Google Android 4.1 Jelly Bean review:

Google Android 4.1 Jelly Bean

Search app
The popularity of Apple's Siri voice assistant may be the root cause of Google's revamped Voice Search app, but Google has acquitted itself very well in this department nonetheless. The app opens easily and fairly quickly with a swipe up from the bottom of the screen. Voice Search doesn't seem to be picky; we were able to drag it open on the Galaxy Nexus by swiping up from each navigation button.

New voice search UI in Jelly Bean
Voice search gets a promotion in Android 4.1. CNET

There are several interrelated parts to the app, which can get confusing to describe, but they all fit pretty well together in the real world. The important parts are the search bar, which lets you talk to type your query, and a bunch of blocks of text and graphics. The latter "cards" are actually part of Google Now (see below), so we'll start by focusing on the Voice Search makeover.

You can tap any microphone icon systemwide or say "Google" to trigger a voice search. Either launches a new screen marked by a pulsing red microphone, your cue to speak up. While you talk, a pattern of gray blocks lets you know the app is listening. There's not much delay between the time you stop talking and the time it starts computing, and we did get cut off once or twice. However, Google's Voice Search showed some good accuracy, which is hard to come by in this stage of voice recognition software. Of course, the computer's mistakes and misinterpretations still plagued us.

We used our voices in a range of scenarios to search for images, facts, dates, location, and stories on the Web. Most of the time, Google's search got it right, even for slightly longer queries. The app returns Web links, thumbnail images followed by Web links, or those aforementioned cards with neatly contained answers about how high a building is, a celebrity's birthday, a country's capital, and so on...followed, of course, by a thick stack of Web links. It's good to see that Google hasn't forgotten its heritage.

If you have the phone's media volume turned on and you ask a question that the app can answer with a card, it will also read the answer aloud. When Google search returns images or just a stack of links, it remains silent.

You can also use voice commands to set an alarm, play music, and navigate. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Since the new Search App puts a fresh coat of paint on previous Voice Actions, there are still the usual commands to set an alarm, call a contact, play a song, and get driving directions. However, Voice Actions are a little more rigid and without a prompt for what you can say, it won't be as easy to set that calendar appointment or cancel an unwanted alarm.

If the big question on your mind is whether Google's new Search look can beat Siri, the answer is still somewhat up in the air. Remember that all Google did was make interface changes that spotlight its Voice Search and make it easier to call up from any screen. The nuts and bolts remain the same as in Android 4.0.

Google Now
Since Google Now is tied into the new Google Search app, you might be tempted to think of it as part of Google Siri-like voice assistant -- but it isn't. Instead, Google Now is the name of an optional feature that periodically checks your GPS, calendar, and search history so it can predict your commute times, suggest eateries nearby, keep track of your favorite teams' scoreboard, and so on. There's an entire list of trackable items, and you can adjust the settings for each category on the ever-present card motif.

Google Now
Google Now has learned enough to recommend public transportation options. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Google Now will seem clunky at first, and that's because the feature learns over time. In the short period we've had Jelly Bean, we haven't been able to establish the kinds of habitual routines that Google Now needs to really take the pulse of your life. Thankfully, for all its Big Brother knowledge about your goings-on, Google Now doesn't come across as a creepy omniscient presence, and, in fact, we're finding it helpful so far. The weather report is always convenient, and we do relish the public transportation schedule and appointment reminders.

We're eager to see how accurately Google Now handles our lives, but have to reserve our final judgment. For now, we're taking some time getting to know each other to see where the features shine and stumble.

Google Play updates
Google Play has had movies for some time, but our Jelly Bean device and the Nexus 7 tablet are the first to include full movie downloads, in addition to brand-new content types -- magazine sales and TV show downloads. Google is making up some lost ground behind Apple's more mature content store, but it's a move that will please many. Rentals all come at a price, and Google intelligently gives you multiple download options, including HD quality for a dollar more. So, a movie may cost $3.99 to rent, but $4.99 to rent in HD. If you buy it outright, it could cost $11.99. Not all rentals are available for purchase, and prices vary per flick.

You can now buy TV shows in Google Play.
Google Play will let you buy per episode, or the whole season, including future shows. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Similarly, TV episodes rent for $1.99 for individual episodes; a season could cost between $24.99 and $34.99, or more for the HD version. Prices once again vary by show. Magazines follow the same model, with the option to subscribe for the month or year, or to buy a one-off edition. Bon Appetit, for example, costs $1.99 per month, $19.99 for the year, and $4.99 after the fact (or as we like to call it, airport-style).

Google is just getting started with these newer forms of content, so you won't find absolutely everything you want to get under your eyeballs. Google does do a nice job featuring certain titles, but it also organizes content by category and top sellers, and lets you search.

We bought some magazines and a TV episode in a seamless process, since we have a Google account outfitted with a credit card. It's even easier if you have the option of carrier billing.

Android Beam update
We're huge fans of Android Beam, but we like it even more now that Google has followed Samsung's lead with S Beam, which was the first to handily share larger files like photos and video from one NFC-enabled phone to the other. Now with Jelly Bean software, every NFC-enabled Android phone will be able to do it, too.

Despite arriving less than a year after Ice Cream Sandwich, Android 4.1 Jelly Bean thankfully comes with a raft of meaningful additions that go far beyond the simple bug fix and performance tweak. There are plenty of those, too, but the real benefits are easy to see, and make a difference when using a phone. The new voice search experience and Google Now deliver a one-two punch that will, at the very least, make Android users feel much more engaged with search, especially since the new pull-up gesture gives you voice search access anywhere.

Although we're not sure exactly how well it works yet, or how useful it will be on a daily basis, Google Now is at least a novel feature that uses the right tools to predict the information you may want to know about your schedule, your commute, your travel information, your climate-related comfort, and your favorite teams. That's something Apple doesn't offer. Unfortunately, it isn't always clear what kind of script you have to follow to make voice actions happen, so Siri's more flexible language engine wins there.

Notifications, a brawnier Android Beam, and a smoother photo-viewing process make Jelly Bean a worthy upgrade from Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, and the OS to lust for if you're still using Android 3.2. However, Google's work is far from done, and there are some additional fixes we'd want made in order for Jelly Bean to really rule the candy shop.

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