Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich review: Cool, confident, chaotic

Google's Ice Cream Sandwich has a lot going on. A lot. Stick with CNET as we peel back the layers to get to the OS' core.

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The Ice Cream man has finally arrived.

Just two days ago, CNET's San Francisco team got its hands on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus , the flagship smartphone that's launching Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. More full-on visual revamp than simple update, an OS bump this deep and broad makes ( as I've said before ) Android 2.3 Gingerbread look like a stale cookie.

Ice Cream Sandwich is ambitious, and packed with such a laundry list of detailed changes, it's easy to drown in the minutiae. For that reason, I'm keeping this review focused on the bigger-picture features that are new to Ice Cream Sandwich. For more detail, the screenshots gallery will be worth several thousand words. Toward the end, you'll also find a list of Ice Cream Sandwich's neater tricks.

New look and feel
Say goodbye to the Android you thought you knew. Google has all but transformed the visuals, leaving almost no screen as it was before. Instead, it blends many Android Honeycomb tablet sensibilities--the navigation buttons, tabs for recent apps, darker colors, and more assertive look--with reworked Android flair.

Google's goal: to unify the smartphone and tablet form factors, so that Android looks like Android on any screen size. From a features standpoint, it seems to work. The functionality of Gingerbread and Honeycomb is there, and in fact, the entire OS is more of a front-end overhaul of the OS' design and organization than it is a cavalcade of hard-hitting features. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of additions and enhancements that make Ice Cream Sandwich more powerful in the aggregate, but I'd be hard-pressed to pick a single game-changing addition, apart from the wild new look.

From a design position, the success of ICS varies more. Much of the new look is simple, elegant, grown-up, and, dare I say, sexy. Just look to the new menu button and menu lists, the redesigned notifications pull-down, the highly organized settings menu, and the photo-editing Gallery app for examples. Most of these themes appear again and again in the native apps, from Maps to the browser.

Yet, there's also a side of Ice Cream Sandwich that suffers from conflicting design ideologies, like a Honeycomb Mini that's also trying to make sense as a smartphone OS. I'll point those out below.

Interface and home screens

Ice Cream Sandwich
Widgets now live in the app tray. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
Right off the bat, the default home screen is just gorgeous. It's the first place you'll encounter a new typography called Roboto--it looks crisp and clean as promised, but unless you're looking for changes, most users won't notice a big difference.

From the top to the bottom of the main home screen (there are five total), you see a transparent search bar, a stylized clock, and a round icon denoting a folder that's been prefilled with Google services. You can create and name your own home screen folders by dragging app icons on top of one another. The implementation is easy to use and looks terrific.

Resizable widgets are another Ice Cream Sandwich addition. You can drag and drop them onto the home screen from the app tray (more later), and press and hold the widget to surface the selection handles. Most of the time, a widget will resize when you drag it on the X or Y axis, but some widgets, like that for the photo gallery, don't resize.

Beneath the home screen content, five icons lead you to the phone book, your contacts, the apps (this looks like BlackBerry's menu button), texting, and the browser. You can replace all but the app icon. Below that, the three onscreen controls (a Honeycomb carryover) stand in for touch-sensitive buttons. As in Honeycomb, these Ice Cream Sandwich controls will fade in some apps to three points of light, until you tap them again. Overall, the home screen look is clean and familiar, but also new, and it pushes Android into edgier, less cutesy territory.

Navigation and app launcher
One interesting result of the three Honeycomb-borrowed onscreen controls is that they eliminate the Menu and search buttons. Instead, a very cleanly designed menu button that looks like a triple-tiered colon (and also like it came from the Windows Phone design book) moves to the top or bottom of many apps. It would be better if it were consistently at the top. Press it to access more drop-down menu options. In terms of usability, this is a simple, elegant design that especially shines in the texting and e-mail apps, where it's dead simple to append an attachment, audio, video, and photos. Bravo, Google.

Although the search navigation button has disappeared, search has not. You'll find the search field in every native app and home screen throughout the OS, complete with the microphone icon for voice search. Although you won't be able to press and hold an onscreen navigation control to use voice actions, you can launch it from the microphone icon.

ICS trip-tych
Recent apps, home screen, and Face Unlock with Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

The apps launcher looks essentially the same as Gingerbread's, though it has a slightly different layout and a fancy graphical transition as you swipe horizontally through your apps. I really like that the Market app is persistently accessible on the top of the screen, and that the app launcher has expanded to include widgets. However, the "tiled look" for widgets that Google proudly showed off at the Ice Cream Sandwich launch event looks cluttered and confusing.

Screenshots
If you like this screenshot tour of Ice Cream Sandwich , you can thank, well, Ice Cream Sandwich, and its new native screenshot capability in particular. Late to the game compared with Apple's iOS (and even some Android phones, like the Samsung Galaxy S II ), the feature is nevertheless a boon for app developers, for us journalist types, and for anyone who wants to diagnose an error or save a snap of a game for bragging rights.

