The next version of each smartphone's operating system is always the best. We impatiently wait for the latest and greatest firmware to come around, expecting it to liberate us from the shackles of last year's code and features that haven't shown up yet. This happens incessantly with Google's Android OS, and version 4.0 -- unveiled at this year's I/O conference in May -- is no different. Known as Ice Cream Sandwich (referred to henceforth as ICS), the last word in the title indicates the merging of Gingerbread, the most recent phone platform, and Honeycomb, the version optimized for use on tablets. We knew this much, but were otherwise left with conjecture as to how the company planned to accomplish such a feat -- and what else the new iteration had in store.
But now the time of reckoning is upon us, and the Samsung Galaxy Nexus -- Android 4.0's mother ship -- is slowly spreading across the globe, its users being treated to this year's smartphone dessert. ICS is one of the largest and most important upgrades we've witnessed from Android since its humble beginnings, making a huge change in user experience as well as a massive number of bullet points on the list of features. Now that we've had the opportunity to take it for a spin, where does it stand in the ranks of mobile operating systems? Follow us beneath as we dig into the layers of this sweet sandwich.
In beginning our deep-dive of ICS, we'll be quick to point out that, much like the HTC-made Nexus One and the Samsung Nexus S preceding it, the Galaxy Nexus is running the pure vanilla and completely unskinned iteration of the OS it's ushering in. This means we're looking at ICS the way Google designed it, and not an OEM's interpretation such as on Samsung's TouchWiz, HTC's Sense or Motorola's not-so-Blur. Just as before, different skins lying on top of ICS are like having 31 flavors of ice cream: your experience with a Neapolitan-flavored sandwich may vary widely from one with Rocky Road inside.
We won't pretend to know what changes these OEMs will make to the user experience, but rest assured that they'll be just as rampant as ever. While we're definitely fond of the improvements Google's made to ICS as a whole, it'll be intriguing to see how widely the interface differs from phone to phone.
Do you remember the last time you booted up a brand new Android device? It was a sweet moment, we'll bet, and the setup procedure remains largely unchanged, as you still have to either sign up for a Google account or throw in your existing login codes. New to the process, however, is the option to tie a Google+ account to your device as well and lets you enter credit card information for Market purchases. You're also given the choice of watching a tutorial meant to show you the ICS ropes. Whether you choose to view it or not, your phone's now good to go. The handset begins to sync in the background after you exit the bootup menus, a process that will take several minutes; we strongly recommend you connect your device to a WiFi network during setup, since ICS will hook you up with email, contacts, calendar entries, books, Picasa albums and Chrome bookmarks -- all data-intensive activities that eat gigabytes for breakfast. Fortunately you can still dive right into the enjoyment of your new phone without having to wait until the syncing is all done. Just don't panic if Bob Johnson isn't in your list of contacts yet.
Here's a handy tip if you want to take advantage of ICS's accessibility features (discussed in more detail later): when you boot up the phone for the first time and reach the Getting Started page, put your finger on the top left corner of the screen and draw a clockwise square. Doing so will activate all of the accessibility features and take you directly into a tutorial on how to use them.
The good news: the user interface has been improved on ICS, with a litany of new elements geared to make it significantly better. Still, whether or not you're coming from an Android background, there's going to be a learning curve. That doesn't seem like such a terrible prospect, but our geek dreams of an OS without the need for proprietary OEM skins won't get any closer to becoming a reality -- on the contrary, we'll likely see plenty of tweaks made by vendors in attempt to "enhance" the user experience.
One of the first things you'll notice when making the journey to ICS is the color scheme. Gone is the lime green-on-black theme present on Gingerbread, and in its place comes a subtle light blue-on-gray motif. There are five home panels at your disposal, and there's no option to add or take away screens. Along the bottom is a "favorites tray" capable of holding up to four shortcuts -- besides the standard app tray button, of course -- doubling the previous version's layout of two (phone and browser). And while stock Gingerbread wouldn't allow those icons to be swapped, ICS does -- heck, you can even put folders here or just get rid of all of the apps altogether. The fact is, you're now given the choice, something we deeply appreciate.
You'll notice that a long-press of the home screen still brings up a menu, but it's only associated with wallpapers now. No longer will you find access to widgets, folders and shortcuts here; widgets and shortcuts are now located in the same space as the app tray, and folders can be created easily without the long press.
