Android Jelly Bean
19th Dec 2012 | 14:43
Android 4.1 and Android 4.2 combine to make the ultimate Jelly Bean
Instead of jumping ahead a full version number from 4.0 to 5.0 with Android this year, Google has wisely decided to slow down the new feature freight train just a little, instead expanding upon the solid foundation introduced with Android 4.0: Ice Cream Sandwich last year.
We saw the first version of Jelly Bean (Android 4.1) in the middle of 2012, and we've now updated our review to cover the latest incarnation of the sugary treat - Android 4.2 - so feast your eyes on what the latest version of Google's OS has to offer.
Although this decision may have more to do with slow adoption of ICS, the iterative release allows Google to catch its breath while hopefully allowing carriers, developers and users alike the chance to play catch-up.
Of course, that doesn't mean Google abandoned its traditional sugary confection-themed naming scheme: The name's Bean… Jelly Bean… and its mission is to hone Android into a leaner, meaner mobile operating system.
Where Android 3.0: Honeycomb was exclusive to tablets and Ice Cream Sandwich attempted to port the slicker UI over to smartphones as well, Jelly Bean is intended to smooth out the platform's remaining rough edges – while hopefully having more success at widespread adoption than its predecessor did.
In the meantime, Google is seizing this opportunity to not only show OEMs how Android tablets should be done but also swat away unwelcome rivals forking its older mobile OS as their own.
Built in conjunction with Asus, Samsung and LG, Google is shipping its own 7-inch Nexus 7 tablet, 10-inch Nexus 10 tablet and powerful Nexus 4 smartphone - all of which have been treated to Android 4.2.
Will the changes in Jelly Bean be enough to finally make the ambitious goals of Google's Mobile Handset Alliance a reality? Or will handset makers and carriers continue to bog down Android with their own skins, bloatware and other encumbrances?
We may not have the answers to those questions, but there's no denying that Android Jelly Bean is the best version yet – assuming your device is capable of installing it in the first place.
Jelly Bean is the fifth major release of Android and finds Google at the top of their game, showing restraint when it comes to feature bloat while streamlining what worked so well with Ice Cream Sandwich – and making it even better.
Our early frustration with Jelly Bean is actually directed towards the carriers and handset manufacturers who continue to be slow off the mark when it comes to implementing Android updates – leaving many stuck on the now two-year-old Gingerbread platform.
While turning on a stock Android 4.0 device filled the screen with a breakaway rainbow of colors during boot, Jelly Bean briefly follows the familiar white Google logo with a pulsing blue, red, green and yellow "X" here.
We compared the boot time of two Samsung Galaxy Nexus handsets, one running Android 4.0.4 and the other running Android 4.1, and found a noticeable difference in startup time: 50 seconds for the elder software, versus 34 seconds for Jelly Bean. (The 4.1-powered Nexus 7 came in somewhere in-between, at 43 seconds.)
Then we pulled out the Google Nexus 4 running Android 4.2 and it blitzed through the start up process, clocking in at just 19 seconds – that is some performance increase.
The custom Roboto font is still very much present and accounted for (with a few subtle tweaks depending upon where you're viewing it), and Google reduces Android's dependence on neon blue accents while retaining the same dark background – with one notable exception which we'll get into in a moment.
Aside from fresh wallpaper, Android Jelly Bean doesn't look appreciably different from Ice Cream Sandwich at first glance.
Google sidestepped any potential infringement of Apple's "slide to unlock" patent by allowing users to swipe left for camera, right for another custom tile which can show messages, emails or the calendar, while to unlock, you just drag the padlock icon to the edge of the highlighted circle.
You can also swipe up to unlock, although this now serves as a shortcut for Google Now, the company's key new feature in Jelly Bean (more on that in a moment).
Android Jelly Bean introduces an overhaul to notifications, with new APIs so developers can make better use of this vital area of the user interface. Gone are the neon blue highlights, now replaced with a much cleaner white.
The first thing you'll notice with Jelly Bean notifications are they have now increased in size. Not only does that make them infinitely more readable, but in the case of built-in apps like Gmail, you can now get a quick preview of incoming emails as they come in.
Where supported, dragging up on a notification with two fingers collapses it to a single row, while doing the reverse expands it. In the case of Calendar events, users can even act upon information, such as snoozing an alarm or emailing invited guests.
