Android 4.1 ‘Jelly Bean’ Review
Next week will see the launch of Android 4.1: Jelly Bean, the latest iteration of Google’s incredibly popular mobile operating system. As always, Google have continued with their traditional confectionery-based naming convention, and Jelly Bean will replace the current ‘Ice Cream Sandwich’ 4.0 build of Android as the new top dog.
Despite the small step from version 4.0 to version 4.1, Jelly Bean is still quite a major upgrade to Android, providing a host of new features, performance improvements and design polish.
At first glance Jelly Bean looks remarkably similar to the previous version of Android. The home screen is almost exactly the same as before, apart from a different default wallpaper and some minor cosmetic changes to the ever-present ‘Google Search’ bar. These similarities quickly disappear once you begin using the OS.
As soon as you begin navigating your way around the system you can immediately feel a marked improvement in the overall performance of Android. The animations, menu interactions, improved touch response and overall ’snappiness’ of the OS have been dramatically improved. This is all thanks to a new initiative by Google called ‘Project Butter’, which aims to optimise performance of the Android user interface, making it leaner, faster and more responsive in every way. All that hard work has definitely paid off, Jelly Bean is buttery smooth.
The Android team have taken their already excellent notification features to the next level. You can now use two fingers to expand and contract individual notifications within the tray, revealing additional information, such as a list of your most recent emails in Gmail or calendar appointments. You can even long press on a notification to display the corresponding app’s detail page and disable any future notifications from appearing, which is a great little feature.
Notifications also present contextual controls for different apps as and when they are needed. For example if a friend on Google+ shares an image with you, you’ll see a preview of the image, along with Google +1 and share buttons baked right into the notification itself.
All these changes are executed in such a way that it all feels intuitive rather than overwhelming and you’ll find yourself wondering why Apple didn’t think of these things before Google did. A regular occurrence when using Android over iOS in recent versions.
With Android 4.1 Google have introduced a major new feature called “Google Now’. It is a kind of self aware personal organiser/assistant, designed to serve up useful information based on your location and behaviour. It sounds pretty ominous, but it’s actually quite brilliant. By analysing your search terms and cross-referencing them with your calendar and current location, Google Now provides an array of useful information without any effort on your part.
It provides public transport information when you’re near a bus stop or train station, it suggests places to eat and visit when you’re away travelling, as well as up-to-date weather, sports results for your favourite teams and routes back to your home when you’re out and about. It even takes real-time traffic data into consideration when suggesting your route home, then estimates your arrival time accordingly.
All of this is achieved without the user entering in any information. It intelligently guesses where you live and work, what teams you support, even which flights you might be taking, all with surprising accuracy. This is all thanks to the insight it gains from the location and use of your smartphone within the Google ecosystem. The results are elegantly displayed in a series of informative and well-designed cards, which you can simply swipe away with your finger if they are no longer needed.
This might sound a little ‘Big Brother-esque’ on paper, but Google Now manages to present the information it interprets in a very user-friendly and unobtrusive way. Rather than feeling like an invasion of privacy, it feels more like an essential addition to the modern mobile experience. With the addition of spoken search results and richer voice command support (akin to what Apple is providing with Siri) Google Now is a feature that I found myself using more and more, rather than relying on individual apps and typing searches to get my information.
Expect to hear a lot more about Google Now in the future, as the search giant plans to develop Google Now as a platform integrated into the fabric of your Google experience, rather than just existing as a standalone feature for Android devices.
Offline Speech Recognition
Android is already renowned for its accurate speech-to-text recognition, but until now it required a constant connection to Google’s servers to process the audio and interpret the content. That all changes in Jelly Bean with the addition of offline speech recognition. You can now dictate messages without an Internet connection, it’s a little less accurate than when Google’s servers do the work, but it’s impressive nonetheless. These improvements also reduce the time it takes to perform voice searches, making ‘Google Now‘ an even more appealing option over traditional typed searches.
Other Notable Features and Improvements
Amongst many more features and improvements, there are a few worth mentioning, such as:
- Improved spelling and word correction for text input using the on-screen keyboard.
- Offline Google Maps, allowing you to store selected maps on the device when data connections are not available.
- Smart app updates. This will reduce the size of future app updates by only replacing code that has changed.
- Quick review function for recent photos and videos, with the ability to swipe photos to delete them on the fly (Don’t worry, there’s an ‘undo’ button!)
- Dynamic home screen icons that auto arrange themselves to make room for widgets.
- Google Chrome will be the default browser from now on, starting in Android 4.1
There are plenty more little features that will delight new and current Android users alike, but I don’t want to spoil all the surprises for you!
Android 4.1 Jelly Bean is by far the best version of Android to date, and the new attention to detail fills me with confidence for the future of the platform. Long gone are the days of buggy features and lacklustre performance across the OS. What’s more, the consistent user interface and experience should lead to better thought out third-party apps, which will only serve to improve on an already excellent experience.
My only criticisms lie squarely with the lack of certain Google services here in the UK and Europe, rather than with the operating system itself. Services such as Google Play Music (awful name), Google Voice and Google Wallet are still nowhere to be found. Once these great services break out of their US-only shackles, the Android experience will become a far more appealing one for international users. Hopefully these will become available sooner rather than later, but with countless regulations to consider, I’d advise not to hold your breath.
All in all, Jelly Bean is an excellent upgrade to Android 4.0, which has been praised for its design, reliability, speed and mature feature set. It is hard to pick fault with this release, mainly due to the fact that it has been finely tuned to run on Google’s flagship Android devices, namely the Galaxy Nexus smartphone and soon to be released Nexus 7 tablet.
Whether Android’s improvements will survive Samsung, Sony and HTC’s modification process, as they customise Jelly Bean for their own hardware, remains to be seen. I sincerely hope they do, as Android 4.1 more than matches the features and performance of Apple’s iOS in its current form.
As Apple and Microsoft prepare to roll out iOS 6 and Windows Phone 8 respectively, 2012 will undoubtedly provide us with three incredibly powerful, mature and evenly matched mobile platforms going forwards. Roll on 2013!Tagged in: Android, Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, google, technology
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