I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream for Ice Cream (Sandwich)

Calling an operating system things like Donut, Eclair and FroYo is really quite sweet, and mentioning it or jotting it down – whether long hand or typing it out – is quick and easy. Gingerbread and Honeycomb pushed Google’s dessert-based, A-to-Z nomenclature about as far as it could go, meaning Ice Cream Sandwich sent it over the edge. It’s just too long and too unwieldy, so why did they choose it?

Wired suggests it’s all to do with branding, and that if they’d have just gone for Ice Cream, the related logo would be too similar to the one used for FroYo. Adding Sandwich at the end has given the company the chance to be more creative with their logo, resulting in an Android-ified vanilla ice cream-filled biscuit.

It doesn’t help though, as it’s almost guaranteed to make you sound a bit silly when you talk about it. It’s sad then, that for the first time in Android’s short history we’re going to resort to shortening the name to the worryingly basic ICS. Sorry.

Features

Anyway, what’s ICS all about? This is version 4.0 of Google Android and as expected it’s a combination of Gingerbread and Honeycomb, smartphone and tablet operating systems respectively. It’s going to be used on both devices too, meaning Google will be employing the same strategy as Apple with iOS, and with RIM with their just-announced BBX software.

Premiered at the delayed Samsung Unpacked event along with the very first device running the OS, the Galaxy Nexus, Android 4.0 brings a new look, overhauled apps and a variety of new features. One of the most obvious visual changes is the introduction of a new font, one specially designed by the team and appropriately named Roboto.

Before you can use your ICS phone though, you have the option not to enter a PIN code but instead use the new Face Unlock feature. The name sums the feature up, and it uses the phone’s front mounted camera and face recognition software to prevent any other user than you unlocking your device. It’s ambitious, very clever and quintessentially Google, but the problematic onstage demo proved it needs just the right conditions to function correctly.

According to Google, Android ICS is ‘simple, beautiful and beyond smart’, and the overall intention of the update is to bring the features used most often to the forefront, while simplifying the overall operation. On the Galaxy Nexus, there are no more hardware or touch-sensitive buttons for Home, Back, Search and so on; instead they’ve become part of the display in the System Bar.

On the home screen, Android’s handy widgets are still in play, but are now resizable and offer slightly more functionality. When a call comes which you don’t want to answer, there’s a short cut to send an immediate SMS without needing to interact with the call, and new notifications, recent apps and even browser tabs can be individually swiped aside to dismiss them. These gestures are an integral part of ICS, and provided you can remember them, will undoubtedly speed up its operation.

Voice control has been overhauled – proving it’s the buzz-feature of the moment – and although the system doesn’t have its own name, uses an always-on microphone to allow users to operate features and dictate messages, where the software will even be aware of long pauses.

Seemingly taking a leaf out of Windows Phone 7 Mango’s book, Ice Cream Sandwich has a People app for storing and displaying information and social updates on all your contacts, and a Me profile to integrate all this into one place, where a management system keeps the most relevant information at the forefront. Similarly, the Calendar now works with other apps, and can be split into personal and business agendas too.

Other new features include Wi-Fi Direct and Bluetooth HDP support, NFC sharing of information and apps between devices, visual voicemail, a photo gallery widget, an easy way to take screenshots, an offline reader application built into the browser, an updated mail app and the opportunity to completely disable apps (which should please those who hate network-installed applications!).

Finally, the camera software has been radically altered. Excitingly, Google promise a zero lag shutter release and continuous focus on Ice Cream Sandwich devices, along with image and video stabilisation, a full screen tap-to-focus option, face detection and instant sharing tools for most social networks. Also introduced is a clever single-motion panoramic mode, where the camera keeps track of your position and guides your movement when taking wide shots.

Devices

The Samsung Galaxy Nexus was introduced alongside Ice Cream Sandwich, and as we mentioned earlier, it’ll be the premier ICS phone; but the new version will also be making an appearance on other devices too.

First of all, what about the brand new Motorola Droid RAZR. Announced the day before the Galaxy Nexus, it’ll be shipping in November with Gingerbread, however it has been confirmed Ice Cream Sandwich will be added sometime in 2012. However, with Motorola’s tweaks evident over Gingerbread, just how pure the experience will be remains to be seen.

The Samsung Nexus S, which has a very similar spec to the Galaxy Nexus, will also be getting ICS in the near future, although it’s unclear whether the Nexus One will get the update.

A Google employee told Engadget that Ice Cream Sandwich would ‘theoretically work on any 2.3 device’, giving hope to Galaxy S II, but HTC has warned the update may not come to their existing smartphones at all if they feel it ‘compromises their usability’. While ICS is supposed to also be for tablets there was no demonstration, so Honeycomb tablet owners will need to have some patience and perhaps be prepared for disappointment.

Competition

Ice Cream Sandwich completes the trinity of newly updated smartphone operating systems. Over the last few months, Apple has released iOS 5 and Microsoft has released Windows Phone 7 Mango, and each represents a considerable step forward for each manufacturer. Alongside the new software is its own flagship phone (or even phones) and the promise of more to come in the near future.

Market superiority for the remainder of 2011 and first half of 2012 is going to be even more hotly contested than ever before, so will Ice Cream Sandwich and the Galaxy Nexus prove to be worthy of the challenge? The answer can only be ‘yes’.

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