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Review: Android 4.0.3 Ice Cream Sandwich for Nexus S

When the Nexus S got released alongside Android 2.3 Gingerbread there was a delay of about 2 months until Nexus One owners got their update. Many people were disappointed since the Nexus One was supposed to get updates very quick. Instead Google decided that it needs some more testing time before rolling out the newest version of Android to the previous Nexus device.

With Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich Google was faster to push out the update to Nexus S devices. Nexus One owners have been left in the cold since they will not be getting an official update, but it’s good to see that Google is trying to keep the gap between a new Nexus device and the update for last years Nexus as small as possible.

I installed the update manually on my Nexus S and spent a lot of time trying out every corner of this major update. This is no doubt a very important OS version for Google and Android as it marks yet another big stride towards mass market appeal. With Matias Duarte, a former Palm Lead designer who was responsible for the innovative and intuitive webOS user interface, the focus of Android 4.0 is User Interface and User Experience Furthermore there is no separate Android version for tablets needed anymore, since this Android iteration unifies phone and tablet branches into one source.

Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich Homescreen

After the new (and somewhat blurry) boot animation which shows different colored tiles spinning around, nearly all of your previous settings from Android Gingerbread will be automatically restored. Of course this will only work if you activated the Google backup service which will store information about your installed apps, homescreen setup and internet connection settings like i.e. WiFi passwords.
The homescreen changed quite a bit with Ice Cream Sandwich. You have 4 app shortcuts at the bottom dock and access to the apps tray in the center. The dock is fully customizable as you can change and rearrange the shortcuts freely. Nearly all Google app icons have been redesigned and i really like the new look.

There is a static Google search bar at the top of every homescreen page, which can be deactivated. It won’t free up the space for other widgets/shortcuts though. Deleting the search bar from the homescreen will also result in the search button of the Nexus S not working anymore, so you should really just leave it there. Adding apps and widgets to the homescreen is now very similar to Android Honeycomb for tablets. By pressing the app drawer icon on the dock you can scroll through apps and drag them onto the homescreen.

Additionally you can also access a list of available widgets from the app drawer page and put them on your homescreen too. You will see previews of the widgets on the selection page which is pretty cool, but doesn’t work for all 3rd party apps yet.

Resizing widgets is also possible now, which is a very handy feature. There were many times where i thought ‘this widget is great but i need it in another size’. Thanks to Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich you can easily change the widget size by pressing and holding on a widget. You will see a blue line around the widget which you can pull on the edges in order to change the size. At this point all Google widgets can be resized but it doesn’t work automatically for 3rd party widgets, so we have to wait for the developers to update their apps in order to support this feature.

One thing which i never really liked was the folder feature on pre-Ice Cream Sandwich versions, as it was always the same bland folder icon. You could label the folders but there was no way to use different colors or icons to differentiate them. I had to resort to an 3rd party app called AppsOrganizer in order to manage the apps effectively on my homescreen. The new folder feature on Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich is much better, as you can just drag and drop app icons in order to create a new folder. Each folder will show the first 3 apps which are inside, and you can define labels. It really helps organizing your homescreen, while keeping a clean look. I actually don’t need an 3rd party app anymore.

There are some minor issues though, and one of them is the fact that you have a limit of apps which can be put into a single folder. This doesn’t make sense as there are many categories where you could have more apps than that on your device, so i hope Google will get rid of this limit soon. Another nice to have feature would be the possibility to create subfolders.

I love the new features and the design of the Ice Cream Sandwich homescreen. It’s much better looking and more intuitive compared to the Gingerbread launcher. And the most important thing for me is the fact that it’s absolutely fluid. Finally Google managed to be on par with HTC Sense or LauncherPro when it comes to smooth scrolling across the homescreen pages. Even with some live wallpapers it’s better than the Gingerbread launcher with a static wallpaper. Here goes another 3rd Party app (LauncherPro) which i uninstalled, because there is no need for me anymore to use it. The only thing i miss from LaucherPro is landscape mode, which still isn’t supported by Androids Ice Cream Sandwich homescreen. If you must have landscape support check out Nova launcher, which builds on the ICS homescreen providing additional features. And you don’t even need a rooted device for this.

Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich Notification Drawer

Notifications for Android have always been great and in my opinion the best of all mobile OS. I was a fan of the drawer concept from day one, which has now been redesigned to match the new Tron like UI of Ice Cream Sandwich.

You can finally dismiss single notifications by swiping them horizontally out of the screen. In the past it was only possible to dismiss all notifications at once or leave them on the drawer. Another little tweak is the link to the Android settings, since Ice Cream Sandwich doesn’t have a separate soft button to access general settings anymore. In case of the Nexus S it’s still possible to use the capacitive menu button though.
Sadly Google didn’t enlarge the notification icons on the drawer as they seem to be even smaller than on Gingerbread. This makes it hard to see on first glance if i.e there is a twitter message or an GMail message waiting for me as the icons are just too small.

Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich Lockscreen

Face unlock is a newly introduced way of unlocking your phone utilizing the front cam of a phone to apply face recognition. When Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich was introduced I found it amusing that the feature didn’t work when Matias Duarte wanted to show it off in his keynote. To me the feature is just something you may want to play around with for a few minutes, but not much more. It’s too slow and too unreliable, therefore I can’t imagine anybody using this on a daily basis when a pin code is faster and more secure. And most importantly you won’t find this feature on the Nexus S anyway as it was axed by Google. Face unlock is exclusive to the Galaxy Nexus at this time.

But that’s not all. The lock screen is now showing an icon in the middle of the screen and when you touch it you’ll see a ring appear around the center icon with two options. Dragging the lock icon to the right will unlock the phone while dragging to the left opens the camera app. There is no way to change the camera shortcut to another frequently used app which is a shame.

I like the incoming call handling especially as you will be able to respond with a text message by swiping to the top, and chose one of multiple predefined reply messages. This is very handy if you are in a situation where you can’t take a call and want to let the caller now that you will be checking back later.

Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich Multitasking

One of the biggest letdowns for me is clearly the new ‘multitasking’ aka app switching approach. By touching and holding the home button on the Nexus S you can access a list of your recently used apps.

This looks nice on screenshots but sadly the whole concept is severely crippled by the extremely slow response time. It will take about 2 seconds to open the list after you have pressed the button, which is like an eternity if you want to quickly change between two apps. With Gingerbread you had zero delay but now its practically not useable anymore. Most of the times it will be faster to go back to the home screen and open an app, than accessing it via the recent apps view. And you can’t call this multitasking either as many apps will frequently restart even if you have just used them a few minutes ago. I didn’t experience such problems with Gingerbread, recently opened apps where instantly resumed at the last position I left them. At this point I can’t see any obvious multitasking algorithm that decides whether an app has to stay in RAM or not. And the list is also too big, it’ll show like the last 25 apps that have been opened. This doesn’t make sense at all, because searching for an apps in a long screenshot list takes way too much time and defeats the point of a recent apps page which is meant for QUICK access to a few apps, NOT a list of nearly all apps you have ever opened. This is also the reason why the list loads up so slow, it’s just to darn big. As long as there are up to 5 entries its perfectly fine on the Nexus S, but the lag starts as soon as you have more than about 8 apps in that list.

Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich Contacts

A complete redesigns can be witnessed in the contacts app. Nothing reminds of the old bland list of contacts from past Android iterations.

The color scheme has changed to white background with some blue areas and black text. It definitely looks much better now, but this is not a big achievement considering how bad this app looked up to Android 2.3 Gingerbread. Google took some inspiration from Microsoft as the general look and feel is a lot like the people’s hub on Windows Phone 7. Overall it can’t surpass the WP7 contacts hub though, which is more stylish, faster and also provides Facebook sync that’s missing on Android Ice Cream Sandwich.

But there is Google Plus and Twitter integration, so whenever you check out the details of an contact you will see a large picture of that person now and the latest tweet or google plus update if available. It’s an ok feature but the missing Facebook sync really hurts. About 80% of my contact pictures came from Facebook so now I have a list of over 100 people where only about ten of them have a photo. And I’m not going to take photos manually for all those people.

Even if you would take nice pictures of your friends it wouldn’t help as they will be resized (and made very blurry) during sync to the Google cloud. This is a known issue for a long time, but it seems nobody at Google really cares. But since the new contact details page puts much emphasis on the contact picture, it’s even more important to fix this sooner than later.

Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich Calendar

Besides the new look and UI updates the calendar app finally shows all-day events on the month view as horizontal bars at the top of each day.

Up to now you would only see timebars for events with start and end time, but there was no dedicated indicator for all day items. By using a pinch gesture you can zoom in and out of the week view, which looks nice but i didn’t find any real use for it. Even at the maximum zoom in level you won’t see that much more than before.

The calendar has a very clean and professional look now, the only thing I miss is a widget with a month overview.

Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich Email

A lot of people complain that Android doesn’t have a unified email app for regular and GMail accounts. While this is still true for Android 4.0, the email client was revamped and optimized on many other areas.

It has a new white theme which i really like and there are new icons used for the bottom navigation bar. One of the features i was dearly missing in the past was the ability to search your inbox. With Android 4.0 this is finally possible.

Pinch to zoom is also available within emails so you can easily resize the text of any mail. And since text reflow is also supported this is a very handy feature.

When composing an email it’s very convenient to find an recipient, as the app will automatically search your exchange server contacts and show suggestions while you are writing.

Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich GMail app

Google aimed for a more unified UI experience, and the GMail app is a good example. Yes it’s still a separate app but it’s very similar to the UI of the regular email client.

You have all those GMail specific features like lables, multiple GMail account support and conversation views.

Strangely there is no pinch to zoom feature available in the GMail app, but it’s still one of the most important and best Google apps for Android. The integration of Google services into Android is one of the strongest USPs for this mobile OS.

Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich Browser

I actually never resorted to installing and using a 3rd party browser since the overall speed and functionality of the default Android browser was always the best solution for me.

Android 4.0 comes with some good additions like the possibility to easily switch to desktop mode of web pages and saving pages locally. Tab switching can be done by touching the icon on the top right corner. The overview of open tabs has been redesigned as well as the look of all other graphical elements.

