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Review: Android 4.1 Jelly Bean for Tablets (Nexus 7)

Not much time ago Google made a major Android revamp with the Ice Cream Sandwich update. User experience was the primary focus, and they succeeded in creating the most coherent and modern looking Android version up to that point. With Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, Google made some enhancements and tweaks to further flesh out the new customer friendly UI approach that originated with Android 4.0 ICS. The Nexus 7 tablet was chosen as first device to show off Jelly Bean, and I had the chance to try it out for a few days.

Android 4.1 Jelly Bean for Tablets – Homescreen and Project Butter

One of the main purposes of the Jelly Bean update was to keep the user interface as smooth as possible. Google calls this ‘project butter’. Opening and closing apps as well as scrolling will run at 60 frames per second. You will realize this the moment you play around on the Nexus 7 homescreens. Even though Android ICS wasn’t bad at all when it comes to the homescreen, Jelly Bean clearly outperforms it. There are no hiccups to be found and apps also open up smoothly and fast.

When you first setup the Nexus 7 you will be greeted by a new widget showing all your Google Play content like Books and Music. This emphasizes Googles aim to position the Nexus 7 as window to the Play Store offerings. The search bar on the top has a white background now, which matches the new search and Google Now color scheme. When placing new apps or widgets on the homescreen they will be automatically rearranged to make them fit. It’s a nice little touch to make the setup more convenient.

Android 4.1 Jelly Bean for Tablets – Notifications

I love Androids notification system from day one, and Jelly Bean further enhances the experience by adding expanded notifications which show more information i.e. about an incoming email. You can minimize an notification by using a two finger swipe gesture. I would have liked to see an option where you can set default notification sizes for different apps, but at the moment you can only activate or deactivate notifications for each app.

Another new feature is the possibility to interact on the notification directly. When a new appointment is upcoming you will see a button to send an email to all participants with a predefined text. Sharing a new Google Plus post or a new screenshot is also possible via notification drawer. There are many more use cases like this. It’s a very good addition to an already fleshed out notification system.

Android 4.1 Jelly Bean for Tablets – Google Search

Google search has been redesigned and is based on a white color scheme now. When searching for a term you will have a navigation bar at the bottom which lets you choose between different search tabs like web, pictures, news, blogs and more. A local search on the device is also possible.

I like the new look of Google search, it’s clean and provides a great overview on mobile devices. Sometimes it seems to be a tad slower than the old search though.

Android 4.1 Jelly Bean for Tablets – Google Now

Besides the focus on smoothness and notifications the biggest addition in Android Jelly Bean is Google Now. With this feature Google basically utilizes all it knows about you, in order to automatically give you the information you need at the right time. By storing your position, your frequent search terms and data gathered from other apps, the Google Now app will be able to predict what your next steps might be.

If you search for a specific flight, Google Now will understand that you probably want to take that flight and show you updated flight information on a card. Or by driving to the office every day, you’ll get a notification card presenting public traffic data so you know when to take that bus. The idea is that you don’t have to take any action, as Google Now will tell you in advance what you need to know.

All information is shown on so called cards, which can be dismissed by swiping them away. At the moment there are cards for weather, flights, public traffic, sports, sights, appointments and more. While I like the whole concept I would have loved to see this cards appear on the lock screen. It would make this feature so much more convenient, as you could easily check at any time what’s coming up without having to go to the search app first. I know that the idea of Google Now is that you shouldn’t have to check on your own anyway but sometimes you want to manually see what the next appointments are without waiting for a Google Now notification.

This is a very ambitious feature and also a little bit scary to think that Google can predict your moves. You can always deactivate Google Now though, so nobody is forced to use it. Furthermore I tried it out for a few days and it wouldn’t show me more than the weather forecast, since most data is US only at the moment. So you won’t see that public traffic data in Europe anytime soon. Google Now is in an early stage but neithertheless it’s impressive to see where Google is heading.

Android 4.1 Jelly Bean for Tablets – Contacts

With the new 7-inch form factor Google introduces the 2 pane layout for many of its apps. One example is the contacts app where you can see the list on the left side and details of a contact on the right.

By swiping to the left you can view recent social media updates of the contact on the right pane.

Android 4.1 Jelly Bean for Tablets – Calendar

While the contacts app didn’t get any new functionality, there have been some small changes to the calendar app. A tiny new detail is the fact that you can see the current date on the today button at the top-right corner of the screen. By touching that button you will jump to the current day.

What’s more interesting is the fact that there is an option now to mail all participants of an appointment by using an email button in the detail view. This is a handy feature if you need to notify those people quickly with new information.

