At the end of July, at the Google I/O 2012 conference, the search giant announced many interesting products and concepts. Other products notwithstanding, the one that would have the biggest impact on anyone on our shores was the newest version of Google’s open source operating system. Android 4.1 Jelly Bean debuted in mid-July on Nexus devices, but time varied according to the partner companies’ ability to roll it out.
I found it quite poetic that I would receive this latest version of the software in an update the morning after the latest iPhone was announced on 12 September. I was itching for the update and finally it became available in SA. I immediately installed it on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus and fell into its features right away.
The first thing to note is that Jelly Bean is not a huge upgrade, but rather a refinement, albeit a profound one. It is basically Ice Cream Sandwich, just… smoother and faster. Not only that, but there are also a couple of new features that makes the update almost feel like an entirely new product with certain aspects.
We cannot continue with these features without talking about Project Butter, though. As we have become accustomed in the last half decade, Google enjoys its obsession with cuisine items, and named the project accordingly. This ‘enhancement’ is a big one. Google has built most kernels from scratch and has reimagined the software to be more responsive, so it uses the hardware power within your device much better to deliver better performance and fluidity. See the difference in the video below:
One could say that the human eye would not be able to pick up these differences, but it goes farther than just the speed. In fact, it’s not as much about the speed as it is about how smoothly the whole operating system operates in comparison to previous versions of Android.
There have been some minor tweaks in the overall user interface. On the smartphone the differences are mostly cosmetic, aside from the changes associated with Google Now (which we will get to later). On the Nexus 7 tablet there are some critical differences, though. But for now, let’s stick to the phone, and review all other differences when we share our experience of the tablet.
In previous versions of Android it was tricky to place widgets anywhere on any screen, and space had to be made by shifting other shortcuts around beforehand. Now, the other icons will shift automatically, making customization even simpler. Also, if the function is supported in the widget, one can actually change its size as it pleases you.
The only other slight change you might notice on the home screens is that the Google Search bar is now whiter in colour, compared to the clear bar on Ice Cream Sandwich.
There is almost a complete overhaul of the notifications in Jelly Bean, with new application programming interfaces so developers can change their own system of notifications and utilize this important area of the user interface better. The neon blue notifications have been dropped in favour of white ones, which does make sense once you consider that the new notifications can now be larger and contain more details.
Home built notifications have a preview mode, like Gmail. Having a quick preview of a mail can make all the difference in deciding whether you want to read it right away or close the notification. Dragging up on a notification with two fingers will collapse it to a single row.
Also, missed calls can now be called back directly from the notification bar, and photos shared to any application easily, directly after taking them.
We see a lot of potential in the drag actions of notifications and hopefully developers will catch on quickly. It would be great if third party apps started using the drag actions to simplify the tasks that we do most often, with their apps.
You will also receive notifications from Google Now in the notifications bar, which is quite handy. Again, more on this later, but here is an example of Google knowing which football team I support and reminding me of their next match in the notification bar.
At first, the keyboard seems exactly the same as in Ice Cream Sandwich but, you only need to be using the Jelly Bean keyboard for a short period of time before seeing something different. Well, I say different, but if you have been using a certain third party app keyboard, it will seem all too familiar.
Google wrote new predictive algorithms in order to make typing much simpler. The operating system learns as you type and begins to make recommendations for your next word after a short time. Of course, as time goes by your patterns might change, and Google picks this up. It is a noteworthy change to a stock keyboard which was already very easy to use.
It will also save you a bit of cash should you wish to use this kind of keyboard. I, for one, have been using SwiftKey for some time and I have become pretty dependent on it. The Google keyboard mimics it perfectly, also having the spell correct in a word usually typed in that part of a sentence, and also the punctuation functionality, where you hold on a certain key to slide to a certain punctuation mark, making typing much faster. What the stock keyboard lacks is the ability to automatically put spaces between words should you forget to enter one. As you can see, it understands multiple languages, recommending both the English and Afrikaans that I would use in the beginning of the sentence.
Google also announced that its Maps will now be available in offline mode. As you would assume, it works in the same manner Maps always has, but it can now navigate without the constant live data connection usually needed.
If this doesn’t sound revolutionary, that’s because it isn’t. It has been available on Nokia devices since 2011, like on the Nokia Lumia 900 we tested. There is an important difference, though. Google has been offering navigation services and maps for a very long time, and offering far superior data. This is thus a very welcome inclusion, as we have always loved Google Maps and its simple, yet effective functionality.
So does this make Google Maps flawless? Not quite, I was left with mixed feelings of its functionality. The whole process from having your data connection and then actually getting the offline maps are far too tedious in my view. It might seem that I am nit-picking, but Maps has always been an integral part of the Google offering. It has always been well designed, beautiful to look at, and completely built into the functionality of navigation. So why must this be any different? The only reason I can think of is that it is to save storage. I say this because you cannot download a whole city, province or country’s map in one foul swoop.
In the setting, you choose “Make Available Offline”. From here, you are actually asked to zoom in or out to select the section of the map that you’d like to download. I find this concerning, because if you don’t exactly know where you are going or at least generally how to get there, you might not include the whole part of the map you might actually need while navigating. It then downloads this part of the map, and you can use it offline.
It is only possible to download a map file to the size of about 80MB before Maps tells you that “Selected area too large. Please zoom in.”, which will appear even if you are connecting to WiFi, as it happened with me below.
