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Google Android 4.1 Jelly Bean Expert Review

Android 4.1 Jelly Bean

Rating: ★★★★½

Instead of jumping ahead a full version number from 4.0 to 5.0 with Android this year, Google has wisely decided to slow down the new feature freight train just a little, instead expanding upon the solid foundation introduced with Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich last year.

Although this decision may have more to do with slow adoption of ICS (Android 4.0 is available on roughly 10 percent of devices even a year after its unveiling), the iterative release allows Google to catch its breath while hopefully allowing carriers, developers and users alike the chance to play catch-up.

Of course, that doesn’t mean Google has abandoned its traditional sugary confection-themed naming scheme: The name’s Bean… Jelly Bean… and its mission is to hone Android into a leaner, meaner mobile operating system.

Where Android 3.0 Honeycomb was exclusive to tablets and Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich attempted to port the slicker UI over to smartphones as well, Android 4.1 is intended to smooth out the platform’s remaining rough edges – while hopefully having more success at widespread adoption than its predecessor did.

In the meantime, Google is seizing this opportunity to not only show OEMs how Android tablets should be done but also swat away unwelcome rivals forking its older mobile OS as their own. Built in conjunction with Asus, Google begins shipping its own seven-inch Nexus 7 tablet this month, the first device to come with Android 4.1 Jelly Bean pre-installed.

Will the changes in Jelly Bean be enough to finally make the ambitious goals of Google’s Mobile Handset Alliance a reality? Or will handset makers and carriers continue to bog down Android with their own skins, bloatware and other encumbrances?

We may not have the answers to those questions, but there’s no denying that Android 4.1 Jelly Bean is the best version yet – assuming your device is capable of installing it in the first place.

First Impressions

As a longtime iPhone user, this particular critic has been quite vocal about Android’s shortcomings. Although many of our complaints were wiped away with the introduction of 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, the majority of Android users are still suffering with a heavily skinned version of the now prehistoric 2.3 Gingerbread.

After using Android 4.1 Jelly Bean for the last week, it’s much harder to rationalize any lingering negativity toward this platform. Instead, our frustration turns to the carriers and handset manufacturers who continue to defile Android, usually with tepid results.

Android 4.1 Jelly Bean   Android 4.1 Jelly Bean

Don’t get us wrong: At one point, HTC Sense and Samsung’s TouchWiz made sense. These companies want to make their handsets distinctive, while at the same time patching over any perceived rough spots in the Android UI experience.

That may be a practice both companies want to reevaluate now, if our brief time with Jelly Bean is any indication. The fifth major release of Android finds Google at the top of their game, showing restraint when it comes to feature bloat while streamlining what worked so well with Ice Cream Sandwich – and making it even better.

While turning on a stock Android 4.0 device filled the screen with a breakaway rainbow of colors during boot, Jelly Bean briefly follows the familiar white Google logo with a pulsing blue, red, green and yellow “X” here.

We compared the boot time of two Samsung Galaxy Nexus handsets, one running Android 4.0.4 and the other running Android 4.1, and found a noticeable difference in startup time: 50 seconds for the elder software, versus 34 seconds for Jelly Bean. (The 4.1-powered Nexus 7 came in somewhere in-between, at 43 seconds.)

The custom Roboto font is still very much present and accounted for (with a few subtle tweaks depending upon where you’re viewing it), and Google reduces Android’s dependence on neon blue accents while retaining the same dark background – with one notable exception we’ll get into in a moment.

Aside from fresh wallpaper, Android 4.1 Jelly Bean doesn’t look appreciably different from 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich at first glance. Google has sidestepped any potential infringement of Apple’s “slide to unlock” patent by allowing users to swipe left (for camera, on devices so equipped), right or down to unlock, now made clearer by a rippling grid of dots.

You can also swipe up to unlock, although this now serves as a shortcut for Google Now, the company’s key new feature in Jelly Bean (more on that in a moment). Otherwise, the lock screen is largely the same as it was with Ice Cream Sandwich.

