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Android 4.1 Jelly Bean and other news from Google I/O 2012
On June 27-29 in San Francisco, CA, they are holding the annual developer-focused conference, Google I/O, where the company is presenting a lot of interesting projects and updates. On Day One, we saw the official presentation of the Google Nexus 7 tablet, the Google Play update, and the Android 4.1 update, codenamed Jelly Bean, being probably the main news for many of us. So, this is exactly what we'll start with.
Android 4.1 Jelly Bean: main new features
The fact of this version release itself can give a few hints about the further plans of the company. First, this update is introduced quite soon (counting from the moment when the fourth version appeared), which means Google is trying to develop Android even faster than they did before, with the pace also being not so bad earlier though. Second, this is Version 4.1 only, so we are likely to see the next update stage for the fourth version till the end of this year. It can be either another intermediate improvement (4.2, 4.3), or Version 4.5 providing some more global new features. It's quite possible that Google decided to leave Version 4.5 till the new Apple iPhone and iOS are released, and then Google developers will reconsider what they will see andЕ I guess you know what I mean. Besides, there's nothing bad about copying other people's good ideas. On the contrary, it could be very useful, as I believe no Apple iPhone owner was ever upset about the system tray in the latest iOS, resembling that of Android.
Desktops. The new version provides automatic alignment of the desktop icons and widgets, and (finally!) we are now able to resize a widget when it's necessary, i. e. to make it bigger or smaller if it doesn't fit the screen.
The video of an Android 4.1 emulator gives a clear representation of the way this feature works.
Project Butter. At the presentation, the Google representatives paid special attention to the Project Butter function. Briefly, this is a series of improvements for more efficient use of the CPU power and the graphics subsystem by Android. It is expected to save the users of new smartphones from lagging and jerky animation in some applications, which is observed today. This will be achieved with the help of various elements. One of them, for instance, will increase the clocking frequency of the CPU every time you touch the screen with your finger.
Voice typing (offline). Another important new feature is the possibility of voice text input without using the internet connection, i. e. offline. Today, to enjoy this function in Android, you have to be connected to the Web. Besides, the keyboard in Android 4.1 has also been improved and provides the new word prediction feature. Now, the standard Android keyboard can predict not only a single word by its first letters, but also the next word, basing on the previous one. For example, I often type the phrase "What time will you come?" After the words "what time" the keyboard automatically suggests the words "will you". This function is based on several templates, but it learns from the texts you type.
Google Search. As a sort of "their response to Siri", Google have improved their Google Search feature. Now you can not only enter your search queries with your voice (we've had it before), but also get voice answers, like in Apple's Siri. Actually, if we judge by the few photos taken at the Android 4.1 presentation and available at the moment, we can say the company has worked hard on the search interface. The voice search allows getting correct results basing on the query type. For instance, if you ask it to show you a picture of something, the system will open a gallery, but not links. If you ask it to show some technical data or other kind of information, most probably the search will lead you directly to Wikipedia, and if you just ask something, you will see the web browser page with the search results obtained from Google.com.
Google Now. Special attention should be paid to the Google Now announcement. I'm not sure what is the right way to call it Ц a service or an assistant. Or the trendy term 'intellectual assistant' might suitЕ
This is a system that collects all possible data about you: search queries, information on your contacts, meetings, locations visited on the Google Maps, etc. And then, based on the collected data, Google Now helps the smartphone owner in various situations. If you have a meeting scheduled in your calendar, Google Now will show you the best route to the required place, with the traffic jams taken into consideration, and will remind you of the meeting itself. If you are in the subway or at a railway station, Google Now will provide information about the closest trains and schedules. If you have a flight planned, the system will give you all the necessary information, and if it manages to find the flight number, you will also know all the details: departure time, gate number, and so on.
Here's a short official video introducing the Google Now service.
It all sounds really fantastic, but some questions about Google Now still remain unanswered. Starting from how many details the system will be collecting to provide the required service operation (can there be any more details than there are now?) and up to what other functions the service will provide and whether it will only become popular due to just a couple of new features and their extraordinariness, as it happened to Apple's Siri, for instance.
Notifications. Finally, the function where Android really sets the tone today has been improved, too Ц the notification bar and the notification tray. Earlier, in the notification tray falling down from the top of the screen, you could see your missed calls, messages and other information represented very briefly, but now there appeared some special actions for each of the notification types. You can reply to a missed call with a text message or call back; you can open your new text messages and read some excerpts from them without opening the Messages app; you can comment on or "like" your friends' posts on Facebook or Google+ right from the notification tray.
Contact photos. And there's another important thing that no one has ever written about for some reason. Probably, every other Android handset owner that assigns photos to the contacts in the phonebook knows that Android compresses the photos indecently (I can't find any other word suiting for that). You can practise your sorcery and invent new ways to preserve the normal quality of the photos, but after any new firmware download or when you change your handset, and if your contacts are stored at Gmail, you will get your photos in that terrible quality again.
We've got a brief article about that by Evgeny Vildyaev at android.mobile-review.com:
However, this is only a partial solution for the problem. And here, among the descriptions of the new features expected in Android 4.1, which are published on Google's developers page, we can find a short paragraph:
Higher-resolution contact photos
To put it simply, this means the system will not work normally with high-resolution contact photos. And we will hope that this is not only about Android 4.1, but about Gmail too, as those contact photos may also be stored there. However, seeing is believing, so I won't believe it until I check it up in practice!
