Android 4.1.1 was recently released to Galaxy Nexus and Nexus 7 owners directly from Google. Jelly Bean represents an incremental move forward for the Android platform, and brings a lot of polish to the complete overhaul that was Android 4.0, Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS). This review is going to cover the major new aspects of the OS including: Google Now, Project Butter, Notifications and how all of the small tweaks in the OS lead to the most complete version of Android yet.
On the surface, Google Now appears to be Google’s version of Siri; but it really is much more than that. With Google now, your phone or tablet will do it’s best to try to know everything about you (if you allow it to) becoming your automatic personal assistant. It is a different approach than Apple’s Siri, since it does not rely on voice prompts to assist you; rather it automatically assists you based on your calendar, search history and location history.
While this may sound a bit confusing, let me explain how this works by walking through one of my typical days with Google Now. The day starts off with my phone waking me up, alerting me of traffic conditions on my way to work, including estimated travel times. It also has the current weather for the week, as well as updates for sports teams that I follow. The phone also will show me traffic conditions to areas I visit often, including the gym and other locations. When out an about in a new area, the phone will show me which restaurants are around, interesting things to do, how the traffic is going home from this location as well as the weather in the area. Basically, wherever you are, and whatever you are doing your phone will know and will also try to provide useful information relevant to your current location and activity.
In addition to these features, Google Now also utilizes a more advanced version of Google’s search that can respond to voice inquiries. It is much like Apple’s Siri, but acts more as a search tool and assistant, instead of something to have a conversation with. If you ask it a joke or a general question, it will simply pull up relevant Google search results. Be more specific though, like asking it for a famous athlete’s birthdate and not only will it give you a voice response, but it will also bring up a card with information on that person, and below it are Google search results. This differs from the way Siri handles questions, as Google search results are always just a scroll away. Further, when asking a question you are given a voice response and visual card with more information about your question. While not as entertaining as Apple’s often witty Siri, it seems to be a more practical, fast and useful tool for searching the web.
On the Galaxy Nexus, there are a couple different ways to quickly access Google Now. When on the lock screen, you are presented with unlock, Camera, or Google as an option to use your phone. Simply swipe to Google and Google Now will launch. When in the OS, if you long press the home button a Google icon will appear above the home button which will launch Google Now. The third option is to click on the Google search bar, which will also launch Google Now.
Overall, Google Now is a unique spin on voice control as well as creating a virtual assistant. While functionality is somewhat limited at this point, and some voice commands need to be very specific—Google Now has a huge amount of potential, and already feels like a sneak peek in to the future of Android. The device knows where you are, what you will be doing and also gives suggestions as to what you should be doing. Some may argue that Google Now invades personal privacy—which is a valid concern—however it is an optional feature and can be disabled depending on your comfort level. Privacy concerns aside though, Google Now in its current form is very impressive, and clearly will continue to grow more and more useful in future versions of Android.
Project Butter is Google’s attempt to eliminate lag throughout the Android OS, and create an experience that is as smooth as butter. Google was largely successful in this—Android is the smoothest it has ever been in Jelly Bean, and finally on par with iOS and Windows Phone.
Lag has always been an issue in the Android operating system. Even when dual core and quad-core phones were being released, there were always UI stutters here and there, and live wallpapers always resulted in a little bit of slow down. As mentioned in my Galaxy Nexus Review, much of this was addressed in Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, but it still was not perfect. There was still occasional lag in UI transitions, and live wallpapers (other than Phase Beam) caused more of these stutters to happen. Jelly Bean has largely fixed these imperfections, and has made the already polished Android 4.0 even more polished.
Project Butter not only makes existing animations smoother, it also adds many screen transitions that make the operating system feel faster. I say feel faster because getting things done in Android 4.0 and 4.1 take about the same amount of time in terms of raw speed, but the addition of new transition animations and the lack of transition stuttering makes the device feel a generation faster. There are new animations for activities including switching between apps in the task switcher, opening new apps, going from a contact to a call, transition when taking a picture and more. The cohesiveness of the animations and smoothness made my Galaxy Nexus feel like a completely new device.