Notifications

Android 4.1 Jelly Bean introduces an overhaul to notifications, with new APIs so developers can make better use of this vital area of the user interface. Gone are the neon blue highlights, now replaced with a much cleaner white.

The first thing you’ll notice with Jelly Bean notifications are they have now increased in size. Not only does that make them infinitely more readable, but in the case of built-in apps like Gmail, you can now get a quick preview of incoming emails as they come in.

Where supported, dragging up on a notification with two fingers collapses it to a single row, while doing the reverse expands it. In the case of Calendar events, users can even act upon information, such as snoozing an alarm or emailing invited guests.

Likewise, incoming missed calls can be returned quickly thanks to a handy callback button, or photos can be shared with ease right after being taken. Oddly, the stock Gmail and Email apps don’t currently allow you to act upon their incoming missives, although a tap opens the respective app.

Android 4.1 Jelly Bean  Android 4.1 Jelly Bean

For now, these two-finger drag actions are exclusive to Android’s built-in apps, but that’s likely to change in the days, weeks and months ahead as developers tap into the new API for their own third-party apps.

The top of the notifications area also benefits from welcome improvements with Jelly Bean. The current time is now displayed prominently at left, with day of the week at right, stacked atop the date.

There are still handy buttons to jump straight to Settings or clear notifications, but on the Nexus 7, a software-based rotation lock button has also been added. This button caused a moment of confusion, since our review unit came with rotation lock switched on; after trying to view a TV show in Hulu Plus in portrait only mode, we managed to figure it out.

Speaking of the tablet-centric version of Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, while notifications take up the entire display on a smartphone, the window appears about the same size on the Nexus 7, displaying the name of your currently connected wireless network or carrier at the bottom.

Jelly Bean also introduces a method for completely hiding apps from sending notifications, but Google has tucked it away in an unlikely spot: Pulling up an App Info window now includes a “Show notifications” box under the Force stop and Uninstall options.

It’s not quite as seamless as the dedicated Notifications area of iOS Settings, but we’ll take what we can get – the ability to completely mute an app from pushing unwanted notifications is a welcome addition.

Home Screen & UI

Android widgets have always been an important competitive advantage over iOS, and 4.1 Jelly Bean makes them so much better, it’s hard to imagine even Apple could top it – assuming they choose to implement them in the first place, that is.

Where previous versions of Android made it tricky for widgets to be placed just anywhere on your home screens, Jelly Bean now moves icons or even other widgets out of the way so users can get exactly the customized layout they want.

Even more important, supported widgets are now resizable: Tap, hold and up pops a blue dot on each of the four sides. Grab one, move it to your liking and then tap outside of the widget to commit the change.

While this change might seem like overkill on a smartphone, it really makes a critical difference on the Nexus 7, which comes out of the box with a number of media-centric widgets squarely aimed at taking on the likes of Amazon’s Kindle Fire by pushing Google Play content front and center.

Don’t like the stock “My Library” widget taking up your entire Nexus 7 home screen? Tap, hold and drag it down to a more manageable size. Of course, users can also remove these entirely or replace them others.

Android 4.1 Jelly Bean also includes a new Sound Search widget, adding a Shazam-style “What’s this song?” query anywhere on the home screen. Tap it while a song is playing and the device will throw up EQ-style meters as it analyzes the tune; if recognized, track, artist and cover art info will be displayed next to a button for immediately buying the song from Google Play Music.

The Sound Search widget correctly identified most of the tracks we threw at it, with only more obscure (and presumably Play-less) songs tossed back as unidentified. Most songs were also tagged just as quickly as Shazam.

One thing Jelly Bean doesn’t entirely address is the lack of tablet-friendly apps. Netflix, for example, claims to be supported by Jelly Bean, but on the Nexus 7 it initially displayed a layout that was entirely too small, then too large before settling into being just right. Hopefully these growing pains will get worked out before the tablet ships en masse to customers.

Project Butter

For us, the biggest improvement to Android 4.1 Jelly Bean is also the least obvious – that is, until you actually start using a device running the OS. Announced at Google I/O as the curiously named “Project Butter,” the engineers behind Android 4.1 have made a concerted effort to finally shake the lag and general lack of responsiveness Android has historically been known for.

