Google's Ice Cream Sandwich Android OS: An In-Depth Look

The Many Faces of the Lock Screen

You wouldn't think there'd be much to say about a phone's lock screen, but with Ice Cream Sandwich, this seemingly simple system component is jam-packed with tasty new treats.

If you don't set any security options, the default ICS lock screen uses a circular unlock gesture similar to what's seen in Honeycomb. The lock screen offers a lot more functionality now, catching up with options that some third-party utilities have previously offered.

For example, you can now access and interact with notifications, see album cover art and music playback controls, and jump directly to your camera without ever having to go to the home screen.

Another nice touch: When your phone is locked and you receive a call, the lock screen features a new text-and-reject feature that simultaneously declines the call and sends a message to the person explaining why you can't talk. You can pick from a list of generic responses or add your own custom message. (You can permanently edit/change the list of default responses by going into the settings section of the Phone app.)

As with past versions of Android, Ice Cream Sandwich gives you the ability to set a security pattern, password or PIN to protect your phone. It also introduces an intriguing new option: facial recognition for phone unlocking. Once configured, all you do is hold your phone in front of your your face. If all goes well, within a second or two, it recognizes your features and unlocks your device.

I found the facial recognition system to be fairly accurate and incredibly satisfying to use. In my tests, the system was able to recognize me roughly 90% of the time, even when I was wearing eyeglasses or a hat or making some silly face (for testing purposes only, of course). The times when it didn't work were usually when I was in an extreme lighting condition or holding the phone at an unusual angle. But getting your face rejected, while perhaps mildly demoralizing, is not a big deal; you just enter in a backup password or pattern and you're good to go.

Google does note that the facial recognition option is less secure than a pattern, password or PIN; a disclaimer on the phone goes as far as to tell you that "someone who looks similar to you" could potentially unlock your phone with the feature activated. Some users have reported being able to trick the system into unlocking by holding up a photo of the phone's owner; I tried and was not able to replicate that. I also tested the system with my brother, whom people often mistake for me, but the phone wouldn't unlock with his face.

The take-home message: Facial recognition is convenient, novel and impressive--and in most cases, it's pretty secure. But if you really need to safeguard your data and can't take any chances, it might not be the right choice for you.

The Camera and Gallery

Android 4.0 includes a brand spankin' new Camera app that's chock full of surprises. The app's interface boasts some significant improvements, but the added functions are what really steal the show.

One of the high points is the newly implemented support for zero shutter lag. That means you can snap one photo after another in rapid succession without ever having to stop or wait. It's actually a little strange at first--and can make it somewhat challenging to get your image focused, if you're moving really fast--but it's a fantastic feature that makes photo-capturing easier than ever.

The Camera app has a cool single-motion panorama mode, too, that lets you take wide-perspective images. All you do is tap the panorama icon and press the shutter button, then move your camera slowly across the area you want to capture. When you're finished, you tap the shutter once more, and the software puts the whole thing together into a single seamless image. It works amazingly well.

On the video side, the Camera app now includes a range of live-video effects--distorting your face, for example, or making it appear as if you're floating in space. They're more for fun than anything, but I found they provided some light-hearted amusement while video-chatting with friends. The Camera has a few serious new video-related tools as well, including a snapshot-capturing utility that lets you grab still images while you're recording video.

The new Camera app and the redesigned Gallery app put photo sharing front and center, with a host of on-screen options to send images to any share-ready service. Ice Cream Sandwich also includes native photo and video editing tools. I found the video editing suite to be a bit limited in its capabilities, but the photo editing options are quite robust, with commands for cropping, sharpening, removing red eye, modifying lighting and making a variety of color adjustments. The photo editor can apply quite numerous special effects, too, if you're into that sort of thing.

Other Ice Cream Sandwich Sprinkles

I could write an entire book trying to cover and review everything that's new in Ice Cream Sandwich. I haven't even gotten into the revamped system settings menu--it's far simpler and easier to use--or the new NFC-based "Android Beam" function that lets you share info with other phones by tapping the devices together (cool in theory, but fairly limited in practice at the moment).

You've also got random flourishes like the long overdue ability to capture screenshots and the new fine controls for managing and monitoring your network data usage. Many of the system apps are vastly improved as well, including Gmail, Calendar, People (formerly Contacts) and the browser--which now features faster page loading, automatic Chrome bookmark syncing, offline page saving and graphical tabbed browsing.

But you get the picture. Ice Cream Sandwich is more than just another upgrade; it's a significant new beginning for the Android platform. It isn't perfect--the software has a handful of inconsistencies and areas for improvement--but it's astonishingly good. I suspect it'll go a long way in delighting both hardcore enthusiasts and casual smartphone users.

Bottom Line

Android has always been a powerful platform. With Ice Cream Sandwich, its power reaches new heights--and its polish makes the power more palatable than ever.

JR Raphael is a Computerworld contributing editor and the author of the Android Power blog. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

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For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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