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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 annoperating system, but Ice Cream Sandwich – more formally known as Android 4.0 –nholds tremendous promise for smartphones and tablet computers.

Google says it has combined the bestnfeatures of its previous Gingerbread (Android 3.2 for smartphones) andnHoneycomb (3.3 for tablets) operating systems, making the new Ice CreamnSandwich more reliable, easier to use and more intuitive. More important, itnunifies the OSs designed, respectively, for smartphones and tablets, into ansingle operating system that will look and feel the same across all devices. Onnthat strategic level Android has caught up with iOS, Apple’s operating systemnfor iPhones, iPads and iPods.

Although no tablets have yet appeared withnAndroid 4.0, both Samsung and HTC, the smartphone leaders in the USA, havenannounced Ice Cream Sandwich versions. By early next year, it will become antablet standard.

Here are some of the features you cannexpect when the next wave of tablets and smartphones arrive with Android 4.0 onnboard.

Something borrowed

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

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

Talking of Twitter, Android 4.0 nownincludes a People app, which brings all social feeds into one application, allowingnfor multiple feeds to be accessed and viewed from a central location. Not muchnnew here, as tablet manufacturers have included their own social hub app withntheir skin. Dozens of applications available in the Android Market do the samenthing. But now the user can work the same way across the ecosystem of phonesnand tablets.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Warningnlevels can now also be specified and memory can be allocated to applicationsnrunning in the background. Google has also paid attention to monitoring datanusage, resulting in Android 4.0 using graphical displays to show how much datanhas been used, both over Wi-Fi and 3G networks. No more shocks come month-end withnan exorbitant 3G bill!

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

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

Finally, and perhaps the mostnfuturistic of all the Android 4.0 features, we are faced with is a new functionncalled Face Unlock. As the name suggests, it unlocks your handset based onnfacial recognition technology. Word is that this may turn out to be a limitingnexperience, as it slows down access to the device. With luck, the more powerfulnprocessors heading the way of tablets will overcome that obstacle.

A phone away

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

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

HTC –nVivid, Sensation, Sensation XL and Sensation XE
LG –nOptimus 2X
Motorola –nDroid Razr, Xoom tablet and the Droid Bionic
SonynEricsson – All new Xperia smartphones

Instructionsnon how to upgrade older tablets or smartphones to the new OS are still scant, andnthere are no legitimate sites for downloading the upgrade. Google warns that,nbefore attempting any upgrades, users need to ensure that the hardwarenspecifications – especially the amount of RAM and processing power in currentndevices – are sufficient to run Android 4.0.

Keep an eyenon the respective manufacturer’s web sites for any model-specific. And, ofncourse, Gadget will keep you informed.

* Follow Sean on Twitter on @seanbacher

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