Android 4.1 Jelly Bean review: a look at what's changed in Google's mobile OS

Android 41 Jelly Bean review a look at what's changed in Google's mobile OS

Google's next iteration of Android wasn't quite the full-point release jump that many of you were perhaps anticipating. Rather than using Google I/O 2012 as the launching pad for Android 5.0, we're being formally introduced to v4.1 -- a mere 0.1 ahead of where Ice Cream Sandwich placed us around six months ago. Aside from grabbing a name change, the minor numerical bump also provides Jelly Bean the opportunity to usher in a few new features for Nexus owners to enjoy.

If you missed yesterday's keynote, Google revealed that Android 4.1 would arrive on Nexus devices in "mid-July," but there's no clear word on when partner companies will begin pushing it to their products. Moreover, pundits are quick to point out the legions of Android products that still haven't made the leap to 4.0, leaving us to wonder if those Froyo and Gingerbread laggards will simply take the fast track to 4.1 now that it's (almost) available. Care to see if the latest and greatest will live up to your expectations once it lands in a few weeks? Head on past the break as we discuss some of the larger changes that Jelly Bean has to offer.

By and large, Jelly Bean is Ice Cream Sandwich. Just ... nicer. And smoother. And with a few additions that make it worth yearning for. Here at I/O, we were provided with a Samsung Galaxy Nexus, preloaded with v4.1. Outside of the new Android build, it's the same phone we first saw in Hong Kong last October. As these things tend to go, the actual UI changes only tell a portion of the story. It's tough to talk about Jelly Bean's significance without first talking about Project Butter. Continuing Google's long obsession with cuisine, the whimsically named initiative is an appreciated one. Effectively, Google has retooled Android to be even more responsive, so that it ramps up whatever power lies within the moment a finger touches the screen. The goal here is to achieve 60 frames per second across the board on modern hardware; that could mean bad news for older devices that may or may not get the update, but phones like the Galaxy Nexus seem to gain horsepower simply due to coding improvements.

In our testing, an already zippy phone simply felt perfectly smooth. Buttery, even. Chrome loaded in an instant. Toggling voice search didn't result in a single pause. Swiping between photos was shockingly brisk. We could go on, but it's really simple: Android is finally at a place where it feels completely buttoned-up from a silkiness standpoint. In the past, you needed cutting-edge hardware to overcome some irregularities and inefficiencies in the code. With v4.1, you're actually getting more features, without feeling there's a speed hit on the other end. In fact, you're gaining features and perceived speed. And really, who wouldn't be into that?

Without further ado, let's take a look at some of the more significant changes introduced in Jelly Bean.

Predictive keyboard

At a glance, Jelly Bean's keyboard looks a lot like the stock edition found in Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0). But start typing, and you'll see something different. Or, something completely familiar if you're an avid user of SwiftKey. Google didn't take too much time to point it out, but the new prediction algorithm tucked into Jelly Bean's factory keyboard is hugely noteworthy. On one hand, it's a bit strange to see Google effectively ape functionality already hammered out by the folks at SwiftKey. While most of the mainstream swoons over Swype, the Engadget crew remains infatuated with SwiftKey's devilishly intelligent keyboard. Much like that third-party alternative, Google's version learns as you type and begins to make next-word recommendations based on familiar phrases you use. Better still, the center word option can be toggled into a multi-word matrix with a simple long-press. In practice, it works just as beautifully as SwiftKey (save for those times when we typed three or four words together sans spacing), and it's certainly convenient having that voice search microphone button just a tap away.

Without question, this is our favorite stock Android keyboard to date. In fact, we can see ourselves using it as our go-to option, which has been difficult to say in the past. Even the "Smart Punctuation" feature that SwiftKey touts in its third build is mimicked by Google's own offering, and it actually provides an even greater variety of punctuation options to slide to.

