In case you hadn't noticed, Google has released its latest phone and tablet operating system – Android 4.1 Jelly Bean. The OS was launched in the opening keynote of the Google I/O 2012 developers' conference, in San Francisco and ITProPortal live blogged all of the happenings of the event. Before its launch, we also covered the rumours and speculation surrounding Android Jelly Bean, and now we bring you its top features, in time for its roll-out this month.
Project Butter - performance enhancements
Project Butter is a performance-focussed effort to rework the platform from deep within the code of Android. The underlying changes brought about by Project Butter include making the user interface faster when rendering graphics - by improving fluidity and smoothness - along with improving how the user perceives aspects of the on-screen visuals. In this respect, Android Jelly Bean has a more consistent frame rate. Google has taken the vsync refresh signal in Android and extended it to the entire framework of the operating system, at 60 frames per second. Unlike before, every part of the platform will run at the same rate, from application rendering to touchscreen processing, screen composition and the display refresh rate.
Also brought in to Android 4.1 is triple buffering. This allows three key aspects of the device – the graphics processor, central processing unit and display – to all run in parallel. This addition to Jelly Bean will offer a better screen refresh rate, where everything should appear much smoother.
The next inclusion to the underlying framework addresses the touchscreen experience. Touch requests on a phone or tablet are registered independently of the screen being updated. Now, Jelly Bean anticipates where your finger will actually be at the time of the screen refresh and draws the display around that position, thus giving a more reactive response.
The other touch-based new ability relates to the device's response time. As soon as you touch the display in Jelly Bean, the CPU is running at full speed and in a process called Touch Input Boost. In the past, the processor ran at a lower level when the device was not in use, which could lead to a delay when accessing the device again, as the CPU was coming up to full power. All of these enhancements are aimed at making the OS run as 'smooth as butter', as the project's name suggests.
Improvements in Android 4.1 Jelly Bean
The first key improvements are the positioning of home screen widgets and the inclusion of new items. In version 4 of Android, if you wanted to add a widget from another screen to, for example, the home screen, you had to first make sure there was room for it. If not, you had to make room by first removing a widget. Now, widgets automatically resize. Widgets will also reformat their own layout and positioning around a new incoming widget.
Google has reworked the way of removing items from the home screens, with a note taken from the multi-tasking viewing on Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS). In version 4.1 of Android, the removal of widgets and applications are no longer done by dragging them to the delete button, which appears when you hold down an item. Instead, all you do is touch and hold a widget or app and then flick it off the screen. This gesture is performed in the same way as closing an app in Android ICS.
Text input has seen improvements in Jelly Bean, too, where Google has stated that dictionaries are more accurate and more relevant. This is along with an intelligent keyboard that learns over time, without a great deal of prompting. Also, a new prediction algorithm guesses the next word before you have started to type it.
Voice Typing has been fine-tuned too. This feature has worked well previously, but only if there's a data connection; in much the same way as Apple's Siri or Samsung's S-Voice. If there isn't one, then the service doesn't work and if there's a bad connection, the feature takes a long time to deliver a response. To get around this, Google has shrunk down the speech recogniser that runs in its data centres and has included it within Android Jelly Bean, so that it runs directly from the device and is therefore available to use offline.
There is also more support for different languages including Hebrew and Arabic, with the latter gaining a new font. Google has also added 18 new input languages that include Persian, Hindi and Thai, among others. This tallies with the news that in some of those countries, Android activations have grown 500 per cent in the past year.
As for the camera, Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich brought in a faster way to take pictures, but now Jelly Bean's camera app adds extra features. Every time a picture is taken, a new animation shows that picture rising from the screen and moving off to the right. This can then be quickly reviewed by simply swiping them back on to the screen. Furthermore, you can pinch on the camera screen to open up a filmstrip of all the images so that they can be quickly scrolled through. These can be deleted from the strip by swiping each picture off the screen, in the same way as removing apps and widgets from a home screen.
Android Beam NFC usefulness has been expanded from just sending small amounts of data, such as contacts and URLs. There are two new additions to the functionality of Beam: transferring pictures and videos but just tapping your phones together; and secondly, automatically pairing and connecting an NFC-enabled Bluetooth device, such as a speaker or headset, again by tapping the handset against them. We have seen this before with the Symbian-based Nokia 700 handset.
Android notifications also see improvements in Jelly Bean. It is now possible to respond to a missed call by calling that person directly from the missed call notification – and you can hang up from there too. The Gmail notification also shows a lot more information without needing to open the Gmail app - almost like a mini window of the mail client. This displays how many emails have arrived, with the name of the person contacting you and part of the message. Multiple people can now be contacted from a calendar notification or appointment reminder, with a set of canned (or customised) responses, such as: 'Be there in about 10 minutes' or 'Go ahead and start without me'. It is also possible to comment or 'like' someone's Foursquare 'check in', without entering the app, all from within Android's new actionable and expandable/collapsible notification area.
Google has always integrated its search functionality into Android, and this aspect of the platform has been redesigned in Jelly Bean to include a new user interface, faster and better voice search, and a new feature entitled Google Now.
In May, the company brought Knowledge Graph into Google search with a view to better understand the words used in searching. This has now been incorporated into Jelly Bean's new user interface in order to display search results in a richer way. This is achieved by way of a pop-up card, much like a Rolodex and in a much cleaner way than usual. This is with just one definitive answer and not a whole range of results, cleanly presented in large text.
Google has bundled in better voice searching, which is faster and better at understanding natural language. This is along with speaking the results back - utilising the Knowledge Graph - in a similar fashion to Apple's Siri. The results are also shown in a pop-up card, where you can swipe the card away to be shown the list of results in the regular Google search engine fashion.
Google Now is an additional search feature that the company believes will get the device's owner the right information, at the right time and all automatically. Google now uses the phone's or tablet's search history, location history and calendar to figure out what information you might need and when.
As an example, Google Now will figure out when you commute to work and back. It will then tell you how long your journey is on your usual route and then offer you a faster version if there's a lot of traffic. The function will also tell you when the next bus or train will arrive if it recognises that you are on a platform or next to a bus stop. Another example of Google Now is recognising that you have an appointment soon, then letting you know what time you need to be there, how to get there, and at what time to leave. There's a lot to Google Now, from flight monitoring to currency conversion and more is in the pipeline. All of these tasks are performed automatically or can be accessed from swiping up the screen or just tapping on the search function.
Android 4.1 Jelly Bean builds upon Ice Cream Sandwich 4.0, launched at the end of 2011. It isn't a major release, like the one from Gingerbread to ICS, but it still brings in some key improvements – in a similar way to Microsoft, with its 7.5 Mango release of Windows Phone 7. Jelly Bean will be rolled out to Nexus S, Galaxy Nexus and Motorola Xoom tablets in mid-July.