Google made a massive splash in more ways than one at its Google I/O 2012 developer conference. Not only did it unveil its new Nexus 7 tablet and Nexus Q entertainment device, it pulled the wraps off of the software powering it all, Android 4.1 Jelly Bean.
Besides having a delicious name, Jelly Bean features a whole host of upgrades including smoother handling, a fresh look, a more intuitive UI, camera enhancements, and new voice search prowess rivaling Apple's Siri. Now we know many Android smartphone users are still stuck in Android 2.3 Gingerbread-land, yet to experience the joy of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. Once you see what Jelly Bean can do, you'll want to hopscotch right past ICS and make Android 4.1 your mobile home.
Interface and unlock
Google has made a few subtle changes to the OS interface, just enough for you to tell it's a different operating system as soon as you unlock the phone. The unlock screen on stock Android 4.1 adds some animated rings around the unlock icon, and now lets you unlock to the Google Search app.
There are also a few more wallpaper options, including the slightly more pastel look that Google showed off in its I/O conference demo. With Jelly Bean, Google filled in the search bar, presumably to keep it in sight, and therefore in mind. Google also removed the unsightly grid guides you see in Android 4.0 when you drag a widget or icon onto the screen (whew). Another subtle addition is the extra security layer of blinking to Android's 4.x face unlock feature.
Perhaps Google was inspired by Samsung's TouchWiz UI or even Microsoft's upcoming Windows Phone 8 start screen because Jelly Bean's new resizable widgets feel very familiar. For example, you can alter the size of some application widgets when you place them on any of the Nexus' home screens (five in all). Just long-press the widget and brackets will appear around it that you can drag bigger or smaller with your finger.
Of course there must be enough room on the screen for you to do this. Jelly Bean will help to create more space if it's possible by automatically pushing app shortcuts out of the way to clear a path. We found this new Android capability useful, though it's only certain widgets, such as Gmail, Calendar, and Google+, that can perform the trick.
One new awesome widget we fell in love with is Song Search, which does for Android's home screens what integrated song ID does for Windows Phone. It's a simple thing that doesn't offer the depth of third-party apps like SoundHound or Shazam, but it does return results after you hold the microphone to the speaker. Tap that result and Jelly Bean will deftly sell you the single from Google Play.
Google gets a gold star for integrating notifications deeper into the operating system. Pull down the notifications shade to see a list of your alerts and activities that now have interactive elements that let you do things like respond to missed calls right from the screen, share screenshots, view the weather, and so on.
We weren't able to see any images shared via Google+ (still working on that one), and collapsing and expanding the notifications can be tricky, since the wrong move will dismiss them instead. Google has room to fine-tune the beefed-up notifications, but we do like the additional context.
Android phones have earned a bad rep over the years for exhibiting clunky, even stuttering performance at times compared with the silky-smooth operation of Apple's iOS devices. With Jelly Bean, Google has taken steps to squash these criticisms. The company launched a new initiative called Project Butter while crafting the new Android update. Its sole purpose was to speed up animations, menu navigation, and overall phone performance.
We can definitely say we notice the difference on our Samsung Galaxy Nexus Jelly Bean test unit. From the moment we placed the phone in our hands it was easy to see and feel its increased agility. Menus, apps, and home screens opened and closed instantly. The contrast was especially clear when we performed the same operations side by side with a Galaxy Nexus (Verizon) running Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. This Nexus with its older OS was less responsive in practically every way, taking slightly longer to flip through home screens, launch the app tray, and fire up applications.
Of course we suspect that Google has made Jelly Bean's graphics more efficient, which means you shouldn't expect to see an uptick in raw number-crunching performance. Quick Linpack benchmark tests (multithread) confirmed this. Equipped with identical 1.2GHz dual-core TI OMAP 4460 processors, the Nexus phones logged essentially identical scores (72.049 MFLOPs, Jelly Bean; 71.227 MFLOPs, Ice Cream Sandwich). Similarly, running the FPS2d benchmark, a test that measures 2D graphics performance, the two Galaxy Nexus handsets notched the same 58 frames per second.
Behind the scenes, Jelly Bean also promises faster, more-efficient application updates that only rewrite the portion of the code that's changed, so you don't have to wait while the OS overwrites the entire application each time.
Camera and Gallery
Jelly Bean brings a few notable changes to the stock Android camera application, though they really center on the interface. Instead of the traditional static camera app screen, which mostly relies on finger taps to manipulate photos, the Android 4.1 shooter uses a new filmstrip view. To pull up the gallery of saved images, just swipe your finger to the left (we can thank Microsoft for this behavior in Windows Phone). While you can flip through photos the tried-and-true way (dragging fingers left and right), pinching the screen widens your view and opens the filmstrip.
Not only will the filmstrip allow you to scan multiple images and videos at once, you can quickly delete unwanted content with a quick finger flick upward, sending its corresponding vignette unceremoniously to the trash. Don't worry, though, you can quickly resurrect it by tapping the undo button in the bottom-right corner of the screen. All in all, it's a more elegant and intuitive UI, and it makes the camera more enjoyable to operate.
One feature we would have liked to see, however, is a burst mode or continuous-shot feature, which many smartphones have begun to include -- notably the Samsung Galaxy S III and HTC One X. Still, just like in its Ice Cream Sandwich forebear, you can snap pictures in Android 4.1 while the camcorder function is rolling.
While Google explained that its virtual keyboard in Jelly Bean offers a more accurate dictionary for better word prediction, we haven't noticed significantly enhanced performance. Of course it'll likely take time tapping out texts and e-mails for us to truly see if Jelly Bean has a greater gift for choosing our words. As for the keyboard's layout itself, it sports the same key pattern and spacing found on pure Ice Cream Sandwich handsets. It makes for comfortable, if no-frills, typing.
Just like Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich before it, Jelly Bean can listen to your voice and convert it to text. We found the feature to work very well, consistently transcribing our spoken words accurately. It even turned our guffaws into hilarious "ha ha"s.