I’m not that happy with the rendering speed as pages would load faster on gingerbread, and zooming into pages causes the page to become blurry for quite some time until the new zoom level is rendered completely. This was never the case with Android 2.3. At this stage I’d prefer the old Browser because the new one is not only slower but also unstable and force closes a lot. Yes the UI is prettier and there have been some nice feature additions but it’s not enough to make up for the current speed and stability issues.

Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich Beam

Android Beam is a way to transfer data between two devices easily. This is not something new as Palm introduced a very similar feature for webOS some time ago.

I couldn’t try the feature out as there was no second phone around with Android 4.0 but I guess it’s not that spectacular and works as easy way of direct data transfer without the need to resort to something like Bluetooth.

Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich Gallery/Photo Studio/Video Studio

The picture gallery was also redone and is faster and more fluid than before. In overviews you’ll also notice that the thumbnail images are bigger than before.

More interestingly Google bundled some media tools with Android 4.0 to provide video and image editing options. Images can be altered with different filters and effects like spotlight, cropping, red eye reduction and many more. Most functions are basic but still a pretty nice add on.

Videos can also be worked on in order to cut them or create movies out of multiple videos.

There are different audio options available too so you can i.e. add music to an existing video.

Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich Settings

There is also a slew of new settings to be found including encrypting your data, the possibility to check the data consumption overall/ on an app level and developer features like forcing 2D hardware rendering.

Having an data usage overview is primarily interesting when being abroad since local mobile internet flat rates are very common nowadays so I wouldn’t really care how much data I transfer as long as I’m in my home country. Another nice side-effect is that you can now easily spot and deactivate apps which shouldn’t transfer any data.

It’s a pretty cool feature being able to deactivate apps, because on previous Android versions you would have pre-installed apps that automatically started background services and you couldn’t do anything about it. Now it’s at least possible to stop this and preserve some battery power.

I don’t like the fact that you can’t set ring tone and notification tone volumes separately anymore. It was handy to have that option and I don’t see any reason to take it out. Google wants to make Android more accessible but this specific step wasn’t necessary in my opinion.

Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich Keyboard

While the keyboard is still a little bit to small for my taste, it’s the first time I’m not desperately searching for an alternative keyboard on the market.

The ICS keyboard is working quite nicely after some usage time and word correction is much better than before. You can still select multiple keyboard languages and switch between them by holding down the space key.

I had some issues with landscape writing though as it happened a few times that my input wasn’t shown correctly on screen. The sentence I was writing would freeze and the cursor wouldn’t react to my input anymore. This can only be remedied by switching to portrait view.

Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich Battery Consumption

Many Nexus S users have complained about battery consumption after updating to Android 4.0. And it really seems like the duration time is smaller now as I barely get over 20 hours from one full charge.

What’s interesting is the fact that, according to the battery consumption overview, Androids System process is eating up as much battery power as the display. I don’t know what the reason for this is, as it would be beneath 10% in the past Android versions but now amounts to 30%. This looks like a bug to me which should be fixed soon.

Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich Screenshots

While iOS has been providing an screenshot feature for a long time, it was always a little more tricky to make screen captures with Android. You either needed a rooted device with screen capture 3rd party apps, or the Android SDK in order to use a tool which will take screenshots of your Android device via USB connection.

With Ice Cream Sandwich it’s possible to take screenshots by simultaneously pressing and holding the power and volume down button. This will create a screenshot and put it in a dedicated folder.

Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich The Verdict

Google clearly aimed to make pure Android more appealing to the masses with the Ice Cream Sandwich update. Beside the fact that it also unified tablet and phone branches of the mobile OS, Android just became the 2nd best looking mobile UI right after Windows Phone 7. Finally there is a consistent look across the whole system while in the past most Google apps looked like they have been programmed by totally separate teams without any effort to keep things unified. Even though many Android phone manufacturers will be still adding their own skins, it’s an important step for Google to have a clear design and UI philosophy in order to further strengthen their influence on the mobile space.

Sadly there are some setbacks which hurt the overall experience. System performance is not as good as it was with Android 2.3 on the Nexus S. I was expecting better performance due to the fact that Android 4.0 introduces hardware accelerated graphic rendering. While the homescreen and some transition animations like opening folders are indeed much more fluid, the same can not be said about app startup times which take longer than on Gingerbread. Multitasking is also worse now as its slow and clunky. There are many other small issues and bugs to be found like the wifi icon disappearing or sporadic reboots of the homescreen. A fairly big issue is the fact that the Android System process consumes about 30% battery on average, which is much more than before. I also noticed that Ice Cream Sandwich uses up much more SD partition storage as I have about 1GB less space. This seems to be an issue with the thumbnails folder of your pictures getting too big.

Despite all those negative points I’m still satisfied with Android 4.0, as it’s really fun to use and many apps as well as the homescreen got major updates. I love the Tron like UI concept and i think that most open issues are Nexus S specific which can be easily fixed with a minor update.

Want to see more screenshots? Check out the Android Ice Cream Sandwich gallery.