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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  • zorxd - Friday, January 20, 2012 - link

    They can have some differences (cache size, memory bandwidth, neon instructions) but the A9 is not an ISA. ARMv7 is.

    Given that it has the same configuration, an Apple A5 behave the same as a TI OMAP4 or a Samsung Exynos of the same clock speed. I beleive nVidia tegra2 lacks the neon instructions so can be slower in some cases. There is an article on Anandtech about this.

    Given that the iPhone 4S is only 800 MHz it is the slowest A9 CPU by far.
    Reply
  • pSupaNova - Friday, January 20, 2012 - link

    The GPU's on the IPhone uses Tiling so in most GPU rendering tasks it will be a lot faster, However spit lots of Triangles at it and then see how fast it really it is. Reply
  • StormyParis - Wednesday, January 18, 2012 - link

    It's not all about performance, at least if you don't do FPS games. The screen on the Nexus is much bigger than on the 4S for example. For me, it's not about performance at all. I went for the GN for its even bigger screen, and that criteria alone was 95% of my decision, the remain 5% being "... and the rest don't suck", and "has xda-dev support'. Reply
  • humancyborg - Wednesday, January 18, 2012 - link

    Once you start accelerating the entire interface, performance becomes much more significant than just FPS games. There's a reason Apple uses such a gigantic and powerful GPU in their devices, and it's definitely not only for FPS gamers.

    Agree with you on the rest, there are other good reasons to buy this phone, just a shame that they skimped here. I have the 4S, GN and Lumia 800 currently and constantly switch around between them.
    Reply
  • metafor - Wednesday, January 18, 2012 - link

    It doesn't really take a whole lot of resources to render a 2D interface. Just about any ol' GPU with OpenGL ES 2.0 support will do it.

    About the only thing where the GPU is the limiting factor is rendering 3D games. And even then, most if not the vast majority of games on the market will continue to be written for this level of hardware for at least the coming year.

    Honestly, people take benchmarks way too seriously.
    Reply
  • doobydoo - Thursday, January 19, 2012 - link

    Actually, you're absolutely wrong.

    In fact, the GPU slowness is cited in this very article for causing slowdowns in situations where no 3D gaming is being done.

    Remember, the operating system as a whole is hardware accelerated, so every thing you do - animations, transitions, task switching, etc are carried out by the GPU. With the higher screen, the speed of the GPU becomes even more relevant.

    The combination of a high resolution screen and a low powered GPU is a bad combination and materially affects the performance of everything you do on the phone.
    Reply
  • zorxd - Thursday, January 19, 2012 - link

    Do you remember the iPhone 4? Who complained that the GPU was slow? It was much slower than the SGX540 in the Galaxy S. Reply
  • metafor - Thursday, January 19, 2012 - link

    Speculation in an article isn't exactly proof of concept.

    Alpha blending, panning, compositing are very light tasks for a GPU pipeline; it's only a problem when a GPU is TMU-limited. And if it's TMU-limited, it would be obvious all the time.

    I don't think you quite grasp exactly what parts of UI rendering are handled -- or could be -- by the GPU and just how trivial it is compared to rendering a 3D game.
    Reply
  • trob6969 - Wednesday, January 18, 2012 - link

    What i don't understand is why would samsung give the gn 1gig of ddr2 ram then give it an inferior GPU? But to be fair, Apple is no better. Why give iphone 4s a powerful GPU then give it only 512 mb of ram?! My old-ass og moto droid from over 2yrs. ago had that much! Reply
  • doobydoo - Thursday, January 19, 2012 - link

    As alluded to by numerous posters, including one in this comments section, iOS handles memory usage more efficiently than Android so it doesn't suffer any performance penalty as a result of having less RAM. Reply

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