Today, Google and Samsung revealed the new version of Android (4.0, Ice Cream Sandwich), and the new flagship Android phone (the Samsung Galaxy Nexus). In case you missed the live streaming announcement, read on to find out about the new features, the phone’s stats, the changes to Android’s interface, and the subtler effects this is all likely to have.
Big New Features
Let’s start off by looking at the big new features built in to Android 4.0.
Instead of typing in a code or swiping a pattern around your lock screen, you can just point the front camera at your face; it’ll recognise you, and unlock automatically. It’s not entirely secure, of course – it’s not really meant to be – but it’ll stop you accidentally calling people while the phone’s in your pocket, prevent other people from sending prank texts if you leave it on the table while you grab a drink, and be faster to unlock than typing something in.
If you’ve used Chrome to Phone or Bump, you’ll see the appeal of this. Tap your phone against someone else’s (or just wave it in their general direction when nearby) and it’ll let you exchange contact details, share music, send a link or an app – that kind of thing. We saw a preview of this back at Google I/O, so it’s great to see it’s nearly here.
Gingerbread has speech-to-text, but only in short bursts: hit the microphone icon on your keyboard and then say a few words, and Android will insert them into the text of whatever you’re writing. It’s neat, but a little cumbersome. Android 4.0′s voice input engine lets you keep talking for as long as you want, converting text while you speak, rather than after.
I’ll admit, after Apple’s announcements of Siri on the iPhone 4S, I was expecting Google to reveal something similar for their rumoured new voice input; this goes in a different direction.
Camera Features, Filters and Panoramas
The camera app now has built-in cropping, red-eye reduction and facial recognition, as well as other photo manipulation abilities – though that’s not really new to anyone running a UI like Sense, or with a different camera app. New “Live Effects” let you add custom backgrounds or apply magic mirror-style silly effects to your videos in real time (including during video chat), and there are a bunch of Instagram-style filters you can apply to your photos, too. Plus, on supported phones, you can take a panoramic photo by simply turning the camera to take in all of your surroundings.
Data Usage Controls
If you’re on a metered or tiered data plan, you’ll appreciate this. As well as being able to see how much data you’ve used in the current billing cycle (and get warned if you go above a certain limit), you can see the amount that each individual app has used, and prevent certain apps from using too much. For instance, you could prevent YouTube from loading any videos if you’re too close to the limit this month.
You’ll be able to snap a screenshot using a hardware button and store it locally. I’ve no idea how much regular users care about this, but as the editor of an app review site, I’m very happy about it.
Samsung Galaxy Nexus Stats
The Galaxy Nexus has a 4.65″ 1280×720 HD AMOLED screen (speculation suggests it is ultra-tough Gorilla Glass, but I’m not 100% sure on that). For comparison, the HTC Desire’s screen is 3.7″, the Desire HD’s screen is 4.3″, and the Samsung Galaxy S II‘s screen is 4.27″ – each with a resolution of 800×480 – while the iPhone 4 and 4S both have a 3.5″ 960×640 screen.
The phone is curved (even the screen) and has no front buttons; Samsung claims this makes it feel more natural against your face when you hold it to your ear. It’s roughly the same thickness as the Galaxy S II, which makes it slightly slimmer than the iPhone 4S and considerably slimmer than the Desire.
It features NFC and 4G, which are both becoming more standard. The front camera is VGA-quality (also pretty standard), and the processor is 1.2GHz – fast, but not a huge step above the competition. It also includes a barometer, for measuring atmospheric pressure.
However, I suspect there is one stat that people will get hung up on: the main camera’s resolution. At only 5MP, it’s lower than both the iPhone 4S and the Galaxy S II, which both have an 8MP camera. Early reports suggest that the quality of photos is very high, at least – point and shoot quality – but I’ll wait until I see some hands-on reviews to make a judgement there.
It’s due out in November, and will be the new flagship Android phone, meaning we can expect it to get all the latest Android updates first.
Ice Cream Sandwich Interface Changes
Now we’re getting into the nitty-gritty.
New Lock Screen
We’ve seen custom lock screens that let you access apps without having to unlock them; now this is built in to the OS. The camera app is right there, and you can also view your notifications. You can also change what music track is currently playing – though, again, this isn’t new to anyone using a custom UI like Sense.
Similarly, when you get a call, there’s a new third option besides answer and hang up: send a text. You can add pre-written messages here, like “Sorry, I’m in a meeting, I’ll call you back later”, and send them with a tap.
When typing, you’ll see Microsoft Word-style red underlines beneath words Android doesn’t recognise; tap them to select a correction or to add the word to the dictionary. Similarly, when using the voice input, you’ll see grey underlines beneath words Android isn’t sure about, and can tap these to correct them.
There’s a bigger emphasis on gestures: everything is swiped or pinched, from the redesigned Recent Apps list, to the zoomable Calendar, to the rich notifications. You might also have noticed from these screenshots that there are only three buttons now, rather than earlier Android’s four (plus possible trackpad).
We took a sneak peek at the new Google+ app a few days ago, but there’s more to Ice Cream Sandwich and Google+ than a slightly different app design. Google+ is now integrated into the OS; you can add people to your Circles right from the Contacts app.
I haven’t covered every little addition, and of course the interface is more than the sum of its parts – it’s also the overall look and feel of the OS. You can get some idea of the look from the screenshots, but it’s going to be hard to judge the feel until you get to use it. Even so, it’s obvious that this is not just an incremental upgrade from Gingerbread. Google is also preparing a new style guide for app developers, so that their apps can fit in with Android’s new style.
Implications For Apps
It’s easy to dismiss some of these aspects as not adding anything new – who cares about Google+ integration when we could already get most of that via the Share menu after installing the app? Who cares about Beam when you could use Bump? But let’s look at the broader implications:
Google+ will be built in to every Android phone, and is available to anyone with a Google Account, which I suspect most new Android users already have, or will set up when they first turn on their phone. And Google+ is not just a great social messaging platform; it also includes group IM and video chat (see our review for more details), which are also available on its web app and iPhone app. This means Google has cross-platform social networking, instant messaging and video chat – it’s taking on Facebook, Skype, FaceTime and iMessage, all at once.
Beam isn’t just an app, it’s a feature that’s available to developers, giving them a unified way to handle NFC-based interaction. We can expect to see more apps using Bump-style technology because it’s going to be simpler to implement – we’ll see this being used in gallery apps and multiplayer games without doubt, but I’m sure we’ll also see some innovative new uses for it, like PayPal’s feature that lets two people exchange money with a tap.
More of Android will be open for developers to access. Apps will be able to read and add to your calendar, add any sort of details to any of your contacts, access your voicemail, and control aspects of the camera such as zoom and focus. Again, this can only lead to new and interesting apps, and enhancements to existing ones.
You’ve got to see this in motion, so check out this video, showing off the Galaxy Nexus and Ice Cream Sandwich:
After that, find out more about the Galaxy Nexus, and sign up to receive updates, on its official site.
To learn about Ice Cream Sandwich (and what it has in store for both users and developers), check out the highlights on the Android site.
Finally, read about the design philosophy behind the new Android in this fantastic write-up over at This Is My Next.