel established in Android 4.0 but fine-tunes a lot of details. The notification pulldown has a new look, with larger text and more gray and white in place of blue. (It also has some new functionality -- more on that in a bit.)

Lots of new effects and transitions are sprinkled throughout the system, too. When you move your finger over the lock screen, for example, a circle of tiny dots follows your touch. And when you open an app from your home screen, the app opens by zooming up from the space you touched. These types of subtle improvements all add up to make the Android interface more polished and impressive than it's ever been before.

Android 4.1 Jelly Bean Lock Screen

Jelly Bean introduces a new system "share" menu, too, along with an improved "open with" box (you know, the dialog that appears when you tap on a link or file that more than one program could handle). The search box at the top of the home screen has a new frosted type of look. And the initial phone setup/sign-in process gets a major makeover; with Jelly Bean, the process is far more simple and user-friendly than what we've seen in the past.

Android 4.1 Jelly Bean Share

What about performance? Is Jelly Bean really faster than ICS?

Believe it or not, it is. Google calls its Android 4.1 performance push "Project Butter" because it's meant to make everything run much more smoothly (either that or because it's salty and delicious -- but I'm assuming the former).

It's no mere gimmick, either: The difference in speed from Android 4.0 to 4.1 is immediately noticeable. With Jelly Bean, the phone rotates far more quickly than it did in past Android releases. Transitions, especially between the home screen and app drawer, are significantly faster. And the "recent apps" list loads instantly when you tap the button -- the slight delay present in ICS is a thing of the past. I tested two Galaxy Nexus phones side by side, one with Android 4.0 and the other with 4.1, and the improvements were obvious.

(You can learn more about what it's like to actually use Jelly Bean in my Android 4.1 hands-on impressions.)

All right, Mr. Wizard, how'd they make Android 4.1 so much faster, then?

Well, señor and/or señorita, take a deep breath: Google increased the speed of the Android OS by improving the system frame-rate and display refresh signal and also developing a new touch input system that anticipates where your fingers will land and then gives the CPU an extra shot of power when you touch the screen.

Whew -- got all that?

If you really want even more technical detail, do me a favor: Go outside and breathe some fresh air, maybe interact with a real human or two, then come back. I'll wait.

Still interested? My, you are a tenacious little monkey. The full technical nitty gritty of Project Butter is more than I'm going to get into here, but you can find all the details you crave at Google's Android developers' website -- specifically, this page.

Okay, let's talk features. Tell me about Jelly Bean's new search and voice control stuff.

Android 4.1 Jelly Bean Search

I thought you'd never ask! Android 4.1 gets a whole new search system, and boy, is it cool. Instead of simply showing you Web results for whatever term you enter, the Jelly Bean search setup gives you informational cards with detailed answers about what you really want to know. (You can still find standard search results beneath the quick info cards.)

Search is also now more thoroughly integrated into the Android system: In addition to the Google search bar at the top of the home screen, you can get to the Android search tool from the lock screen -- by swiping upward on the slide lock -- or from anywhere in the OS by swiping up from the virtual home button.

The most impressive new thing in Jelly Bean search, without a doubt, is the revamped voice search system. While Google's Voice Actions have allowed you to issue specific voice commands for years, the new 4.1-level setup allows for more natural types of queries as well.

Once in the search tool, you simply say "Google" to activate the new voice command system. Then, you can ask all sorts of questions and Google will show -- and tell -- you the answers.

If you ask "How tall is Scarlett Johansson," for example, the system returns a card with the actress's face (nothing wrong with that) and her height; it also speaks aloud and tells you the information. If you ask "How hot is it gonna be tomorrow" or "Is it supposed to rain this week?" -- or pretty much any other weather-related question -- Google delivers the answer in a similar graphic-plus-audio form.

The options go on and on. You can ask for good Chinese restaurants near you, tell Google to navigate you to a specific location by car or by foot, or ask for any type of Web-accessible information, ranging from when your favorite sports team plays next to when your friend's flight is scheduled to arrive. The existing command-style prompts still work, too, if you want to send yourself a note, compose and send a text, or start listening to a particular band or song.

The possibilities are practically endless.

What's this Google Now thing all about?