While we're on the subject, folders have definitely graduated in design, transforming from ugly manila covers to transparent circles showing your apps inside, piled on top of one another. In fact, it almost has a look reminiscent of -- dare we say -- iOS. Sure, there's the obvious difference in shape, but all it takes to create a new folder is the act of dragging one icon on top of another. Once established, it's easy to rename your new creation.
The app tray's definitely grown and matured to sport a Honeycomb-style look and feel. Instead of one continuous panel that you navigate by scrolling up and down, the menu actually consists of multiple panels that you navigate by swiping left and right (a la TouchWiz). Long-pressing an app from here will bring up a birds-eye view of your five home screens, as well as a couple options above them: uninstall and app info. Dragging the app to either option will trigger the appropriate action.
The widgets galleries can be accessed by touching the second tab at the top of the app tray, or by swiping the panels from right to left until you get there. Several widgets are now resizeable -- a feature present in Honeycomb but not in anything 2.x or earlier -- and can be adjusted dynamically as soon as they begin taking up real estate on your screen.
Another welcome addition to the ICS scene is the row of virtual navigation buttons on the bottom: back, home and task switcher. The menu button -- mandatory to all pre-ICS phones -- is completely gone, as is the search (a moot point, given the standard Google search bar on the top of each home panel as well as search options in most apps). We doubt that they'll be missing from every ICS-enabled device, though; in fact, we'd be more shocked if we didn't see a virtual search button pop up on a proprietary skin rather than the other way around. We're also curious to see how the menu button on legacy devices (that is, phones upgrading from Gingerbread that still utilize hardware or capacitive keys) will be applied to ICS, however, because the stock OS is designed to work specifically without that button getting involved. Ultimately, we can see the direction Google's heading here with these new soft keys: offering virtual buttons will allow for larger displays and minimize the number of physical keys lining the outside of the phone, and we get the sense that the company envisions a future with none whatsoever.
Unlike previous versions of Android, soft keys on the stock OS don't offer long-press shortcuts. The task switcher, once accessed by holding down the home button, now shares an equal amount of real estate on the bottom row of virtual keys. A quick press of the switcher brings up a vertical list of all of your running programs, displayed in a way that will make Honeycomb users giddy. Each app on the list can be individually removed by simply swiping it to the left or right, but now's the perfect time to offer a disclaimer: this isn't a guaranteed task killer. Some running programs close completely, but a majority of those that have background network access won't actually be shut off by simply swiping them away. The only way you can be absolutely positive that your app's no longer running behind the scenes is to go into the Apps section of your Settings menu and manually stopping the process.
The notification bar also got a facelift. It's still accessed the same way as before -- sliding your finger down from the top -- but you can also reach it on the phone's lock screen if you prefer (more on that later). Much to our satisfaction, we were happy to see that rather than only being able to clear all of our notifications in one fell swoop, most of them can be swept away one by one with a flick of the finger to the left or right; you can still clear them all out at the same time, however, by hitting the "x" in the top right corner.
Oh, and what about easy access to the settings menu? The notification bar's got it at the very top. It's an obscure icon and easy to miss if you don't know what you're looking for, but after we got used to its new location and look, we discovered it was much easier to get to settings now because we could reach it from any app we wanted to, rather than having to jump out of the app first.
By now, you're probably starting to get a full sense of the scope of how much Android's UI has actually changed, and it certainly doesn't stop there. Even the lock screen saw a remodeling, and it's definitely for the better. Upon first glance you'll find the date and time laid out in Roboto, ICS's new signature font (an incredibly clean-looking one at that), with a simple lock icon near the bottom. You can slide the lock to the left or right -- right taking you into the standard home screen, and left taking you directly to the camera (which lends additional aid to Google's goal of taking a picture on a moment's notice, given the camera's professed lack of shutter lag). Slide your finger down from the top and the notification menu pops out -- and yes, you can access all of those notifications directly from the lock screen, which means you're able to check emails, voicemail messages and anything else within seconds of turning your phone back on.
If extra security is what you need, ICS still offers you the usual suspects of PIN and pattern lock, though you sacrifice direct access to the camera and notification bar. But Google threw a unique technological nugget into its latest OS in Face Unlock, which theoretically cranks the security knob on your phone up to eleven.
It's pretty easy to forget all about every other feature or UI enhancement in ICS considering the amount of buzz being generated by Face Unlock. We'll admit, we were pretty enticed by the feature as well at first, but let's not kid ourselves here: it's a gimmick. Clever, sure, but it's not as secure as you might think it is.
