From the release of the Nexus 7 in the summer to a whole line of Nexus products in the fall, Android has come a long way in the past year. Sadly, hurricane Sandy struck the USA’s East Cost right when Google wanted to proudly unveil their newest line-up, so their announcement was restricted to mass e-mails and an online launch.
Alongside the Nexus 7, Google launched the Nexus 10, a 10-inch NVIDIA Tegra 3 powered tablet, and the Nexus 4, a 4-inch smartphone with a 1.5 GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon processor. To support these devices, the company “refreshed” Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, giving it a version bump to 4.2, while retaining the Jelly Bean codename. Want to find out the improvements done? Read on.
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Camera and Gallery
The first thing that most people talked about in Jelly Bean 4.2 is the new Camera application. Along with the new interface, it features an all new PhotoSphere Mode that helps you create a 360 degree panoramic picture. Google has basically taken their Street Technology and made it available to anyone that has a smartphone — granted you must be running Android 4.2 to use it — but it’s a step further in that regard.
However, there’s a new feature in this camera that I don’t like: you can use some sort of Quick Settings by just holding your finger on the screen and sliding it to change the settings. Most of the time you don’t know what you’re setting because your finger is in the way. I would have appreciated a bubble popping-up on top of my finger to tell me what I’m selecting.
Other than a new HDR (High Dynamic Range) image mode, all of the usual settings and dials are there — brightness, exposure, white balance.
Tied to the Camera, there’s an all new Gallery application. You’ve just taken a picture? Just swipe from the right to see how it turned out and *bam!* you’re in the Gallery app. It’s just as simple.
Now let’s say you’re browsing your pictures in the Camera folder. If you’re looking at the most recent picture you’ve taken, just swipe from the left and you’re instantly back in the camera, ready to take another one.
But that’s not all. You now can now view your photos in a Filmstrip View. It’s basically a horizontal scroll-list of the photos in your albums. The nice thing about this is that you can swipe up or down to quickly delete a photo. You accidentally did that? No problem, just hit undo and you have it back. Just make sure that you don’t exit the application or you can risk losing the picture for good.
This makes the experience more fluid. Rather than having an intrusive dialog asking you “Do you really want to delete this picture?”, it’s a small toast notification saying “Deleted.| Undo?” and Undo is a button. I like the latter much, much more.
You might think that I’m done with the Gallery app, but that’s far from it. Just when you thought that Google improved one part of the Gallery, they went a step further and made it better. The Gallery now has built in photo filters, photo frames and effects that basically kill the need for any third-party application — says the man with 7 photo editing applications on his phone.
The biggest changes however, come to the clock application. It now features 2 widgets: Analog Clock and Digital Clock. Both of these are quite great, however they don’t feature weather on them like the alternatives do which forces you to use another widget to display the weather. After switching to Android 4.2, I feel the need to remove the clutter from my main screen and having a weather and a clock widget on the same page feels like too much.
The widgets aren’t the only thing new. The whole Clock application has been overhauled and I trust most of you will like the new look.
Once you launch the application, you’re greeted by a big clock that you can set up to be either Digital or Analog — I prefer the digital one. Here you can also set your alarms — which we’ll talk about later on — and your world clocks.
You can select your World Clocks by tapping on the familiar Places icon on the bottom action bar. When you do, a list of the world’s major cities loads and you can check those you want to display.
On the top action bar, the Clock application now also features buttons that take you to the Timer and Stopwatch respectively. Or you could also swipe left or right to change tabs.
Just tap start on the stopwatch and the chronometer starts counting. Tap the New Lap button to record a lap and a pretty neat trick happens: the circle starts turning red to give you a visual representation of how long the current lap lasts compared to the first one, which is represented by the full white circle. Add a 3rd lap and the circle still goes red, but this time there’s a marker where you finished the latest lap and the full circle remains representative of the first lap. Complex — well, not really — mathematics happening right here!
The Timer part of the application is also fairly simple: you just set up an interval and a label for the timer and that’s it. You can even set multiple timers.
Alarms are part of a daily routine for some and Google has invested time and effort into making setting alarms as quick as possible. The whole interface has been built from the ground up. Now, you expand an alarm to edit all of its settings. You can pick the ringtone, if the alarm should be recurring, and evidently the assigned time.
The one aspect of the Alarms that I don’t like and that should be fixed is the fact that the days of the week do not adapt to the settings in your calendar app. In my locale, Monday is the first day of week, not Sunday. I tried to find a setting and even double-checked the calendar application to see if it’s set-up correctly and had no success. For the time being, I have no choice, but to wait.
Alarm notifications have also been improved. Remember when the alarm went off in Gingerbread and you were prompted with a message box? Now the alarm functions like a lockscreen or a phone call when it’s triggered. On the left, you can snooze, or slide to the right to stop it.
It was quite a fun experience, discovering all the little features that have been changed in the Clock and Alarms. All of them are quite difficult to spot, but I should know, I use the alarm every day.
The last big feature introduced in Android 4.2 is the fact that you can now put widgets on your Lockscreen. By default, you can add widgets for Messaging, Gmail, Calendar and various others. But these are not your standard homescreen widgets, no, Google has created a separate API for them. This means that developers will have to specifically add some code to allow their widgets to be added to the lockscreen.
The way these lockscreen widgets are ordered is pretty weird in my opinion. The one farthest on the right is the main widget that will be shown on your Lockscreen. You can scroll from the left edge to view the others or add new ones. You can also scroll from the right edge, to get the camera widget which isn’t much of a widget, but a fancy way to get to the camera app quickly — I only like this last part.
Everything else about this new “Lockscreen widgets” feature seems like it didn’t receive the amount of polish that it should have. Don’t get me wrong, I love having widgets on my Lockscreen, but to create a whole new sub-system specifically for them is an overkill. Why can’t we just put any widget there? And why are they arranged so counterintuitively?
Let’s not forget about Google Now, Google’s version of Siri, which is not as friendly, but just as helpful. You might have noticed in the screenshots that there’s no software search button. That’s because apps must implement it somehow on the Action Bar — since the new Holo UI Guidelines for Android Developer have come to fruition.
So how do you open Google Now without a search button to long press? Easy. Slide up from the Home Button and Google Now launches, well, technically, Google Search launches and Google Now is just a part of it. The rest is easy.
Other Cool Things
One of the parts that is so well integrated that you might miss it, is the keyboard. It now features an all new Gesture Typing. This, coupled with Google prediction algorithms does a phenomenal job at helping you type faster. I personally don’t use it since it doesn’t support my native language — Romanian — but I had no problems using it in English.
The Nexus 4 also has NFC (Near Field Communication). Sadly I don’t have any tags or any places to use it so I can’t tell you how it works. [Ed note: you could check Joe Casabona's NFC article for examples of business and individual NFC uses that are beyond payments]
At first glance at Android 4.2.1, you might wonder: “Well what’s different from the old Jelly Bean?” A quick answer would be to say not much, but play with it for a few days and you’ll find a thing or two that should put a smile on your face. The first time my alarm rang, I was so surprised by how they made the new look, I literally smiled.
The sad part of all of this is that although Android has become so beautiful, it does come at a cost: lower-end phones might not be able to take advantage of the new features. You need a little horsepower to use most of these and only the Nexus 4 and similar high-end devices have it.
If your phone can handle it, grab a ROM that’s closest to the original version of Android 4.2.1 and install it. Trust me, you won’t regret the decision, it’s worth it!