To compare, on the Lumia 900 you can go to “Manage Maps” and download an entire country when connected to WiFi. That amounts to about 2GB for a large country like the USA. Granted, the same area would be much larger to store in Google Maps because of superior data, but we still feel that option should be available. Although the product does work brilliantly when installed, this leaves you with mixed feelings.
This is without question the highlight of Jelly Bean, the coup de gras, if you will. I have heard people liken it to Apple’s Siri or Samsung’s S-Voice (which was not at all as successful), and I can see why, but it is more than a personal assistant like the aforementioned. In fact, it changes the game altogether. First of all, let’s see how you access it from the minor tweaks in the user interface I mentioned before. You can access it from the lock screen by swiping up where you would usually swipe left to access the camera or right to unlock the device.
This brings up an entirely new part of the OS, unlike with Siri or S-Voice where you would simply start speaking. There is a good reason for this, as you are presented with your scrollable list of “Cards”. They are a joy to use, and beautiful to look at. At the top, you will even have a semi-custom banner according to where you live and also the time of day. Being in Cape Town, you see some mountainous terrain.
The fonts, images, textures and borders are truly gorgeous, not something you would usually associate with Android. It’s not just a pretty face, though. It is extremely informative. The cards that appear will change according to you daily routines. It will also change as Google Now learns more about you and your interests. It gains the intelligence (with your permission, of course) by watching how you use your device(s). It sees what you currently search for or browse, it checks your current location, and it can even learn your travel plans. Also, the voice search is brilliant, and doesn’t have that robotic sound that most assistants have, i.e. Siri.
You can customize it yourself, but it isn’t really necessary. Google Now will customize itself, simply by you being you and doing what you do. It is actually quite astonishing. Google Now has many cards that it uses, including Weather, Traffic, Travel, Flights, Public Transit, Next Appointment, Places and Sport. As you can see from the screenshots above, it automatically knew I read about Chelsea FC a lot, and it populated their next match under the Sports card. I nearly fell over in awe, as I had barely been using Jelly Bean for a couple of hours. Unfortunately, not all sports are supported yet, so my cricket and rugby teams weren’t available in this card.
It also reads all your accounts to find any appointments (across any format) you might have coming up and automatically populates the card for you. Also, it starts to learn where you live and work and what times you usually travel between the two. As you can see, around the time you usually leave for work it then populates a card with the traffic in that direction and where heavy traffic might be. It even knows the route you usually take and can redirect you if there is currently heavy traffic on the route. It’s truly astounding.
Frankly, some people might find it creepy, but it amazes on a regular basis. I travelled over the weekend and Google Now knew about it and had a reminder under the Flights card of which it notified me a couple of hours before the flight. I had not even activated the card. I assumed it got the information from the reminder email I got from Kulula, checked online for the flight number, and it knew exactly which flight I was taking along with my departure and arrival destinations. It then gives you the option to navigate to your depart destination. My first reaction was “Really, Google? Really?” Unfortunately, I forgot to take a screenshot in my amazement, but here is a sample of what it looks like.
Then there is the Voice search. It does make the whole Google Now experience even better, as most results do come into the Google Now part of the OS, and doesn’t need to directly open a browser to search if it might receive a command it does not understand. This voice search and assistant is a huge step in the right direction for Google, as they were far behind in this regard. Interestingly, when tested side by side with Siri and asking the same question, 99 times out of a 100 Google Now returns the answer faster on the same network.
First of all, questions you would normally think would need a web search to answer can actually populate Google Now with a thoroughly spoken answer, but also gives the browser answers below.
As Google is obviously supplying the results, the possibilities are truly endless. Anyone who has used Google’s brilliant search can attest to that. When asking questions about movies, for example, it searches IMDb. You can ask where a certain place is and it uses Maps, and you can even navigate directly from that view by touching the screen or by voice.
It can tell you the weather anywhere in the world and can also define words or phrases (by spoken words, not just giving a popup of the information).
There are many kinds of questions it will answer without needing to bring up a browser. It’s also worth noting that it understands different accents very well. A normal English accent is perfect, not needing an American one to work properly. It even easily understands a very rough Afrikaans accent.
All in all, this is a brilliant addition to Android. It will answer all of your questions correctly, even if it does not understand it, bringing up browser results in Google Now. Talking to Google Now is a pleasure.
Android 4.1 Jelly Bean is a great evolution of the product. In some ways, it feels like a bigger step forward than 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich was. But the increase in decimal, and not the whole number, will tell you it is an incremental improvement.
While that is true, with U/I tweaks and Maps getting some interesting changes, you can’t help feel that Google Now changes the entire operating system. To be fair, I was not even able to extract all its functionality as of yet, as I have only been using it for about a week. Also, not all Google’s features are available in SA yet, like public transport schedules. But Google Now has caused all competitors to sit up and notice.
I can imagine some people still on Android Froyo and Ginderbread might feel completely left out, as they have not even received the Ice Cream Sandwich update yet. This is of course a problem with Android OEMs. But according to manufacturers, they might skip the ICS update and jump directly to Jelly Bean, as the two are obviously very similar for developers to use.
Android has gone from strength to strength recently, and 4.1 Jelly Bean is obviously no different. It makes previous version (apart from ICS) look completely obsolete. The added features all work brilliantly. Except for the slight problem I have with offline maps, it makes it possible to explore your world (and device for that matter) with much greater ease. I am truly excited to see what changes Google brings to the operating system next.