Google rolls out Ice Cream Sandwich and Samsung Galaxy Nexus to take on iOS 5

by Phil Hornshaw

Image from This Is My NextA week after iOS 5 released for Apple users, Google has fired back with a mobile operating system update of its own with Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, and its chock full of new features and revamps.

Google presented the new software alongside Samsung in Hong Kong, showing off the operating system on the first device that will use it, the Google-branded Samsung Galaxy Nexus. The 4G phone will be able to leverage all the new features Google is bringing to bear, like near-field communication technology called Android Beam that will allow users to quickly transfer information between Android phones just by bringing them close together. Among the things you can pass back and forth are contacts, web pages, maps and videos. You can even touch your ICS device to another one while the second device is using an app, and the operating system will bring up that app for you in the Android Market.

Google also has made some solid tweaks to just about every major feature in ICS, from email to photography to the operating system’s display font. In fact, Google has invented a new font — called Roboto — to go in the new software. It seems indicative of the fact that with ICS, Google is trying to better design the software, make it more consistent, and basically increase its aesthetic value for users. Those are all very good concepts for Android that will help it to compete with Apple’s simply designed iOS platform, and in some ways, help Google to beat Apple at its own design game.

There’s been major emphasis put on improving the standard of ICS’ embedded apps, like its camera and Gmail functions. Photography has been improved with aspects like the ability to shoot panormas and HD video, as well as capture stills while recording, without the need for additional apps. ICS also reduces shutter speed for camera apps so pictures get snapped faster. Photo editing capabilities are there as well, and resulted in some pretty great-looking shots during Google’s tech demo. All the improvements seem like they’ll help the Galaxy Nexus give the iPhone 4S a run for its money in terms of photography.

Image from This Is My NextUser interface is seeing a lot of little improvements too. The Galaxy Nexus has lost all buttons but the power button, and Google has eliminated a lot of unneeded things in favor of gestural and touch controls. Notifications, for example, can be brought down from the bar at the top of the screen just like in Android 2.3 Gingerbread, but now if you see a notification you don’t want or need, you can just drag it to the side and toss it from the list. The same is true with widgets and lots of other lists. It’s possible to make folders for apps, contacts, widgets, photos and a number of other pieces of content, and it’s as simple as dragging one icon over another.

Something that Google didn’t really address, however, was how ICS is supposed to help Android deal with the ongoing problem of fragmentation, or the trouble of having lots of Android devices with different specs, screen sizes and other features. Rather than having two version of Android — Gingerbread for phones, Honeycomb for tablets — ICS brings both formats together with one operating system. It was supposed to help unify screen resolutions to make Android easier for developers to create apps for, allowing them to more easily build apps compatible with more devices.

Fragmentation didn’t get discussed during the keynote, which is a bummer because it’s one of the main problems that’s currently holding Android back. But the laundry list of new features, and the overall ease of use Google demonstrated should be a big boon as it takes on Apple’s latest and greatest. As Google pointed out, Android is the best-selling platform in the world; with ICS, Google is really acting like it, bringing a wealth of great features that will help the platform continue to grow and innovate with new apps. Last week, iOS owners were excited for the new things they can do with Apple’s software. This week, Android owners have plenty of reason to be just as excited (and maybe a little more so, because Android Beam looks awesome).