An OS goes a very long way in defining the success or failure of a phone, or any computing device for that matter. It’s a symbiotic relationship, as without good software, the hardware is useless and without good hardware, the software can’t really shine. For the past many years, we’ve all loved Symbian as an OS and at any given point, almost all of us have owned at least one S60-based smartphone. It wasn’t the fastest or the prettiest, but we had made our peace with it and conditioned our minds to accept that. It’s only till Apple launched the iOS that we realized there is a better and easier way to use our phones. Then came Android from Google, which was designed to give developers the freedom to go crazy with apps and manufacturers the leeway to customize the OS, the way they saw fit.

Over the years, we’ve seen this OS blossom into a very solid solution and offer support for features that would give even the iOS a run for its money. After many dessert-based updates (Éclair, Froyo, etc), we are now at Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) or Android 4.0. Unlike the earlier updates, which were mostly cosmetic and added a few new features in each cycle, Android 4.0 is an ambitious leap forward as it’s designed for smartphones as well as tablets. Honeycomb is a thing of the past now and from now on all consequent versions of Android will be available for both platforms. The craze to get ICS onto one's phone or tablet is spreading like wildfire. Manufacturers are adding the tag ‘ICS upgradeable’ to all their handsets just to make it more appealing. So, is it just another update or is there something more to it than just a quirky name?

What’s New?

ICS is quite a departure from Gingerbread, as the layout for certain functions have been moved around a bit. If you’ve used a Honeycomb tablet, then you’ll feel a bit more at home, else it’ll take some getting used to. The first noticeable change is the lack of physical or capacitive buttons. Just like Honeycomb, the three navigation buttons are now a part of the display known as the System Bar and will always be present at the bottom, no matter what. This means you will lose a bit of screen space. Older phones with capacitive buttons that receive ICS will not have the System Bar, instead these functions will be mapped to the existing buttons. If the three buttons are only ‘Back’, ‘Home’ and ‘Recent Apps’, then you’re wondering how would I access the ‘Options’ menu? For that, we now have an ‘Action Bar’, denoted by three dots. This can be displayed at the top or at the bottom depending on the app. We didn’t really love this feature, as there’s no fixed place for options and it keeps changing from app to app. Once again, older phones benefit from having a fixed options button.

A fresh new look

A fresh new look

You can now access the notification bar from the lock screen itself, so if you have music playing and you need to change the track, you need not unlock the screen. The icons in the notification bar, settings and menu are borrowed from Honeycomb. They also have a very flat look to them as there’s no 3D definition. You’ll see this mostly on the Galaxy Nexus and the Nexus S, as most manufacturers will use their own icons. Multitasking once again comes from Honeycomb, showing you the recently used apps along with a thumbnail of the snapshot of the last activity you performed on the app. To close it, you simply swipe it to the left.

Find recent apps easily

Find recent apps easily

The notification bar hasn’t changed and now adds a shortcut to settings. We are really disappointed that Google didn’t add toggle switches for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth etc., by default as it’s extremely handy. Everyone has it, so we wonder what made them skip this feature. The Google search widget is now a prominent fixture on the home screen and does not move, even if you switch screens. This was quite unnecessary to be honest and should have been a widget like before. Speaking of widgets, you can’t access them through the homescreen anymore. They are now part of the apps menu under a separate section. You can now resize the widgets like Gmail, Calendar, etc, but not all of them, like the clock.  

Hardware Accelerated UI
One of the reasons why ICS feels so slick and smooth is that everything is hardware accelerated. Google now uses OpenGL ES to render everything from the built-in apps, to the animations and home screens. Even the stock browser is GPU accelerated, which makes it really quick and responsive. ICS also comes with a special set of Developer options, which let you force GPU rendering on third party apps as well. It’s only a matter of time before developers update their apps to take advantage of this properly.

A new spin on stock apps

A new spin on stock apps

Having said this, we did notice a drop in performance with Live Wallpapers enabled. There is a very noticeable jerkiness in the animations, whether you’re switching home screens or browsing through apps. Now since the GPU is constantly working in the background, we feel rendering Live Wallpapers is bit much for the PowerVR SGX 540 GPU in the Galaxy Nexus to handle. We’ll know for sure, if it’s just a bug or not, once ICS hits other phones and tablets with more powerful GPUs like the one in Tegra 3. 