One thing that Project Butter still does not and probably will never address is how the scrolling physics are handled in Android. As I mentioned in my Galaxy Nexus Review, scrolling does not have any weight or bounce to it in Android, which makes it seem a bit less fluid than iOS and WP7. In iOS and WP7, scrolling feels a little bit heavier and has some bounce to it. Further, when using the browser the panning and zooming also carried momentum a little differently on those two platforms when navigating a web page. Even though the scrolling is smoother in Jelly Bean than in any other Android release, it still has the same scrolling physics which makes it seem a little less fluid than WP7 and iOS. I stress the word seem, because in reality it is every bit as smooth, it just feels a little bit less fluid in practice.
That being said, Project Butter is a huge addition to the Android platform. Google has finally made Android every bit as smooth as iOS and WP7.
The next major update in Jelly Bean is the enhanced notification system. Now, instead of just showing what notifications you have missed, and allowing you to launch the corresponding application—the notification bar is much more interactive. For example, if you take a screenshot you are now presented with the ability to share that screenshot directly from the notification bar. Also, if you receive an email, you can now swipe down with two fingers over the notifications to see more details. Other tweaks include the ability to reply to an SMS, call back a contact when you missed their call and many others. While the notification system was already great in ICS, Google has taken it a step further and made it more interactive, while still being simple an elegant.
One thing that is notably absent in the notification bar however is quick toggles. This is one feature that most third party skins definitely get right, and that Google still has not embraced in stock Android. While this is not a big deal, it would have been nice to see Google include this feature.
Other Noticeable Enhancements
While Project Butter, Google Now and Notifications are the three biggest and most obvious additions to the OS, there are small features and tweaks throughout the OS that also add to the polished feel of Jelly Bean including:
- Camera: Now if you want to view a picture you previously took, you can simply swipe across the screen on the camera application and it will bring you to your gallery. Once in the gallery, you can pinch in with two fingers to view a carousel like view of the images, and simply flick an image away if you want to delete it. This is very similar to the system in WP7 and is a great way to manage images.
- Enhanced Launcher: The launcher on previous versions of Android always made it painful to re-arrange icons and widgets. If there was no room on a home screen, icons would not slide over and widgets would not move—you would simply receive an error message stating that there is no room on the screen. This is not the case anymore, as when you try to place a widget in the middle of other icons, the icons will slide to make room. Another nice but subtle enhancement to the launcher is the ability to flick app icons and widgets off the screen. Rather than long pressing an item and dragging it to the trash can icon on the top of the screen, you can simply long press and then flick the item upward to delete it. It is a small addition, but is helpful especially on devices with large screens. Overall, this is a small enhancement, but definitely makes home screen management much easier.
- Transitions Animations: As mentioned in the section on Project Butter, there are tons of new transition animations. It is worth mentioning again, because it really does affect the perceived speed of the OS, and also the animations just help the OS feel a more alive. Animations just seem to have more of a purpose throughout the OS, and it is also great that all of these new animations are as smooth as butter.
Android Jelly Bean is the best version of Android to date… as it should be. More importantly though, it finally fixes Android lag and makes the OS feel as polished as iOS and WP7. Not only is the OS more polished, but it brings in some industry leading features such as Google Now and the enhanced notification system.
When ICS launched with the Galaxy Nexus, I thought it was a tremendous leap forward for Android. Google finally made an OS that was beautiful with a cohesive design language. Jelly bean definitely represents a polishing of Ice Cream sandwich, but also brings some significant features that show where Android is heading. It is clear that Google is placing a lot of development time into Google Now and that it will remain a focus in future versions of Android.Though Jelly Bean is not an overhaul of the OS like ICS was, it is still a giant step forward for Android. It polishes an already polished OS, and also introduces a few key features that will define the Android experience in the years to come.