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A closer look at Android 4.2 Jelly Bean

When news broke that Google had cancelled its New York City Android event due to the imminent arrival of hurricane Sandy, we were all wondering when it would be rescheduled.

As it turns out, Google didn’t need an auditorium full of reporters to unveil the next generation of its mobile strategy – settling instead for a simple blog post. Android 4.2 is now a reality just four months after Jelly Bean 4.1 was announced. While this is a version number increase, the OS keeps the Jelly Bean moniker in the same way Android 2.0 and 2.1 were both Eclair variants; this is not Key Lime Pie.

Because of the last minute change in plans, Google’s message has been somewhat scatter-shot when it comes to the new Android software. So we're going to cover everything we know here, starting with...

Pictures and video

There are a few new features coming to change the way Android deals with images and video, and the first will take advantage of that new higher resolution camera in the Nexus 4. Photo Sphere is the natural evolution of Google’s panorama mode first introduced a year ago in Android 4.0. Instead of just rotating your phone along one axis, you can point it anywhere to build an immersive 3D view.

You centre the phone to start a Photo Sphere, then just start moving your viewfinder around and the handset will automatically capture the images it needs to build a full picture. It feels a little like Google Maps Street View where you can pan side to side, as well as up and down. These files are simple JPEGs, so you can save, modify, and share them as you like. XML metadata within the file stores data that allows Photo Spheres shared to Google+ to be manipulated in real time like a Street View frame.

The other innovation in this area is support for Miracast wireless display technology. You could be forgiven for not being familiar with Miracast – it’s essentially an open alternative to Apple’s AirPlay. It’s based on Wi-Fi Direct, an ad-hoc wireless standard. Basically, anything on your screen can be beamed to a TV, assuming you have compatible hardware. All you need is a display of some sort (like an HDTV) that supports Miracast, or an HDMI adapter that does. You’re going to have to go with the additional box for the time being, because Miracast-ready TVs are still rare.

A new keyboard

With Jelly Bean 4.2, Google has stepped things up when it comes to text input. When Android 4.1 was pushed out, Google made offline voice dictation and suggestions its focus, but this time Mountain View is looking to put Swype out of business.

Swype is a popular alternative keyboard for Android that allows users to just drag a path from one key to the next in order to spell out words. Swype figures out what word you’re probably spelling, and inserts it. The company has beavered away long and hard to make this technological voodoo work, and it’s right an astounding amount of the time. Google’s new stock keyboard promises the same functionality, but calls it Gesture Typing.

You will be able to drag your finger around, and the keyboard should figure out what you’re typing, complete with spaces. We won’t know if Google has beaten Swype at its own game until we get some hands-on time, but it’s possible.

Multi-user tablets

The problem with sharing tablets often seems to be that each user has to work around everyone else’s junk. Security is also a concern, as all users have access to each other’s files, web history, and email. Starting with Android 4.2, all tablets will finally have multi-user support.

You will be able to switch profiles on the fly from the Android settings. Each user has their own home screen, widgets, apps, and data. This really makes it feasible to share that spiffy new Nexus 10 tablet with your family.

This development is a big deal not just because it effectively fixes a feature gap in existing tablets, but because Google beat everyone else to the punch. There are plenty of iPad users out there who would love to have this feature on board their Apple tablet, that's for sure.

Some pages are listing this as a tablet-only feature, which would make sense. However, there are a few screenshots of the Nexus 4 showing a profile menu, so you never know, it might be destined for more than just slates. Only time will tell how this is implemented.

Notifications and lock screen

Google added expandable notifications to Android 4.1, and now the notification area has gotten better still. A new secondary panel in the notification shade allows users to access common settings like Wi-Fi, brightness, Bluetooth, and Profiles from anywhere on the device.

These settings can be accessed in two ways: By tapping the quick settings button in the open notification shade, or by swiping down with two fingers when the shade is closed. A number of popular ROMs and OEM skins like TouchWiz have implemented power bars embedded in the notification panel, but Google’s new implementation keeps those buttons out of the way until you need them.

The lock screen has been tweaked in Android 4.2, but this is one of the changes Google is being less forthcoming about. Some widgets will be allowed to live on the lock screen so you can perform simple functions and view data without unlocking the device. You access most of these widgets by swiping left and right from the main lock screen. We don’t have any firm details on this yet, but stay tuned. Users have been asking for this since the early days of Android.

Google Now

Let’s face the cold, hard truth of things: It’s going to be a while before Android 4.2 reaches your device. Most of the features included in Android 4.2 will be off-limits, but one bit might offer you some hope. If you have Android 4.1 on your phone, the newest improvements to Google Now are coming your way.

Google Now is part of the Google Search app, which is in the Play Store. This won’t deliver Google Now to all devices with Play Store access, but new Google Now features can be added to Jelly Bean devices. Pulling up Now will henceforth include information about hotels, flights, popular photo spots, calendar integration, and concerts.

Google Now also goes deeper into your account, finding tracking data for packages in your email, meeting locations, and more. All this data is integrated into your cards, but can be disabled if you don’t like the creep-factor.

Google has worked to make Android 4.2 more user friendly, faster, and even more feature-complete than 4.1 was. There’s a lot to like, but many have barely gotten Android 4.1 updates going and here Google comes with even better software. If you want to enjoy all that the new Jelly Bean has to offer, a Nexus device is probably the way to go. Fortunately, Google released a new Nexus 4 smartphone and Nexus 10 tablet on Monday, too.