Android's operating system is notable for its drool-worthy names: Cupcake, Donut, Ă‰clair, Froyo, Gingerbread, Honeycomb and now Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS), which represents a big step forward. The new OS includes changes to the interface and navigation, a new way to unlock your phone, and some futuristic features like Android Beam and Google Wallet. I have a Samsung Galaxy Nexus (Verizon), one of the few smartphones with Android ICS, and have tried out the new features; let's take a look.
The Galaxy Nexus offers a handful of ways to unlock your screen. The default is "slide lock" which is just what it sounds like. You can also unlock using a pattern, password, pin code -- or with your face (more on that in a bit).
If you use the default slide lock screen, sliding your finger to the right unlocks the screen - sliding it to the left launches the camera. You can pull down your notifications window and read text messages and reminders without unlocking. You can also swipe individual notifications to "dismiss" them. If you're listening to music, you can change tracks using the notification pull-down. If you use any of the other methods to unlock your phone, you won't be able to access anything without first unlocking the screen.
I mentioned before that you can unlock an ICS smartphone using your face. It's surprisingly simple to set up and took me about 30 seconds or so. Go to Settings --> Security --> Screen Lock --> Face Unlock. The front-facing camera captures your face within seconds and recognized my face immediately the next time I unlocked. When you set this up, you're required to create a pattern or pin as backup in case you're somewhere that the light levels are low or otherwise can't unlock using facial recognition. I tried this feature out in different lighting - it worked well even in a dimly lit bar. However, it failed to recognize me when I took off my glasses, and if I didn't look straight at the camera, it couldn't register a face at all.
Android smartphones have generally been fine multi-taskers, able to run multiple apps and widgets (such as weather) at once. ICS adds a simple feature called "Recent Apps" that lets you see and click on thumbnails of apps (including phone calls, texts, browser tabs, games and more) that you've recently, making navigation easier. The recent apps button is next to the back and home virtual buttons at the bottom of the screen.
ICS lets you can create folders to group apps and shortcuts together. The Galaxy Nexus comes with a Google folder, filled with 12 apps including Gmail, Maps, Calendar and Google+. But you can swap out different apps depending on what you use. For instance, I added Google Voice, since I use that for voicemail. I also created an Angry Birds folder, since I have three related apps: the original game, plus Angry Birds Seasons and Angry Birds Rio. When you view all of your apps in the launcher you can easily uninstall an app or add it to your home screen by long-pressing it.
Calling and texting
The Phone app has a convenient feature for when you can't answer a call, but want to avoid a game of phone tag. When a call comes in, you can answer the call, ignore the call, or use a feature called Quick Responses to send the caller a text. You can choose from the default text options like "I'll call you later" or "Can't talk now. Call me later?" Or you can create your own canned responses by going to the Phone app, hitting the menu button (3 dots) --> settings --> quick responses. The caller will be directed to voicemail once you send the text.
Editing and capturing
The Gallery now has a photo editor. To use it, just choose a photo and click on the Menu. From here you can rotate or crop your photo; click on the edit option to remove red eye, add effects such as sepia tones and tweak settings such as highlights and color. You can even doodle on a picture. Your edited photos are automatically saved to an "edited" folder.
Need to take a screenshot? Simply press the volume down and power buttons simultaneously. You can view your screenshot right away by pulling down notifications; from there you can edit or share it. The screenshot is automatically saved in the Gallery app in a folder called screenshots.
The Samsung Galaxy Nexus is NFC-enabled. NFC stands for near-field communications, which is a wireless standard that enables smartphones and other devices to communicate with each other by touch. (To turn NFC on, go to Settings --> More.) NFC makes possible a feature called Android Beam, which lets people with compatible smartphones share apps, contacts, music, videos and other information with each other. All you have to do is open the app you'd like to share, touch the phones together, tap your screen, and the recipient will get a link to the app in the Android Market (now called Google Play).
I gave this a try with a friend who also has a Galaxy Nexus. I was able to "beam" him a game called Mouse Trap, but he wasn't able to beam anything to me. He tried to send me a song and an app, but nothing happened.
Google Wallet, a virtual payment system, uses NFC to enables you to make in-store purchases using your phone. However, since Verizon has blocked access to Google Wallet, I wasn't able to try out this feature.
As we've outlined before, there are several ways to keep tabs on your smartphone data usage. ICS provides another option. Head into the settings app, click on Data Usage and you'll see a chart outlining your usage for the month -- with a default warning level at 2 GB. You can change the warning level to reflect your plan -- and even set a data limit, at which point your data connection will be disabled. This is a great feature for those with tiered data plans. Underneath the chart is a list of apps that use data in descending order of how much they use, so you can see who the culprits are. You can disable mobile data altogether here as well.
Hunting for Easter eggs
Here's the fun part. For each Android OS, Google has hidden an "easter egg." For ICS, it's a dancing robot dressed in an ice cream sandwich. To see him in action, go to Settings --> About Phone and press repeatedly on the Android version.
Where's MY Ice Cream Sandwich?
While many new ICS smartphones will be hitting the market this year, some older smartphones will be eligible for an upgrade to Ice Cream Sandwich. Gadgetwise (a New York Times blog) outlines how to find out if your smartphone will get the upgrade.
For more detail (and screenshots), PC World offers a helpful ICS walkthrough, while Engadget and Britain's Tech Radar have helpful reviews. This YouTube video outlines Android's latest accessibility features for the blind and those with low vision.