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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  • thecraw - Saturday, January 21, 2012 - link

    couldn't stop laughing at that statement, sure no one is forcing you to use itunes, its your own problem if you want to backup your iproduct or upgrade your iOS etc.. yes no one is forcing you right... Reply
  • steven75 - Friday, February 10, 2012 - link

    Have you never heard of iCloud? I mean are we in bizarro world here or is everyone really THAT clues on iOS 5? Reply
  • augustofretes - Monday, January 23, 2012 - link

    I found comments like yours absolutely hilarious, because I don't own an iPhone, nor I'm interested on buying one, I'm perfectly happy with my Samsung Galaxy S II running CM9 ;-)

    You're not being objective, unless, of course, you only see your homescreen and never open any application.

    The iPhone 4S is not perfect, I completely agree, but the interface is more fluid, this is fact, pinch-to-zoom is not a smooth, even on a GNex, as it on the 4S, but it's pretty smooth now.

    Sorry mindless fanboy.
    Reply
  • kebab77 - Sunday, February 05, 2012 - link

    Serious performance boost for phones currently on Android 2.3.x:
    http://www.bestsmartphone.com/2012/02/05/android-4...
    ... Samsung Galaxy S2 still top of the pile!
    Reply
  • macs - Wednesday, January 18, 2012 - link

    My only suggestion is that there are some device that need a sort of priority for a review. Galaxy Nexus and ICS should be on this list like the Apple products (you already do that) and maybe a flagship WP 7 device like Lumia 800/900.
    We can wait a bit more for device like Razr, Lumia 710, various HTC, various Samsung,...

    In 1 H 2012 my priority list will be Galaxy S 3, first device with Krait and Ipad 3.

    Back at reading, I know this will be a good read!
    Thank you
    Reply
  • roedtogsvart - Wednesday, January 18, 2012 - link

    Anand, just thought I'd throw this in there:

    For something like $25 (Verizon) you can buy an extended battery and gain an additional 250 mAh (1850 vs 2100) that adds basically no perceptible thickness to the device, though I did not precisely measure. Have you tested with the extended battery? I feel like it makes an already amazing phone even better.
    Reply
  • Brian Klug - Thursday, January 19, 2012 - link

    I managed to snag an extended battery for the RAZR review, but didn't get the chance to do the same with the CDMA/LTE Galaxy Nexus. I've seen that battery however, and it is a novel design - the back doesn't get thicker, just flatter (the whole phone is as thick as the bulge).

    We've seen pretty linear scalings before, so you can assume that extra 250 mAh will scale linearly as well.

    -Brian
    Reply
  • 3DoubleD - Wednesday, January 18, 2012 - link

    The task switcher is blazing fast on the Transformer Prime, so I'd say it's a Galaxy Nexus limitation and not an ICS limitation. Reply
  • Lucian Armasu - Thursday, January 19, 2012 - link

    Anand didn't say it's an ICS issue either. He said it's a GPU issue, because older GPU's still can't handle HD resolutions very well, just like Tegra 2 GPU barely could, too.

    But I'm sure on lower-end ICS phones with lower resolutions, it should work faster, so it's not like every ICS phone will need a Tegra 3 GPU-level from now on.
    Reply
  • GnillGnoll - Thursday, January 19, 2012 - link

    He said it _could_ be a GPU issue. Something which I strongly doubt, it's not like the task switcher adds that much graphics load over rendering the normal UI. Reply

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