Despite Ice Cream Sandwich being less than a year old, Google has taken the decision to release the latest version of its mobile OS, Jelly Bean. The fact that the Mountain View company has given this latest iteration a version number of 4.1 rather than 5 has led many to suspect that Jelly Bean would be nothing more than an updated ICS experience.
We got hold of a Jelly Bean-equipped Samsung Galaxy Nexus to take a look at the operating system in its purest form and to find out whether this latest Android platform is a simple refinement or game changing overhaul.
- Project Butter UI
- Google Now digital assistant
- Enhanced voice recognition software
- Overhauled notification centre
- Increased Android Beam functionality
- Improved camera app
- Google Maps Offline
- Updated widget behaviour
First impressions of Jelly Bean offer a platform that appears somewhat similar to its predecessor, albeit with some incremental changes such as increased lockscreen functionality.
What does become apparent very quickly, though, is the speed and smoothness with which the OS runs – handset navigation and menu transitions in particular offer an incredibly lag-free user experience. This is thanks to Google’s Project Butter, which offers improved display refresh signals and system frame-rates (in addition to a new touch input system) that gives extra power to the CPU every time the user touches the screen. The technology behind it may be complex, but Project Butter helps Jelly Bean provide possibly the fastest operating system experience we have ever come across.
Other changes, such as the ability to adjust widget sizes, provide a continuation of the infinitely customisable nature of Android that the platform has become famous for.
Another major advancement introduced with Jelly Bean is Google Now, an intelligent software assistant that uses location and search data to build a bespoke information database for everything from local weather information, to translation capabilities. By tracking your search habits and geodata, the software gradually builds up an idea of where you are and what you are doing. It even learns a user’s daily commute and offers traffic information before said user sets off on the journey to work. The concept sounds somewhat intrusive, but in reality works intuitively and non-invasively.
Information is provided via a series of cards which are accessed simply by swiping up from any screen on the device, with the resulting interface offering an environment unlike anything seen within Android before. Voice recognition is also included à la Siri, but as with its Apple counterpart the software is still in the early stages of development and is best viewed as a novelty element.
Alongside Google Now, the other major new aspect of Jelly Bean is the updated notification bar. The Android pull-down menu has always been a real strength of the platform, with iOS only recently catching up, and the improvements on an already intuitive system are apparent here. Notifications are pulled from messaging and social networks as usual but also integrated is excellent functionality such as the ability to expand email notifications to read an excerpt. Additionally, the bar pulls information from Google Now, so a recent search for directions will transfer seamlessly, allowing sat nav to be accessed with one tap from the notification bar.
Whether third party applications will take real advantage of this new functionality remains to be seen, but the possibilities are certainly exciting here.
Although the real benefits of Jelly Bean look to involve improved integration into a users life over time, our initial inspection of the operating system left us gobsmacked by its capabilities. Although it does not initially impose itself as a radical departure from ICS, the platform very quickly starts to impress with both its speed and finesse. Whereas Android Gingerbread and, to a lesser extent, Ice Cream Sandwich, at times became sluggish and laggy Jelly Bean remains consistently stable when in use.
Google Now really needs time invested in it in order to really get the most out of the digital assistant, but the interface is inherently usable and on the whole it feels infinitely more usable than the likes of Apple’s Siri.
We fully expect manufacturers will carry out their usual re-skinning of the OS when it goes out to their devices and the platform will inevitably suffer as a result. However, on the Galaxy Nexus and in its purest form, Android Jelly Bean could possibly be the most complete mobile operating system produced to date.