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Android 1.6 Donut: Search awesomeness, Market update, could arrive very soon

Google is rumoured to be very close indeed to launching the latest Android OS update -- we take a look at the tasty joys it has to offer

It's always made us chuckle that the search feature on Android handsets is a little deficient. Pressing the search button on the phone, from the home screen, allows you to search the Net, but not your phone. Happily, Google seems to have realised that a phone search might be quite useful, and as such has incorporated it into the next update of Android -- version 1.6 or, to give it its delicious codename, Donut.

So what other sprinkles does Donut offer? Let's take a stroll through the tastiest new features.

Gestures

Like a good many other devices these days, Donut will add the ability to gesture at your mobile phone. No, not that sort of gesture, you dirty beast. By drawing on the screen with your finger, you'll be able to perform a specific task. Gestures will be built into the OS, but that doesn't mean you'll be able to use it right away -- app developers will need to take advantage of it first.

Market update

The Android Market, the little green robot's version of the App Store, is receiving a desperately needed update. This looks pretty slick, and should hopefully make the current, arduous search for apps a little less annoying. Android is currently at a serious disadvantage not having an easily searchable, well-categorised piece of software like iTunes.

The new update adds 'top free', 'top paid' and 'newest app' searches. These work in conjunction with the other search categories, such as 'games' and 'utilities', to help you find the right app. Screenshots are now included with apps, which is a no-brainer for usability.

Camera

Google claims Donut will make the built-in camera and camcorder app much more responsive. It's claiming a 39 per cent increase in launch speed and a 28 per cent decrease in the time it takes the camera to shoot a second photograph. The camera UI has had a visual tweak too, which should make it a little more pleasant to use.

Text-to-speech

Google is including a text-to-speech engine called 'Pico' in Donut. Its unique selling point is it has accents -- we're happy to see that English comes in both American and British versions. Hopefully that should mean we get to hear the word 'route' in a way that doesn't imply someone is being run through with a sword.

Donut also adds some accessibility options that should help disabled users, such as alerting the user through vibration when a new window is opened. Text-to-speech performs a key role in this, as you might imagine.

Battery monitoring

One of the biggest problems with Android phones is the battery life. Google is now providing a new monitoring app that allows users to see which programs and services are using the most power. This means if you have an app that's using more than its fair share of power, you can either stop using it or alert the developer. This is terrific, and the app looks slick too, offering a percentage indication that makes assessing battery use a breeze.

Voice search and global search

Unlike older versions of Android, you'll soon be able to search your whole phone from the home screen. That means you'll be able to easily find contacts, text messages and other content on your phone. Even more excitingly, Google Voice Search works with this too. So, if you want to call a contact, you press the voice-search button, say, "call Ian mobile" and the phone will do just that. Anyone who has used voice search will know it's actually pretty good, although it's not immune from errors, especially in loud environments.

Another piece of exciting news is the search will use location information to help with your searches. For example, typing 'Indian restaurant' will search for the cuisine of kings in your local vicinity -- so no more settling for a McDonald's when there's a ruby emporium just around the corner.

The content your phone can search is also user-definable, so if you don't want your apps to show up, you can simply de-select that option in the menu. This is important, because the search update also makes it possible for applications to make their content available via global search. That could mean your Twitter app makes all your tweets available -- which could become confusing when you're trying to search for contact details.

VPN

If you're a business user, the built-in support for VPNs using various protocols and encryption types is likely to be useful. It might even put Android into an area that makes it attractive for businesses currently using Windows Mobile smart phones.

Improved display resolution support

Although less likely to be relevant for day-to-day users, the resolution support means any device, no matter how large the screen is, can have apps that scale correctly. The development of Android netbooks and different sizes of mobile handsets means this is quite an important upgrade for app developers.

Cool. When's it out?

All-in-all, it looks like Donut is going to be a very worthwhile update. The Linux core is also undergoing a slight version tweak, so there may be improvements to performance and stability. Donut makes it possible to use CDMA networks too, which will be useful for US carriers using that system.

Rumours online indicate Donut could be rolled out to devices as early as next week. Vodafone seems to have confirmed this via its user forum, and reminds customers this update comes from Google, and isn't controlled by the phone networks. We're interested to see if that means T-Mobile and Orange-branded HTC Heros will get the update at the same time.