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Ice Cream Sandwich ‚ a new mouthful

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Google recently released the new version of its mobile operating system for tablets and smartphones, Android 4.0, nicknamed Ice Cream Sandwich. SEAN BACHER looks under the hood of the OS.

It may be the lamest name yet for an operating system, but Ice Cream Sandwich ‚ more formally known as Android 4.0 ‚ holds tremendous promise for smartphones and tablet computers.

Google says it has combined the best features of its previous Gingerbread (Android 3.2 for smartphones) and Honeycomb (3.3 for tablets) operating systems, making the new Ice Cream Sandwich more reliable, easier to use and more intuitive. More important, it unifies the OSs designed, respectively, for smartphones and tablets, into a single operating system that will look and feel the same across all devices. On that strategic level Android has caught up with iOS, Apple’s operating system for iPhones, iPads and iPods.

Although no tablets have yet appeared with Android 4.0, both Samsung and HTC, the smartphone leaders in the USA, have announced Ice Cream Sandwich versions. By early next year, it will become a tablet standard.

Here are some of the features you can expect when the next wave of tablets and smartphones arrive with Android 4.0 on board.

Something borrowed

Built into the operating system are completely customisable widgets ‚ super-apps that are updated live on the home screens ‚ along with a series of home screens that are themselves customisable.

It may not sound new if you used, say, an Asus or Motorola tablet. Many vendors installed their own skins on Android 3.3 tablets and included these capabilities, but have always been limited to the confines of the underlying operating system. Besides being customisable, as to where they can be placed on the home screens, the widgets can now be resized. For instance, a Twitter app can be expanded to cover an entire screen, or it can be sized down to a mere icon.

Talking of Twitter, Android 4.0 now includes a People app, which brings all social feeds into one application, allowing for multiple feeds to be accessed and viewed from a central location. Not much new here, as tablet manufacturers have included their own social hub app with their skin. Dozens of applications available in the Android Market do the same thing. But now the user can work the same way across the ecosystem of phones and tablets.

Ice Cream Sandwich has also had a complete dictionary and keyboard revamp. According to Google, a new set of dictionaries has been included, improving error correction and word suggestion or synonyms. The dictionaries now more closely resemble those found in Microsoft Word, with misspelled words underlined in red and giving users the option of ignoring the word, choosing a suggested correct spelling or adding the word to the dictionary.

Android 4.0 uses a new voice input engine for voice dictation. The new dictionaries kick in here too, as unrecognised words are underlined and a list of possible suggestions presented.

The upgraded Calendar app allows for different calendars to be viewed on one screen. The e-mail app now includes the ability to autocomplete responses and is able to store frequently used replies. Ice Cream Sandwich’s visual voice mail allows users to see a picture of the person who left a voice message.

Google has also beefed up Android’s cut, copy and paste functionality, made minor enhancements to warnings, and included the ability to take screenshots by holding down the Power and Volume buttons. How this will work on various devices should be entertaining, as some tablets have their Power and Volume buttons in the worst possible combinations of places.

Not only have many features been added, but some have been removed. For example, Android 4.0 does not offer support for physical buttons. Instead, users will rely purely on the virtual buttons, which will be located across all applications, and will be context sensitive.

Google claims it has greatly improved on one of Android’s greatest strengths ‚ multitasking. Ice Cream Sandwich offers an easier and more visual multitasking experience. A tap on the Recent Apps virtual button reveals all open applications. To close them, one merely flicks them away ‚ kind of like giving them the finger when you are done with them. A tap on the application switches to it.

Warning levels can now also be specified and memory can be allocated to applications running in the background. Google has also paid attention to monitoring data usage, resulting in Android 4.0 using graphical displays to show how much data has been used, both over Wi-Fi and 3G networks. No more shocks come month-end with an exorbitant 3G bill!

As did Apple in iOS 5, Google has put much thought into its camera functionality. Endless applications are available to distort, fix and have fun with pictures. However, Google’s thinking was: Why download an application to get that functionality when we can build it into the operating system? Hence, Ice Cream Cake now offers the ability to remove red-eye, crop, straighten and apply various filters to photos. A range of other editing tools can be accessed through the Gallery and Camera apps.

Google didn’t rely only on its experts to build Ice Cream Sandwich. They also seem to have taken the folders concept from Apple’s iOS. On an iPad or iPhone, dragging one app icon onto another creates a folder that allows for similar apps to be grouped together. It also makes navigation easier. Android 4.0 now offers the same functionality, allowing users to group apps, folders and shortcuts.

Finally, and perhaps the most futuristic of all the Android 4.0 features, we are faced with is a new function called Face Unlock. As the name suggests, it unlocks your handset based on facial recognition technology. Word is that this may turn out to be a limiting experience, as it slows down access to the device. With luck, the more powerful processors heading the way of tablets will overcome that obstacle.

A phone away

Google has announced that the first phone to run Android 4.0 will be the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, due to be released in Europe, Asia and the US later this month. Thereafter, it has said, the operating system will be available for the Nexus S range. However, it has not confirmed how far back along the Nexus line the update will be available.

Starting next year, the following devices will run Android 4.0 straight out of the box:

HTC ‚ Vivid, Sensation, Sensation XL and Sensation XE

LG ‚ Optimus 2X

Motorola ‚ Droid Razr, Xoom tablet and the Droid Bionic

Sony Ericsson ‚ All new Xperia smartphones

Instructions on how to upgrade older tablets or smartphones to the new OS are still scant, and there are no legitimate sites for downloading the upgrade. Google warns that, before attempting any upgrades, users need to ensure that the hardware specifications ‚ especially the amount of RAM and processing power in current devices ‚ are sufficient to run Android 4.0.

Keep an eye on the respective manufacturer’s web sites for any model-specific. And, of course, Gadget will keep you informed.

* Follow Sean on Twitter on @seanbacher

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