The trick is pressing the hardware combination of the volume-down button and power button in the right way to trigger the native screenshot tool. Unfortunately, it took time to get a feel for it on the Galaxy Nexus. The action was awkward, and not always successful, especially at first. The ease of snapping screenshots will vary by a handset's individual proportions.

Cameras and video
The panorama feature in the Ice Cream Sandwich camera was one of the first secrets to leak. Several Android-bearing phones have seen the feature before, but only as an addition to a Samsung or HTC camera, never as a blood-and-bones part of Android. Now, Google has made it front and center, one of your three camera "mode" choices, in addition to the standard camera and video.

Ice Cream Sandwich
Google has a sense of humor. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

As helpful as it is that the software instructs you as you shoot (telling you to slow down, for instance), I wonder how many people will take panorama shots often enough to warrant its prominence in the app. At any rate, the tool worked smoothly in my tests.

More interesting and useful in my eyes is the full suite of built-in editing tools: cropping, red-eye reduction, face glow, straightening, rotating, flipping, and sharpening. There are also effects you can add like warmth, saturation, and sepia tones. In total, there are 16 color and style effects, and another four options for adjusting lighting. Google could have easily stopped short and continued to let the manufacturers add their own filters, but onboard editing makes the Android OS that much stronger on its own.

When it comes to video mode, Ice Cream Sandwich lightens things up with effects like distorting faces into silly (and vaguely disturbing) expressions and swapping in various backgrounds. I'm still deciding if I think they're more creepy than fun. Aspiring videographers will enjoy the time-lapse settings.

The joint photo and video gallery gets a few tweaks, most notably the "magazine tile" look we also saw with widgets. This time, the photos are even more cluttered, a barrage of thumbnails with little room between them to let your eyes take it in. In addition, when you open an image, you'll also see a ticker of other gallery images along the bottom. Being able to scroll through them is nice, but the visual noise it creates is not.

People and calling
Google has completely reworked the look and feel of its Contacts app--down to the color and layout--and I, for one, like it. Photos are more prominent, a good thing so long as they're higher-resolution or you don't mind a little graininess. The drop-down menu lets you set the ringtone or send all calls to voice mail. Gone is the alphabet on the right-side rail, though if you touch the scroll bar while scrolling quickly through your contact list, you'll still be able to quickly skip through your contacts.

When you place a call, the photo enlarges. The colors here are bold, with strong color blocking, a deliberately hipper look than what we've been seeing for the friendly green Android. While everything feels more open and breezier, it also doesn't feel like it visually mirrors the rest of the Ice Cream Sandwich design. This may not bother you on a day-to-day basis and it doesn't impede usability. Nevertheless, it's an oddity of (in)cohesion that shouldn't exist in a polished OS.

Ice Cream Sandwich
Tap a contact's image to quickly send messages, an e-mail, or launch a phone call. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

One thing that is missing is the ability to long-press a contact's name while you're in the phone view to see options for sending a text--something you could do in Gingerbread. Now, to text, call, and even e-mail contacts from any native communications app, just tap the photo icon. The logic is easy to follow once you remember it, but it isn't immediately apparent.

Gmail
Many small changes add up to a smarter, cleaner, more stylish, and overall improved Gmail experience. Fresh icons and space to read certainly help, but it's the new way that your contacts' e-mail addresses (and photos) pop up that I love, along with the ability to drag and drop highlighted text along the screen without first using onscreen controls to cut and paste. Gmail will now also let you search offline messages dating back to 30 days.

If you misspell a word, you'll have the usual options to let Android autocorrect, or to pick from an autosuggested word right below the composition window. With Ice Cream Sandwich, you can also tap the misspelled word (it'll be underscored in red) and choose from a selection of related choices, or even add a new word to the dictionary.

Visual Voice mail
Remember the visual voice mail demo from the ICS launch event in Hong Kong? So do I. I haven't been able to test this yet for the simple fact that the Google Voice app in Android Market does not yet use the compatible developer API. So stay tuned.

Facial unlocking
We've known since last May that Google's facial-tracking software would make it into Ice Cream Sandwich one way or another, and here it comes in the form of Face Unlock, a security option that lets you unlock the phone by holding it up to your face for a few seconds. It's one of those quirky features that's fun to play with, but even Google's copywriters warn in the software that it's less secure than a PIN or pattern, adding that someone who looks like you may succeed in unlocking your phone.

Ice Cream Sandwich
Google has expanded its spell-check and word-replacement tools, so you sound smarter on smartphones. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

In fact, I was able to take a photo of myself (with the HTC Rezound ) and hold it up to the Galaxy Nexus to unlock the phone. If the facial recognition engine fails, however, you'll still have a four- to nine-digit PIN or a traceable pattern as a fallback.

