The latest version of Android may be an incremental update, but it brings some much-needed improvements to Google's mobile platform.
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Google introduced Android 4.3 Jelly Bean this week, a minor update to its smartphone and tablet operating system. Android 4.3 does not present a significant visual overhaul of the OS. Instead, it adds a handful of features that make the whole platform a bit more fully rounded.
As usual, Google's Nexus-branded devices will be among the first to receive the new platform software. The Nexus 4 and Galaxy Nexus smartphones, and the Nexus 7 and Nexus 10 tablets are on deck to get the update shortly. At the same time, Google has already made the new operating system available to developers, who can get to work adjusting their apps and content for the improved operating system.
Here are some of the best features of the new platform:
First, Android 4.3 is the fastest version of Android yet. The new system software makes advancements on the Project Butter tools already present in Jelly Bean, such as vsync timing, triple buffering, reduced touch latency, and hardware-accelerated 2D rendering, to make gains in overall performance. The new system software also improves rendering for shapes and text, which are higher quality and accomplished more efficiently within the software. It is also better at threading tasks across multi-core systems for balancing power and processing needs.
Second, Android 4.3 adds support for Bluetooth Smart, also called Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy. This is the Bluetooth spec we've all been waiting for. Until now, Bluetooth wasn't part of the core Android stack and it was up to individual device makers to implement it in their own way. This caused problems for application developers. With Bluetooth 4.0 baked into the core of the platform, app developers should see many of their headaches go away. The payoff is that it will be easier to create apps that can talk to low-power sensors that track fitness, medical, proximity, location and other data.
Game developers should be pleased that Android 4.3 adds support for OpenGL ES 3.0. By stuffing these extensions into Android, gamers can create even more realistic and immersive 3D graphics. OpenGL ES 3.0 provides acceleration of advanced visual effects, better compression, advanced texture rendering and more. The most beneficial aspect of OpenGL ES 3.0 support is that developers will be able to create a single texture-compression format that will run across a number of devices.
One of the more interesting features in Android 4.3 is support for restricted profiles. Android 4.2 added support for multiple user profiles on the same device, which lets parents create a profile for themselves and others for their children. Each profile can set its own home screen, favorite apps and so on. Restricted profiles in Android 4.3 takes the idea a step further by giving parents more granular control over what apps and services other profiles can access and use. For example, Google Play Store purchases can be nixed, as can in-app updates. One drawback, however, is that it requires app developers to opt in.
Android 4.3 brings with it new digital rights management tools that will eventually lead to a better selection of content for Android devices. For example, third-party content companies, such as Netflix, won't offer some HD content due to the restrictions of DRM tools within Android 4.2. In Android 4.3, Google has improved the modular DRM framework so that developers can stick DRM into their content more easily. In the long run, it should improve the video and audio content that's available to Android devices.
Finally, Android 4.3 gives developers greater control over notifications. With the tools in 4.3, developers can let their apps access and interact with status bar notifications in any way that they want. According to Google, notifications can be set to skip the notification bar entirely and routed to Bluetooth devices.
While it's true that the bulk of these new features focus more on developers than consumers, both groups will benefit greatly from the added toolset in Android 4.3 Jelly Bean.
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