The UI: Holo Evolved

When I first met Holo, Google's Honeycomb theme, I wasn't convinced that it was something that would last. It was different, which earned Google points for sure, but it wasn't exactly comfortable. I was surprised to see an evolution of Holo used in ICS, but the theme has grown on me.

Ice Cream Sandwich feels a lot like Android meets Windows Phone. Part of that surely has to do with the very contrasty nature of the theme, but it's also the choice of font (Android 4.0 replaces Droid Sans with Roboto) and hard edges sprinkled throughout the UI. Holo is still distinctly Android in that there are still multiple home screens with support for widgets, but it's also different. Ice Cream Sandwich is Android maturing, it's the second implementation of Holo allowing us to finally plot a trajectory for where Google sees this thing going in the near term. It's different as I mentioned before. Holo and ICS aren't iOS nor does it look like they ever will be. The UI is either going to pull you in or turn you off. I like it. It's different, it's clearly a play on the whole Android theme; it's the type of UI you'd expect from an OS named after a robot.


Droid Sans v. Roboto (ICS)

At the same time it's no longer awkward. Elements of the design and many of the first party apps are just clean. It's truly a first class citizen. Different than both iOS and Windows Phone, but with a design that's just as credible.

The core of Android remains unchanged. You get multiple home screens (five by default) that you can populate with shortcuts, widgets or folders. Widgets are resizable just as they were in Honeycomb. Shortcuts work the same way they always have, while Folders get a nice update in ICS. Drag any icon on top of another one and they'll create a folder. Folders are quick to open and easy to rename, just tap on the name of any open folder and type away.

The app launcher gets a bit of a facelift. Instead of an endless scrolling cube, you get pages of apps that you flip through. Once you've reached the end of your pages of apps you'll start flipping through widgets. All of this is smoother than it has ever been on Android.

Gingerbread vs. Ice Cream Sandwich
  Gingerbread Ice Cream Sandwich
Lock
Home
Launcher

 

The New Contextual Menu Button

Play around with ICS for a little bit and you'll quickly pick up on a new UI element that appears inspired by Windows Phone:

These vertically oriented ellipses will appear at either the top or bottom of an app and reveal additional menu options.

In Gingerbread you had the fixed Android menu button, but with that gone you have to rely on these contextual menu buttons to bring up additional actions. I'm honestly pleased with the move because all too often I'd forget to tap the menu button to see whether or not there were additional options in Gingerbread. ICS makes it very obvious when there's more you can do.

The Task Switcher

A cornerstone of any good operating system is a good task switcher. I still believe that webOS dealt with the concept of individual apps and switching between them better than any other mobile OS, but it looks like that platform is pretty much dead with little chance of making it into the top three mobile OSes.

Google and iOS haven't traditionally focused much on task switching, although both have provided support for it. In Gingerbread, you'd switch between apps by holding down the home button, which brought up a list of up to eight of your most recently used apps. Ice Cream Sandwich implements a drawer-style app switcher menu, first introduced in Honeycomb, activated by hitting the dedicated task switcher button:

Gingerbread vs. Ice Cream Sandwich
  Gingerbread Ice Cream Sandwich
Task Switcher

The Gingerbread method of switching may be quicker, but it's definitely not as useful as what ICS offers. For starters you can switch between more than just six apps in ICS. The most recent apps are located at the bottom of the list, the oldest at the top. You can also quit apps using the switcher by sliding them to the left or right. Doing so immediately frees up any memory the app was using, even if it was suspended.

Scrolling through the list of recent apps, like scrolling pretty much anywhere in ICS, is extremely smooth. The only real complaint I have here is that the task switcher takes far too long to draw initially. As I alluded to before, this is something that may get better with a faster SoC, particularly one with a faster GPU.

The Shade & Notifications

Notifications in ICS are still handled via the status bar at the very top of the screen and a pull down notification shade. The shade in ICS is partially transparent by default and once again, very smoothly animated. The network carrier string is included at the bottom of the shade rather than in the status bar at the top. You can clear notifications individually or hit the X to clear all of them.

I am surprised Google didn't borrow the quick settings options its partners usually like to stick in the shade, but there is a link to the system settings panel at the top.

Screenshots

Android 4.x also finally enables the ability to take screenshots from within the OS. There's no necessity for OEMs to bake-in their own screenshot functionality and key press combination, no need to connect using USB and fire up ddms, and no need to root and install some application to make it work. Traditionally, those three have been the exclusive way to get screenshots taken on Android.

To take a screenshot in Android 4.x, simply hold volume down and the power/lock button at the same time. An animation plays, you get a notification, and the screenshot is saved (with a timestamped name in PNG format) in /pictures/screenshots as shown above.

