Hands-on with Android 4.1 Jelly Bean: more than just a decimal

Daniel Bader

June 28, 2012 10:02pm

Within the generous “developer pack” Google gave away to IO attendees this week was a brand new takju Galaxy Nexus, running the latest build of Android 4.0.4 Ice Cream Sandwich. We were told during the keynote that later in the day an over-the-air update would be made available for developers to test a preview build of Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, expected to be released later next month.

The update did indeed come, after many furious hours of pressing “Check Now” within the System Update menu, but once the phone restarted, things didn’t look very different. Rationally I knew that there was more to Jelly Bean than met the eye, so I pressed on, and was more than pleasantly surprised.

By now you’ve probably heard of the major new feature in Jelly Bean, Google Now. It’s not quite a Siri competitor, but can operate as such if you want it to. Instead, it uses your search history to provide meaningful cards that will occasionally populate your notification bar when the service thinks you need it. These are as simple as displaying an ongoing card of the weather or, when leaving work, showing you the best route to take based on traffic. If you search for the Toronto Raptors, it will tell you when they lose a game; if you’re leaving a certain location it will show you the closest bus and subway routes.

It can be used by voice, but supports text entry from the brand new search bar. Like in Ice Cream Sandwich it is permanently underneath the notifications on the home screen, but you can also enter Google Now by swiping up from the bottom of the screen, regardless of where you are in the OS. This is a great inclusion and eliminates the need to hold down a physical button in iOS. And because much of the goodness is behind the scenes, it seems that Google can add more functionality to the app without having to update the core OS.

Two more major improvements to the OS are the keyboard (though it looks the same) and the notification bar (which doesn’t). Google must have taken a page out of SwiftKey in adding word prediction to the autocorrect capabilities. It will learn over time what words follow others, and should better be able to predict entire sentences. After using it briefly I think SwiftKey 3 still does a better job of correcting errors, but for many users this is going to be a great update.

The notification bar looks and feels completely different. Roboto replaces the old, tired typography, and Google has introduced an API to allow developers to add functionality to simple notifications. When you take a screenshot, for example, you can share it directly with one touch. Emails take up more room, showing previews that can be minimized with a two-finger swipe up. It’s an elegant and attractive solution to a problem we didn’t realize we had.

Just as the camera app got a new look and feel in ICS, Jelly Bean revamps the Gallery to take advantage of the new speed and smoothness of the framework. When viewing a photo you can pinch in to bring a quick view of your entire roll, flipping through them horizontally. To delete a photo just swipe up; you can undo it if you want to, but it’s a great way of getting rid of superfluous shots quickly.

Mainly, however, Jelly Bean is about speed. While there are other new features — the ability to magically move widgets around without interfering with icon grids; new accessibility modes — the name of the game here is speed. We’ve complained for years that Android wasn’t as fluid or as consistent in its scrolling as iOS, and Google with Project Butter has been working furiously to change that.

The difference between ICS and Jelly Bean on the Galaxy Nexus is simply astounding. The change is more immediate than what it felt like going from Froyo to Gingebread, itself a renewed focus on speed and stability. Jelly Bean finally feels like the OS Google has been working on for years, and it makes the Galaxy Nexus feel like a new phone again. Everything from app loading to scrolling to benchmarks are improved, and the end result is a device that feels just as fast as a Galaxy S III or One X. I’m excited to see how those newer devices handle the update — which will hopefully arrive sooner than later considering there isn’t much of a coding jump from ICS.

As more developers plug into the new APIs Google has built into the OS, and more devices get the update (perhaps skipping over ICS in the process) Android will continue its rise to greatness. I just hope developers take note of everything that has been happening at Google I/O this week, and continue to create great apps for this new great OS.

  • Alex

    So excited for this….with a galaxy nexus that Is unrooted and still on 4.01….I better get this update in July or Samsung will hear from me

    • Brad

      Samsung, samsung who ?

      why do you think google didnt push 4.0.3 or 4.0.4 to the galaxy nexus when they knew 4.1 was on its way and would be a more impressive jump ?

      would you of prefered they worked on 4.0.3 and 4.0.4 and jelly bean not come out till Q1 2013 ?

      get your head in the game

    • kikt

      Rip rim

  • Brad

    If it makes the Galaxy nexus run like the one x, i wonder what my one x will feel like ?

    Welcome to the wooorrrrllllllld of tomorrow

    • Dukey

      You’ll know… in 2013 when Key Lime Pie comes out…

  • ag

    So excited !

  • Darren

    I’ll be interested to see if the rumours of improved battery life are substantiated. My poor old Nexus S needs two and sometimes three charges in a 16 hour day. This is the elephant in the Android room.

    • Jr67

      That will indeed be interesting to see. The improved responsiveness of the UI threads might actually hurt battery life. But google has some of the best and brightest software engineers in the world. They aren’t great at UX all the time (but they don’t need to with Apple serving to provide a template) but once they are given a problem to solve I don’t think anyone can match their skills, not even Apple.