Android 4.1 Jelly Bean Google Now

Google Now is another new part of the Android 4.1 search tool. In a nutshell, it uses a combination of your location, search history, calendar, and other habits to automatically deliver relevant information to you throughout the day.

(And if you're worried about privacy, yes, it's optional; Google Now works only if you choose to opt in.)

The concept seems very cool, though it'll take some time to see how useful it actually ends up being. So what kinds of things can Google Now do? Some examples: It can tell you the weather at the start of the day, show you how much traffic to expect as you head out the door to work, show you your favorite sports team's score when the game's underway, and show you when the next train is scheduled to arrive as you step onto the platform.

If you have an upcoming calendar appointment, Google Now can look at the appointment's address and at your current location, then estimate travel time based on current traffic conditions and let you know when you need to leave in order to arrive on time. If you're in a new area, Google Now can recommend nearby restaurants and other places of interest. Cards that are particularly timely appear as notifications on your phone; all other Google Now cards are always available in the Jelly Bean search tool.

Crazy concept, eh?

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

What's new with notifications in Android 4.1?

Everything! Jelly Bean notifications are a whole new game compared to past Android releases. Visual differences aside, notifications in Android 4.1 are both expandable and action-oriented.

Android 4.1 Jelly Bean Notifications

What that means is that you can drag down on notifications, using two fingers, to expand them and get additional information and options. When you expand a missed call alert, for example, you get options to call the person back or text them right from your notifications panel. With new email, you can expand to see details about multiple new messages in your inbox. And with a captured screenshot, you can expand to get an option to share the image right then and there.

Not too shabby.

How's about the home screen -- anything new going on there?

You betcha, bucko. We already talked about a few of the tweaks (the new search bar, the swipe-up-to-search command on the virtual home button), but fear not: There's more.

For one, Jelly Bean makes it much easier to add and arrange widgets and shortcuts on your home screen. When you slide in a new widget, the system automatically moves other items in the area to make room for it. If there still isn't enough space, it'll resize the widget for you to make it fit (as much as possible).

The same thing happens with regular app shortcuts: You can slide an icon next to another icon to bump it over and open the space.

Android 4.1 also has a handful of new integrated system widgets, including a bunch of Google Play-related items (to see your purchased/rented multimedia, recommendations for app or multimedia downloads, and so forth) as well as a new Sound Search widget that's basically the same thing as Shazam or SoundHound: You tap the widget while a song is playing, and after "listening" for a few seconds, it tells you the name of the song and the artist who performs it.

Android 4.1 Jelly Bean Sound Search

Why would Google want to build its own version of such a thing, you might ask? Simple: Along with the song and artist info, Google's Sound Search widget gives you a one-tap option to buy the track directly from the Google Play Store. Cha-ching!

How will Jelly Bean look on a tablet?

An excellent inquiry, my dear Watson. As it turns out, the way Jelly Bean looks on a tablet depends upon the size of said tablet.

I'd go into more detail, but my fingers are getting tired. Luckily, a devilishly handsome writer already did a splendid job of explaining the situation; you can bask in the exotic beauty of the info (or, you know, just get the basic facts) on this page.

What, that's it? Nothing else new in Jelly Bean?

Oh, ye of little faith. Jelly Bean has plenty of other surprises.

Here's a laundry list of other random bells and whistles awaiting you in Android 4.1:

  • An updated Camera app that lets you swipe on the viewfinder to jump directly into your Gallery of images for easy photo viewing and sharing
  • An updated system keyboard with better dictionaries, improved text-to-speech functionality, offline text-to-speech support, and intelligent word prediction (a la SwiftKey)
  • Added support for contact-free NFC sharing of photos and videos
  • "Smart app updates" that let you download only the changed portions of updated applications instead of having to download the entire app every time an update rolls in
  • An improved face-unlock security mode that requires you to blink before your phone will unlock
  • A slew of new gesture-based navigation commands for visually impaired users; also added support for Braille input and output devices

Got it. So will my phone/tablet get Jelly Bean? And if so, when?

That's the million-dollar question, isn't it? For the full scope of Android 4.1 upgrades and where your phone or tablet stands, click over to my massive evolving database:

Android 4.1 upgrade list: Is your device getting Jelly Bean?

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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