Ice Cream Sandwich has finally come out of the Google freezer and it’s easily the most significant Android update to date. Representing more than just a bunch of neat features that has typified previous OS updates, Ice Cream Sandwich is a radical rethink of all things Android.
The old user interface we’ve known from the past has gone; with Ice Cream Sandwich comes a new UI that’s an evolution of the black and green/neon themes of Gingerbread and Honeycomb along with refreshed browser, Gmail and Google Calendar apps.
Ice Cream Sandwich represents a “unified user experience for phones, tablets, and more” and is due to be rolled out to existing Android smartphones at some point too. There’s no timetable for rollouts to devices just yet but you can be sure we’re keeping an eye out for those.
There’s many reasons to be excited about Ice Cream Sandwich; here’s the ten things that we’re most excited about right now, why they’re important and why you should care.
1. New keyboard, new font
In line with Google’s commitment to making a unified OS, Ice Cream Sandwich prominently features a new font that’s “optimized for HD displays,” so it’ll look at home on huge 10.1-inch tablets as well as smaller smartphone screens.
Google has also “dramatically improved the keyboard,” adding faster and more accurate word prediction, with the auto-suggestions now being sensibly limited to three suggestions at a time.
2. New browser with Google Chrome bookmark syncing, offline reading and full desktop sites
Speaking of the new font, you’re also able to increase the default text size across the system for improved readability; this extends to the web browser.
Being able to send links from Chrome and Firefox (and vice versa) to your phone is something we’ve been able to do for a little while on our Android phones, but the process required involved a bit of a workaround.
As cool as this is, we’re pleased to hear that the stock Ice Cream Sandwich browser allows you to sync bookmarks from your desktop on Chrome with those on your phone.
You’ll also be able to save copies of pages for reading articles offline (perfect for train journeys) and toggle between desktop and mobile versions of sites.
This is something that you can already do on certain phones, like the browser on the HTC Sensation, but it’s great that this feature will be an Android standard in the post Ice Cream Sandwich world.
3. Android Beam – Tap to share docs, contacts and more with NFC
Back when Google announced Android 2.3 Gingerbread along with the Nexus S, much was made of the NFC capabilities of the phone and the platform in terms of how it would revolutionise spending.
The m-commerce revolution hasn’t quite happened yet, but there’s more to NFC than just turning your phone into an expensive, battery-powered credit card.
Ice Cream Sandwich comes with a neat new feature called Android Beam. Similar to BlackBerry Tag announced just over a week ago, Beam will allow you to tap two NFC’ed Android phones together and share things like contacts, URLs, YouTube links, map locations and directions, and apps.
“Simply hold two NFC enabled Android phones close to each other and touch to beam and share,” says Google.
Sadly, it won’t let you shoot frickin’ laser beams at goofy British spies.
4. Improved notifications
The all-important notification bar that’s been a staple Android feature since the year dot has got a welcome refresh. From the pull-down bar you can manage individual notifications, dismissing them one at a time instead of wiping the entire slate clean like before.
From the notif bar you’ll also be able to “play music tracks, see real-time updates from apps, and much more.”
Additionally, you’ll also be able to access the new notification bar from the lock screen, which will allow you to control music without opening the phone. The new lock screen also features a new ‘unlock to camera’ option, a la HTC Sense.
5. Cut down on bloatware thanks to the ‘disable pre-installed apps’ option
It’s always been a kicker when we see an Android phone that’s got a bunch of apps installed on it that we can’t uninstall, at least not without rooting the phone which not everyone is able or inclined to do.
In any case, you’d have to spend time (while voiding any warranty) doing something that you ought to be able to do from the Applications menu in the Settings.
Ice Cream Sandwich won’t be able to cut pre-installed apps out totally, but will allow you to ‘disable’ them. “From the All Apps launcher, users can now simply drag an app to get information about it or immediately uninstall it, or disable a pre-installed app.”
