July 19, 2012

Jelly Bean Review

The latest version of Google’s Android operating system, Jelly Bean, has been rolling out into the wild this week, with version 4.1.1 hitting owners of the company’s Galaxy Nexus phones and new Nexus 7 tablet. The source code also went public yesterday, creating a path for even more Android users to eventually have Google’s latest treat.

I have spent about three weeks using Jelly Bean on a Galaxy Nexus provided to me by Google. Instead of making major User Interface overhauls, like it did with Ice Cream Sandwich, Jelly Bean adds targeted, iterative changes that make the OS delightful to use and a powerful productivity tool.

Jelly Bean gives Android a level of feature and polish parity that could make even the most die-hard iPhone owner have second thoughts. Among the highlights to its new feature set:

Project Butter

Google says that Android is the “fastest and smoothest” update for Android due to what it calls Project Butter.

This is primarily evident in multi-tasking. Tapping the Recent Apps icon pulls up a list of thumbnails from recently used applications. When you select on of the thumbnails, it expands to fill the screen right at the point where you left off. There were very few moments with any kind of lag. It is especially rapid when zipping from one Google app to another.

Some of this comes from “touch input boost.” When your finger touches the screen, Android ramps up the CPU in order to create a faster response. It is clear a lot of work went into making sure that Android was fast all around. The quickness and responsiveness on the Galaxy Nexus was comparable to my iPhone 4S.

Notifications also get some treatment. A batch of multiple emails can be expanded to get a fuller preview of the content. There are a series of canned response that can be used without needing to enter the Gmail, Messages or other app. Quickly tell your contacts “Be there in about 10 minutes” or “Go ahead and start without me.”

Google Now

Google Now is part Siri, part amped up Google search. It attempts to learn your preferences and behavior, presenting them in large “cards” when launching the permanent Google search bar at the top of the home screen.
For example, after a few days it began to notify me of the traffic situation to and from work. I told Google Maps the former, but it was able to look at driving patterns and figure out the latter was probably my work place. Google Now also creates a card for your local weather and score updates for favorite sports teams. Just search for a team’s scores a couple of time and it will magically appear. Like so many of Google’s products it is awesome, yet slightly creepy, at the same time.

Voice search is also featured, with a clear aim at taking on the iPhone’s Siri. You can ask it a question; from the lock screen swipe up to go directly to Google Now, then press the microphone icon or say, “Google.”

While Google Now won’t tell you where to hide a body, it will give more detailed responses in many cases than Siri. Many of its answers were also presented as Google searches – the strength being you can continue to tap through choices or refine your search.

Other Improvements

Jelly Bean has other visual touches to make the UI more fluid. For example, placing widgets and apps is now far less frustrating. Much like iOS, apps now make room for the widget or app icon you are placing. Previously, apps were stubborn neighbors – if there was no space, too bad.

The Android keyboard is much improved. While the strongest Android keyboard is still SwiftKey, the default option is now finally good enough that not everyone will need to go searching elsewhere.

Chrome is the default browser, which is incredibly useful for those who already use it on the desktop. It syncs all your bookmarks and open tabs, so no need to use an application to send a link to yourself. Sometimes a site open on your Android phone will render as mobile on the desktop, but this is a relatively minor issue.

As with previous version of Android it is really Google’s own apps that drive the ecosystem. Those who use Gmail, Chrome, Google Docs, Picasa, or other core Google services will find Jelly Bean an extension of their desktop computing. When it comes to productivity, a power Google Apps user should not hesitate in going Android.

Final thoughts

With Jelly Bean, Android has evolved into a useful and attractive mobile operating system. Fairly or not, Android will for the time being face comparisons with iOS when it comes to features and polish. While there is still debate on the latter, Jelly Bean pushes the former to parity or beyond, depending on your needs.

There are still small inconsistencies that keep Android from having the same smoothness of iOS. For example, sharing content acts different depending on the social network you use. Contact management is still rather clunky. While Google Play Music is well done overall, you must choose which specific albums or songs you want saved on your device. And in general many applications look smoother on iOS when compared to their Android counterpart.

However, Jelly Bean points to a future where the list of needed improvements continues to shrink. Google’s native applications and the slicker interface of Jelly Bean make for a compelling, highly-competitive option.

Image Credit: Derek Walter

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