I should note that neither the pattern nor the facial unlocking works if your IT group requires a PIN in order for you to access your corporate e-mail. For security purposes, every time you disable Face Unlock, you'll have to quickly set it up again in order to use it. It worked in the dozen times I used it.

Android Beam
One of the most interesting new features in Ice Cream Sandwich, Android Beam uses NFC to transfer things like maps, contact information, and the name of a running game or app between two compatible phones in close proximity. Since I only had a single phone to test, I haven't been able to explore this feature. However, to make it work, go into the Settings, and find the More menu under Wi-Fi. Make sure NFC is enabled, and that Android Beam shows that it's ready to transmit.

Extra stuff you should know about

  • You can swipe alert messages away one by one from the pull-down notifications menu, from the recent programs list, and from your browser tabs.
  • Double-tap the clock on the home screen to set an alarm.
  • Tap the Settings button in the pull-down menu on the home screen to get to settings.
  • New Gmail messages flash the name of the sender in the notifications bar.
  • Photo uploads to Picasa is enabled by default.
  • Android Market apps download to the home screen by default; you can disable in the Market app settings.
  • Quickly uninstall apps by tapping and holding the icon from the app tray. You can drag it onto a home screen, up to the trash, or get more info.
  • When you receive an incoming call, pull the ringing icon over other (at first invisible) icons to answer, hang up, or send an editable text message reply (as in: I'm busy, I'll call you right back!).
  • In Maps, zoom in far enough (with two fingers) and you'll see the buildings start to get some 3D shape. Glide two fingers up and down the screen to tilt the screen for a better view.
  • Contacts you have starred as "favorites" in Google+ will show up with a high-resolution image in your contacts cards, so long as "sync contacts" is enabled in the separate Google+ app.
  • Repeatedly press the "Android version" line item in the About Phone settings to find a little "green" Android Easter egg , then make him and his friends fly.

Where Ice Cream Sandwich soars, falls short
Nobody can accuse Google's Android team of putting forth a weak or insubstantial OS update. Ice Cream Sandwich has tweaked Android's style from head to toe, giving it a far bolder identity than ever before, often with a polished look and logical feel. For the most part, Google has succeeded in splicing together Gingerbread and the tablet-centric Honeycomb OSes to create a single experience that can work identically on both phones and tablets. It can't have been easy merging two OSes with different identities. Yet sometimes the seams show.

On the one hand, the OS has surfaced many previously buried features, like placing the Market icon on the top of each screen in the app tray for easy access, and making the search bar persistent across all home screens. It's also easy to call up recent apps via a navigation control, and move widgets to the app tray where they can be seen. The long-press will still unearth more features at times (like on the home screens), but Google is moving away from that particular convention, and I think it's a benefit.

Ice Cream Sandwich
Data usage tracking is brand-new in Ice Cream Sandwich. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

On the other hand, there's that recurring issue of cohesion and occasional clutter (which the tablet design will surely resolve for larger devices). Ice Cream Sandwich is a patchwork of visual themes, and one that lacks flow throughout the entire experience. The elegant home screen and notifications menu have one motif, the recent apps and browser tabs another, the crowded photo and widget tiles a third, and the high-contrast address book and calling screens a fourth. It's as if three separate groups of designers came together in the 11th hour.

This may not bother you, and to be sure, the sometimes-disjointed look and feel don't detract from Android's usability, but this lack of visual unity isn't seen in iOS, Windows Phone, or BlackBerry OS 7.

Moreover, even as Ice Cream Sandwich simplifies some actions, it also adds other nonobvious features, like swiping to close browser tabs and recent apps. (I have no objections to Easter eggs to reward power users, like the little Android guy you see when you repeatedly tap the Android version number in the Settings.)

It also isn't clear that the grid numbers you see next to a widget in the app tray (1x1, 2x4) correspond to a grid that shows up on the home screens when you move around app icons and widgets. When you answer a phone call, it isn't until you press the incoming ring button that you can drag it to answer, hang up, or reply in a text. My point is this: though Ice Cream Sandwich solves some problems with the OS learning curve, it also creates a few others.

The first piece of good news is that these are all issues that Google can tackle in succeeding updates, while also working to make the back end more powerful still. The second piece of good news is that there's plenty of room for invested hardware makers like Samsung, HTC, and Motorola to continue creating custom graphical shells to run on top of the OS. Android is no longer plain old vanilla, and I suspect this new design could be more polarizing among the spectrum of users, not less.

At the end of the day, Ice Cream Sandwich does succeed in moving Google forward, and reaffirming its staying power as a mobile OS. With its bold personality, Android 4.0 is also a sign of Google leaving less of its cultivation to the handset makers, and taking a stronger role in defining its 'Droidy personality.

Article updated: 12/7/11 at 3:30pm PT with additional "extra stuff" you should know.

 

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