Android 4.0: Ice Cream Sandwich
1st Nov 2012 | 13:04
Is this the tastiest release from Google yet?
Ice Cream Sandwich used to be the new kid on the block, but it's been usurped by the likes of Android 4.2: Jelly Bean as the OS to have on the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S3 and Google Nexus 4.
However, loads of users are still waiting for their Ice Cream Sandwich update, and Google told us that this is one of the biggest overhauls of the operating systems since it unleashed the Android project three years ago - and there's certainly a lot to plough through.
From enhanced contact menus to improved keyboards and NFC capabilities, even the most ardent Android users will have to spend some time getting used to the new OS if they've never been Android 4 - so let's dive in.
The most noticeable change with Ice Cream Sandwich is the interface - it might follow the same principles as the Android of old, but the way it's used is radically different in a number of ways.
Firstly, Android 4.0 is designed to work without buttons. However, it's clear that notion has died, as physical buttons are still everywhere over a year on... so don't worry if you're a fan of a good home button.
Now to navigate around, you're offered three softkeys: Back, Home and Multi-tasking (or Recent Apps). The latter is particularly new for phones, and comes from the Honeycomb UI - basically a set of thumbnails that show recently opened apps.
Here's the new part: swipe sideways to shut down an application, which will greatly help reduce the battery consumption of your phone if there's something silently updating in the background.
The Home and Back buttons are the same as they've always been, but no longer have a 'long press' function attached... so you can't automatically call up the keyboard, for instance.
If you move into something media-ish, such as watching a movie or browsing the web like a pro, these three buttons shrink down to tiny dots, so you've got more of the screen to look at. However, remember what each dot does, as pressing it will take you home/open the recent apps etc and you might not want to.
For Android fans, this presents something of an issue: with the menu button gone, you'll have to hunt around the screen for three vertical dots which have taken its place. However, these can be anywhere, so sometimes you'll get distracted trying to work out how on earth to alter settings.
The multi-tasking pane also seems an odd choice for one of three buttons - it used to be you could access this functionality by long-pressing the home key, and it makes more sense to keep this and then have the multi-tasking slot taken up by a menu key.
However, despite the odd placement, the multi-tasking pane is cool - simply swipe horizontally on any open app to shut it down, in a similar way to the Cards system on webOS - it certainly helps keep open applications under control.
The home screens are once again limited to five, but this time there's no option to get rid of those you don't want. It's not a huge issue to some people, but with the expandable widgets and loads of apps you'll be looking to download, we'd have expected more.
This isn't the case with most other phones, which will extend it to at least seven screen, but Google likes to be stingy.
There's a plethora of tiny tweaks and changes to the Android OS that we were impressed with, ranging from the Tron-like blue theme that pervades throughout the OS to the ability to unlock the phone simply by using your face.
The latter security option is more novelty than anything else, with Google outlining at the start that it's not meant to be 100% secure.
We also found a few issues with getting it to recognise our face in varying light levels, or even working out which bit of the picture was a face - not the most effective for unlocking your handset, but when it works it's a great party trick.
This has been updated in Android Jelly Bean to include blink detection, but you sadly won't have this option if you're stuck on Ice Cream Sandwich.
The notifications bar has been given a functionality overhaul to now include larger information slots - if it's a contact that's sending you a message or a missed call, their contact photo will now appear too, which is a nice touch.
And sometimes you want to get rid of some notifications, but not others - this has been taken care of by allowing you to swipe away the updates about apps and messages you don't care about, making it easy to maintain your info bar.
Settings has also been given a spot in the notifications pane, meaning no matter where you are in the OS you can always duck out and tinker with the phone - this is excellent news for some applications that need GPS or Wi-Fi enabled swiftly.
However, we would have though Google would have copied the likes of Samsung here and offered one-tap switching to these elements - it works really well on most phones, so we're surprised by its omission.
The other new addition is the dock at the bottom of the screen - this stays on every home screen, and like iOS can be altered to contain the applications you like to tap away at the most.
Folders are more iOS-like too, with users given the ability to drag and drop icons on top of one another from the home screen to create bundles of apps which you can simply rename. Given Apple's ire about Google 'stealing' certain elements of its UI, we can't help but think this created a little more angst down on Infinite Loop.
