The UI: Holo Evolved

When I first met Holo, Google's Honeycomb theme, I wasn't convinced that it was something that would last. It was different, which earned Google points for sure, but it wasn't exactly comfortable. I was surprised to see an evolution of Holo used in ICS, but the theme has grown on me.

Ice Cream Sandwich feels a lot like Android meets Windows Phone. Part of that surely has to do with the very contrasty nature of the theme, but it's also the choice of font (Android 4.0 replaces Droid Sans with Roboto) and hard edges sprinkled throughout the UI. Holo is still distinctly Android in that there are still multiple home screens with support for widgets, but it's also different. Ice Cream Sandwich is Android maturing, it's the second implementation of Holo allowing us to finally plot a trajectory for where Google sees this thing going in the near term. It's different as I mentioned before. Holo and ICS aren't iOS nor does it look like they ever will be. The UI is either going to pull you in or turn you off. I like it. It's different, it's clearly a play on the whole Android theme; it's the type of UI you'd expect from an OS named after a robot.


Droid Sans v. Roboto (ICS)

At the same time it's no longer awkward. Elements of the design and many of the first party apps are just clean. It's truly a first class citizen. Different than both iOS and Windows Phone, but with a design that's just as credible.

The core of Android remains unchanged. You get multiple home screens (five by default) that you can populate with shortcuts, widgets or folders. Widgets are resizable just as they were in Honeycomb. Shortcuts work the same way they always have, while Folders get a nice update in ICS. Drag any icon on top of another one and they'll create a folder. Folders are quick to open and easy to rename, just tap on the name of any open folder and type away.

The app launcher gets a bit of a facelift. Instead of an endless scrolling cube, you get pages of apps that you flip through. Once you've reached the end of your pages of apps you'll start flipping through widgets. All of this is smoother than it has ever been on Android.

Gingerbread vs. Ice Cream Sandwich
  Gingerbread Ice Cream Sandwich
Lock
Home
Launcher

 

The New Contextual Menu Button

Play around with ICS for a little bit and you'll quickly pick up on a new UI element that appears inspired by Windows Phone:

These vertically oriented ellipses will appear at either the top or bottom of an app and reveal additional menu options.

In Gingerbread you had the fixed Android menu button, but with that gone you have to rely on these contextual menu buttons to bring up additional actions. I'm honestly pleased with the move because all too often I'd forget to tap the menu button to see whether or not there were additional options in Gingerbread. ICS makes it very obvious when there's more you can do.

The Task Switcher

A cornerstone of any good operating system is a good task switcher. I still believe that webOS dealt with the concept of individual apps and switching between them better than any other mobile OS, but it looks like that platform is pretty much dead with little chance of making it into the top three mobile OSes.

Google and iOS haven't traditionally focused much on task switching, although both have provided support for it. In Gingerbread, you'd switch between apps by holding down the home button, which brought up a list of up to eight of your most recently used apps. Ice Cream Sandwich implements a drawer-style app switcher menu, first introduced in Honeycomb, activated by hitting the dedicated task switcher button:

Gingerbread vs. Ice Cream Sandwich
  Gingerbread Ice Cream Sandwich
Task Switcher

The Gingerbread method of switching may be quicker, but it's definitely not as useful as what ICS offers. For starters you can switch between more than just six apps in ICS. The most recent apps are located at the bottom of the list, the oldest at the top. You can also quit apps using the switcher by sliding them to the left or right. Doing so immediately frees up any memory the app was using, even if it was suspended.

Scrolling through the list of recent apps, like scrolling pretty much anywhere in ICS, is extremely smooth. The only real complaint I have here is that the task switcher takes far too long to draw initially. As I alluded to before, this is something that may get better with a faster SoC, particularly one with a faster GPU.

The Shade & Notifications

Notifications in ICS are still handled via the status bar at the very top of the screen and a pull down notification shade. The shade in ICS is partially transparent by default and once again, very smoothly animated. The network carrier string is included at the bottom of the shade rather than in the status bar at the top. You can clear notifications individually or hit the X to clear all of them.

I am surprised Google didn't borrow the quick settings options its partners usually like to stick in the shade, but there is a link to the system settings panel at the top.

Screenshots

Android 4.x also finally enables the ability to take screenshots from within the OS. There's no necessity for OEMs to bake-in their own screenshot functionality and key press combination, no need to connect using USB and fire up ddms, and no need to root and install some application to make it work. Traditionally, those three have been the exclusive way to get screenshots taken on Android.

To take a screenshot in Android 4.x, simply hold volume down and the power/lock button at the same time. An animation plays, you get a notification, and the screenshot is saved (with a timestamped name in PNG format) in /pictures/screenshots as shown above.

I can't emphasize enough how important being able to take screenshots is for a platform in general. Without screenshots, users can only vicariously share a given OS when they're in direct contact with someone else. Being able to take screenshots without all the nonsense I've outlined above is part of what has made iOS so ubiquitous online - browse Reddit and count how many screenshots of SMS conversations (trite as they all are) are clearly from iOS versus Android. It's clear to me that Matias Duarte understands this, since webOS and even the Danger Hiptop since day 1 had the ability to take screenshots. Now Android 4.x finally joins the fray. 