Likewise, incoming missed calls can be returned quickly thanks to a handy callback button, or photos can be shared with ease right after being taken.
Oddly, the stock Gmail and Email apps don't currently allow you to act upon their incoming missives, although a tap opens the respective app.
For now, these two-finger drag actions are exclusive to Android's built-in apps, but that's likely to change in the days, weeks and months ahead as developers tap into the new API for their own third-party apps.
The top of the notifications area also benefits from welcome improvements with Jelly Bean. The current time is now displayed prominently at left, with the date to the right of it.
In the right corner there's a mini grid icon and tapping on it will flip the notification bar round, revealing a host of quick settings – something we've been crying out for from Google for ages, and the search giant has finally listened.
From here you can quickly jump into Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, data usage, brightness and alarm settings and while it does take a couple more clicks than the toggles found in Samsung's TouchWiz overlay, we're happy to see the option on pure Android.
We'd have liked it if these quick settings could be customised, allowing us to stick in our most used ones, as we were a little disappointed to see no shortcut to the NFC settings, for example.
While notifications take up the entire display on a smartphone, the window appears about the same size on the Nexus 7, displaying the name of your currently connected wireless network or carrier at the bottom – which looks a bit odd on a tablet screen.
Jelly Bean also introduces a method for completely hiding apps from sending notifications, but Google has tucked it away in an unlikely spot: Pulling up an App Info window now includes a "Show notifications" box under the Force stop and Uninstall options.
It's not quite as seamless as the dedicated Notifications area of iOS Settings, but we'll take what we can get – the ability to completely mute an app from pushing unwanted notifications is a welcome addition.
Home Screen and UI
Android widgets have always been an important competitive advantage over iOS, and Jelly Bean makes them so much better, it's hard to imagine even Apple could top it – assuming they choose to implement them in the first place, that is.
Where previous versions of Android made it tricky for widgets to be placed just anywhere on your home screens, Jelly Bean now moves icons or even other widgets out of the way so users can get exactly the customized layout they want.
Even more important, supported widgets are now resizable: Tap, hold and up pops a blue dot on each of the four sides. Grab one, move it to your liking and then tap outside of the widget to commit the change.
While this change might seem like overkill on a smartphone, it really makes a critical difference on the Nexus 7, Nexus 10 and Co., which come pre-installed with a number of media-centric widgets squarely aimed at taking on the likes of Amazon's Kindle Fire HD by pushing Google Play content front and center.
Don't like the stock "My Library" widget taking up your entire home screen? Tap, hold and drag it down to a more manageable size. Of course, users can also remove these entirely or replace them others.
One thing Jelly Bean doesn't entirely address is the lack of tablet-friendly apps. Netflix, for example, claims to be supported by Jelly Bean, but on the Nexus 7 it initially displayed a layout that was entirely too small, then too large before settling into being just right.
Hopefully, these growing pains will get worked out soon, as the cut-price tablets become increasingly popular.
Viewing photos you've taken on your device is also faster with Jelly Bean. Users can quickly swipe from camera to view mode for instant feedback, and unwanted images can be removed with a swipe up – no button tapping required.
Google finally catches up to the excellent accessibility options Apple bakes into iOS, now allowing blind users to use a new Gesture Mode in Jelly Bean for navigating the UI with only touch and speech output.
New APIs also extend these abilities, allowing developers to offer external Braille I/O devices capable of connecting via USB or Bluetooth.
For us, the biggest improvement to Android Jelly Bean is also the least obvious – that is, until you actually start using a device running the OS.
Announced at Google IO 2012 as the curiously named "Project Butter," the engineers behind Jelly Bean have made a concerted effort to finally shake the lag and general lack of responsiveness Android has historically been known for.
These claims are not just empty promises: For perhaps the first time ever, moving around within Android is just as smooth as iOS, whether it's from the smaller display of the Nexus 4, the seven inches of the Nexus 7 or on the larger Nexus 10.
Google used a variety of methods to accomplish this feat, ranging from "vsync timing" (ensuring a consistent frame rate across all screen drawing and animation) to triple buffering, which appears to be the key component which results in an overall smoother feel across the user interface.