Here's how it works: go to the security settings, select screen lock and choose "face unlock." The camera then memorizes your face -- or at least, the shape of it -- and asks you to submit a PIN code or pattern lock just in case it doesn't recognize you, which honestly happens more than we'd like. In fact, we saw both extremes: our faces typically weren't recognized if we angled our head slightly away from the camera or if we tried to unlock the phone in low light, but the phone easily recognized our face in the mirror and when wearing glasses. Even worse, we were able to gain access to the phone simply by holding our picture up to the camera.
Face Unlock still needs some tweaking before it's ready for primetime, but the feature is still a clever gimmick that you can show off to your friends -- provided you're in a room with adequate lighting, that is. From a software perspective, we believe the technology will gradually get smarter and catch up to various PC facial recognition programs, but for now we'd recommend a good old-fashioned password to keep your sensitive information away from everyone else.
Android's made it a point to include several core apps in each edition of its firmware, and ICS is no exception. These apps, which comprise of what many consider to be the absolute essentials, can be found in the revamped app tray -- and for easier access, you'll notice a "Google" folder on the main home screen panel that includes a healthy portion of apps offering Mountain View's services.
Many of ICS's core apps have evolved from their previous iterations, allowing these programs to have complete synergy with the new user interface. No doubt they look and feel like they belong right at home on Android 4.0, and let's not forget about the extra functionality they bring to the table. Here's how each core app was enhanced with Ice Cream Sandwich.
Yeah, it has a dialpad and you can push numbers and make it call people. But what else can you do in the phone app? The first and foremost improvement is called "quick response," which allows you to reject an incoming call and fire back a text message letting the caller know that you're otherwise predisposed. Four different messages are allowed, and you can stick with the preset list of message options or swap them out with your own custom ones.
The phone app itself has also received an ICS makeover, with smooth black and blue tones throughout, simplistic icon-based tabs on the top bar along with search and options on the bottom. Moving between tabs is now just a matter of swiping right or left. The contact tab now offers a unified listing, integrating all of your social networks and Google services (such as Gmail and Google+) into one crazy mix. Fortunately ICS gives you the chance to be picky and opt out of specific services you don't care to add into the list. High-res photos are also now allowed in the contacts tab, which means that you have a large and high-quality image of your friend or family member getting all up in your face when they call you.
Then there's the People app, which also offers a unified landing spot for all of your friends, family and acquaintances, but also adds a little more pizzazz than its phone app counterpart: you'll see the latest status update from your social-savvy associates. Not only that, clicking on the person's name will bring you into a contact card with multiple panels that looks an awful lot like Windows Phone. The first screen shows all of the person's connection information -- complete with links to their social networking profiles -- and the second one displays a list of their most recent statuses. This makes for a well-rounded contacts app, for sure, but there's just one small oddity about it all: Ice Cream Sandwich currently lacks the ability to merge or link Facebook contacts (more on this later).
Liked Gmail on your Gingerbread device before? It was pretty good before, but we have a hunch that you'll love it even more now. For one, you can actually create new messages without having to press an options key. In fact, most of Gmail's most used features have been brought forward to the app's forefront in ICS.
In the inbox you'll see an extra line of text for each email, showing off the first few words. This is an improvement over Gingerbread's version, which merely shows the subject and sender, leaving the actual body of the message as much of a surprise as a birthday present. When you get into the individual email, you're given plenty of options, such as assigning labels, replying, marking it as an important message (or spam, for that matter), marking as unread and archiving / deleting the email. When you're ready to read the next message, all you have to do is swipe to the left or right to move along to another email conversation.
Also included in ICS is the opportunity to read your Gmail when you're offline. By default the phone will sync email from the last 30 days, but the amount of time you prefer can easily be customized. This is ever-so handy for catching up on your email when you're in Airplane Mode or just simply not within range of a tower. We also noticed that messages had very little lag when loading. The only thing we were disappointed in was the app's lack of pinch-to-zoom support for images -- odd, since the functionality was added to the new calendar. Aside from this, however, we enjoyed the improvements made in ICS and will find it difficult to review Gingerbread handsets after playing with the new firmware and seeing what it's capable of.
