A closer look at Android 4.3 Jelly Bean

Unlike previous versions of Android, 4.3 Jelly Bean leaked all over the place before the official announcement. A full system ROM was even extracted from a few internal Google devices and made available online. Even with all that information, Google still had a few surprises up its sleeve at the launch event on Wednesday. Android 4.3 might not be the biggest update we’ve seen, but it’s still something to look forward to.

Performance improvements

With the first version of Jelly Bean, Google introduced us to Project Butter. This was a unified effort to streamline UI responsiveness with extra buffering and hardware acceleration. In 4.3, Project Butter has been enhanced with rewritten vsync timing, triple buffering, reduced touch latency, CPU input boost, and hardware-accelerated 2D rendering.

Android 4.3 includes support for OpenGL ES 3.0, which makes Android the first mobile platform to support this standard. Game developers working with the native development kit (not running code through the Java virtual machine) will be able to take advantage of many new features.

The new version of OpenGL allows apps to render higher quality visuals and deeper textures on the same hardware. It should also make advanced native games run on a wider range of devices, assuming they are running Android 4.3 – which most won’t be.

Wireless and location

One of the earliest hints we had that the next version of Android was 4.3 and not 5.0 was a tiny leak about Bluetooth 4.0 support. Well, the newest Bluetooth standard is indeed included in Android 4.3. Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy (also known as Bluetooth Smart) allows devices to remain connected to a phone or tablet in a very-low-power state for better standby battery usage.

Some applications for Bluetooth 4.0 are fitness sensors and wearable devices like smart watches. The new Bluetooth features also mean Google replaced the Bluetooth stack, which will be a huge relief to some users. Bluetooth in Android 4.2 was moderately broken on several devices. OEMs often replace the Bluetooth stack, so this doesn’t mark the first time Bluetooth Smart has been on Android; it’s just part of the core OS now.

A few aspects of location have gotten an update in 4.3 as well. As part of Google Play services, Google follows your device around. Location-tracking features should now be much easier on your battery life. Wi-Fi location will also work differently in Android 4.3. Even if you have Wi-Fi off, the device will still silently scan for local networks to help with location acquisition. That may sound like a waste of battery, but it’s actually more efficient when apps are calling for location data.

Better multi-user with restricted profiles

This is ideal for parents who want to pass off a tablet to the kids without worrying about all the crazy stuff on the Internet or giant in-app purchase bills. You can designate a subset of apps for each profile, and even disable various Google services.

Developers can plug into the restrictions service to include app-specific restrictions in the main profile hub. For example, a video streaming app could include a setting to block age-restricted material based on the user profile. Apps can also simply refuse to run if they are installed, but exceed the maturity level set for the profile.

New DRM, but it’s not that bad

Android is an open platform, but it also has to work in the real world. To that end, Android 4.3 includes new media DRM APIs. App developers will be able to more easily integrate DRM standards into their streaming services, which are often required to provide high resolution video.

As if to prove to us that more DRM in Android can be a good thing, Google announced at the event that the first app to make use of this feature is Netflix. The new version, which was quietly pushed on Monday, has support for the advanced DRM in Android 4.3. This allows the app to stream 1080p video. On other devices, it will still stream in standard definition.

Other developer goodies

Many of the changes Google made to the code in Android 4.3 are not really user-facing. Developers can take advantage of additional codec options and playback control functionality. That should make video-centric apps faster and easier to design. Apps can also plug into the notification framework to interact with, or even duplicate notifications. This will save a few steps when designing an app that changes the way notifications work.

Android 4.3 turns over control of the SMS quick responses to developers, allowing them to handle the somewhat neglected feature in a more innovative way. Maybe a Google Voice version? The developer can also replace the system-level screen rotation and open/close animation with something more consistent for the app.

When you’ll get it

If you have a Nexus 4, Galaxy Nexus, or original Nexus 7/Nexus 10, the update is going to be rolling out over the air to your device soon. Of course the new Nexus 7 will ship with 4.3 pre-installed when it hits the market (next week in the US, but we’ll have to wait a bit longer).

If you’re using any other Android device, you’ll have to wait on your OEM and maybe the carrier to get around to developing and approving a new OS version. That could take a few months, or it might never happen. Owners of newer devices like the HTC One and Galaxy S4 will get the update at some point.

If you don’t want to wait with fingers crossed, the code for 4.3 has already been pushed to the Android Open Source Project, where it will be picked up by ROM developers. Give them a week or two, and 4.3-based ROMs such as CyanogenMod will start hitting the web.