Android 4.1 Jelly Bean: Does It Measure Up?

Google's newest OS sports fewer new features than previous updates. Instead, Android 4.1 focuses on improving core features and making the platform faster.
Samsung's Android Super Smartphone: Galaxy SIII
Samsung's Android Super Smartphone: Galaxy SIII
(click image for larger view and for slideshow)
Google officially introduced Android 4.1, a.k.a. Jelly Bean, in front of 6,000 attendees of its Google I/O developer conference. The platform update, which will work on both smartphones and tablets, adds a handful of new features and vastly improves some existing ones, but mostly it improves performance.

First, Google showed off speed improvements in the platform. It has extended vsync timing across all drawing and animation done by the Android framework. It adds triple graphics buffering for smoother scrolling and rendering. Android 4.1 Jelly Bean also "anticipates" where the user's finger will be after a screen refresh to help speed up the overall feel of the UI. Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich is pretty fast, but Google promises Android 4.1 Jelly Bean will be faster.

Google spent a lot of time going over the new notification shade. The notification shade has gained a number of capabilities, including the power to make phone calls from the missed call notification, respond to emails from the notification, and add comments or likes to social network sides via the notification. This means users can skip several steps--close the shade, find the app, open the app, find the new email, open it, then hit "respond"--when performing a number of tasks. In other words, it's a time saver.

Android 4.1 Jelly Bean includes significantly improved home screen and widget behavior. For example, widgets that are dragged from one home screen panel to another will automatically re-size to fit on the new panel, rather than just vanish.

The new platform offers incremental app updates. This feature should make everyone happy. With earlier versions of Android, every time a user updates an application, the entire Android Package Kit (APK) must be downloaded again, which amounts to additional megabytes of data traveling wireless networks. With incremental updates, apps only deliver only the changed bits of the app rather than the entire app. Google says this should cut down the size of app updates by at least 30%.

One of the most interesting parts of Android 4.1 Jelly Bean is what Google calls Google Now. This improved search app ties search results into the user's schedule and activities, and is location aware. For example, Google Now can see that a user is at the gym and that she has a plane to catch. Google Now can issue a notification that warns her to get on the road to the airport, because there are traffic problems that will make the trip take longer than normal.

The last significant improvement is in the camera software. Google has sped up the camera's features, especially when used to sort through the photo gallery. The new software lets users compare shots side-by-side and reduces the amount of work needed to share photos with various social networks.

Other additions include offline voice dictation support, a better predictive keyboard, NFC support for Android Beam, and a revised YouTube app with Wi-Fi buffering.

Android 4.1 Jelly Beam will be available in Samsung Galaxy Nexus and Nexus S smartphones first. No other smartphone makers have come forward to discuss Android 4.1 updates yet--probably because less than 10% of all current Android hardware is using Android 4.0. The Nexus 7 will ship with Android 4.1 on board. The updates and the Nexus 7 will be available starting in July.

Google offered a beta of the Android 4.1 SDK to developers on Wednesday, and expects to ship the completed platform to hardware OEMs next month.

What do you think? Did Google put enough into this update? What features are missing? Where there any unexpected features that you really like? Personally, I am disappointed there was no discussion of Google Wallet at all.

InformationWeek is conducting a survey to explore mobile platform development options, where and why enterprises are building mobile applications, and what they're looking for in mobile IDEs and development tools. Take our InformationWeek 2012 Mobile Application Development Survey now. Survey ends July 6.