At its I/O conference for developers, Google finally took the wraps off of Android 4.1, or Jelly Bean for the numerically challenged. Set to hit the Galaxy Nexus, Nexus S, and Motorola Xoom by the middle of next month, Jelly Bean has given us a lot to look forward to.
Jelly Bean is not a massive overhaul al la’ ICS, but rather a welcome refresh—as is implied by the .1 version bump. There are several headlining features here, but performance is near and dear to my heart, so let’s start there.
Project Butter, as it is so codenamed, has massively improved how things are handled in the background. To prove its point, Google showed off a pair of Galaxy Nexus devices, one on ICS and the other on Jelly Bean. The Jelly Bean device was distinctly faster and smoother, especially when you start counting frame rates.
While Android has had Voice Actions for quite some time now, Google has finally provided its response to Siri—though it won’t explicitly call it that—in the form of Google Now. Rather than another dedicated voice app, Google Now takes a holistic approach, borrowing some plays from the WebOS playbook, and giving the program a completely Google twist.
The main feature here are new “cards,” that contain creepily relevant information that your device has decided you may want. For instance, it can learn your commute route and check traffic before you leave or ask it to do so. Or say you have a dinner appointment on your calendar.
No longer will you be restrained to a boring notification—a card will not only notify you, but also figure out the best route to the restaurant from your current location and let you know how soon you need to hit the door to be on time. Of course there are more uses than mapping. Cards can also be used for live sports scores, with teams and games automatically chosen based on your browsing and search histories—told you it was creepy, didn’t I? AI apocalypse, here we come.
Jelly Bean also provides a refreshed voice assistant, which will now speak back some answers and is much better at recognizing natural language. Driving its point home, Google demonstrated a correctly handled voice search of “Show me pictures of pygmy marmosets.”
The UI has been tweaked and is much cleaner and unified—as is the Google Play Store. You can now move and resize widgets without clearing your homescreen—everything else will move around to make room. The notifications tray will now be much more useful as well, providing actionable notifications—think call back, +1, repost, etc.
Finally, voice recognition has been moved offline, which should make for much faster dictation requests—especially for areas with poor coverage. Another advantage in moving it offline is WiFi only devices and people working hard not to soar over their bandwidth limits can now use it at will.
When you throw in a handful of other small tweaks—such as the improvements to the Google Play Store, Camera, and Gallery apps—this update feels like a lot more than a .1 version bump. Let’s hope the carriers are a bit faster at giving us updates than they historically have been. Of course, we could all just go buy a new device, like the just-announced Nexus tablet, for instance.