These claims are not just empty promises: For perhaps the first time ever, moving around within Android is just as smooth as iOS, whether it’s from the smaller display of the Galaxy Nexus or all seven inches of the Nexus 7.

Google used a variety of methods to accomplish this feat, ranging from “vsync timing” (ensuring a consistent frame rate across all screen drawing and animation) to triple buffering, which appears to be the key component which results in an overall smoother feel across the user interface.

However, it’s not just improved frame rates and faster gesturing that makes Jelly Bean fly. Android 4.1 also synchronizes the very touch of your finger to its vsync timing, attempting to anticipate where you’ll want to go next. Finally, the software steps on the gas at just the right time, offering a boost in processing power at the next touch event to cut down on any remaining latency.

None of this tech jargon is going to mean much to end users – all they’ll know is that the system is more responsive to their touch, allowing faster browsing, faster searching and faster access to their media content.

Google Now

Speaking of faster, the lone new feature in Android 4.1 Jelly Bean is the aptly named Google Now. Combining the best of search with key information you’ll want to access quickly throughout the day, Now requires zero setup from the user, other than enabling it in the first place.

Swiping up from the bottom of any screen accesses Google Now. This gesture throws up a small white circle with Google inside before opening a screen literally night and day from the rest of the Android UI. (Google Now can be accessed from the lock screen just as easily as it can from the home screen.)

While the rest of Android 4.1 features a familiar dark background (save for wallpaper customized by its user), Google Now is almost entirely white, presenting a series of cards that depend entirely upon how you interact with your device.

Let’s say you need to navigate to another location – a lunch meeting or other appointment, for example. When you open Now, a card for your event will be ready to go at the top of the stack; tapping Navigate throws you into Google Maps Navigation and routes you to the destination.

Once there, Google Now will remember your destination and offer to take you back home or to your next appointment, should you have one, even telling you how long it will take to get there. As it learns your patterns, Now becomes smarter and starts to second-guess your next move based on where you are, the time of day and even calendar data.

While it’s easiest to describe Google Now as a less conversational version of Siri on iOS, like that virtual assistant, Google’s solution is similarly hamstrung by once you step beyond its limited field of view.

Google Now currently includes cards for traffic, public transit, next appointment, flights, sports, places, weather, translation, currency and time at home, the majority of which are aimed at city dwellers or world travelers. While it’s a comprehensive list, these cards have less to offer for other users beyond weather and navigation.

For most of us, Google Now will just work, fueled by the information we offer it. However, users can also choose to control data when data from cards are displayed, and the settings offer an exhaustive list of options for granular control as well.

While it’s off to a good start, Google Now feels a bit like Apple’s Siri: A glimpse of a future that’s not quite here yet. The feature is also far less compelling for Nexus 7 owners, given that the majority of its data requires an internet connection and the tablet is (for now) Wi-Fi only.

Everything Else

All of the above would probably be enough for most Android users, but Google didn’t stop there: Android 4.1 Jelly Bean also includes a number of smaller features, too.

Google’s mobile Chrome browser is finally out of beta and now installed by default with Jelly Bean. We’ve had a mostly dislike-hate relationship with the stock Browser since we’ve first laid eyes on it, but Chrome successfully makes the transition to mobile in first class style.

We ran our usual battery of browser tests on mobile Chrome, comparing a Samsung Galaxy Nexus running 4.0.4 against the same device under 4.1. The Jelly Bean-equipped handset narrowly trumped Ice Cream Sandwich with a Peacekeeper score of 452 versus 461, while Sunspider 0.9.1 curiously clocked 1833.6ms for Jelly Bean and 1631.2ms for ICS.

While we found the Ice Cream Sandwich soft keyboard to be one of the best available on any mobile platform, Jelly Bean kicks things up a notch or two by making the keyboard smarter and more accurate than before. Text-to-speech is also improved with Android 4.1, while voice typing now works even without a data connection. (Take that, Siri.)