Google engineer Dan Morrill says on his Google+ that disabling an app means that its “resources never run and its launcher icon is gone until you re-enable it,” but it won’t “free up any space — it can’t, since pre-installed apps are included in the read-only system storage. But it does put them “out of sight, out of mind.”
6. Redesigned gallery app with a ton of editing features
As we heard earlier in the week the standard Android Gallery app has been significantly beefed up for Ice Cream Sandwich. The Gallery now comes with a bunch of effects that essentially turns your phone into a mini Photoshop for pictures taken on your phone.
Elementary editing tools like crop, rotate and flip are now built in, along with correction options for red eye and shiny face removal.
As well as this you get the ability to adjust the contrast and pick from a number of artistic effect filters.
7. Redesigned camera app adds panorama mode and face detection
As well as post-photo editing options, a panoramic sweep mode has been added to the standard Ice Cream Sandwich camera app, allowing you to stitch together huge pictures. Google says that “the user starts an exposure and then slowly turns the Camera to encompass as wide a perspective as needed. The Camera assembles the full range of continuous imagery into a single panoramic photo.” We’re assuming this means you’ll get a full 360 degree panning as we’ve seen on this iOS app.
Things like face detection, tap to focus come built in, as do decreased shot-to-shot speed, continuous focus and zero shutter lag exposure which ought to allow for snappier, more precise pictures.
While shooting video, you’ll also be able to take snapshots at full video resolution while the phone is still recording. So, on the Galaxy Nexus, with its Full HD video recording capabilities, this means you’ll be able to snap pics at 1920×1080 (1080p). Nice!
Though many of the higher-end Android phones out now come with some decent camera software built in, it’s great to see that all this kind of stuff will be available to any Ice Cream Sandwich phone.
8. Taking screenshots is now a piece of cake
Taking screenshots on your Android phone is a feature that was actually tucked away in Android 2.2 Froyo, but for some reason wasn’t enabled on all phones. We recently found out that you could do this on a handful of phones by holding down the power button and tapping the Home key.
On phones that don’t have this function, you can also enable screengrabbing without having to root them with a little workaround, which is obviously great.
Thankfully, this elementary screengrab feature will be baked in to Ice Cream Sandwich. “Users can now share what’s on their screens more easily by taking screenshots. Hardware buttons let them snap a screenshot and store it locally,” says Google.
9. Better data management
With Ice Cream Sandwich, you’ll be able to have greater control over the amount of data your phone munches through, as well as setting up alerts for when you’re close to the end of your monthly data allowance.
You’re also able to set hard limits that will disable 3G connections altogether once a certain threshold has been reached and manage data used by individual apps.
Again, we’ve been able to do this in the past thanks to apps like 3G Watchdog and Onavo for Android, but its great that this type of functionality comes built straight in out of the box.
10. Face Unlock – no more PIN numbers, no more unlock patterns
We’ve seen PIN numbers, we’ve seen that iconic green discs unlock pattern, we’ve seen boring old passwords and even fingerprint scanners on Android phones.
Now Ice Cream Sandwich brings things one step further with a new Face Unlock tool, similar to the recently announced Symbian app.
Using the front-facing camera of your Android phone, Ice Cream Sandwich used face detection technology, allowing you to unlock your phone just by smiling at it. Genius and super-secure as should your phone go missing, anyone who picks it up won’t be able to unlock it unless they happen to have your face lying around.
We’re really curious to see how this works for ourselves; we’re wondering if somebody could take a picture of your face, hold it up to your ICS phone and if it’d accept that, a la Demolition Man.
Seeing as the front-facing camera of the Galaxy Nexus doesn’t appear to be a 3D camera we wonder if the software could distinguish between a 2D image and a real face.
As we said, there’s much much more to Ice Cream Sandwich than these ten points, but this is what we’re most excited about at the moment. You can have a look at Google’s own Android Platform Highlights, google.com/nexus and the Google Mobile Blog.