Google's Ice Cream Sandwich: A New Era for Android

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ICS Home Screen
Google's Android 4.0 operating system is more than just another upgrade.

Android 4.0, also known as Ice Cream Sandwich, marks the start of a new era for Google's mobile platform. The release ushers in the biggest changes the software has seen since the launch of Froyo in 2010 -- maybe even Eclair back in 2009. Nearly every facet of the OS has been made over, and the very core of the Android user experience has been completely reimagined.

The more you use Ice Cream Sandwich, the more you realize just how radical a change it represents.

(Note: For the purposes of this review, I'm focusing on the smartphone side of Ice Cream Sandwich. At the time of this publication, the software had not yet been made available on any tablets.)

Getting to know Ice Cream Sandwich

The first thing you notice when you start using Ice Cream Sandwich is that Android suddenly seems a lot more friendly. While the OS has always been powerful and versatile, simple human relations weren't exactly its strong suit.

[Want to see more Ice Cream Sandwich? Check out our Image Gallery for 20 Ice Cream Sandwich pix.]

Now, powering up an Android 4.0 device (in my case, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, which I've been testing for several days) is like running into an old college buddy who's evolved into a slick professional. He has the same smarts, the same heart and soul you've always appreciated, but now he really has his act together -- and he's dressing better, to boot.

Android's New Search Field
At a glance, Ice Cream Sandwich seems similar to the Android of years past. You have five home screen panels that hold any combination of app shortcuts, folders and live functioning widgets. Each is made up of an invisible grid that, like previous phone-based versions of Android, can support as many as 16 shortcuts (four across and four down). But beneath that basic shell, ICS is a whole new game.

You can practically see the fresh paint everywhere you look in the system. Gone are the harsh green and black colors of yore, replaced now with a soft blue-and-gray-based scheme. System icons are more brilliant, with bright colors and three-dimensional textures. New transitions and animations are sprinkled throughout the OS, adding subtle but important layers of polish.

As for the home screen itself, Ice Cream Sandwich provides a new favorites tray that stays in place at the bottom of the screen as you swipe from one panel to another. The tray houses a permanent link to your app drawer along with four customizable icons; you can anchor any shortcut or folder into those spots by simply dragging and dropping it into place.

ICS also introduces a new persistent search box across the top of the home screen. Tapping the main part of the box brings up Android's universal search field, which simultaneously covers the Web and most content on your phone. Tapping the microphone at right end of the box, meanwhile, brings up Google's Voice Actions utility, which allows you to conduct a Web search, place a phone call, send a text or email, or get driving directions by speaking into your device.

(Don't tell Siri, but that's actually a function Android has had for more than a year.)

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