  • somefakename

    The biggest benefit arguably should come to the Nexus S given its single core and only has 512Mb of ram. It should be on steroids :D

  • Matthew L

    I know its early to tell, but does this update help battery life at all?

    • Thas

      I’m going to have to say no. I think you’ll be lucky to get 3-4 hours on it. But hey, this is the preview build.

    • Thas

      Of course by 3-4 hours, I meant screen time.

  • cody

    Now to wait for the one xxl to come with jelly bean pre loaded

  • Jr67

    So I guess this means all the fantards will now say a smooth UI actually matters instead of the tired excuses we’ve heard forever about android sluggishness? Will they mock google Now because it needs a network connection to work best? It’s amazing how often fantards say something doesn’t matter only to say it is critical when they finally get it (apps, no physical keyboard, etc). I wonder how many actually know the definition of hypocrite.

    Sheep.

    • Manbo

      You my friend are both a gentleman and a scholar.
      Such a compelling statement must have come to you in a fit of genius while contemplating the complexities of life.
      I applaud you sir, continue fighting the good fight.

      Or that’s what I would say if I could read stupid.

    • Pedantic

      I have never had sluggishness in 2 and half years of Android usage which was the reason I gave up on my iPhone when each update slowed it down until it became unusable.

      I am all for any company to keep upping the bar in responsiveness as it benefits us all regardless of what platform we are on as all companies try to out do eachother. No doubt the iPhone 5 will set a new Jelly Bean beating standard of responsiveness but that only serves to make Google try even harder to be better next time. Everybody wins.

      All platforms have their positive and negative points, so maybe in future try and express an adult opinion instead of coming accross as a grumpy teenager with typing tourettes.

  • Mango

    Seriously looking at this after learning of BB10 delay until 2013!

  • ToEachTheirOwn

    Just want to let y’all know. Jelly Bean is wicked awesome!!! I’m rocking it with my galaxy nexus right now!! Just 1 day after its release.

    ANDROID WIN

  • animal instinct

    i want some jelly beans baby. from now on buy only nexus from google straight not from carrier so you have update when they come out and not slave to carrier.

    death to big 3

  • ace

    Checkmate Apple.

  • Cell Hell

    My Nexus is still running 4.0.2. I think a proper method of delivering timely updates is just as important as the updates themselves. It’s not useful when only a tiny percentage has it.

  • ToEachTheirOwn

    Google is releasing the update to everyone at the same time.. in about 2 weeks time. I’m not sure what your point is Cell Hell.

    • Mark

      Unfortunately that’s not exactly how Google pushes out updates. They start with ‘template’ international build that goes randomly and takes weeks to complete. They regional builds go out over several more weeks. Rather than go to everyone at once the whole process can take 2-3 months. Canada has been passed over for updates twice and our variant remains mostly on 4.0.1 and 4.0.2 with broken NFC.

      I think it is time for Canadians to accept that 4.1 may not ever reach their Gnex’s without user intervention – it is time to unlock and switch to yakju, folks.

  • Pierre

    is it so hard to understand the reason the GNex didnt get the .0.2 .0.3 .0.4 updates is because its getting the 4.1! Not so complicated people stop complaining geez. JELLY BEAN looks amazing can’t wait :) apple is going down

  • Simian

    It’s running pretty smoothly on my handset (Rogers) but I noticed that I lost signal when I left my wifi network range. It came back up pretty quickly but still sort of odd. On XDA someone has posted a new radio image which I flashed tonight so we’ll see how that goes.
    Also it seems like RDIO is having some problems in actually playing music and requires a force stop to actually kill the application.

  • Brad F

    So, if Apple “stole” notifications from Android, does this mean Google is trying to steal a responsive UI from iOS?

  • faizo

    Just upgraded to the GS3 … BUT, I still have the GNex :)

    Will be interesting to see how the update rolls out (Yakju Build flashed) and how performance and battery compare.

    I wonder, when and if the GS3 will get it (JB) :P

  • iberry

    I upgraded to Jelly Bean yesterday! It is indeed amazing but Viber is not working :(

  • LeDerp

    JellyBean working awesome on my Gnex…

    I’ll be switch back to my aokp m5 though… too many features im missing + some apps dont work yet with jb (such as my LAUNCHER lol…too important to me)

  • John

    More stability would be great….unfortunately I will never be able to get this on my friggin phone. Hellooooo fragmentation!

  • TouchMyBox

    I installed this on my Galaxy Nexus. The new features and neat and all, but the biggest story here is how freaking fast my phone now switches between apps.

    This level of performance should be illegal. It’s absolutely smooth and instantaneous.

    Watch out Apple fans, you’re gonna need to find another thing wrong with Android to complain about.

  • Erik

    What does Jellybean mean for the Linaro project?

  • BrianB

    In the end it’s up to Samsung to push the update to us Canadians. I got my phone when Bell first released it (4.01) and had to manually update it to 4.04 because of issues the phone had.

    I do hope Google slaps Samsung and makes them push this update to us all sooner then not. Of course it is a bigger update then the last 3 minor updates