Google is clearly also thinking about giving users more ability to enjoy apps than ever before by putting a link to the Market in the top right hand corner of the menu screen, which we really liked as it meant we always knew we could quickly update our app catalogue when needed.
The other big change is widgets have been brought to the fore: you can now look at each one on the menu screen without having to actually select it - this really helps when a new application you've downloaded has an associated widget and you're wondering whether to waste time popping it on the home screen.
Overall, we love what Google has done with the Ice Cream Sandwich UI. It's nothing mind-blowing, but the little touches here and there will add to user delight, and that's what's needed to chip away at those that are dyed-in-the-wool iPhone users.
The contacts system has been much improved with Ice Cream Sandwich, with a completely different font (called Roboto, and used throughout Android 4.0) and pleasantly clean blue and white interface to roll through.
The contacts list is the same as it's ever been - insofar as it's a list of people with contact pictures next to their name. But the differences are quite large: for instance, social networking updates from the likes of Google+ and Twitter are available by tapping to open a contact profile then swiping to the left.
The layout is lovely though, especially on the larger screen of the Galaxy Nexus making it easy to scroll through all your buddies in one go. The large tab to let you jump the correct letter of your contact's name has gone, but now just sliding your finger along the right hand side of the screen is enough.
The downside to the OS, and one that the likes of HTC will leap upon to improve, is the linking of the contacts together. You have to open the person's profile, tap the menu to edit, then tap the menu again to Join contacts together from other social networks.
It's a really long-winded way of doing things, and one that should be almost automatic - even the suggested contacts once we'd asked to join them together weren't very accurate.
We do like the Google+ integration, as while it's not the most widespread social network around there are some nice tweaks.
For instance, the Groups tab now has automatic links to your Google+ Circles making it easier to connect with the people you care with. However, you've also got a favourites tab to play with, and as there's no way to mass communicate with a Circle from the Contacts tab, it's a little redundant.
Google promised to keep updating the keyboard on its new versions of Android, and once again it's come up with a new version of the software - and it's pretty good.
There's not a whole heap of visual changes, bar the predictive suggestions: these have been dropped to just three per word, making it easier to select the word you're after.
Smaller, more subtle vibrations have also been added to each keypress to make it easier to register inputs... we tested this out and it doesn't seem that different to normal haptic feedback, to be honest - but a lot of users are loving it, so we'll give it a crowd-sourced thumbs up.
The accuracy is excellent too on the new keyboard, with even fudge-fingered attempts at writing yielding almost perfect texting.
Speech to text is also enhanced, with real time feedback - no longer do you have to wait until you've finished speaking to see what the phone thinks you said, with the cloud-based prediction delivering results as you speak.
It worked well over Wi-Fi, but we'll be interested to note how well it works when it comes to 3G network speeds, as Google hinted it had integrated this functionality thanks to the proliferation of 4G signal in the US.
If, like many, you're looking to compare Google's voice recognition to Siri, we'd say that the former is definitely inferior to Apple's effort - but not by a huge amount.
It seems to struggle more with English accents over US, as our buddy Hank (NB - not his real name but included to make it more authentically YooEssAy) was much more accurate with his voicing than we were.
There's no Universal Inbox to speak of here, but we do love the updated Gmail app - sure, HTML emails still don't render as well as they could, but the overall look and feel is improved substantially. The options are all well laid out at the bottom, and the ease of swiping left and right is highly impressive.
Messaging has always been a decent option on Android, and with Ice Cream Sandwich it's a real step forward.
As with most inbuilt features on Ice Cream Sandwich, there's a change to the internet browser too.
One of the big differences is the change to the tabbed browsing - now you get to see your entire set of open internet pages simply by scrolling vertically through live thumbnails. It's a nice touch - while it doesn't add much when it comes to functionality, it's much easier to jump between windows than before.
Another great notion is the ability to 'Request desktop sites'. This means that while the Android browser might default to the mobile version of some internet websites, some users will need the full content.
Simply tap the relevant option in the menu and you'll get the full flavour instantly, which is very useful for the kind of sites that won't let you jump to the main page easily (BBC iPlayer springs to mind).
