[Review] Android 4.1 Jelly Bean: an incremental update with major improvements
Android 4.1 Jelly Bean is Google’s latest Android release. Just announced at Google I/O 2012 last week, find out if this update is worth all the buzz surrounding it!
When Google unveiled Project Butter, as they call it, I’m not sure I realized just how much of a difference it would make in my everyday user experience. Project Butter is basically an initiative from Google to further smooth out the hardware accelerated user interface that was introduced in Ice Cream Sandwich. Google is using methods like Triple Buffering, V-Sync and other hardware-based tricks to make everything seem faster and more fluid than ever before, and it definitely works. Although I still ran into some hitching while doing tasks (i.e. the phone would occasionally pause and then have to catch up to what I was doing very quickly) the likelihood is that this was more because it is unfinished software. Pictures and video simply don’t do this justice; you have to feel it for yourself. Going back to Ice Cream Sandwich isn’t horrible by any means, but there is a very noticeable difference in overall user experience that just shines in Jelly Bean.
When Google introduced the Holo theme and Roboto font with Ice Cream Sandwich, the genius of Matias Duarte was immediately apparent, and that genius has been taken a step further in Jelly Bean. One of the things you’ll notice immediately is the lock screen, or rather the new addition to the lock screen, Google Now.
You’ll also find that a number of things have been redesigned, like the pop-up windows and notifications, the notification pull-down bar, the camera and a few other things here and there.
The “Complete action using” and “Share via” have both received a complete facelift, fitting more into Holo theme and presenting the user with large, clear icons of each choice. Google has also removed the verbiage “default” and replaced it with “always.” The settings menu now has an expanded Accounts section that lists all your types of accounts without having to open the “Accounts and Sync” section as was done before. This grants quicker and simpler access to account settings for each type of account.
Notifications are a huge part of Android, so much so that Google owns a patent for the notification pull-down bar and all its glories. That being said, Google wasn’t happy with the changes they made in Ice Cream Sandwich and have provided a complete facelift to this section of the OS as well.
Google has added quick access shortcuts to many things in the notification bar. Missed a call? There are callback and message buttons for the person right from the bar so that you don’t have to go hunting around in individual apps to do this stuff. Have a pesky app that’s constantly dropping notifications? Long-press on the notification in the bar and you’ll have a quick access button straight to that app’s info within the system so that you can either silence it or even uninstall it. Sharing pictures and screenshots has also become even easier, as now each one has its own notification with a share button directly in the bar. Again little things like this have just made Jelly Bean all that more accessible to the user.
Not too much has changed here from Ice Cream Sandwich, although you will find a few new handy widgets like My Library and What’s This Song?
The “My Library” widget allows you to choose books, movies, music, and full library to display on this full-page sized widget. Google showed this off on the Nexus 7 tablet, and personally I think it would be a lot more useful on that, although it seems to aggregate things based on usage, so having one with your most used music might be very handy on even a smaller device with less screen retail. The other big widget they showed off was a Shazam or Soundhound-like widget that’s called “What’s This Song?” that does exactly what it states. Once results are returned, it’ll give you the option of purchasing the song from the Play Store, an ingenious move by Google to further push its Play Store offerings.
Noticing a trend here yet? Well you guessed it then, Google took what it redesigned for Ice Cream Sandwich and made it better. The keyboard layout is mostly the same for Jelly Bean, however Google has added a predictive text system within the keyboard, making it behave a lot more like Swiftkey. Now while I like the predictive text, and it has done a great job of figuring out what I’m trying to say, my biggest gripe is what has been changed with the bar above the keyboard. Now when hitting the spacebar, the predictive text just brings up the next set of words that it predicts you will type, rather than giving you periods, question marks, exclamation marks and other commonly used punctuations. I find that this slowed down my typing significantly, and that the predictive text’s job of trying to speed up and make typing more efficient gets negated because of this. It’s definitely up to user choice though, as I know plenty of people who prefer Swiftkey over any other keyboard, and those people will certainly be happy here.
