Android 4.1 Jelly Bean release date, features and more

Now that it's official, what do we know about the next exciting instalment of Android?

Natasha Lomas Mobile Phones Editor, CNET UK
Natasha Lomas is the Mobile Phones Editor for CNET UK, where she writes reviews, news and features. Previously she was Senior Reporter at Silicon.com, covering mobile technology in the business sphere. She's been covering tech online since 2005.
Natasha Lomas
8 min read
Watch this: Android 4.1 Jelly Bean hands-on

Today, it's a very rare Android owner graced with Android 4.0, aka Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS). Most mobile Droids are still chowing down on the Gingerbread flavour of Google's mobile software.

But come next month ICS will be old news too -- as Google has confirmed the next iteration of Android is incoming. It won't be called Android 5.0, as we previously thought, but rather has been incrementally christened version 4.1, aka Jelly Bean.

What's with the Jelly Bean nickname?

Google is continuing its tasty tradition of naming Android versions after American sweets and desserts starting with consecutive letters of the alphabet.

In recent times we've gobbled up Android Gingerbread, enjoyed hints of Honeycomb and hankered after Ice Cream Sandwich. But now Google's digital dessert cart looks like it will be overturned by a stampede of Android lovers hoping to grab a fistful of Jelly Beans.

Android 4.1 release date

In addition to the brand-new Nexus 7 tablet, Google has confirmed Jelly Bean will be landing on a trio of Android devices in the middle of July via an over the air update.

The three devices that will get Jelly Bean without any delay are two of Google's own-branded phones, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus and the older Nexus S, and also the Motorola Xoom tablet (which has always been a 'Google Experience' device, guaranteed to get the latest updates until it can no longer handle them).

When will Jelly Bean land on my device?

If you've got any other Android device than the four mentioned above, you're going to have to wait longer to get your hands on Jelly Bean.

Since only a few per cent of Android devices have been updated to ICS, which debuted almost a year ago, the wait for Jelly Bean could well be a long and painful one for a lot of Android fans. Buying a new device that runs Jelly Bean out of the box -- when such devices emerge -- could be the quickest and easiest way to get your mitts on Android 4.1.

The reason the Android updates process is so torturously slow is because mobile makers have to configure the new version to work with all the different Android devices and skins they make. This is the downside of the rich 'biodiversity' of the Android ecosystem, which offers such a wide variety of hardware and software to choose from. It also explains why Apple's iOS update process is so much simpler, as there are only a handful of iPhone models to update.

It's also likely that not all existing Android devices will get updates -- popular devices are more likely to get Jelly Bean than kit that didn't sell so well but even then it's not a given. After all, mobile makers would prefer you shelled out for another new hunk of hardware. And if you own a relatively low-powered device it may not be able to run the new version of Android well enough to justify getting updated.

Add to that, mobile network operators also have to get involved where devices are locked and customised to a particular network. Operators can take a very long time indeed to push out updates, if they decide to release an update at all.

Android 4.1 features

Even though it only has an incremental version number -- 4.1, rather than a major jump to 5.0 -- there are some tasty new additions to Android coming in Jelly Bean.

Read on for a breakdown of the main features.

Google Now

Perhaps the most tasty new feature in Jelly Bean is called Google Now -- a feature that lets Google pretend it's reading your mind by drawing on your search history and the location data created by the movements of your Android device.

The Google Now feature is activated by tapping on the search box or swiping up from the bottom of the screen. This pulls up Google Now cards that are filled with up to the minute, contextualised information. Google Now learns when you commute, for example, and tells you traffic information at those times. It also shows you the weather for your location and your work. If you're near a bus stop it can tell you when the next bus is due.

The system can also tie in with your calendar so when you have an appointment coming up it reminds you and also nudges you when you have to leave to get there in time, as if you had your very own PA. It even gives you the relevant public transport information.

Google Now can also automatically update you on the status of something like an airline flight you're getting, or your favourite football team scoring a goal. You don't even need to tell your phone which flight or team to update you on -- it works that out from your searches.

More speed, less lag

One unfortunate characteristic of a lot of Android devices is a general lagginess as you swipe around. They aren't always hyper responsive, and some can feel downright sluggish. With Jelly Bean, Google is looking to banish Android's foot-dragging ways for good -- promising "buttery graphics" and "silky transitions".

To do this it's adding triple buffering to the graphics pipeline for smoother, more consistent rendering and is also enforcing a consistent frame rate across all drawing and animation, so on-screen elements remain speedy and in sync.

When you swipe or flick the screen of a Jelly Bean device Google is also now making an informed guess on the trajectory of your fingers to improve touchscreen responsiveness. And if your phone has been idle, Google gives the CPU a little booster kick so it's wide awake right off, rather than sleepily sluggish.

