Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich Impressions

Ice Cream Sandwich is the first version of Android for both tablets and phones. At the time of writing the only device running it is the Galaxy Nexus. Some of the concepts brought over from Honeycomb actually work better on the smaller screen. Using a Honeycomb tablet often means going from corner to corner to find the desired button. This is less of a problem on a phone.

ICS is certainly speedy on the Galaxy Nexus. Several factors contribute to this impression: tricks like no “bounce-back” effect when moving between the five home screens (unlike Gingerbread), hardware acceleration in all stock apps and the Galaxy Nexus TI OMAP 4460 dual core chipset. It will be interesting to see how much ICS speeds up the Nexus S.

The browser is much faster compared with previous Android phones. In fact it maybe a little too fast as some CSS animations run too quickly. When scrolling around a large page quickly the text seems to pixellate a little. Thanks to the 720p screen and the new Roboto font pages are just about readable when fully zoomed out. Unfortunately, there’s no Adobe Flash available yet. It has been promised before the end of 2011 but time is running out.

All of the built in applications have been given a much needed lick of paint. They have a more consistent look and feel now.
Matias Duarte, Director of Android User Experience, has expressed dislike for tromploy or skeuomorphic design and wants to take Android in a more virtual or digital direction. However, he has also said that some Android 4.0 stock apps have a magazine like quality which is something of a contradiction given that a magazine is a physical object. It’s hard to get away from concepts grounded in the real world even when designing a touch interface in pure software.

Horizontal swipes are now the dominant gesture for navigating and performing actions. For example, swiping on a message in the Gmail app navigates to the next or previous message negating the need for on screen buttons. This leaves more room for the message content and other controls. The swipe gesture can also be used dismiss notifications, close browser tabs, remove apps from the multitasking list and navigating between screens in Google+. This makes operations tactile and satisfying.

The holographic theme has been toned down a bit from Honeycomb. The simple, clean style without gradients or chrome has been carried over. This keeps visual noise to a minimum.

Some changes that might take a bit of getting used to are: the long press action to add home screen widgets now only changes the wallpaper (you have to use the app draw instead), to delete widgets and shortcuts you have to drag to the top instead of bottom and the app draw now scrolls horizontally instead of vertically.

The Galaxy Nexus resurrects the notification LED just below the screen. Strangely there is no granular control over the notification LED in the operating system. For example, I would like to be able to disable it for everything but calls and SMS messages but there is only one tick box under settings to enable or disable it. There are apps in the Android Market that provide this control but it should really be built in.

Home screen folders are now much more intuitive as one icon can just be dragged to another instead of having to long press, create a folder and then move shortcuts into it. Unfortunately, there is a limit of 16 shortcuts per folder as they don’t scroll. It would be great if this was fixed in a future version as well as the addition of widget support. The customisable dock at the bottom of the home screen supports up to four icons or folders but it would be even better if it supported 1×1 widgets.
The more advanced scrolling widgets have been carried over from Honeycomb and the XL one in Reader Widgets works well.

Face unlock is a bit of gimmick. It works most of the time (even when wearing a hoody or headphones it seems). However, it is very useful if you only have one hand free and need to quickly unlock the screen to say, pause audio playback. The trick seems to be getting the angle of the camera correct. I’m leaving it switched on for now, mostly for showing off.

In Honeycomb Android started to move away from the menu button that has been present since the beginning. This means all of an app’s buttons have to be present on the screen (or at least in a visible drop down menu) like iOS in something like an ActionBar. On a phone this has the disadvantage of taking up precious screen space, leaving less room for content. However, some apps like the browser get around this by hiding its address/action bar once a page has loaded. A small swipe down from the top makes it reappear.
“Legacy” apps built against pre-Honeycomb SDKs still show the menu button as three dots to the right of the multitasking key. If you build against Honeycomb or newer then the menu button will never appear even if a menu has been built into the app. This forces developers down the ActionBar route which they might not be ready for yet.This might be a reason why so few Honeycomb optimised apps have appeared.
At this point we are half way between migrating from the menu button and the ActionBar so sometimes you have a menu accessible on the bottom right and sometimes on the top right which could be an annoying inconsistency for some. The advantage of the ActionBar approach is nothing is hidden which should improve useability. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens to the menu button on old devices when they get updated to ICS.
I’m going to have to make some decisions about Paperless List which uses a hybrid ActionBar and menu approach.

There has already been a firmware update issued for the Galaxy Nexus to fix the infamous volume bug. It doesn’t seem to fix or change anything else. I wish they would release full change logs for each update.

Google has spent an enormous amount of effort to get Android to this point. It’s consistent, clean and the most user friendly it has ever been. It’s depressing that most Android users won’t get to see it in it’s purest form due to manufacturer skins. Maybe ICS is good enough to make manufacturers think again about using skins or at least tone them down and restrict their customisations to additional apps.

I am looking forward to getting ICS on my Motorola Xoom (whenever that maybe). Going back to using Honeycomb on it has me swiping on things and wondering why nothing happens.