Google Now is easily the biggest single feature in Jelly Bean. Sort of Google’s answer to Siri, Google Now is a search-driven app that takes many features already built into Android and puts them together in one nice, neatly packaged tool. Whereas Siri is dubbed your “personal assistant,” Google Now is more of an AI of sorts that is supposed to predict what you are going to do and help you do things more efficiently. To put it in perspective, Siri let’s you perform actions, and Google Now gives you information. Not that you can’t do either of those things with each respective system, but that’s just more of what each one specializes in.
You can easily get to Google Now by either swiping up on the lockscreen, or swiping up on the home button at any time. The interface is a set of vertically scrolling cards. Each card has its own specific piece of information and cards will populate the interface as they are needed. One of the cooler things I found with Google Now during my time using it is that it tries to automatically figure out where home and work are. For me it figured out home right the first time, and was only off a little bit for work. Once it thinks it knows which place is which, it’ll ask you and you can either tell it yes or no, which will be stored for later use.
The biggest feature here is probably the visual search, particularly the voice search capabilities. Clicking on the search box at the top or just saying “Google” will immediately activate voice search, and I found the voice search to be just as spot on and accurate as it always has been in Android. Looking for Linkin Park music? It spells it right and everything, something I can’t say about S-Voice on the Galaxy S III. You can also look up just about anything you can think of. Want to know how much Oprah is worth, what the height requirement of your favorite rollercoaster is, or what species of fish live in the lake near you? Just ask: It grabs info from the web and formats it into a nice little card with the information you want. This works for almost anything, and I had a hard time stumping the thing to be honest.
Google Now also has new rich notifications that cram the information you crave into a quickly readable form. Got an appointment that you are scrambling to leave the house for? Don’t worry, Google Now will analyze the traffic patterns and let you know exactly when you need to leave to get there on time. Nearing the end of your work day? Google Now will automatically display the traffic data for getting home. I even looked up an address on my computer at work, and seconds later the traffic info was populated in my notification bar letting me know that I’ll have enough time to run the errand during my lunch break. Things like this make using the phone effortless and honestly downright fun!
Not content with just leaving things alone, Google has tweaked the already blazing fast camera from Ice Cream Sandwich and made it quicker. You no longer have to click the gallery button to see the last picture; just swipe to the right and the screen slides from camera to gallery immediately. Swipe back all the way to the left and you’re back in the camera again. Sharing is just as easy as ever with the persistent sharing button in the top right. Google has also taken a fantastic feature from the new HTC One series of phone, and you can now take pictures while taking video. Just tap the center of the screen while videoing and it’ll take as many pictures as you need, all without having to have a special built-in chip.
Swiping between camera (left) and gallery (right)
The Google Maps update for offline caching is also included in Jelly Bean, and while I found the feature to be very useful, it can definitely be improved. Right now there seems to be about a 65-70mb limit to the area you capture for offline viewing. If you make the viewing area too wide, you will be greeted with an error message. I don’t really understand this because we’re talking a whopping 70mb here, not 70gb or something absurd. There’s really no reason I shouldn’t be able to cache a whole country like I could in Nokia Maps when I had an N95. While offline caching is a welcome addition, it’s fairly useless to me for now because of the relatively small area you can cache (see image below for an example).
Blinking during face unlock is another new feature that should help make the face unlock lockscreen more secure. Before with face unlock you could simply put a picture of someone on the screen and it would almost always recognize it. Now you need to blink to prove you’re a real boy and not just a wooden puppet.
Overall Jelly Bean has proven a fantastic incremental upgrade, with lots of new features and tons of speed. Everything is faster, smoother, more efficient and easier to use than ever. Google has really knocked it out of the park again with this one, and one can only hope that the carriers and manufacturers can get this update pushed out to the latest devices sooner rather than later. Samsung has already all but confirmed a Jelly Bean update for its Galaxy S III and Galaxy Note smartphones, but hasn’t let us know exactly when. There’s no word from HTC or Motorolla, but I wouldn’t hold your breath there (especially on Motorola).
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