Four Android 4.0 innovations worth a closer look

The features are among many on the Ice Cream Sandwich version of Android that debuted on the Galaxy Nexus 'superphone'

Google disclosed numerous innovations in Android 4.0, also called Ice Cream Sandwich, during a Webcast demonstration from Hong Kong on Wednesday using the coming Samsung Galaxy Nexus smartphone.

The changes in Android 4.0 range from a new typeface called Roboto to software-only buttons for functions such as "home" and "return" -- a first for Android.

But four new capabilities in Android 4.0 demonstrate what Andy Rubin, Google's senior vice president of mobile, said is "the innovative work our team is doing" amidst a fast-changing smartphone market. All four bear further scrutiny by users once the Galaxy Nexus ships in November.

The new features are: Face Unlock facial recognition, which failed in the Google demo; Android Beam, which uses near-field communication technology; and data monitoring, a potentially powerful user setting. The fourth innovation, which might seem trivial at first but could prove very popular, allows users to speed up the playback of long-winded voice mails.

Whether the Ice Cream Sandwich upgrade or the Galaxy Nexus phone draws the most attention in coming weeks remains to be seen. The phone hardware itself has already been put in the category of a "superphone," due to its large 4.65-in. display and 1280 x 720 HD resolution using Super Amoled technology.

The Galaxy Nexus is also powered by a 1.2 GHz dual-core processor. The phone is expected to launch in the U.S. in November on Verizon Wireless's 4G LTE network. Verizon hasn't confirmed pricing or availability, however.

The phone's hardware features are going to be relatively easy for users to evaluate, while Ice Cream Sandwich and its new features are still more of a mystery.

Face Unlock: Will it work?

Face Unlock was unsuccessfully demonstrated by Matias Duarte, senior director of Android user experience at Google. He introduced the facial recognition feature as a means of unlocking the Galaxy Nexus or future Android 4.0 phones without needing to type in a PIN.

"Face Unlock uses state of the art facial recognition," he said. "Ice Cream Sandwich literally knows our face."

Not this time, however, as Duarte's face wasn't recognized by the demo Galaxy Nexus phone. A quick retry seemed to work, but Duarte didn't seem to notice it had, and remarked: "My make-up must be stronger than expected."

Nearly all of Google's 30-minute presentation of Ice Cream Sandwich features on the Galaxy Nexus worked flawlessly, but Duarte didn't explain what the backup for such a facial recognition failure would be for users. Google officials assured Computerworld on Wednesday that if Face Unlock fails to recognize you there is a backup way to unlock the phone through either a PIN or a pattern that the user has created, as with other Android devices.

Android Beam and NFC

Because Ice Cream Sandwich works with near-field communication wireless technology, it will presumably allow use of the Google Wallet app that runs on Samsung's Nexus S 4G sold by Sprint.

But Google officials didn't mention Google Wallet during the presentation, and instead focused on using the NFC chip and software to support what Google calls the Android Beam app.

"Android Beam makes it easy to share any content ... by touching phones together," said Hugo Barra, Google's product management director for Android.

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