Android updates guide: All the features of every version

Every version of Android and their most important features, all in one place. Keep coming back for the scoop on the latest Android updates.

For fans of Google's Android OS, regular updates are sweeter treats than the sugary codenames that grace the various versions. A delayed update can feel like slow torture, and a new version is a geeky joy to receive.

This is the place to find all the details on every version of Android, past and present. Bookmark this page as reference for when you want to know what features you can expect from the latest version, or look back at the goodies that came before. Also, if you haven't the foggiest what Android is, check out our video guide to the software at the bottom of the page.

Versions are in reverse order, with the most recent at the top.

Android 4.1 Jelly Bean

Jelly Bean , announced in June 2012, may not be a big jump in version number, but adds a host of important updates to Android. Here are the features you can expect to see in Android 4.1.

What you get:

  • Google Now, an assistant tool that displays relevant information based on your search history and location data.
  • A higher frame rate makes swooping through menus and homescreens feel buttery smooth.
  • View photos you've taken quickly by swiping from the camera to filmstrip view.
  • Widgets and apps politely move out of the way when you add new ones.
  • Notifications now include more information, such as photos or subject lines in emails.
  • Search results can now display answers to questions, rather than simply a list of Google web links.
  • A new gestures mode to improve accessibility for blind users, letting you navigate the UI using touch and swipe gestures, in combination with speech output.

The first device to run Jelly Bean will be the quad-core, astonishingly cheap Google Nexus 7 tablet. If you want more information on this version of Android, check out our in-depth guide to Jelly Bean .

Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich

Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) was announced at the Google I/O conference in May 2011. We had to wait until the Samsung Galaxy Nexus landed in our laps in December before we could see it first-hand. ICS was designed to merge Gingerbread -- Android for phones -- together with Honeycomb, which was designed for tablets.

We've compiled our top 10 reasons why we think ICS is better than Gingerbread .

What you get:

  • A speedier, smoother browser.
  • A data traffic monitor to help you avoid busting your network data limit.
  • More storage space for apps.
  • A new user-friendly action bar replacing the Menu button.
  • Face recognition for unlocking your phone.
  • The ability to decline calls with pre-penned text messages.
  • And most fun of all, live video effects for making your mates look grotesquely disfigured.

One drawback is the fact that ICS lacks support for Adobe Flash , but it's no longer such an issue since the company has already confirmed that it's dropping support for it .

Android 3.0 and 3.1 Honeycomb

Honeycomb expanded Android to fit the big screens of tablet computers. This version of Android is a separate branch that's only for tablets, and will never come to phones.

Android 3.1 was announced in May 2011, and adds a peck of user interface refinements to Honeycomb. We haven't tested this version yet, but Google writes that the tweaks will make "UI elements easier to see, understand and use". Widgets will also gain the ability to be dragged bigger or smaller, to suit your screen. Android 3.1 also adds support for plugging USB flash drives into your tablet to transfer files without connecting to a computer, as well as USB keyboards, mice and joysticks.

What you get:

  • A blue wireframe design gives Honeycomb a Tron-inspired look.
  • Home screens appear to rotate on a 3D carousel as you swipe through them.
  • Widgets are bigger and bolder to suit the tablet-size screen.
  • The hardware buttons -- home and back -- have been moved on to the screen as virtual buttons that move with you as you rotate your tablet. Meanwhile, the app menu is repositioned to the upper right-hand corner. There's also a new button that fires up a list of currently running apps, visible as thumbnail images.
  • Key apps, such as Gmail and YouTube, are heavily redesigned to take advantage of the space available.
  • The Web browser introduces tabbed browsing, a feature familiar from desktop browsers such as Chrome. There's also an incognito mode to browse on the quiet.
  • A larger, multi-touch keyboard lets you hold down multiple keys to temporarily switch between letters and numbers, for example.

Android 2.3 Gingerbread

Gingerbread was baked in December 2010, but its main features didn't make much of a splash. NFC, for contactless payment, and SIP, for Internet calling, both lay the foundations for future developments, and aren't much fun at the moment.

Android 2.3.3 was a long time coming, but when it did arrive on phones in April 2011, it only added one new feature -- the ability for single-core phones to run apps designed for dual-core processors. Android 2.3.4 added yet more bug fixes .

What you get:

  • User interface elements, such as the notification bar, go from grey to black, in a bid to avoid screen burn-in and increase battery life.
  • The on-screen keyboard gains number shortcuts across the top, and a cursor helps to select and copy text.
  • NFC theoretically lets you wave your phone in front of an NFC-enabled emitter to make things happen, whether it's buy a train ticket or check out a website. But, until more NFC systems are in place in the UK, this perk of Gingerbread won't affect us much. 
  • Apps are juggled more adeptly in the background, saving battery and processing power.
  • Support for a front-facing camera for video calling and your emo self-portrait.
  • A download manager so you can keep your eye on everything you've downloaded.