However, it's not just improved frame rates and faster gesturing that makes Jelly Bean fly – it also synchronizes the very touch of your finger to its vsync timing, attempting to anticipate where you'll want to go next.
Finally, the software steps on the gas at just the right time, offering a boost in processing power at the next touch event to cut down on any remaining latency.
None of this tech jargon is going to mean much to end users – all they'll know is that the system is more responsive to their touch, allowing faster browsing, faster searching and faster access to their media content.
Check out our Project Butter video test (on Android 4.1) using the Google Nexus 7 tablet below.
Speaking of faster, the lone new feature in Android Jelly Bean is the aptly named Google Now. Combining the best of search with key information you'll want to access quickly throughout the day, Now requires zero setup from the user, other than enabling it in the first place.
Swiping up from the bottom of any screen accesses Google Now. This gesture throws up a small white circle with Google inside before opening a screen literally night and day from the rest of the Android UI. (Google Now can be accessed from the lock screen just as easily as it can from the home screen.)
While the rest of Jelly Bean features a familiar dark background (save for wallpaper customized by its user), Google Now is almost entirely white, presenting a series of cards that depend entirely upon how you interact with your device.
Let's say you need to navigate to another location – a lunch meeting or other appointment, for example. When you open Now, a card for your event will be ready to go at the top of the stack; tapping Navigate throws you into Google Maps Navigation and routes you to the destination.
Once there, Google Now will remember your destination and offer to take you back home or to your next appointment, should you have one, even telling you how long it will take to get there. As it learns your patterns, Now becomes smarter and starts to second-guess your next move based on where you are, the time of day and even calendar data.
While it's easiest to describe Google Now as a less conversational version of Siri on iOS, like that virtual assistant, Google's solution is similarly hamstrung once you step beyond its limited field of view.
Google Now currently includes cards for traffic, public transit, next appointment, flights, sports, places, weather, translation, currency and time at home, the majority of which are aimed at city dwellers or world travellers. While it's a comprehensive list, these cards have less to offer for other users beyond weather and navigation.
The Android 4.2 update saw more cards added to Google Now including flight information, hotel and restaurant reservations, shipping details, nearby attractions, movie times at local cinemas and concert information for artists that you – helping to further increase the appeal and usefulness of the system.
For most of us, Google Now will just work, fuelled by the information we offer it. However, users can also choose to control data when data from cards are displayed, and the settings offer an exhaustive list of options for granular control as well.
While it's off to a good start, Google Now feels a bit like Apple's Siri: A glimpse of a future that's not quite here yet.
All of the above would probably be enough for most Android users, but Google didn't stop there: Android Jelly Bean also includes a number of smaller features, too.
Google's mobile Chrome browser is finally out of beta and now installed by default with Jelly Bean. We've had a mostly love-hate relationship with the stock Browser since we've first laid eyes on it, but Chrome successfully makes the transition to mobile in first class style.
We ran our usual battery of browser tests on mobile Chrome, comparing a Samsung Galaxy Nexus running 4.0.4 against the same device under 4.1. The Jelly Bean-equipped handset narrowly trumped Ice Cream Sandwich with a Peacekeeper score of 452 versus 461, while Sunspider 0.9.1 curiously clocked 1833.6ms for Jelly Bean and 1631.2ms for ICS.
While we found the Ice Cream Sandwich soft keyboard to be one of the best available on any mobile platform, the Android 4.1 update kicked things up a notch or two by making the keyboard smarter and more accurate than before.
Text-to-speech is also improved, while voice typing now works even without a data connection. (Take that, Siri.)
Then with Android 4.2 Google introduced "gesture typing", which works a lot like the well known Swype by sliding you finger between letters to write a word.
It's difficult to master, but once you do speed is dramatically increased. The next word prediction and dictionaries have also been given a boost, making the whole system even smarter.
The photo sphere function arrived in the second Jelly Bean update - Android 4.2 - allowing you move around while taking photos - look up and down and pan and it will capture everything in a series of connected images, right up to creating a full 360-degree panorama.
Much like how you can look around in street view - just on a smaller scale, plus it's not quite as cleanly cut. A good start, but it needs a bit more work to become really useful.
On the flip side, Android Beam didn't live up to a lot of its promise with Ice Cream Sandwich, largely because that OS has been slow to take off.