Offline Maps

Android 41 Jelly Bean review a look at what's changed in Google's mobile OS

Google promised us earlier this month that its offline mapping solution would be coming soon -- just in time for Apple to debut its own mapping solution for iOS 6. Right in line with Jelly Bean's launch, offline Maps is now a reality for Android smartphones. It's exactly what you probably assume it is: the same Maps you know and love, but with the ability to navigate sans a live data connection. The concept here is far from new; even in early 2010, a Nokia device was pulling top honors in our smartphone GPS shootout thanks to its ability to operate offline. Fast forward a few years, and the Lumia's Nokia Drive app still remains a phenomenal option due to -- you guessed it -- offline support. It's actually kind of startling that it has taken Google this long to join the party, and now that it has, we're left with mixed feelings.

On one hand, Maps is still beautifully designed, robust and magically woven into the fabric of Navigation. For the avid traveler, it's indispensable, and the addition of offline just makes an already world-class product that much more amazing. Maps ties in easily with searches for nearby eateries and businesses, and there's a wonderful amount of integration between searches and favorites on Maps for Android and Maps in the browser. The good news here is that offline Maps doesn't feel like a new product. It's still Maps, and it still works well. If you've downloaded a certain section of town and you're routing through it, it won't matter if you lose signal, dip into a tunnel or head underground for a bit -- at least, not any more than a conventional PND from TomTom or Garmin would. So long as you have GPS and downloaded maps, you're golden.

Android 41 Jelly Bean review a look at what's changed in Google's mobile OS

Therein lies the problem. The actual process of getting an offline map is entirely too tedious, and thoroughly confusing in practice. Allow us to explain. When zoomed in around our test location in San Francisco, a tap into the Settings allowed us to select "Make Available Offline." Smooth sailing so far. But from here, you're presented with a situation that's just not ... ideal. You're asked to zoom in or out to select an ambiguous section of map that you'd like to download. How exactly are you supposed to know the precise road that you won't need to know about? How does Google expect its users to have that kind of knowledge if they're pre-downloading maps to a place that they'll soon travel to for the first time? And more importantly, why should Maps users need to know this?

In our testing, we found it possible to download around 80MB of maps before running into a "This section is too large to download" error, which makes itself known even when connected to WiFi. If you get this pop-up, you'll have to zoom in tighter and download a smaller section. For reference, 80MB will only get you the roadways from San Francisco to Daly City (give or take a few miles). Pardon our terseness, but what a joke.

Android 41 Jelly Bean review a look at what's changed in Google's mobile OS

Compare this to the offline downloading situation in Nokia Drive. There, you go into a "Manage Maps" section, connect to WiFi and then select an entire country to download -- or, if you aren't feeling the entire 50 states here in the USA, you can download each state individually. For reference, the entire USA takes up 1.8GB of space on the Lumia 900. Why isn't a similar option available from Google? As it stands, Google's implementation is practically useless for spontaneous road-trippers who aren't keen on spending a few hours zooming and downloading (and rinsing and repeating) in hopes of covering entire states that they'll be traversing. It really feels as if Google engineered this for urban dwellers who only intend to download maps for one city at a time. For those looking to download all of Montana in order to be prepared for those monumental coverage holes... well, you're still better off with Nokia Drive.

Homescreen tweaks

You won't find too many differences on the homescreen, but you will find a homescreen that's easier to get along with. When customizing the layout on each pane, it's simpler now to drag icons around until they're just so. It's designed to automatically accommodate your apps and widgets, but we still saw the unfortunate "There's no room for this widget" more than once. Of note, you can also remove any unwanted apps and widgets with a quick swipe up and off the home screen.

Google Now and voice search

Android 41 Jelly Bean review a look at what's changed in Google's mobile OS

Without question, this is the highlight of Jelly Bean. Laypeople will refer to it as Google's version of Siri, and in some ways, it certainly acts as a personal assistant. But in some ways, it's more than Siri. Google Now can be activated by holding down the "Home" key and swiping up (or just swiping north from the lock screen). But unlike Siri, which simply requires you to start speaking, this action in Jelly Bean brings up an entirely new portal. Now unfolds, revealing a scrollable list of "Cards" that are just beautiful. (Unlike those from the webOS days, these scroll down rather than across, and don't swipe up or down as the images in the new Gallery do.) The fonts, textures and borders on these things are truly gorgeous. It's a fun place to fix your eyes within Android, because truthfully, it's lovely to look at. Beyond that, though, it's also highly informative. The cards that emerge will become better with time -- assuming you opt into Now from the get-go. You see, Now makes no bones about how it gains intelligence: it watches you. It remembers what you frequently search for. It looks at your current location. It recalls which flights you've been searching for. It's kind of creepy, but honestly, that's what makes it wise. It's also worth noting just how natural the robotic voice is whenever you are lucky enough to ask Now something that it can reply to. It's entirely believable, unlike the very humanoid-y Siri.

