So you're not one of those lucky saps that still has unlimited data, eh? Data management on Gingerbread was a project that resulted in one or two pieces of bloatware taking up valuable virtual space, but ICS will let you access your overall data usage, warn you when you approach a custom boundary and set limits based on your current plan. Have a 2GB plan? You can tell the OS to warn you when you reach 1.5GB, and then have the phone shut off access to the internet once you hit your monthly data allowance. You can also tell specific apps not to collect data or incur usage when it's running in the background, or just restrict those apps to only do so when you're in a WiFi zone.
We do need to make one critical disclaimer here, however: the numbers offered up by ICS may not accurately reflect the same numbers your service provider offers up. So don't rely fully upon Android to do all the dirty work for you -- if you believe you're quickly approaching your limit, we still recommend checking with your carrier to make sure you're safe.
We were absolutely elated when we learned Android 4.0 would add the ability to take screenshots natively. While a couple Gingerbread devices somehow found a way to make this happen, the fact that it's officially sanctioned in stock Android is rather joyous. Previously, taking screenshots was a lengthy process that involved plugging your phone into a computer, making sure the right software was downloaded and Mars and Jupiter had to be aligned with Mercury in a perfectly straight line in the evening sky.
With ICS, simply hold down the screen lock / power button and the volume down button for around one second. The shot magically goes into its very own screenshot folder, and we were able to drag and drop the files from there onto our computer with absolute ease.
Disable unwanted apps
Dost our eyes deceive us? Could it be? Yes! Ice Cream Sandwich -- in its pure vanilla state, at least -- lets you disable virtually any
app on your phone. That's right, even the essential ones that you might actually use from time to time. Granted, these apps haven't actually gone anywhere, so they're still taking up storage space. They are, however, at least out of your hair.
The wild card (as you probably expect) is OEM skins and carrier customization. We can easily see HTC quietly dismissing this feature -- among others -- in Sense 4.0. So this is absolutely a step in the right direction for stock devices, but what will happen to every other phone or tablet that becomes subject to the manufacturer's desires?
How much do those clever folks on the Android team love easter eggs? Enough to include one in each successive update, at least. A picture of "zombie art" by Jack Larson was hidden in Gingerbread, and Honeycomb featured a bee. ICS followed suit with an image of the Android robot dressed up in an Ice Cream Sandwich, which grows in size when you long-press it until it transforms into a Nyan Cat-style animation. We love easter eggs as much as anyone else, but it's not really hidden anymore: each of these gems can be found by simply going to the "About phone" option in the settings menu and pressing the Android version repeatedly until the robot pops up. It's not a well-kept secret anymore, to say the least.
It turns out that there's actually a second
easter egg called Rocket Launcher, and the Android Team kept this one a much better secret -- it takes a little trickery to activate. The Launcher looks like a screen saver; it shows all of your installed apps flying past you through space at different speeds and angles. Here's how to activate it using stock ICS: download and install Launcher Pro on your device, go into your standard launcher's widget menu and locate "activities." Drag and drop the widget onto your home screen, and a long list will appear. Locate and select "launcher," and Rocket Launcher is hanging out inside. The first time you try to use it, the program won't work properly. Exit out and go back in, and you'll find yourself flying at warp speed with icons zooming past you in every direction. [via AndroidPolice
Wait, what? The effect of Adobe's recent decision to silence mobile Flash may seem to have reached ICS, though the company's assured us that even though the Player faces an eventual death, it has one more update left in it and it's for sure coming to Android 4.0 before the end of the year.
There's a slightly devious workaround to this problem, though it isn't foolproof. To our delight, we found that we could technically sideload the Flash Player 11.1 APK onto the Galaxy Nexus -- tragically, however, it didn't seem to work out quite
as well as we'd hoped, as it only worked on a scant few Flash-enabled sites. But hey, it was worth a shot, right?
We briefly mentioned some concerns with Facebook earlier in the review, and it's worth circling back on them. In our time with ICS, it grew apparent that the social network's experience on the new firmware is a bit behind. Facebook contacts cannot be synced into your address book or People app; when attempting to access your account through the settings menu, you're greeted by an option for Facebook on the list, but pressing it just takes you back to the previous screen. We imagine this will be worked out in due time, and if nothing else, we'll likely see OEMs come up with a workaround of their own.
No need to act terribly surprised here, given how fresh ICS is out of the virtual box, but many legacy apps optimized for older versions of Android may not work as well as we'd like them to -- at least, not for a little while. The new OS smell still eminates from Android 4.0, which means the vast majority of developers are hustling to get their apps ready for primetime. Since it's too early to get a firm grasp on how well these applications will perform once they're optimized for ICS, we'll hold off on the final judgment of third-party app performance until a later date.
No Google Wallet... yet
In what seems like an odd step backwards, Google Wallet -- an NFC-based mobile payment service available on the Samsung Nexus S 4G -- is completely missing on the Galaxy Nexus. We have a sneaky suspicion that this will eventually show up on at least a few ICS phones, but Google has remained quiet on the matter for now.