There are now plenty of devices on the market offering near-field communication (NFC) chips, and that means Beam is finally ready for prime time with Jelly Bean.
In addition to sharing contacts, web pages, YouTube videos, directions or even links to apps just by touching two Android devices back to back, Jelly Bean enables sharing of photos or videos in the same way.
There's just one caveat: This can't be done with devices still running Ice Cream Sandwich, which throws up an error about large file transfers not being supported.
Multiple user profiles
Android 4.2 also allows for multiple user profiles on a single tablet device – sorry no such option for smartphones.
Much like user accounts on a PC, with Android 4.2 you can switch between users from the lock screen, allowing each user to have unique homescreens, apps, bookmarks and email accounts set up.
In other words, multiple users can customize the device to their liking and maintain their privacy – handy if you sharing a tablet with a loved one, or with the whole family.
If you loved the Face Unlock feature introduced with Android 4.0 but had concerns about someone being able to use your photo to access the handset, worry no more.
Google has beefed up Jelly Bean with Blink Detect, which now asks the user to blink their eyes to confirm you're a living, breathing entity and not just a static image.
Maps users now have the ability to save such data offline, which comes in quite handy for a Wi-Fi only device like the Nexus 7. (This functionality also works for any device running Android 2.3 Gingerbread or later.)
We were able to select the majority of the county we live in and one adjacent to us while staying below the roughly 80MB limit for a single offline zone, but the new "My Places" menu allows you to save as many as you'd like.
Android Jelly Bean isn't a gigantic, innovative leap forward; Google acknowledges this by bumping the version number only slightly.
It's a bit like Apple's move from Mac OS X Leopard 10.5 to Snow Leopard 10.6 on the desktop: An operating system overhaul that tunes up what's under the hood rather than attempting to dazzle users with a volume of new features.
Hokey name aside, "Project Butter" delivers the goods. Android is now fast, fluid and ready to go toe-to-toe with Apple on performance and features.
If this were the only new feature offered by Jelly Bean, it would be significant enough to justify the update, let alone consider an upgrade to a new handset that takes maximum advantage of it.
Notifications have always been one area where Android excelled over iOS, and the tweaks made in Jelly Bean only further widen that gap.
We're also big fans of mobile Chrome and very glad to see it's now the default browser.
We don't actually dislike Google Now – it's a fascinating addition that promises to get better with time.
As it exists today, the feature is clearly intended for city dwellers more than suburbanites, so we'd like to see Google offer additional functionality to the millions living beyond city limits.
For all of its enhancements, Jelly Bean is still behind the times when it comes to the security of lost or stolen devices.
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In addition to lacking remote features such as wipe or lock, Google has yet to offer something akin to Apple's Find My iPhone, which helps users locate a missing device.
Sure, there are alternatives available in Google Play, but they're more likely to be ignored by casual users there.
This bit of nitpicking aside, Android Jelly Bean is strictly a win-win situation for those who can install it.
While time will tell if this tasty treat can ultimately remedy the platform's larger fragmentation problem, manufacturers and carriers have less reason than ever to load up devices with their own UI enhancements.
Android Jelly Bean is a thing of beauty, and should be a nice boost for Google's own Nexus-branded hardware. For those who have been on the fence, you'll definitely want to give Jelly Bean a look – this could be the version to finally sway you into Mountain View's camp.
Android Jelly Bean: when will you get it?
As you'd expect Google's own brand hardware was the first to receive both Android 4.1 and Android 4.2, with the latter now featuring on all current devices including the Nexus 4, Nexus 7 and Nexus 10, as well as last year's Samsung Galaxy Nexus.
If the Ice Cream Sandwich roll out is anything to go by, then manufacturers are likely to take their sweet time about getting Android 4.1 out to consumers, and some devices may miss out.
We've contacted all the major players in the Android market, to find out what their plans are for the Android Jelly Bean upgrade, here's what we've heard so far:
Android Jelly Bean: Samsung
Samsung says Android 4.1 is "gradually being introduced to other markets" - although there's no exact dates for the UK or US at this time.
