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19 October 2011, 16:14
Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich

Android 4.0: New design, new features

The latest version of Android, 4.0, will offer a brand new design, better gesture control and a number of minor improvements, many of which were inspired by iOS, WebOS and especially by Windows Phone 7.

A few Windows Phone 7 design ideas, a few WebOS gestures and some iOS for the user interface: for the new version of Android, Google has focused itself on its competitors' strengths and integrated various new ideas. Optimised for tablets and smartphones, the new design of Android "Ice Cream Sandwich" is intended to offer a more enticing and intuitive user experience. At a presentation in Hong Kong, Matias Duarte from Google's Android team said that print magazines were among the inspirations for the new design style. Components that contribute to achieving this aim include the elegant "Roboto" Android font, a generally less crowded Android UI and standard apps that focus on images and large print.

Android 4.0 screenshot
Zoom The freshly redesigned user interface of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich
Source: Google
The developers also appear to have taken a closer look at the Metro design of Windows Phone 7 and Windows 8. For example, the Contacts app (People) now displays a large picture of each contact and, in a simple text layout underneath, lists the contact's addresses, phone numbers and other information from such sources as Google, Facebook and Twitter. As in Windows Phone 7, a second view is available on the right side of the screen: by swiping from right to left, users can change the display to provide an overview of the person's social network status updates and images. The revised Calendar app and the Gmail client offer similar functionality. Depending on the context, important options such as "forward", "archive" or "delete" are displayed in a second "action bar", above the menu bar at the bottom of the screen.

Android 4.0 also tries to improve the contact info that is incorporated into various apps: contacts are displayed with photos almost everywhere; tapping a name displays further information. In Gmail, for instance, a vCard is opened that contains links to the various social networks on which the user has connections with that person. Interfaces allow app developers to link into this functionality in order to read or add data.

Many of the home screen's new features are already familiar from Android 3.0 "Honeycomb", which is only available for tablets: for example, a virtual menu bar, with such components as "Home", "Back" and "Menu", replaces the mechanical or sensor keys that have previously been used on smartphones. Widgets can be accessed via a "cards" mode where users can flip through an animated stack of cards. Folders on the home screen can be created in the same way as in iOS, by dragging an icon onto another icon. Apps, links and folders can now be dragged to the quick start bar at the bottom of the screen.

When tapped, the task manager lists thumbnails of a user's previously opened apps. If an app preview is swiped horizontally, it disappears from the list – which is reminiscent of the window management in WebOS. The swipe gesture to close open content is available in all of Android's standard apps: for example, it deletes individual messages in the notifications bar and closes browser tabs. The user interface is generally more gesture-oriented and designed for improved app consistency – previous Android versions have frequently been criticised for their lack of consistency.

Zoom The speech-to-text feature converts spoken words to text in real time
Source: Google
Google has redesigned Android's input functions. The developers say that they have improved the auto-correct feature; unknown spellings are underlined in red while a user is typing and tapping the underlined text displays suggested corrections. Speech-to-text inputs are already displayed while being spoken, which indicates that this feature no longer relies on a Google server, as was previously the case. Android now also supports special stylus functions such as pressure and tilt.

On the lock screen, the Camera app can be started, and the system notifications bar can be opened, without requiring the phone to be unlocked. However, should a phone be lost or stolen, the system notifications bar could potentially disclose sensitive information to third parties – whether the feature can be disabled was not discussed during the presentation. As an alternative to entering lock pattern, PIN or password, smartphones can now also be unlocked using "Face Unlock" via facial recognition. However, it is questionable whether this gimmick can reliably differentiate between a photo or video of a person and their actual face.

Google has extended many of Android's standard apps: Gmail now offers an offline search feature that will, by default, index the emails of the past 30 days but can be set to index over any period. Google says that the built-in web browser has become considerably faster, can open a maximum of 16 tabs at the same time and synchronises bookmarks with the desktop version of Chrome. Web pages can also be stored for offline viewing. The default Camera app offers a digital zoom, a panorama feature and an editor for cropping and rotating images and for adding effects. The developers have smartened up the Gallery app for viewing images, which now displays albums as large tiles.

Android 4.0 NFC photo
Zoom Android 4.0 phones can exchange data such as map details or links over NFC when held together
Source: Google

They have also improved telephony: Android now supports visual voice mail; when rejecting a call, a previously created absence message can be sent via SMS. Settings now include a "Data usage" menu item that lists which app has caused how much traffic in what period of time and issues an alert when a limit that can be set by the user has been reached. Conveniently, this feature allows users to prevent individual apps from loading or sending data in the background. Another new feature will probably be welcomed mainly by phone and app testers: when the on/off switch and the volume-down button are pressed at the same time, Android takes a screen shot.

Android "Beam" allows information to be exchanged with other Ice Cream Sandwich devices via NFC: by tapping two compatibles together, users can exchange such items as a video, a map section on Google Maps, their contact details, or the Android Market link to an open app. Ice Cream Sandwich also allows for direct Wi-Fi connections (Wi-Fi Direct).

Android 4.0 will make its debut on Google's new Galaxy Nexus (previously rumoured to be called the Nexus Prime) phone, which will be released in November. A Google spokesperson told Engadget that the Nexus S will receive an update to Ice Cream Sandwich. Other 2.3.x Gingerbread-based devices will also see an update. However, it has not yet been confirmed if the Nexus One will receive an update to Android 4.0. There has been no presentation of Ice Cream Sandwich on larger formats such as tablets.

The Android Ice Cream Sandwich SDK that allows app programmers to incorporate the new features into their apps became available at earlier today.

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