It's hard to know where to begin with the browser, as so many features and elements of its performance were affected by the upgrade. Besides the temporary omission of mobile Flash (which we'll discuss in more detail later), we had a hard time finding something to dislike. First, the ICS browser has certainly sped up; while benchmarks aren't a tremendous indicator of real-life performance, we were still quite happy to see SunSpider 9.1 bring up a time of 1,850ms. To offer perspective, the Samsung Galaxy S II, another well-oiled machine with hefty oomph underneath the hood, rarely dips down below 3,000. The Acid3 test on the Galaxy Nexus also scored a perfect 100 / 100.
Google's also added the ability to save webpages to read whenever you lack an internet connection -- like a native version of Instapaper -- for those times when the train goes through a tunnel or you want to do some reading midflight. Sadly, there's no way to specify exactly how many links are cached, but we can live with that. Chrome bookmarks are now synced with the ICS browser as well, and you can also take advantage of a home-brewed incognito mode when you don't want to show your browsing history.
Another new feature in the browser is an option to request the desktop version of sites; we find this concern often when navigating to Engadget, since we normally have to scroll all the way to the bottom of our mobile site to switch over to the desktop flavor. Having our browser do this automatically makes for a much faster and more enjoyable experience while surfing the net.
Lastly, check out the Labs option in the browser settings, where you'll discover a clever UI element that's not thrown into the browser by default. When enabled, you can pull up a three-button menu by swiping your finger from the left or right edge of the screen. This semi-circular menu gives you fast access to your open browser tabs (by the way, you can now have 16 open simultaneously), settings and the hidden URL bar at the top. Traditional Android users may not prefer it, but we found ourselves quickly growing attached to this new method of navigating around the browser. Tip: holding down the tab button while in this mode will prompt a small menu to pop up on the screen that shows your other open windows without having to leave the site you're currently viewing (seen above).
webOS may be having some rather tough times lately -- to put it mildly -- but Android 4.0 has borrowed some great design elements from its calendar (given Matias Duarte's heritage, should we be surprised?). The ICS datebook now supports pinch-to-zoom capability, which lets you expand or compress your appointments and helps you navigate to specific time slots more easily, and it also offers color coding to differentiate between your various calendars. You can also flip between view types: day, week, month and agenda can all be viewed.
Hangouts. In ICS's version of Google+, you're now able to join hangouts -- a feature we've always felt was wrongly missing from the app. The ten-person limit applies here, but you'll be able to do video group chats with your friends or associates. Keep in mind, however, that just because you can join 'em doesn't mean you can create 'em. Perhaps that's a bullet point on the list of features that just didn't make the cut in time.
As mentioned earlier, Google's definitely plugging its social networking service into more nooks and crannies on the OS by prompting you to sync your Google+ account from the start, infusing status updates with the People app, integrating it into image sharing (as well as several other sharing options scattered throughout the OS) and offering new widgets for the home panels. The company's determined to make its new service work, and we can't think of a better way to do that than expose the heck out of it to millions of Android users.
We'd mention that the Google Talk app has a completely new design to fit with ICS, but let's face it -- nearly every native app on the new version of Android has been revamped, so this isn't any new revelation by any stretch of the imagination. Aside from UI, however, ICS has spiced up Talk's video chat service by adding image stabilization as well as a few fun (read: pointless) live visual effects that we'll cover in slightly more detail in the camera section.
The music app in 4.0 brings an equalizer, 3D surround and bass boost effects. We were also told by Google that the player is designed to be faster in ICS, though we didn't necessarily see a noticeable difference overall.
Google didn't let the keyboard off the hook in this update, and we're excited about it. The 'board itself looks quite similar, but there's a lot more horsepower pulling the wagon. ICS adds spellchecking, in which a red underline indicates a misspelled word and gives you suggestions on replacements. It delivers an improved autocorrect -- which shows several possible word ideas in a brand new row above the keyboard -- and prediction, which tries to guess the words you're trying to type as you go along, and detects double-typed words, letters or spaces you left out as well as other various errors. Double-tapping a word highlights it and brings up a "replace" option that offers suggestions from the dictionary. You can still add your own words to the phone's dictionary, and even better, third-party spellcheckers and dictionaries are now supported in ICS.
Our relationship with the stock Android keyboard has always been hit-or-miss up to this point, but the latest revision is certainly making us a believer. We found that the new autocorrect functionality allowed us to type faster and with greater confidence.
As before, you can also utilize voice recognition to type for you. But this time around, Mountain View's boasting some tremendous server power to back up its input engine; ICS offers continuous voice recognition, which means that the mic is continually listening for your voice and will update your message as you talk. Previously, you had to wait until your sentence was completely done before the engine stopped to process your statement and push out what it thought you said.