The best way to customize Now is to simply be you. Use your phone. Do things that you'd normally do. Before long, Now will feel intensely personal. Just to let you know what areas Now covers, you can find Cards for the following: Weather, Traffic, Next Appointment, Travel, Flights, Public Transit, Places and Sports. Some of these auto-populate -- yes, automagically -- based on current location (Weather) and frequent searchers (Sports). Others don't truly come alive until you're on the go. If you're near the Astor Place subway stop in New York City, the card can be configured to show you what trains are coming up next, how long you've got until they arrive, and where they're headed.

The longer you use the phone, the more cards it magically puts there with information that's magically useful to you. Like, scores you'd search for anyway. Or flight details that you'd search for anyway. Or subway routes you'd search for anyway based on what subway station you're standing by. Absolutely brilliant in every sense of the word. The same goes for Traffic -- you can rely on Now to look into your frequently traversed commuting routes and find alternatives in the event that a blockage has occurred during the moments before you usually depart. Google's also ramping up notifications, enabling them to be delivered before, during or after an ongoing event. Not entirely a fresh concept -- ESPN users can do the same on iOS -- but it's a fantastic implementation.

Android 41 Jelly Bean review a look at what's changed in Google's mobile OS

Voice search now acts as an extension of Now, but it does so with hugely mixed results. For example, when telling our Nexus to "Make an appointment for lunch tomorrow at noon," it set a reminder for 12am, despite showing that it comprehended our request word-for-word. Yikes. That said, our request to "Remind me to get the clothes in 30 minutes" perfectly set an alarm that did just that. (In case you're wondering, that's the pinch of personal assistant showing off.) When we tried to ask if we had any appointments at 2pm the following day, the Nexus simply made an appointment for 2pm the next day instead of taking a peek into Google Calendar. That's indicative of the crapshoot nature of the whole "assistant" thing. It's obvious that Google's voice search is nowhere close to being able to act as a true assistant, but at least we're seeing signs of progress.

It's also a bit hard to grasp what kind of answers Now can populate, and which ones fly right over its head. For instance, asking for the "distance between San Francisco and Daly City" simply brings up a Google search of that phrase, but asking for "directions between San Francisco and Daly City" activates Maps. Clearly, the natural language recognition needs to be worked on. We expected Maps to draw the lines between the two locales and report back a mileage figure for question one, but it simply overwhelmed the system.

Android 41 Jelly Bean review a look at what's changed in Google's mobile OS

All that said, the silver lining is obvious: Google's powering the results. If you're even remotely familiar with the kinds of things that you can type into and get an answer up top, you'll understand what things will lead to similar results on the phone. Asking "What time does the sun rise tomorrow in Tahiti?" led to an answer up top, not just a list of search results. Asking Now to "convert 47 euros to South African rand" led to yet another answer. Asking even complex math questions led to even more answers. Asking about the filming locations for "Prometheus," however, resulted in a typical list of links rather than a beautifully sorted answer from IMDb's database. (Can you tell what we're dreaming about?)

Moreover, we're huge fans of seeing searchable, copy-and-pastable results even when it's the best the system can do. Having Siri return a static image from Wolfram Alpha -- an image that cannot be read aloud by a robotic voice -- is tremendously underwhelming. Google Now won't read back search links yet, but given that it fetches actual text, the potential is certainly there for this to change down the road. Better still, you're also highly likely to have even obscure questions answered by the headlines of top search results within Google. When asking "Who won the 1993 World Series?" Now didn't know how to return an answer. But the answer was plainly obvious in the second search result -- the lead-in line to an page displayed the following: "The Toronto Blue Jays defeated the Philadelphia Phillies 4 games to 2." It's not exactly a "success," per se, but we achieved our goal of finding the answer regardless, without any additional clicks or scrolling.

