Ice-cream Sandwich -- what's smooth, what's rocky

06 Jan 2012

For the past three weeks or so, I have been using Android 4.0.3 Ice-Cream Sandwich, not on the latest and greatest Galaxy Nexus, but on its predecessor, the Nexus S Googlephone of yesteryear which is one of the few with an official ICS update available. Much has been said of Galaxy Nexus, but how does it feel for someone upgrading?

The good:

Boot speed is much, much, faster than before.

The aesthetics, Holo theme and new Roboto font make a big difference and make text crisper and give a generally more modern, more digital feel after years of Eclair and Gingerbread. But that is just eye candy.

Perhaps the biggest improvement for those on a pure Google ROM is the keyboard. Text auto-correction is much more intelligent when it comes to missed characters or especially when a lower character such as N or M was pressed instead of the keyboard. ICS now correctly splits it into two words. It is also much better in guessing a word with a missing letter or a missing starting letter, things which Gingerbread was not good at.

Of course, those with a Swype keyboard or other after-market keyboard would probably not see the difference.

ICS has taken many cues from the modding community in its lock screen, and now can launch the camera directly from the lockscreen, something Cyanogen 7 Gingerbread has been able to do for quite a while and can access many settings directly from the pull down notification tab. It is not as customisable as CM7, but it a major step forward compared to Vanilla Gingerbread.

The different.

The menu system has been rationalised. For instance, SIP VoIP has been moved from the settings, wireless and networks to a sub-menu under the phone interface. In a way this makes sense but takes a bit of getting used to.
Adding widgets is now via a Honeycomb style interface where the widget is selected from a list then placed, rather than placed first and then selected from a list.

Icons can be stacked in folders, and this in a way compensates for the lack of screen real-estate.

The bad.

Stability. For everyone who is calling out for a serving of Ice Cream Sandwich, you should be thankful that it is not available yet. This is an official ROM and a fresh, clean install and yet it is flakier than the nightly Cyanogen builds I was using up until now.Many apps, including the ubiquitious Gmail app, often crash without an option to force close the app. When this happens the entire system becomes unstable and it requires a reboot, which thankfully is much faster than before.

ICS probably needs another 0.0.1 to the version number before it is ready for prime time.

Speed is another issue. The web browser, for instance, has a fancy graphical blur when scrolling. This taxes the single-core 1 GHz CPU and the result is an useless, annoying split second wait for the text to come back into focus.

App compatibility is generally good except for anything that uses the GPS or Camera. I still cannot find any app that can read raw GPS data (such as speed or altitude, rather than just location) that works and many, but not all, camera apps crash. By the time ICS goes mainstream, I expect most app developers to have updated their apps at the expense of us early adopters.

But the main annoyance after using it for a couple of weeks is the lack of screen real-estate. Ice Cream Sandwich uses an Android 3 Honeycomb-like set of widgets, widgets that are more functional but take up more screen space. Often, this means only two widgets to a home screen and after a while it just becomes painfully clear that the 480x800 dots of the Nexus S (and most of yesteryear’s high end phones) just does not cut it.

2012 will be the year where Android goes HD. At 720x1280, the 4.65 inch screen of the new Galaxy Nexus has more addressable pixels than the seven inch Samsung Galaxy Tab+ (600x1024) and almost as much as most 10 inch tablets (800x1280), Pentile matrix dot layout not withstanding.

ICS has been ported unofficially to many phones, including my Cupcake-era HTC Hero. It works, it boots, but it is (for now) too slow to be truly usable, but the fact that I have a 2009 phone with a 600 MHz CPU and no real GPU to speak of that runs Android 4 is something that those with locked down phones (Motorola, Asus, take note) wince when hearing. It also suggests that when companies say that their 1GHz phones cannot be upgraded, it means they just have not been trying hard enough.
Anyone care to join me for dessert?

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