A sad fact of UK life is that we a) either never have any 3G coverage when we need it or b) are on such a restrictive data plan that we hate having to spend our KBs unnecessarily.
Google has thought of this with the option to save pages for offline reading. This basically takes a snapshot of the web page without including the hyperlinks, making it easy to read but not navigate through. But then again, if you're offline you can't link out anyway... so it's not a big deal.
We can't fully comment on the speed, as it's partly dependant on hardware how fast things will load; but in most, if not all, of the phones we've tested with the Ice Cream Sandwich update there's definitely an uptick in speed.
But on the Galaxy Nexus we love the internet browser. While other devices might not be as responsive, the browser is quick, slick and responds well to the touch. Flash is still sort of supported but in reality that's a dead platform now.
The improvements certainly improve the platfrom, to the point when we'd say if nothing else this was the reason to update your phone to get a much better browser.
That said, we've used a number of different manufacturer browsers using the ICS platform, and they vary wildly. Samsung and HTC have the best options on the market at the moment, so if you're looking for an ICS phone (and are oddly against Jelly Bean) we suggest looking there first.
The camera on the Android 4.0 system is much upgraded again, after some real leaps forward from the likes of Éclair and Gingerbread.
The settings are the same as before, with the likes of white balance, exposure and Scenes all inbuilt into the OS. The Scene modes are probably the least important of the lot, as only Night Mode really offers up anything in the way of discernible difference.
However, we liked tinkering about with the exposure settings to capture our shots - this yielded some real differences.
The big talking point of the new camera app on the Galaxy Nexus is the zero shutter lag, which is simply ace. It's up there with the iPhone 5 in terms of speed (and probably just beats it, to be honest) and means you can take some cracking shots in the blink of an eye.
However, you do sacrifice auto focus to achieve this - but if it's a well-lit scene, you shouldn't have any issues.
The other new feature is the panorama mode, which does as you'd imagine: helps you capture widescreen shots. The phone will help you by telling you to go faster and slower to capture the picture, but the results can be erratic.
Android 4.0 now has a built in editing tool as well, meaning you can alter the quality of your shots very easily - it might not be a full editing suite, but does come up with some nifty ways to tweak your snaps to improve them before never showing them to anyone ever again.
It should be noted we're trying all this on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, which is a very powerful phone. Many phones with a lower processor have scrapped a number of these features, so make sure they're included if you're plumbing the budget depths of the smartphone market and love to meddle with snaps.
The video recording has also been improved thanks to the Ice Cream Sandwich update, with the ability to record in time lapse mode, set the white balance and also add in silly video effects too.
We're impressed with the way the latter works, with the phone able to track your face and keep things like a big nose on the screen at all times. Is it useful? No - but it's very 'Google' in the frippery it brings to the phone.
It's likely some of these features won't make it to the less powerful phones, as they'll require a little more raw power - but we were impressed with the 1080p footage captured on the Nexus camera.
The media capabilities of Ice Cream Sandwich have been much improved in our eyes, with all aspects of the media experience updated to make it that much easier to manoeuvre through your phone.
While some areas could still do with tweaking, we're a world away from the super-basic music app and complete lack of video player on the first Android release.
The music player on Ice Cream Sandwich has been completely overhauled to make it more in keeping with the super-blue theme that pervades throughout the OS.
Once opened, you're presented with a playlist of recent songs and albums you've listened to, which instantly makes you feel like the music player is more personalised.
Swiping left and right will get you to Albums, Artists and Songs - although we'd prefer the option to choose the order of these, as many people prefer to jump straight to the songs if they're hankering for a spot of Girls Al... erm, Michael Bub.... erm.... oh sod it. We have awful taste in music.
Google has chucked in a little search icon at the bottom of the app too, along with the 'Now Playing' bar. This makes it simple to jump to a song or artist you've got on your mind.
The actual music player itself isn't much to write home about, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. We're talking big album art, and play/skip buttons. Press the little up arrow and you can like/dislike the song or shuffle and repeat songs.
We're not sure what liking a song really does, but we hope it improves the Shuffle aspect.