OS-Wide OpenGL ES Rendering The Keyboard & Facial Recognition
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  • Tujan - Wednesday, January 18, 2012 - link

    Concerning the youtube video shown about the android smartphone. No misconception here,but is it the intention of the video to put your thumb so much at the forefront of the small phone,somehow toggling between 'both eyes' of the viewer. ? Is that the intention of the video ?
    Pure punn intended that is an awesome big speaker you are speaking to. And true even though the video was most likely rendered in 'full part',with both video and audio attached,I cannot help the feeling that there IS SOME LATENCY between my chinese made glasses and the finish of my lcd.
    The fact that you are discussing a radio device,and I am utilizing a later viewing of it over a wired internet connection. Does not diminish the fact that your radio devices capability of facial recognition,and my lcds display of it is no substitute for taking x-rays if you actually need to.
    I see that you are descript in functioning your arms across the whole of the screen at the making of your video. And there is that very large meter between the preposition of the distance of the audio device,and the radio device that is to conclude that preposition.
    Punn accepted there is certainly some latency there that is perfectly conceptual. Between the foreground,and the background. And the autonomic acceptance of my viewing it.

    You notice that at times as a forefront,you have a wide screen rendering. Then at other times there is the focus 'in'. The difference in doing so is the focal point of my comment in that subject of its latency.

    And that truly the speaking IS a separate distinction of a Microphone. Than that of a speaker,and the screen displayed. Your being behind it shouldn't be misconstrued of what my comment is coordinating to account to. Since obviously the latency between my glasses and what I see on the screen at my viewing of it is of no consequence to your creation of it.

    Mentioning that relationally you cannot change the environment around you no more than I can make your video for you. Perhaps someone will recognize this.

    And thanks.
    Reply
  • nsnsmj - Wednesday, January 18, 2012 - link

    I always enjoy how detailed the reviews are. Reply
  • BitGambit - Wednesday, January 18, 2012 - link

    I love this phone, but I have owned 2 different Nexii with the "Mura" screen issue. The first one I owned was glaringly obvious, but the second one less so, but it's still there. I was not able to exchange it for the second time, because the defect wasn't apparent enough to warrant an exchange, explains the Verizon employee. It pains me because having a good screen is important to me and I was looking forward to release of the Galaxy Nexus. I'm absolutely jealous of those who have a Galaxy Nexus with immaculate AMOLED screens. Reply
  • crankerchick - Wednesday, January 18, 2012 - link

    I haven't had a chance to read the whole review, but I'm happy to see it. I've been checking everyday thinking I must have missed the review. It's great to see time and care being put into the review, as always. The video at the bottom was also very insightful and hits right in the points if why I prefer Android and the evolution it has seen, over iOS when it comes to my mobile devices. ICS flies in my Galaxy Nexus and my XOOM! I don't ever see 25 Mbps on my Nexus though, or all the bars for that matter. Maybe I have a signal issue? :-p Reply
  • flomt - Thursday, January 19, 2012 - link

    I see you have the iphone 4s getting 9.85 hours of web browsing. Do you receive a phone from Apple to test, or do you go to the store and buy one?
    The reason I am asking is I have a 4s and I can tell you mine, and the people I know that have one are lucky to get 9.85 hours of battery life with the phone sitting on the nigh stand.
    Thanks for the great reviews.
    Reply
  • doobydoo - Thursday, January 19, 2012 - link

    I think all the figures Anandtech post are their own measured statistics.

    I have a 4s and I, and the people I know that have one, are amazed by how long the battery life lasts, both in general and when web browsing.

    When sitting on the night stand for 9.85 hours a very small percentage of battery life is depleted.
    Reply
  • flomt - Thursday, January 19, 2012 - link

    I know 4 other people with a 4s, none of them can last 24 hours with very light usage. 9 hours of web browsing is not even kinda of possible. All are on the most current release 5.0.1

    Reading the Apple forums, I am not the only one. Do the phones with poor battery life all originate in a different factory than the ones that last a long time? have a different version of the radio?

    Apple is just denying that they have a problem now and I can tell you that they really do have a serious problem with some phones.
    Reply
  • tipoo - Thursday, January 19, 2012 - link

    Are you running push e-mail by any chance? That kills idle battery life. Reply
  • flomt - Thursday, January 19, 2012 - link

    Nope, manual sync only. Reply
  • tom5 - Thursday, January 19, 2012 - link

    You state in the article here that the camera sensor is a NOT-back-illuminated S5K4E1G sensor and Chipworks in the teardown article states that Galaxy Nexus is using "S5K4E5YA 5 Mp, 1.4 µm pixel pitch back illuminated CMOS image sensor":
    http://goo.gl/gvIWV
    Who is right?
    Reply

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