Android 4.1: It's the Little Things that Win

The biggest reason Android 4.1 has won substantial praise, especially as it relates to its smoothness, and it performance on the well-liked Nexus 7 mini-tablet. It has Google Now, its default browser is Chrome for Mobile, and, heck, you can unlock it by blinking (even if that’s not so secure). That stuff is nice, but you know what? It’s the little details that make it feel like Android is no longer a distant second when it comes to the mobile experience. (See also "Google Android Jelly Bean OS: A Test Drive."

I’ve been showing off Android 4.1, on both a Galaxy Nexus phone and the Nexus 7 tablet, and what people dig about both is the nearly intangible improvement to the look and feel. Here’s a few things that (don’t) stand out:

  • The “glide”: When you use your finger to slide between home screens, does it seem like all the objects you’ve place on those screens are gliding over to another space, or more like your phone is struggling to show you a video of what that should look like? The latter is a common experience on Android devices running 4.0 and earlier. “Project Butter” is, in fact, a highly touted aspect of Android 4.1, but it helps to have a frame of reference for what’s been made buttery. Beyond home screen sliding, the other major change is how one switches between apps. If there’s any delay, it’s in the moment before the app launches, rather than having a shell screen pop up and watching as all its data and images force themselves awake from a nap. Heading back to the home screen also doesn’t feel like a big request. Seems small, feels big.

  • Automatic widget/app shuffling: Move a big widget onto a home screen where an app or two is in the way, and those apps automatically fly into empty spaces elsewhere on the screen. This is, basically, what the iPhone has always done, but with the caveat that Android’s widgets can be resized, too, so now everything slides around as you try to make room for it. It makes the device owner feel less like a zoning board member and more like a powerful mayor.**

  • More descriptive and interactive notifications: Android has long had an edge over Apple when it comes to showing people what’s going on. Then iOS added its Notification Center, which was still a bit unwieldy, but a nice enough attempt. Now Android has jumped ahead again, with notifications that not only show you what’s happening, but let you dismiss, react, and even send quick responses when things pop up. Email notifications include the first few lines, text messages have basically the entire message, and apps can choose whatever actions they’d like to offer you. My personal favorite? Take a screenshot, and you get a notification--which seems redundant, but then you tap “Share” and fling that screenshot to Dropbox, Gmail, wherever I’d like. Boom.

  • Camera operation: The camera in Android 4.1 loads very fast. It takes pictures quickly. And it has a few of those funky modes, like panorama and such, that you’ll hardly ever use. But it’s how you view photos that’s really improved. You can slide your finger from the edge of the camera view to check out the photos you just shot, so you can see what came out and what didn’t. When viewing photos, you can pinch “out” to enter a “filmstrip mode,” where you can then fling photos up or down to quickly delete them. It’s not a matter of space, given that you can upload unlimited photos to Google+, but it’s better to get rid of photos you want at the moment, rather than have a big organizing job ahead.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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