The Korean firm has also confirmed it will be bringing Jelly Bean to the following devices in due course: Galaxy Tab 2 7.0 & Tab 2 10.1, Galaxy Note 10.1, Galaxy SII,Galaxy Note, Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus, Galaxy S Advance, Galaxy SII LTE, Galaxy Music, Galaxy Chat, Galaxy Ace 2, Galaxy Beam, Galaxy Ace Plus, Galaxy Mini II and Galaxy S Duos.
Android Jelly Bean: HTC
HTC has announced it will be bringing Jelly Bean to at least three of its models, which is good news for those that like newer handsets:
"We know HTC fans are excited to get their hands on Google's latest version of Android. At this point in time, we can confirm that we have plans to upgrade our HTC One X, HTC One XL and HTC One S to Jelly Bean," a HTC spokesperson told us.
"Please stay tuned for more updates regarding device upgrades, timing and other details about HTC and Jelly Bean."
HTC has confirmed its One X and One S devices will be getting Android 4.1 in November and December respectively, and the update will land with an enhanced version of Sense – cunningly named Sense 4+ after its debut on the HTC One X+.
Android Jelly Bean: Motorola
The now Google-owned Motorola has yet to release its plans regarding the Jelly Bean update.
The Xoom tablet was treated to Android 4.1 in July, but other than this there's no word on Android 4.2 or any of its other devices.
Android Jelly Bean: LG
LG has been thrown back into the smartphone limelight thanks to the Google Nexus 4 which it manufactured for the search giant.
The Nexus 4 was the first smartphone to sport Android 4.2, which it ran straight out of the box.
In regards to the rest of LG's catalogue we spoke to it back in February at MWC and it confirmed it would guarantee an upgrade to Android Jelly Bean for all compatible 2012 handsets.
Sources at LG tell us the relevant phones in the range will be updated to Jelly Bean by Q1 2013, with the roll out beginning in Q4, with confirmation that Android 4.1 will roll out to the Optimus LTE 2 in November, and then to the Optimus G in December.
Android Jelly Bean: Asus
During MWC 2012, Benson Lin, Asus' Corporate Vice President told TechRadar: "Asus is very close to Google, so I think there will be a high possibility that we will be the first wave to offer the Jelly Bean update."
The Transformer Pad 300 has now been given the Jelly Bean treatment (all be it Android 4.1) and a post on the Asus Facebook page has confirmed that it will be bringing the Android 4.1 update to the Transformer Pad Infinity and Transformer Prime "soon".
No word currently on Android 4.2, but we're keeping our eyes and ears open for any news from Asus.
Android Jelly Bean: Sony
Sony has confirmed that a host of Sony Ericsson Xperia handsets from 2011 will not be getting an update to Android 4.1, which means the likes of the Sony Xperia Arc Sand the Xperia Mini Pro will miss out.
Sony has posted the following response on the official Sony Xperia blog:
"A quick note – during a Q&A session last week on our Sony Mobile GB Facebook page, a local spokesperson gave information out in error on our Android 4.1 Jelly Bean software development and rollout for 2011 Xperia smartphones.
"We are actively investigating Android OS upgrades for all devices, but in the meantime, our Ice Cream Sandwich rollout for Xperia S and 2011 Xperia smartphones continues as planned."
Android Jelly Bean: Acer
According to Dutch site Tablet Guide, Acer will be updating some of its Android tablets to Jelly Bean, although it was unable to say which models would be lucky enough to get it and when it would start rolling it out.
Android Jelly Bean: Toshiba
We spoken to Toshiba, who said it was unable to comment on the Jelly Bean update at this time.
Android Jelly Bean: ZTE
Not wanting to be left behind, ZTE launched the first Android Jelly Bean handset in China, and third in the world, in the form of the ZTE N880E.
It does at least show intent from the fledging Chinese firm, but we're yet to hear its plans for its other devices available outside of China.
Android Jelly Bean: Intel
Intel has confirmed that it is working with Google on a Jelly Bean port for its Atom processors, which will allow the latest version of Android to run on handsets and tablets with Intel inside, such as the Orange San Diego and Motorola Razr i.
There's currently no sign of a release date, so we're going to have to wait for more information on the progress of this project.
And the rest
We're stilling waiting to hear from other Android device manufacturers including Huawei and Panasonic.
Make sure you bookmark this page, as we'll be updating this article as and when we hear back from manufacturers regarding their plans for the Android 4.1 and Android 4.2 Jelly Bean updates.