The video portal has taken on a much larger significance from Google since it unveiled its movie download service, and as such your personal collection will be boosted too.
The new red-themed offering sees you taken to a dual-tabbed arena: one the left side, all the videos you've rented from Android Market, and the right all your personal videos.
The big boost here is the clear and easy to use thumbnails with description of each vid; if you've ever used an HTC phone or read our reviews of one, you'll know of our ire at the lack of any kind of signpost as to which video is which.
This system doesn't pervade through all phones though - HTC still is making its videos opaque as it stand, which makes us want to throw the phone in a big hole.
The video player is still disappointingly basic though, with only a slider bad and pause button to mess around with. We're still gobsmacked Google hasn't bought one of the clever apps already on the market (for instance, MVideoPlayer) and offered that as a free premium app to download.
We get that simplicity is key for a lot of people, but we really would love a bookmarking system, or the ability to change the screen brightness in the app. If Google does this at some point - you heard it here first, people.
The Books app is pre-installed in the Galaxy Nexus, and is set to be a staple feature of the Android 4.0 OS too.
It's one of the better e-reading experiences on a mobile phone no matter what the size of the screen - the page turning animations lend a very book-esque experience that many will enjoy.
It's a lot like the Kindle app to be honest, although the scroller along the bottom of the application will alert you to the different chapters you're bouncing through, making it easier to find the page you're looking for.
There's also a neat 'view original pages' feature for older books, where the original edition is scanned in to be viewed as the first eyes would have done. It's a cool feature, but one we turned off pretty quickly - we want to be able to read a book properly.
The interesting thing is these books are actually stored in the cloud, so each will load the first time you start reading... although the option to make them available offline makes a lot more sense.
Given books don't take up much space, we're more than happy to make sure everything is cached... we don't want to be left hanging on the Underground.
We'll jump right out and say it: Ice Cream Sandwich was the step forward Android has been crying out for. It's slicker, faster and more intuitive than before, and Google should be applauded for improving an already decent system.
Google has offered up data management too - you'll be able to set a limit to how much data the phone uses, with warnings and updates on which apps are the most byte-hungry. This is the sort of thinking smartphone users will love.
Of course, it's been usurped, but that doesn't make it less relevant for some people thinking of updating their OS.
The overall look and feel of Android was first streamlined here, and that's a real plus in our eyes. Google's OS might be a world-conqueror, but that still doesn't mean people always know how to use it in the same way they might an iPhone.
Things like contact pictures in the notifications bar, the lack of hardware buttons and moving settings to always be accessible are the sort of things many will love, plopping things where you intuitively expect them to be.
The internet browser's improvements to include desktop sites and offline reading are welcome too - anything that gives the user extra control is a good thing in our opinion.
One of our larger gripes with Ice Cream Sandwich is, at times, the over-simplicity. Things like the video player being nothing more than a slider and play button are fine, but we expect to be able to do more with the app as we see fit.
There's also the issue of how the OS will work on less-powerful devices - a lot of the features have been scrapped for the budget market, which will annoy some users. Then again, what do you expect if you're paying less for a phone?
The other gripes were truly minor: support for file types, too few home screens and no way to see them all at once.
These are things that have been fixed with updates or manufacturers simply improving on the OS as they brought out their own phones - but the stock version is still pretty basic.
Google needed to make sure it kept its OS refreshed and current, and Ice Cream Sandwich ticked that box in so many ways.
It's worth remembering that this was the foundation for manufacturers to go and build on - you should read our review of the phone you're looking to update to see what the new software is like when it's been LG/Samsung/HTC-ified.
In terms of how good you'll think Android 4.0: Ice Cream Sandwich is, it all boils down to personal choice. We're excited to see how manufacturers will customise it and extol the virtues to improve media or the home networking options, but others will simply be huge fans of the simplicity - our score is a mixture of the tools Google has offered up and the base level of performance on show.
But make no mistake - Ice Cream Sandwich was the most accessible and easy-to-learn OS from Google, and that's going to be key in the wars against Apple and Microsoft. It was also the turning point in making Android a real player in the top-end smartphone market, and for that we give it a huge thumbs up.