Together with the release of Google Nexus 10, comes the announcement of Android 4.2 Jelly Bean. What are the new and best features of Android 4.2 ?
Consistent User Experience
One of iOS’s biggest strengths is its consistent user experience: What you get on an iPhone or iPod touch is, for the most part, what you’d get on an iPad or iPad mini. On Android, this was never the case. Putting aside the countless modifications made by carriers and manufacturers, Android on phones is a different world compared to Android on tablets.
Android 4.2 changes all of that. Android phones and tablets now share a similar user interface that—in many ways—looks like the phone version of Android blown up to fit a larger screen. The virtual navigation buttons on tablets have been moved to the bottom center of the display, making them more difficult to reach on larger tablets, especially if you are holding the device with two hands. And a dock now runs near the bottom of the screen where you can pin apps that you frequently use.
On large tablets like the Nexus 10, notifications and the settings panel are split up and placed in drop-down shaders on the top left and right corners of the screen, respectively. The notification bar on phones and smaller tablets (like the Nexus 7) is largely the same as it was before, though now you can use a two- finger gesture to gain quick access to toggles for the device’s data, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and brightness, among other settings. This gesture shortcut is perhaps the most welcome interface tweak brought by Android 4.2, since it saves you from having to dig through multiple menus in order to do simple tasks like adjust screen brightness.
Multiple user accounts begins the era of tablet sharing
The newfound ability to create multiple user accounts on the same tablet is potentially huge news for businesses, not least those SMBs trying to mobilize their workforce without spending a whole heap of cash.
The multi-user support gives each tablet user their own section for saving apps and data, and also allows you to customize your home screen and associated widgets. Even more impressive is that other users won’t have to download an app if it has already been downloaded by another user.
Another feature for parents lets them control their child’s activity on their Android device, with an important PIN in place to block children downloading or buying censored content. Note: this feature is only for Android tablets.
Gesture-based keyboard is for faster and accurate typing
In developing Android 4.2 Google has clearly taken not of what virtual keyboard specialists Swype and SwiftKey have been doing to optimize typing.
The resulting Gesture Typing on Android 4.2 bears very similar resemblance to Swype (as seen on many of the Samsung devices), with the ability for your keyboard to guess what you want to type.
All you have to do is “glide your finger over the letters you want to type”, and let the system then adds spaces and get moving with text predicting.
This feature could certainly turn out to be a time saver for busy workers writing reports, emails or compiling data while commuting, particularly when it comes to commonly used terms that the system will be better at predicting.
Google Now Updates
Google Now, which presents information before you even look for it, feels like the future of Google. In previous incarnations, a simple swipe up from the bottom of the display on any Nexus device running Jelly Bean delivered tips for nearby restaurants and directions and time estimates for our morning commutes. Calendar appointments would pop up, too. Now, if you give Google Now permission to do so, the app will pull package tracking, hotel and flight details, restaurant reservations and other tidbits of timely information straight from your Gmail. If you’re the sort of person who’s bothered by how much information Google has on its users, Google Now has never been for you. But if you’re OK with all this, then the updates to Google Now make the experience even more useful. There is nothing else on any other device that works like Google Now. It’s one of the biggest differentiators found on Android and it keeps getting better.
Android finally has an answer to Apple’s AirPlay. Sort of. Android 4.2 brings Miracast compatibility to Google’s mobile OS, allowing phones and tablets to wirelessly connect to Mircast-equipped TVs, Blu-ray players and other set-top boxes to mirror what’s on your mobile device on the big screen. The technology was developed by the Wi-Fi alliance and is an open standard that any hardware maker can use, but so far there are only a handful of Miracast products available. If the technology takes off, this could be a real plus for Android users. But right now that’s just an if.
For the first time, Android’s camera app has a built-in HDR (High Dynamic Range) mode. This involves having the camera take two or more photos of the same scene, at different exposures, and stitch them together to create a single image that has ideal exposure levels for all the bright and dark areas. The point here is to deliver a photo that looks good when there are variances in light quality — say a really bright sunlit background and a darker in-the-shade foreground. As is that case on any camera, HDR mode can be bit hit or miss. But when it works, it works well.
Like Google Now, Photo Sphere is a feature you’ll find built into Android and nowhere else. Google’s Maps team worked with the Android team to build Photo Sphere, which is essentially a simplified version of the Street View software Google uses to build the 360-degree panoramas we see on Google Maps. When you launch Photo Sphere, you see a gray grid. As you move your phone around, a blue dot appears telling you where to hold your phone. As you align your phone with the blue dots, the app snaps a photo. After you’ve captured enough shots to cover the scene around you, Photo Sphere stitches them together to deliver a 360-degree panorama you can view on your phone. The results are remarkably free of visible seams, though if you move the camera too quickly, or if people in your panorama are moving around a lot while you’re snapping photos, there will be a bit of blurriness. Regardless, the whole process is a lot of fun and works well. If you’re happy with the panorama you’ve created, you can easily share it on Google+ and even submit it to Google Maps.
Google is introducing Instagram-like photo filters built into its camera app. The filters look great, allowing you to tweak the tone, add some graininess, or create a vintage look. And it’s all non-destructive editing, since the app saves a new image every time you add a filter, meaning your original photo is always preserved.
New Camera Controls
Android 4.2’s camera app gets a whole new gesture-based control scheme (see the photo at the top of this article) that is largely hidden until you need it. There’s a large blue button at the bottom for snapping a photo and a thin white circle that hovers over whatever you’re focusing on at the moment. Tap that circle to bring up photo options appear — flash controls, a toggle to switch between front and rear cameras, a white balance button, an HDR mode button, and a button to launch into deeper settings too. The scheme works really well, allowing you to focus on the photo you’re trying to take with as little distraction as possible. When you want more options, they’re there with a simple tap and swipe.
This feature is supposed to come with an update scheduled for Nov. 13, when the new Nexus devices start shipping, so we haven’t had a chance to try it out yet. But we expect it to be a new favorite. Lockscreen widgets work just like they sound. You can place them on the lockscreen of a handset an view them by swiping either from the left or right when a phone is locked. This allows quick access to a lineup of calendar events, for example, or your most recent e-mails or maybe weather information, all without having to unlock your phone. Of course, to get into the app the widget leads to, you’ll have to unlock your handset, so you’ll still need a passcode or gesture.
Expandable Notifications: In Android 4.2, you can take actions right from your notifications shade. Just swipe down the notification tray, see what’s important for you, and act directly from the notification area.
360 Degree Photo Sphere Camera: Android 4.2 features immensely improved camera app which allows you to take pictures in every direction, immersive photo spheres that put you right inside the scene. Share them on Google+ with your friends and family, or even add them to Google Maps for the world to see. The new 360 degree panorama mode allows you to take amazing pictures just with one touch on your device screen.
Overall, Android 4.2 Jelly Bean brings a lot of new features to the Android platform. It is catching up with the iOS, as well as making useful app, the default. Google Nexus 7 is also set to receive the Android 4.2 Jelly Bean update. Check out my coverage of the Google Nexus 7 in my Mini Tablet PC page.