Jelly Bean will also speed up the process of viewing a photo right after you've snapped it -- Google claims you'll be able to eyeball the shot you just snapped in an instant by swiping from the camera to the filmstrip view.

All of this nippiness sounds awesome, but there is a question mark over whether Jelly Bean's speed and responsiveness improvements survive some of the laggy Android skins device-makers add on top of Android. Time will tell. If you want to guarantee getting Jelly Bean's speed boost, you'll need a device that runs vanilla, unskinned Android, such as one of Google's Nexus phones.

There's also a question about how powerful the hardware needs to be to run Jelly Bean. Android Ice Cream Sandwich's performance on budget devices such as the HTC Desire C is not super slick -- so it remains to be seen whether Jelly Bean will offer better performance to budget devices as well as high-end multi-core slabs and slates.

Wiggling widgets

If you love tricking out your Android homescreens with loads of widgets, you'll be happy to hear Google is making it even easier to add and resize widgets.

In Jelly Bean, as you place a widget everything else on the screen automatically moves out of the way to make room. If the widget is too big, it will be auto resized to fit too. And any widgets you've had enough of can just be flicked off the screen to remove them.

Richer notifications

Notifications in the tray have been beefed up and can now include photos, and collapse as they bubble up to the top, or you can expand them with a two-finger gesture. The info displayed is also richer and you can do more with it.

Gmail messages, for example, show subject lines, calendar alerts let you email everybody in the meeting with canned responses if you're running late and photos can be shared to Google+ without opening the app. These alerts can be dismissed in one tap.

Savvier search

Search has been redesigned from the ground up, with improved voice search and answers to queries with the actual answer to your question, instead of a list of web links.

Google is using its Knowledge Graph software to power WolframAlpha-style answers (Apple's Siri uses the latter service). This means you can ask your Android Jelly Bean phone direct questions and -- hopefully -- be served a card with the answer on, like the phone is your very own Jeeves the butler.

Improved keyboard

Jelly Bean adds a more advanced predictive keyboard to better guess the next word you're typing. Word prediction also improves the more you use it. And Jelly Bean supports offline voice typing, so you don't need a Wi-Fi or 3G connection to dictate emails or messages to your phone.

English is supported first, with more languages to follow. Arabic, Persian, Hebrew, Hindi and Thai are also being added to Android.

Gestures for accessibility

Google has added a gestures mode to improve accessibility for blind Android users -- allowing them to navigate the UI using touch and swipe gestures in combination with speech output.

Jelly Bean also adds support for accessibility plugins to enable external Braille input and output devices via USB and Bluetooth.

Android Beam plus Bluetooth

Got an NFC Android phone and a buddy with the same kit nearby? The Android Beam function lets you send content from one NFC device to another by touching their backs together and tapping the screen to send the content. In Jelly Bean, Google has souped up Beam by using Bluetooth to simplify the data transfer.

Beam can also be used to pair your Android device with Bluetooth devices such as speakers and headphones.

Better browser

Jelly Bean also brings some browser enhancements including improved rendering speed, scrolling and zooming. HTML5 video is also being tweaked to add touch to play or pause and smoother transitions from embedded to full screen mode.

App updates

Google has redesigned the preloaded YouTube app with subscriptions listed on the left and a swipe across panel at the right to view the channels. The Google+ app has also been redesigned (yet again).

App updates are also getting leaner. Google is adding a feature called smart app updates that means Google Play will only push out the bits of an app that have changed when an Android user triggers an update. Google says this will typically mean less data has to be downloaded, apps are faster to update and the device's battery doesn't have to expend as much energy downloading them. Bandwidth savings will also mean less of your monthly limit is gobbled up if updating over 3G.

There's also help for app developers who want to improve data management within their apps -- to avoid them gobbling up too much bandwidth and annoying Android users. Apps will be able to query whether the current network is metered before beginning a large download.

In Jelly Bean, Big G is also looking out for paid app developers. Their apps will now be encrypted with a device-specific key making it harder for the apps to be pirated.

What didn't we get?

Unsurprisingly, the most outlandish rumours of all -- a dual-boot Windows 8 scenario -- did not come to pass.

There was no mention of dual-booting with Google's Chrome OS either.

What comes after Android Jelly Bean?

What about the next next version of Android? Apparently it's going to be called Android Key Lime Pie -- let's call it KLP for short.

Aside from this lime-flavoured name, there's no word on what KLP will bring or when it will arrive.

Expect the next, next, next version of Android (the one after KLP) to have a sugar-coated name that starts with the letter L -- Android Lollypop, perhaps, or Android Lemon Meringue Pie. Post your best pudding guesses in the comments below.

And for even more on Android, check out our handy guide to every version of Android ever.

CNET UK's Rich Trenholm contributed to this article.