Android Ice Cream Sandwich demystified
By Ray Walters on October 19, 2011 at 8:55 am
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Like the rest of the Google-savvy geeks out there, everyone in the ExtremeTech bunker was
glued to the live YouTube feed announcing Android 4.0, Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS), running on
the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. Like most product releases, there were features that had been
heavily leaked, and some bells and whistles that were pleasant surprises. Overall, ICS is an
improvement to the Android platform, and it’s running on a beautiful device. The hardware
presentation from Samsung did not hold any surprises since the specs for its newest flagship
handset have been leaked and reported repeatedly, so there is nothing really there to explore.
However, Android 4.0 itself has some very juicy features indeed.
New lockscreen with “Face Unlock” recognition
Since most modern handsets have started shipping with a front-facing cam as a standard feature,
the Android team decided it was time to throw in some facial recognition and allow you to
unlock your phone with your ugly mug. Traditionally, Android had a code number or a drawing
interface to unlock a handset upon wake up.
Those features are still there, but now using Face Unlock, a user can simply point the device at
their face, and let the phone recognize them from a stored photo. While not a terribly fast way to
unlock your device, it adds a bit of elegance to the design. During the announcement, Facelock
(that’s what we’re calling it) failed to recognize the speaker when he tried to demo it. Hopefully
production units will not have that issue.
Honeycomb makes its way to handsets
There was a lot of buzz in the Android user base about Google’s decision to keep the source code
to Honeycomb in-house. It turns out there was a good reason for this, as ICS has done the job of
bringing the best Honeycomb features to the smartphone form factor. Check out the list of
additions to ICS that are from Google’s tablet based Honeycomb:
Re-sizable widgets You can now decide how big or small to
make information on your home screens
Stacks Some apps like YouTube, Market and News Republic have a sweet looking
widget where information is displayed in graphical stacks of “sheets.” With a finger flick,
sheets can be moved to the back of the stack in a really nice animated way.
Widget placement Android 4.0 makes it easier to place widgets on a desktop with a
simple long press of the screen. From this long press, a menu pops up giving you all
available widgets in a graphical format.
Soft buttons Honeycomb-based tablets have no physical buttons except power-on and
the volume rocker. Interacting with the OS is all done through soft buttons on the screen,
which has been brought into ICS now as well. Because of this, the screen of the Galaxy
Nexus is 4.65 inches big, with very narrow bezel (4mm). It is honestly beautiful to look
New additions to the Android source tree
With this being a full version upgrade, there were expectations of new functionality in Android,
and Google did not disappoint.
Here is a breakdown of the brand new features:
Updated look and feel called “Roboto” We know you are singing the classic Styx song
in your heads right now, which is probably the point that Google was driving after. The
Android team had three main goals with 4.0: making ICS beautiful, innately smart, and
simple. Roboto falls into the beautiful category. It smooths out the feature text a bit,
giving it a more elegant feel. It was described as giving the OS a magazine-like layout.
Browser updates Chrome sync is finally a reality for Android
users. Now all your bookmarks will be synced between your devices and desktops. A
much needed addition to be sure. Also added is the “full site” button, where a user can
switch the site being looked at to full desktop mode and back to the mobile version.
Incognito tabs have been added to the browser as well. Last but certainly not least, the
Android team has implemented a swipe-to-dismiss for open tabs functionality. With one
press of a button, all available tabs are listed in a visual scrolling list, allowing for a
simple finger swipe to close a desired tab.
Interface improvements in multitasking and app closure This is a feature that fits both
in the Honeycomb ports to ICS and in the new additions, and it borrows heavily in the
visual department, but adds the swipe-to-dismiss feature. Android 4.0 has a multitasking
button that brings up all your recent apps right where you left off, just like with
Honeycomb. The big difference is that a user can actually dismiss and close an app with a
finger swipe, just like in the browser.
Productivity app improvements Gmail and Google Calendar were both highlighted as
having some useful updates. In Gmail, the resolution of the screen allows for a two-line
preview of received emails, making it easier to prioritize information. Offline search has
been added, giving much more power to the mobile device to find an older message. Also
integrated into Gmail is the new “People” app (see below). The big improvement to
Google Calendar is the ability to pinch-to-zoom to expand the information displayed on
the screen. From a month long calendar it is now possible to zoom into the info, making
it much more useful.
Contacts and social networking improvements Google has
streamlined your contacts with 4.0. Now, all information on a contact is drawn from the
social network connections made with them, as well as any custom info that you define.
The Android team has named this functionality “People,” which looks
very reminiscent of Windows Phone 7. Each contact gets a visual information card in the
system that gets live updated when the contact updates their Google+, Twitter, or
LinkedIn profile (no mention of Facebook, however). People is integrated throughout
Android 4.0, with “chips” that are mini visual info cards that pop up in Gmail and the
Built-in data usage management Ice Cream Sandwich finally includes a stock app that
gives you granular control over network activity, and the ability to view a specific app’s
data usage. You can even set up a warning (for when you cross 1GB, for example), and a
hard cap, to make sure you don’t pay stupidly excessive overage charges.
The best new features in Ice Cream Sandwich
Hands down the two most impressive updates were the improvements to the Camera app, and the
use of NFC for information and app discovery. The Camera app added an impressive panoramic
functionality that has pro photogs buzzing. ICS (or perhaps ICS when used with the Galaxy
Nexus) has zero shutter lag, allowing you to take images much faster, too. Using this upgrade,
ICS allows a budding photographer to sweep their phone in a smooth motion at a view they want
to capture, and creates a panoramic image right inside the handset. The app literally does
everything for the user, takes the necessary images and stitches them together into one
panoramic image. The demo of this was very cool indeed.
NFC chips are certainly gaining traction in usefulness in the mobile marketplace. ICS adds some
interesting functionality using the relatively new tech. By tapping two handsets with ICS and
NFC installed, users can trade contact info, Maps directions, and app recommendations right
between their two systems. You can be playing a game on your ICS handset, and if another
person on the train pushes their handset up against yours, a link to the game on Android Market
magically hops across. The possibilities for NFC use in this way are endless: games of tag,
information that is shared when a person checks in some place, and other cool ways to put NFC
The source for ICS won’t be dropping for a few weeks yet but the Android SDK has been
updated, so you can play around the emulator if you like. The Android Developers site also has a
complete list of Ice Cream Sandwich’s key features, if you’re interested — and finally, there’s an
introductory video embedded below. The Galaxy Nexus will drop in the States, Europe, and Asia
sometime in November, but the pricing and carrier availability is not yet known.