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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  • roedtogsvart - Wednesday, January 18, 2012 - link

    Finally! Reply
  • prophet001 - Wednesday, January 18, 2012 - link

    Just had one of this hit my desk today :D very nice phone. Reply
  • Owls - Thursday, January 19, 2012 - link

    No offense but I'm kind of pissed after reading this article with what amounts to a masturbatory article about the iphone 4s.

    For example on an ipad 2 and iphone 4s there is plenty of lag here and there using the UI on par with gingerbread. On ICS? It's pratically nonexistent.

    The camera? The only issue I found was that on Auto the shots didn't always come out great. Some manual adjustments fixed that and after comparing the shots to my dad's iphone 4s there's virtually no difference.

    I pretty much stopped reading after the camera section.
    Reply
  • michael2k - Thursday, January 19, 2012 - link

    What kind of lag are you talking about? The A5 SoC is one of the most powerful out there and it's already been noted in several reviews how the older A4 SoC plus iOS 4 and 5 outperformed Gingerbread. You're saying the lag on ICS is somehow better than an A5 plus iOS 5 by saying the A5 + iOS 5 is as laggy as a CPU bound unaccelerated Android 2.3? Reply
  • medi01 - Friday, January 20, 2012 - link

    Why, do you think, anand is using 720p "off-screen" in benchmarks, why not try it directly on screen?

    PS
    Oh, and why "black levels" aren't present on screen comparison? And why iphones dissapear from charts where they are wtfpwned by other phones?

    Sigh. Disgusting.
    Reply
  • michael2k - Monday, January 23, 2012 - link

    All the phones and tablets would go up in number if they used native resolution, but then you can't actually compare the HW because each would be constrained by different resolutions. By using 720p offscreen you get to judge all the HW on the same scale.

    Also, Anand has definitely reported black levels:
    http://www.anandtech.com/Show/Index/4215?cPage=4&a...

    I don't know of any places where the iPhone disappear so much as the iPhone doesn't run the app. You'll notice that the rankings appear congruent; 4S followed by S2 with the Nexus and 4 on the bottom. Nothing changes, except that certain apps aren't available for the iPhone. Rightware Basemark is an Android app, silly.
    Reply
  • medi01 - Wednesday, January 25, 2012 - link

    And "actual HW number" tells you what? That GPU X is faster than GPU Y? Instead of saying "phone X would render faster than phone Y"? How is first more appropriate mesurement than the latter?

    @Also, Anand has definitely reported black levels:@
    Are you kidding me? Where is vs amoled comparison in your link? How is it related to the article in discussion?

    Not only do they skip "black levels", they somehow manage to make a picture of AMOLED screen where BLACK looks GREY. Wow, great job misleading readers.
    Reply
  • michael2k - Wednesday, January 25, 2012 - link

    Yes, GPU X is faster than GPU Y is a perfectly valid comparison. You would have to ask Anand why he thought comparing GPUs was a valid benchmark, but given the long track record of how responsive the iPhone has been compared to Android, I don't see how that anything else is relevant. The fact that offscreen performance favors the iPhone 4S doesn't change that it doesn't favor the iPhone 4!

    Also, why would he compare to amoled when in fact there are no amoled tablets to compare to?

    You're a baseless and pointless critic.
    Reply
  • doobydoo - Thursday, January 19, 2012 - link

    There is no lag at all on the iPad 2 or the iPhone 4S, what are you talking about?

    I think you're more pissed off that the Nexus came with an average camera and a 2-year-old GPU.
    Reply
  • Lucian Armasu - Monday, January 30, 2012 - link

    Well, iPhone 4 came with a 2 year old GPU, too in 2010, and much lower FPS than the competition, if you remember those GPU charts, where the iPhone 4 was the last at the bottom. Not too many people seemed to care about it. Reply

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