Camera. The default Camera application has been slightly modified in the latest Android version, too. Among the main new features, we should mention the quick switching over to the pictures taken earlier right from the camera app window by swiping to the right. Swiping to the left will take you back from the gallery to the camera app. Pinch-to-zoom opens miniatures of the pictures taken earlier in a horizontal row (the outermost left icon represents the camera interface), and you can delete the pictures you don't need just by whisking them to the top. And in case you removed a picture by mistake, you can restore it with the help of the Undo button. A similar solution is used in the task manager, but the application miniatures are positioned vertically there.
Android Beam. With Jelly Bean, we can now instantly share photos, web pages or locations on the map by simply putting smartphones to one another (it seems strange that this feature is now laid that emphasis on, because, as far as I remember, we've already had it earlier). You can also quickly connect to your NFC-supporting bluetooth device by simply putting it to your handset.
New Google Play content
Generally, it would be incorrect to speak of any updates of the apps store itself, as there are no technical or functional improvements in it. However, Google announced that they are starting to sell magazines, TV shows (including series) and movies. And what is also quite important, you will be able to watch the content you purchase both on a computer, by simply opening Google Play in your web browser and signing in to your account, and on a smartphone or a tablet. The movies you buy can be watched on the device with no active internet connection, which means the content is fully downloadable after purchase.
Offline Google Maps
For some reason, there have been only few reporters that mentioned this feature in their news about Google I/O 2012, but I find it extremely important. The point is that not so long ago Google declared that they would soon launch the official caching function for their maps (this is an experimental feature in Google Maps so far). And now they have actually announced that this function is ready for the launching. This is how it will look like: you look through the Google Maps, select the desired region, for instance, Moscow, and tap the 'Make available offline' option in the menu. So the selected segment of the map gets downloaded to the handset memory. You will be able to look through it even when you are in roaming and don't want to spend money on the expensive online traffic, or when your mobile phone simply gets no network signal.
The important point is that you can cache not only a single map segment, but also a lot of them. Thus, when you go to Europe for holidays, you can download the maps of all the necessary cities to the memory of your smartphone and enjoy the life. I believe this is exactly what Google Maps were missing and what other navigation applications and services might now feel sad about, particularly the classical giants like TomTom and Garmin.
Video demonstration of the Offline Google Maps:
This feature is already available in Google Maps. To be able to use it, you only have to update the maps in your smartphone to the latest version. But not every region can be cached so far Ц for example, London, Cape Town and lots of other places (Saint Petersburg, too) are available, but Moscow is not. We'll leave this geographical discrimination to the developers' conscience.
Google Nexus 7
Google always thinks of competition. It's not that the company tries not to tread to where everything is occupied and divided already, but quite on the contrary Ц they make attempts in every market and its segment where it can only be possible. Sometimes such attempts are successful (as it appeared with Android, for instance), and sometimes they are not Ц Buzz, Orkut, and a lot of other projects prove the fact quite clearly.
Now they have decided to try their potential in the tablet market. The scheme represents the same old classics: Google places an order for the device production and simply puts its logo on it (this tablet is now manufactured by Asus). But in the smartphone market, the new devices sold under the Google brand are rare products used mainly for enriching the assortment, while the Google Nexus 7 tablet can become a success, indeed.
7-inch diagonal, resolution of 1280 x 800 pixels, nVidia Tegra 3 platform with a 1.3-GHz quad-core CPU, 1 GB of RAM, front camera. The version with 8 GB of internal memory will be offered at $199, the 16-GB version Ц at $249. In stores in some countries (not in Russia) starting from the middle of July. It would be reasonable to think now that the prices for Amazon Kindle Fire will soon fall, before the new tablet hits the shelves, as the Nexus 7 is going to compete exactly with the Kindle Fire. Later, probably there will appear a similar (with a 7-inch screen) solution by Apple, and the competition will surely become even more intriguing. The specific advantage of the Google Nexus 7 consists in the combination of its good specifications and a low price, and this is exactly what can make this product really popular and evoke Google's interest in the hardware part of the game.
Day One of Google I/O 2012 turned out to be more interesting to regular users than to developers, I guess. The agenda of the next two days includes some more specific sessions and we will hardly learn any news that could be as important as today's Android 4.1 update announcement.
The important news is that together with the Android 4.1 Jelly Bean announcement the company introduced the PDK (Platform Development Kit) as well. It will be made available for developers very soon, while some Google's partners already have access to it. In theory, it means that regular users will get faster updates to Android 4.1 for their current devices, but in practice, specific manufacturers will make their own decisions. Some of them may offer Jelly Bean firmware for their devices in a month or two already, but there will also be those that won't lift a finger even after a year.
The major part of the changes that are now being made to Android may be considered timely and necessary. As for me, I still think it would be nice to have the opportunity to switch to certain applications right from the lock screen, as well as some more flexible settings for the phonebook and a browser with more details thought out. But in all the rest, Google is making the right steps and keeps on developing the system exactly for the users and not for any advertising campaigns, or trying to get a one-time wow-effect (yes, I'm driving at Windows Phone). And that's great!
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Translated by Serge Gomelsky (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Published 02 July 2012
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