Android 4.1 Jelly Bean   Android 4.1 Jelly Bean

On the flip side, Android Beam didn’t live up to a lot of its promise with Ice Cream Sandwich, largely because that OS has been slow to take off. There are now plenty of devices on the market offering near-field communication (NFC) chips, and that means Beam is finally ready for prime time with Jelly Bean.

In addition to sharing contacts, web pages, YouTube videos, directions or even links to apps just by touching two Android devices back to back, Jelly Bean enables sharing of photos or videos in the same way. There’s just one caveat: This can’t be done with devices still running Ice Cream Sandwich, which throws up an error about large file transfers not being supported.

If you loved the Face Unlock feature introduced with Android 4.0 but had concerns about someone being able to use your photo to access the handset, worry no more. Google has beefed up Jelly Bean with Blink Detect, which now asks the user to blink their eyes to confirm you’re a living, breathing entity and not just a static image.

Viewing photos you’ve taken on your device is also faster with Jelly Bean. Users can quickly swipe from camera to view mode for instant feedback, and unwanted images can be removed with a swipe up – no button tapping required.

Google finally catches up to the excellent accessibility options Apple bakes into iOS, now allowing blind users to use a new Gesture Mode in Jelly Bean for navigating the UI with only touch and speech output. New APIs also extend these abilities, allowing developers to offer external Braille I/O devices capable of connecting via USB or Bluetooth.

Maps users now have the ability to save such data offline, which comes in quite handy for a Wi-Fi only device like the Nexus 7. (This functionality also works for any device running Android 2.3 Gingerbread or later.) We were able to select the majority of the county we live in and one adjacent to us while staying below the roughly 80MB limit for a single offline zone, but the new “My Places” menu allows you to save as many as you’d like.

Final thoughts

Android 4.1 Jelly Bean isn’t a gigantic, innovative leap forward; Google acknowledges this by bumping the version number only slightly. It’s a bit like Apple’s move from Mac OS X Leopard 10.5 to Snow Leopard 10.6 on the desktop: An operating system overhaul that tunes up what’s under the hood rather than attempting to dazzle users with a volume of new features.

We liked

Hokey name aside, “Project Butter” delivers the goods. Android is now fast, fluid and ready to go toe-to-toe with Apple on performance and features. If this were the only new feature offered by Jelly Bean, it would be significant enough to justify the update, let alone consider an upgrade to a new handset that takes maximum advantage of it.

Notifications have always been one area where Android excelled over iOS, and the tweaks made in Jelly Bean only further widen that gap. We’re also big fans of mobile Chrome and very glad to see it’s now the default browser.

We disliked

We don’t actually dislike Google Now – it’s a fascinating addition that promises to get better with time. As it exists today, the feature is clearly intended for city dwellers more than suburbanites, so we’d like to see Google offer additional functionality to the millions living beyond city limits.

For all of its enhancements, Android 4.1 is still behind the times when it comes to the security of lost or stolen devices. In addition to lacking remote features such as wipe or lock, Google has yet to offer something akin to Apple’s Find My iPhone, which helps users locate a missing device. Sure, there are alternatives available in Google Play, but they’re more likely to be ignored by casual users there.

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Pros

  • Silky-smooth performance
  • Improved notifications
  • Chrome as default browser
  • Resizable widgets

Cons

  • Google Now is limited
  • Available on few devices
  • Few tablet-friendly apps
  • No built-in lost device security

Verdict

This bit of nitpicking aside, Android 4.1 Jelly Bean is strictly a win-win situation for those who can install it. Unfortunately, at this writing that’s limited to Samsung’s Galaxy S or Galaxy Nexus handsets, Motorola’s Xoom and Google’s own Nexus 7 tablet.

While time will tell if this tasty treat can ultimately remedy the platform’s larger fragmentation problem, manufacturers and carriers have less reason than ever to load up devices with their own UI enhancements.

Android 4.1 Jelly Bean is a thing of beauty, and should be a nice boost for Google’s own Nexus-branded hardware. For those who have been on the fence, you’ll definitely want to give Jelly Bean a look – this could be the version to finally sway you into Mountain View’s camp.

Google Android 4.1 Jelly Bean Expert Review

 

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