We also discovered that the new Android is also able to understand punctuation, which was a very exciting prospect to us: instead of having to insert question marks and commas manually (defeating the purpose of using voice dictation services), we could just say the word "comma." To our delight, the program even dictated smiley face emoticons. The voice recognition service has improved over Gingerbread's offering, but we still had to exercise a fair amount of patience -- it's far from perfect, as it still occasionally missed words that we stated loud and clear, and contractions didn't always come through as we expected. Last (but certainly not least), since voice input is largely controlled on Google's side, a solid data connection is a must in order to fully take advantage of the service. No internet at all where you're at? Sorry, the voice recognition doesn't work at all and the dedicated icon on the keyboard is greyed out.
It won't take a very long time for stock Gingerbread users to become accustomed to ICS's camera, as the look and feel has largely remained untouched. There are, however, several key differences that will make you glad to jump to 4.0.
The most heavily advertised feature of the new camera is its lack of shutter lag, and it really does work -- as long as you don't want to autofocus first. While a quick press of the shutter button generates an image in virtually no time at all, it's not guaranteed to be in focus unless you actually give it a second or two to do the job. Speaking of which, tap-to-focus and face recognition are both in full swing with ICS.
Other new additions to the camera include a zoom slide bar on the right -- this replaces the standard set of options found in Android 2.3, though a press of the settings key will slide the zoom away to make room for them -- and panorama mode, accessible by pressing the toggle in the bottom right corner. Once you activate panorama, you just need to press the shutter button, pan your phone left or right, and hit the shutter again once you're done. Presto, your images are getting stitched together.
When switching over to the camcorder (also accessed using the same toggle in the lower right corner), you'll have a few new items of interest to play around with. The first one is the set of visual effects that can be added to your recording as it happens. These effects either involve distorting faces (such as buggy eyes, squeezed faces or abnormally large mouths) or throwing in a background picture behind the person you're shooting video of -- similar to what you'd see on a green screen. Also new is a time lapse option.
Galleries and photo editor
Along with a redesign, photo galleries now come included with a homegrown editor. You can easily crop images, add effects and filters, rotate and flip. Fortunately, the newly-edited images won't overwrite the originals when you save them. Screenshots taken with your phone can be edited as well.
Honeycomb's Movie Studio has migrated to ICS, and much like its counterpart, it's ideally suited for creating fun little video clips rather than turning into a mobile substitute to your computer's movie editor. You can combine videos together, shorten or lengthen each individual clip, and top it off with a music track of your choice. It's simple, but not laden with features. As phones become more powerful, we'd like to see the number of editing tools increase, effectively turning our Android devices into fully functional movie-making machines.
Ah, the term just sounds so futuristic, doesn't it? In our heads, we associate it with Scotty from Star Trek or sharks with laser beams. Either way, Google's dead-set on bringing the future closer to our grasp by delivering NFC capabilities to the mainstream crowd, and we can't think of any better method of doing so than by loading it onto each and every one of the 500,000 Android devices activated every day. Don't get us wrong: NFC is not a stranger to the OS (Google Wallet and Tags are already offered), but its functionality is still somewhat limited and unknown. Android Beam, introduced in ICS, wants to slap the general public in the face with a large helping of the technology.
Beam gives ICS users the opportunity to share apps, URLs, videos, contacts and directions -- not to mention anything third-party developers can dream up, since they have access to the API -- with another user's NFC-enabled device. Here's an example of how simple the process is: find the content or information you want to share, put your handset back-to-back with somebody else's, and Beam will prompt you to touch the screen to initiate the data transfer. Contrary to all of our experience with science fiction TV shows and movies, however, the beam doesn't make a pew pew sound when transferring information from one phone to another.
While we didn't have two Galaxy Nexus units to test the full bi-directional scope of the Beam's abilities, we were able to take advantage of our Nexus S' tag-reading feature to initiate one-way transfers. Apps and websites pushed to the S like a charm, though nothing else worked. YouTube videos pretended to move over, but the tags showed up blank on the other side. Granted, given the limited scope of the phone's NFC powers, none of this should come as much of a surprise. We'll find this feature to become incredibly useful once more ICS phones come with the tech built in, but its reach is massively small at the time of this writing.
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.
Update: 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.
WiFi Direct 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.