After a day of Google I/O announcements, I finally got my hands on a Samsung Galaxy Nexus running the Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean) operating system. I found that there are a few things that Google has done right with this update—and a few issues that still need work.
What It Did Right
Jelly Bean is fast, slick, and feels like what Ice Cream Sandwich should have been when it first launched six months ago. This performance boost is due to Project Butter, a processing framework designed to improve responsiveness, smooth out animations and reduce latency.
I compared the Galaxy Nexus running Jelly Bean to my own personal Galaxy Nexus (running Ice Cream Sandwich) and noticed the difference almost immediately. There is basically zero lag when opening applications, and scrolling between different home screens is amazingly smooth. The phone’s user interface looks basically the same, but there have been little animations thrown in that give it a more polished look.
In Jelly Bean, every time you open an app, you get one of these brief animations that quickly zoom in on the app you just tapped. Is it superfluous? Sure. But it’s the little details like this that make Jelly Bean more pleasant to use. There are a few other minor user interface tweaks, such as bigger, easier-to-tap icons.
The notification tray got a minor facelift, but the important change is in the notifications. You can expand certain notifications by using various two-finger gestures, allowing you to see more information at a glance.
Not all applications support this feature when I tried it out, but all of the pre-installed Google apps work. In fact, while writing this story, I received a Calendar alert telling me that I was going to be late to an event. When I went to the notification bar to see what the alert was concerning, I was able to see the name of the event (part of it anyway), the time and location, as well as a brief note describing the event.
Below that was a button that allowed me to “snooze” the alert, which I did without ever having to leave the notification pane. It’s a smarter way of making notifications less intrusive, and I hope that third-party developers take advantage of this new feature.
The Camera app also gained a few new tricks, with new animations that occur every time you take a picture. Once you’ve taken a few shots, you can swipe the camera screen away to bring up your camera roll and view the images you have in your Gallery. This is much better than what we had in Ice Cream Sandwich, where you had to exit the Camera app to see photos you had previously taken.
Google went all out when it came to mobile search on Jelly Bean.
You can access the new Google Now page at any time by swiping upwards on the Home icon in the navigation bar. Initially your Google Now page will be very plain, showing you places nearby that you might be interested in visiting as well as the local weather (which it gets by using your phone’s GPS).
The more searches you do on your phone, the more Google Now will meet your needs.
To test this out, I searched for several things related to baseball and a sports section appeared on my Google Now page. If you don’t like a section, you can turn it off from the settings menu. It’s a very visual way of displaying basic information and it worked well–but I feel like it could do more with the information, and I hope Google Now continues to expand.
Voice Search has a much cleaner interface. You can now do voice input when you don’t have a connection, and asking basic questions like “What’s the capitol of Spain?” will bring up a card with an answer to your query.
If you aren’t satisfied with your answer or if you want to know more, you can swipe away to the card to get to the familiar Google Search results screen. I tried asking a few questions and, after Google finally began to recognize my voice, I was able to get answers to almost everything I asked.
What It Did Wrong
While many things in Jelly Bean look and work well, I encountered a few quirks.
I noticed a strange ghosting, particularly while scrolling, that wasn’t present in Ice Cream Sandwich. My guess is that this is the result of several new API’s in Jelly Bean that are meant to smooth out text and graphics (to make them use less memory), but it’s something that’s noticeable when scrolling through webpages and other text-heavy content.
Another problem I found is one that’s plagued Android for some time now: Fragmentation. With so few devices currently on Ice Cream Sandwich–and with many more phones currently waiting for their update–it seems unlikely that most phones out today (aside from the Galaxy Nexus and Nexus S) will get the Jelly Bean update.
Jelly Bean may have solve a lot of performance issues in Android, but fragmentation will continue to be a problem. It seems unlikely that many developers will take advantage of any of Jelly Bean’s new features, especially when most of their users will still be running Android Gingerbread or below.