A lot has happened in the Android camp over the last few weeks. Several high-end phones have entered the rumor phase, others have launched, and we finally got a legitimate glimpse into Ice Cream Sandwich and a peek at the Nexus Prime (Galaxy Nexus, or whatever it's really called). In light of the iPhone 4S announcement, Samsung and Google turned up the heat in hopes of catching disappointed iOS fans on the rebound. But after we all learned of other news, the announcement of Ice Cream Sandwich and the Nexus have been postponed out of respect for Steve Jobs.
Since we won't officially see Ice Cream Sandwich or Samsung's Nexus phone until the Unpacked event is rescheduled, I figure I can at least take what we know about the update and give my thoughts on it.
Let me begin by saying Ice Cream Sandwich looks extremely slick. Google has said before that the ICS update would bring many aspects of Honeycomb and fuse them with what we're familiar with in Gingerbread and it appears as if they've done well in that area.
The application drawer is my first gripe, though. Tablets are primarily used in landscape. A horizontally scrolling application drawer for a landscape device is fine. For a device that's used primarily in portrait, it makes more sense to pan vertically. Being able to scroll vertically and switch between tabs (in this case Apps and Widgets) by scrolling left and right gives the user more flexibility, and it's more ergonomic. That said, at least it looks nice and it's definitely an improvement over Gingerbread.
It's also nice to see less wasted space on the home screen. In Gingerbread, there was a dock at the bottom of the screen with a dedicated slot for the browser, application drawer and phone. Instead of making this dock stretch across the full home screen, the remaining room on each side of the dock held indicators that showed which screen you are one. Though minimalistic, it made for a lot of wasted space and was still rough around the edges.
There is also a dedicated search bar. It appears on every home screen and there is no way to remove it (by default). At first it would seem that this, too, is a waste of space. But with a larger, higher resolution display, and no dedicated search button (or on-screen button), it only makes sense to have a dedicated search bar. Not to mention, Google is only really in this to promote their real bread and butter.
It also appears as if the Android team has cleaned up the notification bar again. It looks more tight and neat than before – less space between indicators and the time. But what I simply do not understand is how they have not optimized the notification shade. Teams like CyanogenMod and even HTC and Samsung have begun to add components like toggle switches and recent apps into the notification bar, which make them easily accessible. Otherwise, the user has to back out of what they're doing to toggle Wi-Fi or GPS on or off. I simply cannot understand why Google has yet to implement something like this.
Well, we got what we asked for: no physical or capacitive buttons (at least in the Nexus, anyway). But I'm not sold on my interface navigation being controlled by on-screen buttons. The buttons are dynamic and they do allow for less bezel and wasted space on the device, but they take from precious display space. I'm not fond of them on my Galaxy Tab yet, and I'm sure I'll like it even less on a 4.6-inch (or smaller) display.
In their defense, the on-screen buttons do hide away when they're not needed. Notice that they're nowhere to be found on the lock screen or in the Camera app. But it's left to question whether the display space is dedicated to the buttons or if they simply "go black" (like in Honeycomb) when they're not necessary. It wasn't shown how to make them reappear in the video, but my guess would be a gesture from the bezel to on-screen that will make them appear, much like the Quick controls feature found in the Labs portion of the Honeycomb Browser settings.
It's worth noting that the man showing this off had some trouble hitting the buttons on the first, second and sometimes third tries. It could have been the way he was holding the phone (I mean, a 4.6-inch phone can be unwieldy at times) or a pre-release software glitch, but he's having trouble nonetheless. On-screen buttons may be the feature that will make me hang back for a while on a pre-ICS device to avoid having on-screen buttons. But I'll be sure to try it out before I discount it entirely. There certainly are some, albeit few, benefits.
Although the guy in the video doesn't do anything exactly extensive in the demo, there seem to be no hiccups and the interface seems pretty fluid. Animations are a bit much, like when he swipes left and right in the app drawer. But for the most part, I was impressed with how smooth transitions were and that there was no lag.
What will be interesting to see is how ICS can resist the performance drains brought on by custom interfaces like TouchWiz, Motorola Applications Platform or Sense UI – that is, if Google even allows major changes. It will also be interesting to see how ICS runs on underpowered devices like the G2 or even the ThunderBolt.
Android has always been considered a little more complex than its counterparts – that is to be expected with added functionality. But this update does little to simplify the software. In fact, some aspects make less sense than before. For instance, adding widgets from the app drawer makes no sense and will probably only confuse newcomers. Then again, long pressing on the home screen wasn't very intuitive either – for newcomers, at least.
Why are the on-screen buttons only there at certain times? How do you get them to reappear? Do they still waste space when they're not visible? Why are there still no toggles in the notification shade? Are the applications in the home screen dock user-definable? There are a lot of questions left open after the leaked video, questions I'm sure we'll know the answers to before too long. But it's always fun to dabble on these things before El Goog tells us firsthand.
So far, I'm loving (most of) the changes in Ice Cream Sandwich. Seeing as this is considered a major update, I'm sure there are a lot of backend changes that we will learn of after the Android dev team updates their website, too. Based on what we've seen so far, what do you guys and gals think of the update? Is it everything you dreamed it would be? Or is that iPhone 4S looking better every minute? Let us know what you like and what you don't below!