Phone apps

Android 4.0: The Ultimate Guide (Plus Cheat Sheet)

Android 4.0 search and voice control

Google is famous for search, so not surprisingly, search is a core part of the Android 4.0 experience. The basic search functionality in ICS is the same as in past Android releases, but there's a new, more convenient way to access it: via a persistent Google search bar at the top of every home screen panel. (Some manufacturer-modified versions of ICS may put the bar in a different location or make it an optional element you can choose to include.)

To search for anything -- whether on your phone or on the Web -- touch your finger to the Google search bar. This will pull up a box that you can type any term into; your phone will start displaying relevant results for items on your phone and on the Web as you type, much like Google does with its Google Instant search feature online.

By default, the Android search function will look through a lot of different types of content, including apps you have installed, contacts you have stored, bookmarks and recently visited Web pages, and music files in your personal collection. You can customize exactly what types of content are and aren't included by tapping the Menu icon at the top-right of the search screen and selecting Settings and then "Searchable items."

In addition to standard search, Android includes a robust voice search system. Simply tap the microphone icon in the Google search bar and begin to speak; your phone will transcribe and then search for whatever words you say. Like regular search, the voice search will include items both on your phone and on the Web.

The microphone icon also gives you access to Google's Voice Actions technology. Voice Actions lets you complete numerous functions on your phone just by speaking (yes, kind of like Apple's Siri -- only this has been around since 2010). Try pressing the microphone and saying some of these commands:

  • send text to [contact] [message]
  • call [business name and city]
  • call [contact]
  • send email to [contact] [message]
  • go to [website]
  • note to self [note]
  • navigate to [location/business name]
  • directions to [location/business name]
  • map of [location]
  • listen to [artist/song/album]

Android 4.0 text input

Android 4.0 has a virtual keyboard that pops up anytime you're able to enter text. The 4.0-level keyboard is dramatically improved over the one in past Android releases; even when you type sloppily and miss a lot of characters, it can usually figure out what you're trying to say. The keyboard also has built-in word suggestion and spell-check capabilities.

In addition to the regular tap-style input, you can use Android's voice recognition technology to enter text anywhere in the system. Just tap the microphone icon on the keyboard and begin to speak; the system will transcribe text on the fly and show your words on-screen as you talk.

One nice thing about Android compared to other mobile platforms is that you aren't limited to using only the default system keyboard; you can opt to replace or supplement it with a third-party alternative if you'd like. Several popular third-party options exist, including SwiftKey -- which is known for its impressive text-predicting technology -- and Swype, which lets you type by sliding your finger from key to key without ever lifting it up.

Android devices can support a wide range of USB input devices, too, including mice, keyboards and game controllers; you can also wirelessly connect a Bluetooth keyboard to your phone if you really want to get down to business.

Android 4.0 file management and sharing

Unlike other mobile platforms, Android gives you complete control over the files stored on your phone. You can browse your Android device like a computer, moving and copying files or opening and sharing documents at will.

Android 4.0 has a built-in Downloads app that lets you access files you've downloaded from the Web, but the key to truly unlocking your phone's file management potential is installing a good file management app. I like Astro File Manager, which is available for free in the Google Play Store. (The free version of the app has ads; a $3.99 "pro" key will give you an ad-free experience.)

When you open Astro -- or any other comparable file management utility -- you'll see a list of folders and files in your phone's storage. You can navigate through the folders just like you would on your PC's hard drive; pressing and holding any item will give you a list of options like copying, moving, renaming or deleting. It'll also give you an option to send the file to any other compatible application -- if you want to share a document with someone via email, for example, or send it to your Dropbox or Google Drive account.

Android devices can interface with PCs just like portable hard drives, too: Connect your phone to an open USB port on a Windows computer, and it'll automatically show up as a media device (using the MTP protocol). You can then open the device on your computer, click through folders, and copy or move data back and forth as needed.

Mac OS X doesn't natively support the MTP protocol that Android utilizes, so you'll need to install an Android File Transfer application before you can connect your phone to an Apple computer.

Android 4.0 includes full support for near-field communication (NFC), which opens the door for some interesting contact-free device-to-device file sharing. You can pass along a contact, Web page, YouTube video or application from one NFC-enabled Android 4.x device to another simply by touching the two phones together back-to-back; once the connection is established, the system will prompt you to "beam" whatever content is currently loaded on your screen.

With its Galaxy S III phone, Samsung expanded on Android's NFC beaming functionality to allow for contact-free sharing of images, video files and music files; that expanded functionality, however, works only between two Galaxy S III phones and is consequently rather limited in practicality.

So there you have it: the ins and outs of Android 4.0. Bookmark this story, print out our cheat sheet charts for future reference, and you'll be well on your way to becoming an Ice Cream Sandwich pro.

Next: Android 4.0 cheat sheet

JR Raphael is a Computerworld contributing editor and the author of the Android Power blog. You can find him on Google+, Twitter, or Facebook.

Read more about android in Computerworld's Android Topic Center.

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

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