I can't emphasize enough how important being able to take screenshots is for a platform in general. Without screenshots, users can only vicariously share a given OS when they're in direct contact with someone else. Being able to take screenshots without all the nonsense I've outlined above is part of what has made iOS so ubiquitous online - browse Reddit and count how many screenshots of SMS conversations (trite as they all are) are clearly from iOS versus Android. It's clear to me that Matias Duarte understands this, since webOS and even the Danger Hiptop since day 1 had the ability to take screenshots. Now Android 4.x finally joins the fray. 

OS-Wide OpenGL ES Rendering The Keyboard & Facial Recognition
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  • JohnJackson - Wednesday, February 08, 2012 - link

    You mean the one where the devices were running the benchmarks at the respective device's NATIVE resolution? 960x640 has 60% more pixels than 800x480...

    http://www.anandtech.com/show/4064/glbenchmark-20-...
    Reply
  • Subzero0000 - Thursday, January 19, 2012 - link

    Where do you get "lag" in iPad 2?

    I use it everyday and the only lag I found is when I slide to the spotlight screen, or browsing webpage (while rendering).
    Reply
  • sonelone - Thursday, January 19, 2012 - link

    Seriously, where do you get lag on the iPad or iPhone? With the SGX543MP2 rendering nothing but a grid of icons, getting lag would be ridiculous. Reply
  • augustofretes - Thursday, January 19, 2012 - link

    Pseudo power users, judging mobile operating systems based on their home screens since 2007. Reply
  • audioman83 - Thursday, January 19, 2012 - link

    LOL agreed. So sad. Reply
  • Owls - Thursday, January 19, 2012 - link

    blah blah blah I don't like my iphone/ipad being compared so let me make fun of that person for being objective.

    I know the gnex is not perfect but guess what, neither is your apple product. We all live with compromises and this is no different. However, I refused to be ripped off by apple AND be forced to use itunes.

    sorry mr apple user.
    Reply
  • Subzero0000 - Friday, January 20, 2012 - link

    Firstly, I think you are over-reacting (so did augustofretes).

    See, I wouldn't complain if someone finds a few lag on Android, because I appreciate the fact that Android is running true-multitasking, with all the widgets and background tasks give us the flexibility that iOS can never dream of.

    But then, you cloud your judgment with hatred...

    For example, I use Windows 7 at home, Android for phone, iPad for everything else (reading, browsing, gaming, etc...).

    I use Google account to sync calendar+contact between Android and iPad.
    I buy books in Amazon, and read them through Kindle app on iPad.
    I upload my own mp3 to iPad through iTunes, no problem.
    Mobile games are better quality on iOS (the truth), so I am happy to buy in AppStore.

    There is nothing forcing you to use iTunes.

    and "ripped off"? I actually think iPad is cheap, as a outstanding CONSUMER product.

    So, calm down, it's just a product. And have a nice day :)
    Reply
  • medi01 - Friday, January 20, 2012 - link

    Yeah, nothing is "forcing" you to use iTunes apart from the fact that many Apple's products won't even switch on for the first time without itunes. Reply
  • Subzero0000 - Friday, January 20, 2012 - link

    Well, what is the matter with one-time activate with iTune?
    If you find that annoying, then how about the procedure to root/flash your Android, or jb your iOS.

    How on earth would a tech-savvy find it annoying/difficult for such a easy task (iTune) ???
    I am really confused.
    Do you ever forget about the brand-hate and not being stubborn for a second?

    btw, I remember I got my iPad activated at the store, their staff open the box and do it for me anyway. I could have done it by myself, but hey, it's "customer service".

    oh, and if you think iTune is crap, wait till you try Samsung's "equivalent" (KIES)...
    Reply
  • medi01 - Saturday, January 21, 2012 - link

    Oh, now easily you've switched from "nobody is forcing you" to "what's the deal".

    It's not one time activate with most devices it's "one time activate and this PC is your only way to put stuff on your device, unless you are using yet to be closed internet way of doing it".

    @@@If you find that annoying, then how about the procedure to root/flash your Android, or jb your iOS.@@@

    Could you get a clue, before whining about stuff about which you have very little idea? The only reason I had to root android device, was bacause it was rather old OS with fonts that didn't contain glyphs I needed.

    And one thing you're completely missing, dear "I'm not an apple fanboi", YOU DON'T HAVE TO ROOT YOUR ANDROID DEVICE TO GET ACCESS TO IT. You don't have to root it to access it as a hard drive. Neither do you have to root it to install whatever you want on it.

    @@@oh, and if you think iTune is crap, wait till you try Samsung's "equivalent" (KIES).@@@
    I've never used KIES (even though I have a phone and a tablet by Samsung), so it's hard to compare them. But unlike apple "customers", android users have absolutely no need in using KIES.
    Reply

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