In-depth: Google's Ice Cream Sandwich -- a new era for Android

A detailed review of what's new in Android 4.0 and how it measures up

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Even that overflow menu itself moves around somewhat from application to application: On most apps that have been optimized for ICS, it lives within the action bar at the top. But on older apps that have not been updated to reflect the new design standards, it appears squished in alongside the main navigation icons at the bottom. A similar inconsistency occurred within Honeycomb. My hope is that, as the new interface reaches more and more devices, app developers will update their programs to support the new approach.

(With existing phones that have physical buttons, by the way, the physical buttons will continue to function as they always have; you'll just use those instead of the new on-screen alternatives. The full ICS effect will be seen only on the Galaxy Nexus and subsequent button-free devices.)

The app drawer and home screen customization

Android Ice Cream Sandwich

The app drawer has also been improved.

Ice Cream Sandwich introduces a newly designed app drawer that puts all of your installed applications and widgets in a single centralized place. The drawer swipes horizontally, with a pleasant scroll-and-fade animation effect as you move from one screen to another. An icon at the top of the drawer gives you direct access to the Android Market as well.

Customizing your home screens is now done right from the app drawer, streamlining a process that used to be far less intuitive. With ICS, you simply touch and hold any app shortcut or widget in the app drawer, and the system automatically shows you a preview of all five home screen panels. You can then drag and drop the item anywhere you want. You can get detailed information about an app or uninstall it while you're there, too -- tasks that used to be buried within layers of settings menus.

Home screen widgets have long been one of Android's most powerful and distinguishing features, and with Ice Cream Sandwich, they become even more valuable. Following the lead set in the tablet-focused Honeycomb OS (and seen in some third-party launcher replacement utilities), ICS allows you to interact with home screen widgets by scrolling or flipping without having to enter the actual apps.

Noteworthy examples include the Gmail widget, which lets you scroll through messages, and the Photo Gallery widget, which lets you flip through thumbnails of images on your phone. Widgets can now also be resized to take up more or less space on your home screen.

Home screen folders get a makeover with ICS, too, with a fresh new look and highly simplified setup. Creating a folder is now as easy as dragging one app on top of another; you can add or remove more apps by dragging and dropping, and you can change the folder's name by touching it.

Notifications and multitasking

Ice Cream Sandwich gets a brand new notification bar that houses icons and information about incoming messages and alerts. It's essentially a prettier and more powerful version of what's existed in the past.

Ice Cream Sandwich
Android 4.0 includes a revamped multitasking interface.

On the cosmetic side, the new notification area has a transparent gray background with blue and white text, matching the rest of the OS's revamped design. Functionality-wise, the notifications now support a new system-wide swiping gesture that allows you to dismiss any individual item by flicking it left or right. This is a welcome touch that gives you greater control over what you see.

The Ice Cream Sandwich notifications area includes interactive commands for controlling music playback when the Music app is active. That means you can pause or skip tracks right from the pulldown area, without having to interrupt what you're doing. Unfortunately, this feature appears to work only with the system Music app at the moment; third-party programs like Pandora are not currently compatible.

Along with the new notification system, Android 4.0 includes a revamped multitasking interface. It's activated by tapping the new "recent apps" button, located next to the virtual back and home commands. This brings up a scrollable list of all the apps and services you've recently opened on your phone, showing each app's name, icon and a thumbnail of its most recent state. As with the new notifications area, you can tap any item to activate it or flick to dismiss it.

The improvement here over Android's old system -- long-pressing the home key to bring up a small and limited list of icons -- is immeasurable. The new multitasking interface is easy to find, fun to use, and a true highlight of the 4.0 platform.

The ICS keyboard and voice input

Google has really gone a long way in improving the system keyboard in Ice Cream Sandwich. Compared to past Android releases, the ICS keyboard is far better at predicting and correcting text, which means you can type quickly and/or sloppily and it'll almost always figure out what you're trying to say.

Android Ice Cream Sandwich
It has become easy to correct voice input mistakes.

The new keyboard has a few nice bells and whistles, too, like built-in spell checking and a tremendously improved cut and paste system. I tend to be a fan of slide-based keyboards like Swype, but the stock Ice Cream Sandwich keyboard is good enough that I'm actually fine with -- and even enjoying -- using it.

On the voice-input front, the familiar microphone icon allows you to dictate text anywhere in the system, as it always has -- but now, text is transcribed continuously, so words show up as you're saying them instead of in one big chunk when you're finished speaking. You can also pause and stop speaking and the system will wait for you to continue instead of stopping the session. (To signal that you're finished, you press a "Done" button that appears on the screen.)

If the voice input mishears a word or two, error correction in Ice Cream Sandwich is quite easy: The system automatically underlines any words it thinks might be iffy, and then you just tap a word to see a list of likely alternatives and pick a replacement.

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