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Android 4.1 gets faster; better notifications; Google Now

Android 4.1 ups the ante against Apple's iOS with interactive notifications, overhauled search results and new tools that anticipate the information people need wherever they are.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
4 min read
First Look
Watch this: Android 4.1 Jelly Bean a sweet Android update

SAN FRANCISCO -- Android 4.1, aka Jelly Bean, gets a more responsive user interface, a much more interactive notification system, better voice transcription, overhauled search, and a major new feature called Google Now that tries to anticipate what a person needs to know at any given moment.

Android has exploded in popularity, but the OS takes a lot of heat for allegedly being an Apple iOS copycat. Google is clearly trying to vault over that issue with new features detailed at its at its Google I/O show today here.

Google Now, triggered by swiping from the bottom of the screen, draws on calendar, location, and search history to automatically present what a device thinks is information a person needs to know, said said Hugo Barra, director of product management, at the show's opening keynote.

"Google Now gets you just the right information at just the right time, and all of it happens at the right time," Barra said. For example, "Google Now figures out when you commute from home to work and back, tells you how long your commute takes usually, and give you a faster route if there's lot of traffic. On public transit, if you're on the platform at a subway, Google tells you when the next bus or train will arrive."

It'll also show nearby restaurants when you're walking down the street, and what a restaurant is famous for, he said. It'll tell you sports results based on teams you've shown interest in before. And it's tied into the calendar.

"If you have a calendar appointment, Google will help you get there on time. Google will tell you how long it'll take you to walk to the bus top, when the next bus will arrive, and how long that bus ride will take," he said.

Jelly Bean will ship in mid-July to Galaxy Nexus, Nexus S, and Motorola Zoom devices, Barra said, and it's on the new Nexus 7 tablet built by Asus. A preview version of Android 4.1 is available now.

Support for new versions of Android on older phones has been a sore point for Google. To help address the issue, it announced a Platform Development Kit (PDK) that will let hardware makers work with Android as Google develops it. Until now, Google worked just with a single device maker to develop new versions of the operating system, and others often didn't adopt updates until months later -- if at all.

Also new in Jelly Bean is overhauled search. Drawing on the company's Knowledge Base, which presents a collection of useful data and not just a list of links in search results, search results in Android 4.1 will sometimes appear as "cards" with an image, text, and other information in more magazine-like presentation.

Examples included a search for Angelina Jolie movies, the mass of the Earth, the weather, and the nearest Starbucks coffee shop. Each showed a card and links to further information. For example, with the Starbucks search, it showed a map and links to navigate to the three nearest shops.

Swiping away the card shows more conventional search results.

Notifications, an Android advantage that iOS has mostly matched recently, also are significantly different in Jelly Bean. Notifications are active. For example, when a notification of a Google+ update arrives from a contact, a person can tap its +1 button or share it. People can accept calendar invitations and send a variety of pre-written e-mail responses to other event attendees. A song -- Google picked the popular "Somebody That I Used to Know" from Gotye -- can be marked as a favorite.

Another action, shown with the Pulse news app, lets people open up a notification with a two-finger swipe down from the bottom of the notification. That opens up a bigger view with more photos and headlines.

Deeper under the covers, Google announced "Project Butter," intended to make touch-screen devices more responsive. "Everything feels a lot smother," Barra said.

One example of how it works: when a touch event happens and a person slides his or her finger, Android calculates where the finger will be in the future and bases the new screen imagery accordingly. Another example: Android can wake up the processor from low-power idle states so it can respond faster.

Google also announced and demonstrated a built-in speech-to-text engine called "voce typing." The current Android needs a network connection to send data to Google's servers for transcription, but no more.

"In Jelly Bean, we shrank the Google speech recognizer that runs in our data centers to fit on the device itself. If you have a poor connection or are offline, you can still type with your devices," Barra said.

Correction, 6:05 p.m. PT: Corrects name of Nexus 7 tablet manufacturer, which is Asus.

Watch Google introduce Jelly Bean at Google I/O:

Features galore in Google's Jelly Bean
Watch this: Features galore in Google's Jelly Bean