Android 4.1 Jelly Bean for Tablets – Chrome Browser

The Nexus 7 is the first device to sport Chrome for Android as default browser. You won’t find the good old Android browser that was installed on previous versions, so Google is really serious in pushing Chrome for Android. Generally this makes a lot of sense, but i can’t help to think that Google made this step a little bit to early.

First of all you don’t have Flash support with Chrome. Even though Flash might be a buggy technology, it is far from dead currently as many websites still make extensive use of it. So while i’d also like to see HTML 5 take over the web by storm this won’t happen over night. I don’t understand why Google had to drop the support now, even if Adobe wants to stop support for Android they could have made a settlement to keep compatibility for the next few years.

Sadly there are more features missing from the old Android browser. One of them is textflow. Chrome can’t reformat the on-screen text to linebreak automatically, this makes reading text on webpages with tiny text (and yes there are such pages out there) uncomfortable. Re-adding this feature is hopefully on the top priority list for Google if they want to focus on user experience. And the quick controls which you could access by swiping from the edge to the center of the screen are also gone. Now you have to reach for that top-right corner to access the menu and i hate that. And while we are at it, there is no fullscreen mode in potrait view. Honestly i don’t see a big speed gain either, so overall i would take the previous Android browser any time over the current Chrome version. Jelly Bean has a lot of great enhancements, but Chrome is definitely not one of them.

Android 4.1 Jelly Bean for Tablets – Gallery

Viewing the gallery works as always with a new little mode that lets you see images in a filmstrip style. When looking at a picture you can use a minimizing gesture to switch to the filmstrip mode.

Not a huge change but i find myself using it quite often to quickly change between pictures without having to go back to the overview page first.

Android 4.1 Jelly Bean for Tablets – Google Currents

Google wants you to consume a lot of media on your Nexus 7, and preferably stuff that you have bought from the Google Play Store. But even outside the Play Store there are services like Google Currents which are great for news consumption.

Currents is not a new app, but it was pretty quite around the service for a while until Google brought it back to spotlight with the Nexus 7 presentation. It’s basically a direct competitor to Flipboard by processing your feeds and presenting them in a magazine style. I like both apps although Flipboard seems to be less buggy and a little bit more stylish at the moment.

Android 4.1 Jelly Bean for Tablets – GMail

I love the Android GMail app and this doesn’t change with Jelly Bean. Besides the two pane view i couldn’t find anything new, but honestly i don’t know what they could make much better anyway.

The UI is nice and all important features from the web app are here, so its the same great quality as always.

Android 4.1 Jelly Bean for Tablets – Other Google Apps

Even though not every Google app has been updated specifically in Jelly Bean, i’d like to give you an overview of the current state of the most important Google apps out there when you run them on the brand new Nexus 7 tablet. Google Plus for Android got a major UI overhaul recently, and it sports very nice fade in effects when scrolling through the posts. Compared to this Twitter and Facebook for Android look boring, especially on a tablet. Google utilizes the space nicely to create a optimized experience on tablets, while the competitors still haven’t released any tablet version of their apps.

And even though i would have never thought to say this, the redesign really makes me check my Google Plus account more often and i think this is exactly what Google aimed for: get more interaction from its user base. The concept of the left navigation bar is also used for the new YouTube app. Generally it fits to the whole ICS/Jelly Bean theme but hasn’t got all those fancy animations from Google Plus.

It’s still a great app and provides a lot of options to be personalized i.e. though channel feeds. Google Music plays nice with the new UI concept too by having the top navigation, a soft button for the menu and support for swiping gestures in order to switch between the different views.

The same can be said for Google Books, which is one of the apps fitting perfectly for an 7-inch tablet. Reading a book with a small and light device is much more comfortable than holding a big 10 inch tablet.

One problem is that the book selection is not that big and some prices are beyond funny. As long as you have to pay the same price for e-books as you would for physical books i can’t see this business taking off on the short term.

Android 4.1 Jelly Bean for Tablets – The Verdict

With Android 4.0 ICS Google made a huge jump towards great user experience and an unified look within the OS and Android apps. Jelly Bean builds on that base by making everything smoother, more fluid and faster. I know that this is something we have basically heard for any new Android version, but Jelly Bean really lifts Android to the next level regarding user interaction. The user experience gap between iOS and Android is pretty much closed by now, even though i’d say that iOS still has the edge by a tiny tiny bit. Furthermore Google proves again that they love to innovate with services like Google Now, and i’m curious to see what the next iterations of this service might bring to the table. The potential is huge.