USB mass storage
We had a brief moment of geeky panic as we fired up our Galaxy Nexus only to discover that USB mass storage was nowhere
to be found, but rather only supported MTP / PTP file transfers. While we originally assumed this was a restriction based on ICS itself, it was determined that the firmware does indeed support it -- on devices that offer expandable storage, anyways, a feature the Galaxy Nexus lacks.
So we've covered the visible portion of ICS at length, but haven't taken much time to dive deep into what types of features developers will be able to take advantage of behind the scenes. Here are just a few of the various APIs and other services made available in Android 4.0.
is a relatively new concept for phones, one that hasn't been highly utilized. Essentially, the tech enables devices to connect directly to one another without needing a router or internet connection to act as a middleman. In other words, it gives your Android phone another method of sharing pictures, files or just about anything else with your desktop computer -- but it can also connect a group of gamers, stream media content from your ICS phone to an audio player, print files and so on.
To be clear, hardware acceleration was an option made available for Honeycomb tablets and has finally been expanded to cover phones in ICS. Ultimately, Google's added framework support for hardware acceleration in both versions so that developers can enable it on their apps simply by adding a single line of code.
Google has included support for connecting to Bluetooth Health Device Profile (HDP) devices, which means ICS is capable of hooking up to heart monitors, sensors in hospitals and a whole load of various wireless medical devices. Also included in Android 4.0 is support for Bluetooth Hands-Free Profile 1.6.
USB game controller and HDMI support
As it turns out, our future game consoles may not actually be standalone machines at all, but rather our actual phones
hooked up to a TV via HDMI. This could be made possible through ICS's support for external USB game controllers -- using a USB-to-microUSB adapter, of course -- and the usual HDMI to go along with it. This was enabled for Honeycomb tablets, but this is the first time we've seen the ability on Android handsets as well.
Confusion erupted when the Samsung Galaxy Nexus came out with visual voicemail inexplicably missing from the firmware -- rightfully so, since we were all originally told in Hong Kong that the functionality would be included in ICS. After a bit of clarification on Google's part, we now understand that this feature is actually buried deep within Android 4.0 in the form of an API. This way, developers can work closely with carriers or other third parties in order to take advantage of it.
ICS has made some progress on the accessibility front as well. Earlier we talked about how to enable the functionality directly from the setup screen, and our above video dives deeper into exactly what you can do. Specifically, ICS brings a new explore-by-touch mode that offers audible feedback on any part of the screen you may touch. Touching an icon, for instance, prompts the phone to tell you what you're touching -- but it doesn't activate that icon until you press it a second time.
A web script-based screen reader on the internet browser can read out content and assist the user in navigating websites. The font size can be increased and inverted screen rendering is now allowed.
Devs also now have access to accessibility APIs such as Text-to-Speech and explore-by-touch.
With ICS comes support for two new sensors: ambient temperature and relative humidity. Yes, we're one step closer to turning our phones into tricorders, and we couldn't be happier about it.
Work in a facility that doesn't allow cameras? Finding a phone of any decent quality that doesn't have at least one camera is incredibly difficult these days, making your options a bit limited and frustrating. ICS adds Device Policy Manager, which can remotely disable your phone's camera. There's also an API for keychains (encrypted credential storage) as well as one for VPN clients, which offers even more options for developers to appeal to the Enterprise.
Other APIs included in ICS
We can't include every single new API in our review without turning it into four or five separate articles, so we'll just offer a few small tidbits.
Additional APIs for the camera give access to continuous focus, ZSL exposure, image zoom and even offers devs the ability to capture high-res photos while taking video. Apps can also now set custom metering "regions" and then adjust exposure and white balance dynamically within those regions.
A new social API gives third parties (primarily social networking apps, we presume) the opportunity to integrate into the address book. Other APIs are now available for the calendar, Android Beam, low-level streaming media and audio remote controls.
There are plenty of elements introduced in Honeycomb that still hadn't seen the light of day in a phone, so ICS includes several of them in the package. In addition to the features we've discussed already, here are a few more: renderscript 3D graphics, HTTP live streaming, improved screen-support API, property-based animation, MTP / PTP file transfers and support for RTP.
If you argue that Ice Cream Sandwich isn't the largest incremental update to the Android platform since its birth, you're probably going to lose the fight. Not even counting the number of features added to 4.0, the changes in UI alone are enough to take your breath away. It's modern and refreshing, and the user experience is more polished than its predecessors, but we believe that newcomers to Google's mobile ecosystem won't find it quite as intuitive as competing operating systems as the tech-savvy and power-hungry crowd that has grown accustomed to Android in the past. Regardless of previous knowledge, this will probably be water under the bridge soon enough, as manufacturers push out devices with customized skins.
The interface isn't perfect, and several of its new features still have a beta feel (we're looking at you, Face Unlock), but Android 4.0 appears to do exactly what it set out to do: merge the best of two worlds into an attractive package. It's a gorgeous OS that offers great performance and -- for the most part -- doesn't feel like a half-baked effort. Factoring the new functionality, ICS effectively throws a one-two punch of mobile wonderment in our face. Ice Cream Sandwich feels like a natural evolution for Android, and we have a feeling Matias Duarte & Co. are just getting started.
Zach Lutz and Myriam Joire contributed to this review.