Android 2.2 Froyo

Arriving in May 2010, Froyo shook up the little green robot again. It introduced Flash, which has become one of the defining differences between Android and its main competitor, the iPhone

What you get:

  • Flash Player 10.1 came to Android, which filled in the holes in the Web. Videos, photo slideshows and streaming audio, not to mention plain old site navigation, suddenly became visible on your mobile.
  • Your settings joined your contacts and email in backing up to Google's servers, so theoretically they should be automatically restored if you switch to a new Android phone.
  • Yet more features for connecting to your Microsoft Exchange account, including access to your Outlook address book and the ability for your IT department to remotely wipe your phone.
  • If your phone has a flash, it can be used to light up your videos, too.
  • The portable Wi-Fi hotspot lets you share your phone's 3G Internet connection with your other gadgets, over Wi-Fi.
  • Speedier Web surfing thanks to changes to the browser.
  • Better Bluetooth compatibility with docks and in-car speakers, and the addition of voice dialling over Bluetooth.

Android 2.0 and 2.1 Eclair

We didn't have to wait long before Android 2.0 arrived, a mere month after Donut, in November 2009. Eclair reached out to the suits with support for Microsoft Exchange server, which most businesses use for email.

Android 2.1 Eclair arrived in January 2010. It fixed some bugs and let app developers play with more features, but it didn't add any features for users. 

What you get:

  • Exchange support, so you can finally get your Outlook email. There's also a unified email inbox. However, it's still kept with POP and IMAP email in a separate app to Gmail.
  • Support for multiple Google accounts lets you stock up on all your Gmail.
  • Camera settings including support for a flash, digital zoom, white balance and colour effects.
  • Searching within text messages and MMS messages.
  • Multi-touch support in the on-screen keyboard helps it figure out what you're trying to say if you accidentally type two letters at once. The dictionary incorporates your contacts so you get people's names right, too.
  • The Web brower gets a refresh with a new address bar and thumbnails for a sneak peek at your bookmarks.

Android 1.6 Donut

In October 2009, we bit into Donut. It offered fewer major improvements, now that most of the key features were in place. But it brought Android to a new crowd, thanks to the addition of support for CDMA -- the technology used by some American mobile networks.

What you get:

  • The universal search function helped us pinpoint our apps and contacts on the phone, or jump to searching the Web.
  • Support for more screen resolutions opened the door to Android phones of different sizes.
  • Google Maps Navigation added free turn-by-turn sat-nav.

Android 1.5 Cupcake

The sugary code-names started with Cupcake, the first major update to Android, which dropped in May 2009. Cupcake was packed with new features, but perhaps the most significant was the virtual keyboard, which paved the way for buttonless blowers such as the HTC Magic.

What you get:

  • Shortcuts and widgets on the home screen meant our mobiles could now be obsessively tweaked and personalised.
  • An on-screen keyboard meant tapping virtually could replace typing on the real thing, making phones lighter and leaner.
  • Video recording was added to the camera, and the ability to upload videos straight to YouTube helped fulfil our dreams of stardom.
  • Stereo Bluetooth lets you listen to music without wires.
  • The Web browser gets a speed boost and the copy and paste function.

Android 1.0 and 1.1

Android was born in 2008 on the gawky, gangly but ultimately powerful and fun T-Mobile G1. Made by HTC but flogged by T-Mo, this early version of Anroid was full of potential, but we deemed it best suited to early adopters and gadget hounds.

Although the G1 couldn't beat the nascent Apple iPhone in the style stakes, it offered most of the major Android features that we've come to know and love.

What you get:

  • The Android Market served up apps without the stringent entry rules of the Apple App Store, leading to a vibrant selection of apps, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous.
  • The Android browser made surfing the Web on your phone a pleasure rather than a pain, thanks to the ability to render pages quickly and accurately.
  • Google Maps used the phone's GPS and Wi-Fi to pinpoint your location on an infinite map, so you need never be lost again.
  • Syncing with our contacts, email and calendar online initially made us wary of sharing all our data with Google, but our privacy concerns were soon vanquished by the sheer convenience of accessing everything, from anywhere.

What is Android?

Hit play to see Flora explain just what the devil Android is all about.

Additional reporting by Flora Graham.

Tags:
Phones
About the author

Luke Westaway is a senior editor at CNET and writer/ presenter of Adventures in Tech, a thrilling gadget show produced in our London office. Luke's focus is on keeping you in the loop with a mix of video, features, expert opinion and analysis.

 

Join the discussion

Conversation powered by Livefyre

Don't Miss
Hot Products
Trending on CNET

HOT ON CNET

How well do you know your surge protector?

Whether you're looking to add more outlets, or want to add a layer of protection between your gear and the outside world, here's what you need to know.