A smarter browser
The new stock browser is miles ahead of the previous versions. Not only is it GPU accelerated, so opening pages and switching between tabs is quicker, but also has some neat tricks up its sleeve. You now have the option to open an incognito tab, just like Chrome. Web pages viewed in this tab will not appear in your history. Another new feature is Labs. Just like Google Maps, you can now take advantage of some really cool add-ons for the browser. You only get two – Quick Controls and Fullscreen out of which my favourite is Quick Controls. What this does is it that it removes the Status Bar, address bar and fills the entire screen with the web page. If you need to change settings or switch to a tab, simply slide you thumb from either the left or right side of the screen to bring up a half carousel around your thumb. Then you simply select the option you want. It’s a very clever idea and works brilliantly. For once, we can say with confidence that you won’t need a third-party browser.

New and improved browser

New and improved browser

Google has also pulled a major overhaul on the keyboard. The layout is similar to the previous ones, but it’s a lot more responsive and easy to type on. The two big changes is the error correction and word suggestion, which are lot more accurate this time. As you type along, the auto-complete will suggest words closest to what you’ve typed so far and present you with three suggestions, the closest match being in the middle. If that’s the word you want, simply hit space and it will fill it in. To see more words, long press the middle word for other possible matches. Also, if you’re used to typing in chat lingo (shud, tomoro, ystdy, etc) then you’ll get a prompt asking if you want to save that word in the dictionary. All your custom words are saved in the ‘Personal Dictionary’ in Settings.

Improved text and voice input

Improved text and voice input

You also get a spell checker, which automatically underlines misspelt words, which you can change with a single tap. If you ever get tired of typing, you can activate the speech to text recognition. Here, you can dictate you entire message, which is typed out in real-time. For it to work properly, make sure you select your countries language and yes, India is there as one of the countries. There is a small delay between you actually saying the word and for it to appear on screen, but the important bit is that it’s very accurate. And you don’t have to speak very loud or enunciate very word precisely, just speak the way you normally do.

Changes in the stock apps
Gtalk finally gets multiple account support! You can now sign-in to different Google accounts and be online on all of them at the same time, something which should have been present ages ago. Gmail app has also undergone some few changes. The Inbox icon is now a lot more prominent and there’s a separate icon for labels down at the bottom. You can also have individual widgets for different labels, for each account on the homescreen.

Multiple accounrs in Gtalk has been a long time coming

Multiple accounts in Gtalk has been a long time coming

The phone dialer also gets a cosmetic update, along with Contacts, which is now called People. You can choose to display contacts from selected accounts and other social media sites. The calendar app also features pinch-to-zoom function making it easier to read or add a memo, especially on smaller screens. YouTube remains pretty much the same. The rest of the apps, like the music, video and camera are covered in the Galaxy Nexus review.

New settings menu and other features
The Settings menu has been shuffled around a bit, but most of the features that we saw in Gingerbread make a comeback. Just like Honeycomb, you get a toggle switch for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. An addition here is Data Usage, which shows you how much of data you’ve used over EDGE or 3G. You can also set a data limit and a usage cycle, so you’ll get a warning, if you’re nearing the limit. You can even set the usage warning limit. I found this to be extremely handy and very good addition to the OS. NFC-enabled ICS phones can take advantage of Android Beam, which lets you share data by simply bumping the two phones together. Unfortunately, we didn't have another Galaxy Nexus or a Nexus S to test this out for ourselves. 

A very handy addition

A very handy addition

Another new feature is Face Unlock,m which basically uses the front camera to unlock the phone using facial recognition. Setting up doesn’t take too long, but make sure when you register your face, you hold the phone at an angle, which you’ll be using on a daily basis, else it won’t work. The Galaxy Nexus is very quick at recognizing and unlocking the phone, thanks to the 1.3MP camera. Even in low light, it was easily able to detect and unlock it in less than 3 seconds. Finally, we have Developer Options, which is only useful, if you you are developer. It’s still fun to play around with, as you have options for forcing 2D hardware acceleration in all apps, show CPU usage, change the scale of Windows animations, etc. 

The bottom line
Looking at the big picture, ICS is a kind of a big deal, after all, as it steps up the game and brings the Android experience much closer to iOS, if not on par. Some of the stand-out features that we absolutely love is the new look and feel, hardware acceleration is now everywhere, new app for monitoring data usage, which is big plus, multiple account support in Gtalk. It could be the new fonts or choice of colours, but ICS does feel new; it feels fresh and a lot more polished, than Gingerbread or Honeycomb. Currently it’s only the Galaxy Nexus and Nexus S that are enjoying these benefits officially. Manufacturers like HTC and Samsung will also be bringing out updates for existing phones soon, but they’ll obviously be giving it their own treatment, which sadly will dilute some of the flavour of ICS. Nevertheless, it is an update worth looking forward to and in case you’re one of the unlucky ones, who don’t get it, there’s always custom ROMs.

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