Android 41 Jelly Bean review a look at what's changed in Google's mobile OS

Finally, it's worth pointing out that Google's voice search algorithm is really fantastic. Even when speaking to our Nexus at a normal tone in a bustling restaurant, it correctly understood 15 of 16 questions. We also found the results to populate quickly, even with just a single bar of T-Mobile HSPA+ coverage. More often than not, our answers appeared more quickly than we expected them to, and overall, we found the whole "talking to Now" experience to be a terrifically pleasing one.

Offline voice dictation

Android 41 Jelly Bean review a look at what's changed in Google's mobile OS

Asking Now a question that obviously requires an internet connection to answer isn't a wise use of time. But, those with Jelly Bean can finally hammer out emails to send later via voice. Somehow -- likely using a combination of black magic and AdSense-enabled Time Travel -- Google has managed to squash its US English language voice recognition tools into the OS' fabric. Even in airplane mode, we were able to vocally compose emails and text messages with ease. In fact, we saw no difference whatsoever in the composition regardless of whether we had five bars of HSPA+ or a tiny Airplane up in the status bar. For those keeping count, Apple's voice dictation feature -- along with Siri -- requires a live internet connection to be useful. Nice play, Google; now, just cook up something similar for all of those other tongues out there.


Android 41 Jelly Bean review a look at what's changed in Google's mobile OS

In addition to the facets covered above (and this here easter egg), Jelly Bean also supports a new tap-to-air feature for Bluetooth-plus-NFC-enabled speakers; just tap your phone to an adequately equipped speaker, and your tunes start streaming. It's beautifully simple, and it works nicely alongside an updated version of Beam that supports photo sharing over simple bumps, too. All in all, it's tough to complain about a free update that both adds highly useful features and makes the overall system snappier. That's exactly what Google has managed to accomplish with Jelly Bean, which feels just stupendous in use on our Galaxy Nexus review unit. The speed improvements are subtle, but those who have used ICS for any length of time will notice them. It's sort of like transitioning from the iPhone 3G to the 3GS; the hastened transitions are just enough to spoil you once you've encountered them.

The addition of Google Now and the offline voice dictation features are huge, huge assets in the Android stable. Both of these work laudably, and while there's clearly room for Now to improve as Google fine-tunes its natural language recognition algorithms, it's a feature that will no doubt have Gingerbread users crossing their fingers (and toes, for that matter) for an update. As lovely as Now is, however, offline Maps has to be the biggest letdown of the bunch. Not being able to download maps for entire states, provinces or countries is a massive oversight. That feature is already available on Nokia Drive, and Google should absolutely strive to at least meet the bar set on Windows Phone. Maps and Navigation remain world-class products, and offline Maps works as advertised so long as you have the portions you need downloaded; still, we need the ability to easily store as much of the world as we want, and we're hoping Google obliges in the near future.

Android 41 Jelly Bean review a look at what's changed in Google's mobile OS

Android 4.1 may not be a quantum leap in any one area, but it's the fine-tuning of Ice Cream Sandwich that we've been waiting for. It's brisk, it's beautiful and it's more intelligent than any Android build before it. The primary problem, however, is availability. It's only hitting the Galaxy Nexus, Nexus S and Motorola Xoom (why bother?) in mid-July, with every other Android device in that all-too-familiar wait-and-see mode. It's also unlikely that the seamless experience we've seen here will ever be truly ported to the Galaxy S III; with S Beam and S Voice at the helm, it's likely that the skinned version of Android 4.1 will be massively different than the "pure" version found on Nexus products. (For those unaware, Android 4.0 for the Galaxy S II lacked most of the standout features that it brought to the Nexus family, so there's certainly a precedent.) Of course, this is hardly a new dilemma, and those who've chosen the Nexus route have plenty to look forward to.