We were at the UK launch of the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, where Google product guy extraordinaire Hugo Barra demoed the key features of Android Ice Cream Sandwich on the powerful new phone from Samsung.
Android is now the top-selling OS in the UK and globally – and Samsung owns over 50% of the Android share. The Galaxy Nexus is the first phone with Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, the first major redesign of Android since its launch three years ago. According to Barra, it will be faster for developers to code apps that work on Android tablets and smartphones running on Ice Cream Sandwich than it will to code apps to work on iPads and iPhones. Time for the Android Market to catch up with the Apple App Store?
Our hands-on at the global launch in Hong Kong has the full rundown on the Galaxy Nexus – read on for the list of new Ice Cream Sandwich features.
Ice Cream Sandwich devices will not have hard buttons. Like Honeycomb tablets, these have been replaced by 'soft' touch areas that can reorient to landscape or vertical depending on which way you're holding the phone. They'll disappear in full-screen mode.
The design on both home screens and apps has also been revamped to sport a square, minimalist look – not unlike Windows Phone 7 and its tile-based interface.
On the lock screen, you'll be able to select certain widgets – such as the camera or music player – to be able to access without actually unlocking the phone.
Widgets are now interactive – your email widget for example is scrollable from the home screen so you don't need to enter the app to view your inbox. This feature is already available with HTC Android phones thanks to their proprietary Sense interface, but not on vanilla Android devices.
Ice Cream Sandwich has a totally redesigned keyboard with new correction algorithms and new prediction algorithms.
There are now only three slots of auto-suggestions, whereas before you could scroll sideways to view a longer list. Apparently this was deemed less useful by Google.
There's a new subtle vibration to let you know your input has been recognised – Barra says 'sounds are annoying' (hello iPhone) – and it does indeed add a classy touch.
Copy-paste and selecting text has also been given a touch-up with a new toolbar that appears when you select text.
Improved speech-to-text now types the words as you say them – the speed of this is dependent on your network coverage as the words are sent back to Google's servers then relayed back as text. Smart correction lets you tap on a misheard word to choose an alternative.
The app looks more like desktop-Gmail than ever, with two line previews and an 'action bar at the base. In the inbox, this lets you tap to start a new email, search the inbox, open folders or refresh, but it changes depending what screen you're in.
Side-swipe an email to move to the next one.
Probably the coolest gimmick we've seen on a smartphone in awhile, this lets you set your own face as the way of clearing security. Apparently it's classed as low-security by Google though, as a suitably high-res photo shown to the phone in good lighting could unlock it.
Where Android Gingerbread (and below) phones had a multitasking tab you accessed by holding down the Home key, Ice Cream Sandwich has a dedicated multitasking soft button as in Android Honeycomb. The number of open apps at any one time has been increased to 16.
If you use Google's Chrome browser, your bookmarks will sync with your Ice Cream Sandwich browser, assuming you've used the same Gmail address for both. You can now save pages for offline reading.
First they were friends, then they were contacts, now your buddies will be known as People Chips, at least in Google land. They're essentially contact cards with all of a person's social details plus emails and phone numbers on them.
It's useful because in an email or text you can access 'people chip', then double tap if you'd like to change the number or address you send It to.
As in previous Android incarnations, you can sync your Facebook, Google and Microsoft Exchange calendars, with each blocked off in a different colour. You can side-swipe to go to the next day, or pinch to zoom in on a section if you've got a particularly busy agenda.
One of the most impressive features we saw today was the five-megapixel camera, capable of recording true HD, 1080p video. The shutter was incredibly quick and the lens produced high-quality photos with excellent colour and clarity. Ice Cream Sandwich adds extra capabilities to the camera app, with tap-to-focus, auto face recognition and panorama mode.
You can also share photos by tapping once – the sharing action is open to developers so any app that wants photos can integrate with the camera.
An impressive extra is the time lapse option, which takes tons of stills in a short period. When recording video at 1080p you can tap the screen to take a still right at that very moment.
We're looking forward to testing out all these features and more very soon. In the meantime, check out our hands-on of the Samsung Galaxy Nexus.