Keeping up with the legion of Android versions isn’t easy, as Google is constantly improving its mobile OS to add new features and streamline existing ones. Ice Cream Sandwich (Android version 4.0) was the best yet, expanding on Honeycomb (version 3.0 – a tablet-only OS) and bringing it to smartphones, which were still stuck on Android Gingerbread (v 2.3). If nothing else, all these different versions certainly make us hungry for sugar-filled treats...
Now comes Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, the next increment in Google’s OS. Jelly Bean aims to strengthen Ice Cream Sandwich’s already solid foundations, ensuring any rough bits are smoothed out for both smartphones and tablets, rather than bolting on tons of extra bits. With that in mind, we installed Jelly Bean onto our test Samsung Galaxy Nexus smartphone and gave it a whirl.
Our Galaxy Nexus phone took around 28 seconds to boot up with Android Jelly Bean installed, shaving a few seconds off the previous boot-up time with Android Ice Cream Sandwich. First impressions are that not much has changed, at least on the surface. The lock screen features the usual padlock icon, which you can either drag right to unlock the phone, left to immediately open the camera app, or up to access the new Google Now feature (more on this later).
You can also unlock the phone using various security methods, including the innovative ‘Face Unlock’ introduced in Ice Cream Sandwich. This uses a front-facing camera to detect your features and ensure it’s really you trying to access the phone. We discovered that you could unlock phones using a photo instead of a real face, raising security concerns, but Jelly Bean gives you the option of blink confirmation – now you need to blink once to prove you’re real. Enterprising thieves will have to secure a video of their victim to get around it now – although the blink detection is a little hit-and-miss, failing to pick it up at times.
The five Android Jelly Bean desktops look the same as before, with the same excellent range of widgets to populate them with, alongside the usual live wallpapers. Press and hold the Home button and you get another shortcut to Google Now, but that’s the only obvious cosmetic change.
It’s only when you start flicking around through the desktops and menus that you realise Google’s clever tech gurus have been tinkering behind the scenes. Flicking between desktops is a silky smooth action, finally comparable to navigating through Apple’s iOS, and we noticed no lag or stuttering when browsing through Jelly Bean’s menus – something we almost always see when reviewing Android devices.
The notifications bar has also been tweaked a little, and we love it even more than ever. For a start, you can now expand or shrink notifications by dragging them up and down using two fingers. This allows you to preview an email, read a full text, or access handy ‘call back’ and ‘message’ buttons for missed call notifications. Photos you take will appear here too, with a nifty ‘share’ button that attaches them to an email or text, or gives you quick links to Google+ and Picasa (plus any social networks you’ve added).
Sticking widgets on your desktop could be a real pain on earlier versions, particularly if your desktops were cluttered with apps and other widgets already. Thankfully Jelly Bean makes things easier by shifting things out of the way to make room for a new widget. Select the widget you wish to add and hold it over a desktop, and your shortcuts and other clutter will shift about until there’s enough space.
If you’re still struggling for space, you can also resize widgets by pressing and holding on them until four blue dots appear, one on each side. Dragging a side will also automatically reposition any other stuff that gets in the way. We’ve already seen these features on LG’s Optimus 4X HD smartphone, but now all Android mobiles will take advantage of flexible widgets, providing they get the Jelly Bean upgrade.
Get a phone call and a screen similar to the lock screen pops up, showing you the caller ID. A circular icon sits in the centre of the screen, and you can either drag it to the left to decline, to the right to answer, or to the top to respond with one of four pre-set text messages (all along the lines of ‘I’m busy, call me later/I’ll call you later’).
Google Now is the big new feature in Jelly Bean, a smart service that aims to deliver important and useful information to you when you need it most. It works by displaying a number of cards, stacked in priority order, based on your current location and previous actions. For instance, you can set up traffic alerts, calendar alerts and weather updates, and Google Now can also feed you news on your favourite sports team.
At the moment it basically looks like a simple information hub, and needs more in-depth functionality to truly shine. We’re hoping that future updates will boost Google Now and make it a worthy tool.
Android 4.1 Jelly Bean is currently only available for the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, the Asus Nexus 7 tablet, Samsung’s Galaxy S smartphones and the Motorola Xoom 2. We’re hoping Jelly Bean hits more Android devices soon, as it’s a smooth and successful spit-shine to an already excellent OS.