Android 4.1 Jelly Bean is the latest OS for Google’s mobile platform, and after some hands on time thanks to a trusty friend and his Galaxy Nexus, the best release Google has pushed out before, But, more importantly, Android 4.1 brings one very important feature that up until now, Android really hasn’t had — legitimately fast and fluid navigation throughout the UI. And it’s all because of Project Butter.
It might seem minor, but every time we fire up an Android device and have to watch a simple menu jump all over the place, or wait for a settings page to load for what seems like an eternity, we get angry. Quite simply, out of all the new features of Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, in our opinion, the most important feature is “Project Butter”. By itself, Project Butter makes us go from tolerating Android to actually wanting to use it. And for the record, we’re talking iOS smooth here. Menus that use to stutter are now liquidy smooth and transitions between apps are like…butter. One area this newfound speed is more readily apparent is in the Android camera app. When taking a picture the screen flips like a rotating cube from the saved, just taken image to the live preview onscreen. This transition on Android 4.0 or below would have been god awful. On Jelly Bean, though, it’s silky smooth. We really can’t get over how fast Jelly Bean (and Project Butter) has made Android. This is one of the big things Android needed.
Now Cards, at first, looked a bit like Siri’s own query results on iOS to us. That said, we’re not the type to immediately jump on the bandwagon and call Google blatant copy cats. That said, Now Cards are pretty awesome. Adding to that, the tweaked voice search feature in Jelly Bean is both accurate and fast. We threw a bunch of commands at the new Google Voice search — everything from “Where is *insert place here*” to “How many *blah blah blah*” — and more often than not (we’d say ~85% of the time) Google Voice Search not only correctly captured what we said, perfectly, it also brought up relevant information. Though, one thing we did notice was that Google’s own voice search didn’t seem to want to pull from their own service as much as we’d thought. For example, saying “Google Mike Norris” would, as we assumed, bring up Google+ contacts if the name being searched matched our Google+ contacts or address book — but it didn’t. Ever. Instead, all we got was random Google search results for famous people and this dude you see on the left.
Outside of the speed and Now Cards, there really aren’t too many other big, center stage features. Really, Jelly Bean is all about under-the-hood, minor tweaks. For feature junkies, it might sound a bit boring. But quite honestly, Google taking a break on a big, massive feature dump and instead focusing on smaller modifications throughout the OS really help tighten up Android and make it feel a lot more polished.
One such minor tweak — instead of tapping and holding an icon and then dragging to the trash, you can tap + hold and then flick upwards. Again, very minor but incredibly intuitive and of course, very smooth.
Despite being a prominent feature in Android, the revamped and more information dense notification drawer really didn’t seem all that impressive in real life. Texts, Google Talk alerts, tweets and a whole host of other app notifications didn’t look all that different on Jelly Bean than they currently do in ICS. Of course, that could be a simple matter of developers needing to implement some special code or take advantage of some API. Google+ notifications were a little more informative in Jelly Bean than iOS, but nothing that we’d really get giddy about. Google Plus notifications, as detailed by Google during Google I/O, can have some minor interactions within the notification drawer (such as +1s without having to leave the notification drawer).
Finally, one small feature in Jelly Bean will go a long way we think — the “Liveliness Check” in Face Unlock’s settings menu. Simply put, Liveliness Check requires a set of blinking eyetaw high in turn require an actual living being. This setting will thwart anyone trying to use a photograph of you to unlock your device. Again, small but highly useful.
The Ever Important Quest For Battery Life
With Project Butter and the big focus on speed and fluidity, one might suspect that battery life could take a hit. While the software can certainly be optimized to better use the hardware resources, better speed and performance more often than not means hitting the hardware, heavier, thereby running through your precious electron pack faster than ever.
So far, in the hands-on time we’ve had with Jelly Bean as well as via 2nd hand accounts from a few fellow Android friends of ours, battery life in Jelly Bean is at the very least, identical to Ice Cream Sandwich, and perhaps a bit better.
On the Galaxy Nexus we personally used Jelly Bean on, battery life was pretty much the same as it was under ICS. (Read: not all that great.) While Galaxy Nexus owners might have been hoping for some magic pill in terms of lengthier run times, the simple matter of the fact is that the Galaxy Nexus hardware, regardless of software, is not the best at preserving battery life.
Those of you out there with battery life at the forefront of your minds, take note: Jelly Bean meats or exceeds (by a bit) Ice Cream Sandwich.
Jelly Bean Is A Big Minor Update…And…Fragmentation
On paper, the new feature additions and noteworthy feature additions may seem small on paper. But the overall feel of Android throughout the UI in mundane tasks is so much tighter, faster and just better. The combination of refined Google Voice Search as well as Project Butter combined with the slew of minor, under-the-hood improvements makes Jelly Bean a pretty major update all things considered.
The thing that concerns us, and always comes up with Android it seems, is the dreaded “F” word — Fragmentation. Despite how you may personally feel, the striated Android ecosystem is very real and much more pronounced than other platforms. Google’s last update, Ice Cream Sandwich, is barely at 10% global Android marketshare (if it’s at that). Android 4.0 ICS, mind you, was released to the public (and carriers and manufacturers) last November. iOS, meanwhile, sees 50, 60 and 70+% penetration a mere 1-2 weeks after a new update is pushed out.
Moving back to Android, Jelly Bean has already been promised to be coming to the most recent Nexus devices (Galaxy Nexus, Nexus S and Xoom) in the coming weeks. After that, it’s up to the individual carriers and manufacturers of non-Nexus devices to push out Jelly Bean. And as we’ve seen time and time again with previous Android updates, it will take weeks or months for Google’s latest and creates update to hit said devices (if ever). While we don’t think Jelly Bean will do anything for fragmentation (Google’s 18-month update alliance anyone…), we’d like to at least hope that more 3rd party Android partners embrace Jelly Bean, and jump on the bandwagon faster than they did with ICS.
At the end of the day, Jelly Bean takes Android to the next level. Whereas ICS was all about unifying the UI, Jelly Bean is about taking the “pretty” aspect of Android and making it fast and feeling “modern” to boot. To that degree, we say Google succeeded handedly. Jelly Bean makes Android feel far faster and more polished than ICS ever did — and ICS was a massive update in its own regard, far more feature packed and expansive than Jelly Bean. It really makes your device feel like a brand spankin’ new device again. If Android 4.1 is this awesome, we can’t wait to see what the real Android 5.0 update brings.