Jelly Bean: What You Need to Know About Android 4.1

Hugo Barra, director of product management of Google, unveils Android 4.1 "Jelly Bean" mobile operating system during Google I/O 2012 Conference at Moscone Center in San Francisco. Photograph by Stephen Lam/Landov

At its I/O conference, Google unveiled the next update to Android version 4.1, aka Jelly Bean. The update, which will first become available as an over-the-air download next month for the Galaxy Nexus and Nexus S, brings a lot of nice improvements and some cool enhancements to search, notifications, and navigation.

There’s nothing earth-shattering, but with more than half of the market, Google just needs to keep refining the platform and to stay competitive with Apple. One of the biggest questions will be how long it will take for existing Android users to get 4.1, since only about 7 percent of them are on Ice Cream Sandwich.

The update does help Android compete better with Apple’s iOS, offering some cool features that stack up well against Siri. It also makes Android more of a one-stop shop for users, who don’t have to turn to other apps in some cases.

Here’s a rundown of the biggest improvements:

The most notable advances involve the way users utilize the Google Search app on Android. Now they can take advantage of Google’s Knowledge Graph along with voice search to get instant spoken answers via Google. So people can ask specific questions, and Google will spit back specific answers on an individual “card.” Users can also access the same information using a regular text search. That gives them direct answers, kind of like Siri, but it also allows them to access regular Google Search results with one swipe.

Google is also introducing Google Now, a new way to search that’s like a contextual personal assistant. Users can open this new program from the Google Search page or with a swipe up from the bottom of the screen. The idea is to give people instant access to information based on their location, time of day, and search history. So if Google knows you commute to work at the same time every day, it will provide a card showing how long it will take you to get there, offering faster alternatives if the usual route is slow. For appointments, it will tell you how long it takes to get there on time and provide options of how to do so. If you’re catching a flight, it will tell you if the plane is delayed, what terminal it’s in, and when you should leave.

Google Now will also look at a person’s location and show interesting restaurants and places to visit nearby. Users can peruse a restaurant’s menu or check out the best things to eat there. When a user is at a bus stop or a transit station, Google Now can show when the next bus or train is coming. The location feature can also tell when a user is traveling and will display cards with information on currency exchange rates and the local time at home. Sports fans can see scores for their favorite teams. This can lessen the need for users to consult other apps such as Yelp, Foursquare, ESPN, and other travel and transit apps.

Here’s a video showing how Google Now works.

Google’s voice-recognition service for text input has been enabled for offline use, so users can dictate messages without having to be connected. The text-entry system has also been improved to include predictive typing. And there’s automatic widget resizing when you move one around, so a widget will shrink when you relocate it to a crowded page.

Android notifications are getting a lot more powerful. Users will be able to call people back, see e-mails, control music apps, e-mail upcoming meeting participants, and do other actions right in the notifications pane. Each notification can be enabled with as many as three actions. They can also be resized with a two-finger gesture.

Performance-wise, Jelly Bean provides some subtle upgrades, such as improved system frame rate, triple buffering, and making everything work in lock step with vsync, which runs across all the drawings and animations. That makes rendering smoother and quicker.

Google also introduced Google Cloud Messaging for Android, a service that lets developers send short message data to their users on Android devices. The service, which doesn’t require any special syncing, will order and deliver messages, with as many as 1,000 devices able to be reached with a single request.

Other improvements include the ability to transfer videos and photos among devices using Android Beam and Bluetooth, and better accessibility for gestures with more tutorials and bidirectional text support for languages that move right to left.

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