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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  • sjankis630 - Wednesday, January 25, 2012 - link

    I can comment that my Galaxy Nexus' black is as black as midnight to a blind man.
    The only time I see some grey type tones is when the website is colored that way.
    Reply
  • walkman - Sunday, January 22, 2012 - link

    That was a shocking detailed and informative review -- It's the sort of article that makes Anandtech my first choice for tech reviews.

    - The article mentioned new processors just around the corner. Was this referring to any processors other than Krait? I haven't heard any news about Krait since November PR -- Are we looking at April or June? And do we think anyone besides HTC will use Krait?
    Reply
  • Omid.M - Sunday, January 22, 2012 - link

    Processors around the corner:

    Krait
    Tegra3
    OMAP5
    Exynos 5250

    It's going to be a bloodbath for the next 12-18 months.

    If iPhone 5 uses the MDM9160 (?) modem with LTE, I'm jumping on that. Tired of tweaking battery life on my Thunderbolt. Not sure I want to do the same with a Galaxy Nexus LTE.

    And what's this I'm reading about connection issues / dropped calls on the VZW Nexus? Ridiculous.
    Reply
  • Rictorhell - Monday, January 23, 2012 - link

    I am a big fan of this site and I read the reviews and articles all of the time and I find them very informative and useful, but, I have a request.

    When a review is written, particularly about a certain smartphone or tablet, it is mentioned whether the device has an SD card slot and you always tend to differentiate between whether it is a “full-sized” SD slot or a “micro”SD slot. That is useful to know, but there are several actual types of SD cards available, each with a different maximum storage capacity, and you don't specify in your reviews which types of SD cards are actually supported by the device being reviewed and I think that is a bit of an oversight.

    To the best of my knowledge, standard SD cards only have a maximum capacity of up to 2gb, while SDHC cards can go up to as high as 32gb, and SDXC cards, while only available right now in sizes up to 128gb, are supposed to theoretically be able to be manufactured in sizes up to 2tb.

    There is a huge difference in size between 2gb, 32gb, and 128gb. Given that smartphones and tablets have substantial built in limits as far as storage capacity, I think it would be very helpful to know which type of SD card is supported by which device, if that is possible.

    If I read two reviews about two different Android tablets and both reviews mention that both cards have a full-size SD card slot, as a user with a lot of media files, I'm going to be interested to know if one of those tablets can support SDXC cards while the other one cannot.

    I consider that to be a major feature, to me, just as important as battery life. If you do reviews of tablets and smartphones, or even ultrabooks, and neglect to specify how much storage potential these devices have or do not have, you are making it very easy for the hardware manufacturers to simply put in second rate storage and format support, knowing that it will not be covered in reviews by sites like Anandech. Not only is this going to stunt the evolution of these devices but it's also going to mean less options for consumers.

    Anyway, thank you for your time.
    Reply
  • peevee - Tuesday, January 24, 2012 - link

    Anand, please include OS version number (and carrier when applies) in the charts for performance and battery life tests. They make huge difference, as browser speeds improve, they consume less CPU time and less energy when browsing.
    For example, the discrepancy between iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S looks outsized and probably is the result of testing iPhone 4 with iOS much older than the current version, probably not even 4.3, and 4S with iOS 5.
    Reply
  • skinien - Tuesday, January 24, 2012 - link

    What a review!!! I'm not in the market for a new hone right now, but when the time comes, I'll be looking here for a review on prospective phones. GREAT WRITE UP! Reply
  • sonicmerlin - Thursday, January 26, 2012 - link

    I'm sorry, but you're ignoring the fact that ICS STILL lags. If you load up a heavy site like theverge, try scrolling around while the site is loading. Your entire page stutters and freezes until everything is done loading. ICS also lags more as you load more apps onto your phone, just like all previous versions of Android. Also notice how all UI elements are flattened when pages are rendered. Try zooming in or out. The new page info appears all at once, rather than pop up individually as in iOS and WP7. This can result in lag on heavy sites.

    For whatever reason tech "nerds" don't seem to notice the very obvious fluidity issues. Yes once you've loaded up a site it's easy to pan around, but people don't sit there patiently waiting for websites to load. Nor do they appreciate the frequent microstutters due to garbage collection issues, or the massive standby battery drain issues that tons of Android phones experience. And even the basic phone UI itself still lags behind your finger, demonstrating an irritating rubberband affect.

    It's stupid. Android will never stop lagging until Google rewrites the OS to give the UI thread priority, instead of putting it at the same level as app priority.
    Reply
  • rupert3k - Friday, January 27, 2012 - link

    Learned loads from reading this, really impressed with how far Android has come.
    The stuttering when scrolling, zooming or browsing always annoyed me, stoked to learn ICS is fully accelerated.

    One wonders if we'll see any Motorola Nexus style devices once Google settles into their new ownership. Be nice to see a Motorola this nice!

    Hope we see high dot pitch Android devices to combat Retina, not happy with AMOLED at present it seems a bit yellowy & over saturated to me, surely LG or Samsung can also spec Retina style IPS or at least offer the choice between AMOLED & IPS 330dpi.

    Bring on the Quad high DPI Android & iOS tablets!!
    Reply
  • bruce3777a - Sunday, January 29, 2012 - link

    Hi,

    Please bear with me:)

    If a phone was upgraded from Gingerbread to ICS and It appears to be able to still work with the apps from many banks

    It seems like these apps were not compatable with tablets running honeycomb so it was necessary to just use the browser.

    If a tablet is upgraded from Honeycomb to ICS, or if a new tablet is purchased that has ICS would/should that automatically make it compatable, or is there still something that the banks would need to do to make it universal to both phones and tablets that use ICS. Thanks in advance for any insight.
    Reply
  • Lucian Armasu - Monday, January 30, 2012 - link

    I think I figured it out. I just saw this:

    http://score.nena.se/nenamark/view?version=2&d...

    And I remembered it's not the only time I see 1196x720 pixels being rendered in a benchmark. Anand, if you're reading this, could it be because the buttons are NOT rendered by the GPU, and instead are rendered by those Cortex-M3 2D cores? They would have to render much fewer pixels, but they are also much slower than the GPU, and also pretty old tech I think.
    Reply

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