Android Jelly Bean 4.1 review
Damien McFerran road tests Android Jelly Bean 4.1 ahead of its scheduled July roll-out
Android 4.1 - also known as Jelly Bean - was officially announced last week at Google I/O 2012. Although it appears to be an incremental update rather than a radical overhaul, Jelly Bean’s impact cannot be understated. This could well be the update which confirms beyond all doubt Android’s supremacy in the smartphone arena - and we’ve gone hands-on in order to tell you why.
Although Jelly Bean isn’t officially rolling out until the middle of July - when it will be pushed via an OTA update to the Nexus S, Galaxy Nexus and Motorola Xoom - a version of the OS was released to developers at Google I/O 2012, and this has subsequently been distributed on the web.
If you have a Galaxy Nexus with an unlocked bootloader, you can flash the ROM to your phone. It’s this version of Jelly Bean that we’ve used for our preview, and while it should be stressed that it’s not the final software, with the official release just weeks away, it’s unlikely that too many changes will be made - if any changes are made at all.
Butter Me Up: Why Butter UI is a game-changer
If you ask any Apple fan why they prefer iOS to Android, we can virtually assure you that one of the popular reasons will be performance. While iOS has always been smooth and fast, Android has traditionally struggled to maintain the same pace - despite the fact that most cutting-edge Android phones are vastly more powerful than the latest iPhone model.
This is understandable when you consider that Android has true multi-tasking (as opposed to iOS, which simply ‘freezes’ applications) and is generally capable of doing a lot more in terms of functionality (app launcher replacements, custom keyboards, and so on). Still, no matter how many excuses you make, it’s still annoying that Android is so sluggish and jerky when compared to Apple’s software. Thankfully, Jelly Bean puts an end to this sorry reputation. Thanks to Google’s new ‘Butter UI’, the OS is now more than a match for iOS in terms of slickness and speed.
By ramping up CPU access when using the touchscreen, Butter UI allows Jelly Bean to react instantly the moment your digit touches the screen. No delay, no lag and no jerkiness - just pure, unadulterated slickness. It’s hard to describe in words just how different this makes Android feel. Compared to Android Ice Cream Sandwich, which itself was a big improvement over Gingerbread in terms of usability and speed, Jelly Bean is a whole new ball game. In fact, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you were using an entirely new phone when you first experience it on a Galaxy Nexus.
As well as making the whole user interface more pleasurable to use, Butter UI also speeds up application access, and switching between processes no longer incurs an annoying delay.
Notify Me: Improved Notification bar
Android’s notifications system is arguably the best in the business, despite Apple’s recent attempts to emulate it in iOS 5.0. Jelly Bean makes it even better, adding in information and allowing you to react to updates from within the notification bar itself.
When you receive an email in Jelly Bean, you can now expand it to read the contents by placing two fingers on the screen and pulling them apart. If you have several unread emails, they appear in sequence, giving you an accurate snapshot of your inbox without opening your email client.
Another new feature to notifications is the ability to stop annoying third party applications sending you messages. There’s been a rise in the number of apps using notifications to spam users whenever new features or content is available - the popular Draw Something is a serial offender in this regard - but you can now completely disable this feature on an app-by-app basis.
Right here, Right (Google) Now: Android’s answer to Siri
Google has been working on a Siri rival for quite some time now, and prior to Google I/O 2012 many believed that it would take the form of Google Assistant - a super-powerful voice search engine that would be even more talkative than Apple’s famous software.
However, the reality is a little different. Yes, Voice Search has been upgraded so its more like Siri - and recent tests have shown it’s actually better at responding to questions and finding data - but the real news is Google Now’s context-sensitive information system.
Using a series of scrollable cards, Google Now presents relevant information based on your current location, the time of day and what you’ve recently searched for both on your phone and on your personal computer.
It gathers data and learns about your habits, your movements and your interests, all in the name of presenting you with the most relevant information whenever Google Now is opened up.
This all sounds great in theory, but it’s only when you actually start using Google Now that you realise how life-changing this all is. Searching for a route map on your computer? Next time you open up Google Now on your phone, it will show you the route and offer automatic navigation. Looking for info for your favourite football team? Google Now remembers and in the future will give you up-to-date results as a match is in progress. Worried about traffic on your way home? Don’t be - Google Now will already have memorised your route to and from work, and will automatically send you a notification if delays are likely.
This might seem a bit creepy to some people, but such skeptical thoughts are quickly forgotten once you allow Google Now into your life. It’s one of the best things that Android has ever offered, and leaves Siri in the dust.
Android Jelly Bean: The Know Your Mobile Verdict
We’ve spent just over an entire weekend with Google’s new OS and we have to admit the impact has been incredible. Google Now works like a dream, cutting down on needless searching and offering up the kind of data we need instantly.
What’s really exciting is that this is just the beginning. Google will no doubt be looking for ways to enhance and improve its usefulness as the months roll by. Expect Apple to cook up some kind of response in a future version of iOS, but for the time being, Android has raised the bar once more.
However, while Google Now is the most visible update in Jelly Bean, we’d argue that the lightening fast Butter UI engine is actually the most impressive. Android’s typically sluggish performance is consigned to history – at least on Jelly Bean-powered devices, any way – and replaced by the kind of silky-smoothness that has previously been the sole preserve of Apple’s devices.
The increase in performance is striking, especially when you consider that the underlying hardware of the Galaxy Nexus hasn’t changed. This says to us that Google is now thinking more about how it make Android more user-friendly and pleasurable to use, and not just about what additional features it can cram into the OS.
Of course, this is the totally stock version of Jelly Bean we’re talking about here. It will now be leapt on by manufacturers, who will apply their own UI skins on top of the existing interface, as well as remove and tinker with features. For example, the Galaxy S3 already has S-Voice, so it will be interesting to see how Samsung incorporates Google Now - if they incorporate it at all.
But for the time being, Android 4.1 represents an exciting new chapter in the life of Google’s world-beating mobile OS, and is well worth getting excited about.