Even with its carefully planned New York City event cancelled due to hurricane, Google stuck to its schedule and announced the newest version of Android on Monday along with new Nexus devices. Like the rumors suggested, this is version 4.2 and it’s still being called Jelly Bean. Does that mean there’s nothing new in this update? Of course not -- Google has made Android more human than ever.
Perhaps it was the last minute cancellation of the event, but Google’s enumeration of Android 4.2 features has been awkward to say the least. Let’s pull everything together and see what Android 4.2 means for you and your device.
Look out Swype
As anyone that has used Android can tell you, Swype is a big deal. This alternative keyboard lets you just slide your finger from one letter to the next in order to spell out words. Many phones ship with Swype built in, and some other have tried (unsuccessfully) to replicate what Swype does. Now Google is adding this same kind of functionality to the Android 4.2 stock keyboard.
Mountain View is calling its implementation Gesture Typing, and it works pretty much like you’d expect. Trace a path passing through all the letters in each word, and the phone inserts its best guess. Swype has always been extremely good at guessing the correct word. We won’t know how good Google’s version is until we get hands-on with the phone, though.
If Gesture Typing in Android 4.2 can match Swype, or even get close, it could put the smaller company out of business. While Swype is great at the gesture-based input, you have to tap on keys when you’re spelling a non-dictionary word. Swype isn't designed to work like this, and it’s a fairly bad experience. The 4.2 keyboard might have the best of both worlds.
Doing more with photos
Google introduced panorama mode in Android 4.0 last year, and it was so good that Apple borrowed it for iOS 6. In Android 4.2, Google is taking the next logical step with Photo Sphere. Instead of just panning laterally across a rugged vista or shining skyline, you can move the phone in any direction and create a complete 3D image of your surroundings. It looks very cool.
Remember Microsoft Photosynth? It was basically the same idea as Photo Sphere. The desktop app was used to assemble multiple photos into 3D panoramas. Photosynth probably never caught on because it wasn’t properly built into a device people actually take pictures with and it was clunky to use on a PC. Photo Sphere in Android 4.2 looks almost magical by comparison.
The files it creates are open JPEGs that you can export, share, and modify as you like. Within the file is XML metadata that allows the file to be manipulated in real time just like a Google Maps Street View frame. This kind of immersive experience is enabled automatically when Photo Sphere images are shared to Google+, but I suspect anyone could read the XML data and replicate this experience elsewhere.
One of the killer features in Apple’s iOS in recent years has been AirPlay. It’s also probably the main driver of Apple TV sales. Android devices have been stuck with poor implementations of DLNA technology. Android 4.2 makes Google competitive with support for Miracast wireless display technology.
Unlike Apple’s AirPlay, Miracast is built on an open standard that other manufacturers can use. It might be open, but Miracast is not really well-known. It makes use of Wi-Fi Direct to push whatever is on your screen onto a Miracast-enabled display. Plenty of devices have Wi-Fi Direct, but it’s been poorly implemented thus far.
I have tested a few Wi-Fi Direct file transfer apps, and they were a little tough to get going. Although, when Wi-Fi Direct works, it’s incredibly fast. I can see why it would make a good basis for wireless displays. Miracast even supports 1080p video streaming, which similar technologies don’t.
Miracast is still very new, and the number of certified TVs is tiny. It’s unlikely you have, or will have a device with built-in support any time soon. Luckily, there are a few HDMI adapters that support Miracast. These are going for $50-60, and should work on any TV with an HDMI port. It’s not as polished as AirPlay, but it’s a big step in the right direction.
Tablets are great devices to have around the house, but perhaps you don’t need a separate tablet for each member of the family. Then what? Share tablets? This is what many people do, but you always have to work around the apps and settings that everyone else is using. The calls for user profiles on tablets have not fallen on deaf ears. Surprisingly, it’s Google that addressed this usability concern -- not Apple.
All Android 4.2 tablets, like the new Nexus 10, will have native support for user profiles on the device. Each user will have their own home screen, apps, settings, widgets, and data. The device can operate exactly the way you like it, then change as soon as another authorized user picks it up.
You will be able to switch to other profiles from the Android settings menu without restarting the device. This could make tablets infinitely more useful as a coffee table device.
Quick Settings and notifications
While it is easier to toggle settings in Android than it is in iOS, Google has been behind on giving users what they want Most custom ROMs and OEM skins have taken to adding settings toggles to the top of the notification area, and it really does come in handy. Now Google has taken this idea and given it a new spin in Android 4.2.
The Quick Settings panel can be accessed from anyplace in the UI, essentially ending the need for trips into the system settings or that power control homescreen widget. If the notification shade is open, there will be a button at the top to pop open the settings panel. If the notification shade is up, just swipe down with two fingers to open Quick Settings.
I’m happy Google is addressing this usability concern, but the implementation doesn’t seem particularly intuitive. There are already a few buttons at the top of the notification panel, and it risks getting cluttered up there. The two-finger swipe is also not immediately obvious to users. Frankly, this is a feature for power users, but they'll be overjoyed to have it.
One other feature that Google isn't talking a lot about is the addition of widgets to the lock screen. By swiping from left and right from the unlock UI, you can see customizable home screen widgets. This could be incredibly cool for viewing important data, like email without unlocking the phone. I've really been waiting on this feature for years. However, details are thin and it's not clear what restrictions there may be.
If you've ever used Android 4.1, you've encountered Google Now when you search from the built-in Google search app. Google Now uses your account info, location, and search history to bring you relevant information in a series of cards. It also encompasses Android’s improved voice search. Along with all the OS-level improvements, Google now is getting a few new features in Android 4.2.
Google Now will be able to parse data from more sources in this newest update. It will scan Gmail messages for things like package tracking information, flight plans, and contact info. Google Calendar is also being integrated more tightly so that your meetings will show up as cards. You will also be able to add new calendar entries by voice. The general suggestions offered by Google Now are also being beefed up with hotels, popular photo spots, concerts, and more.
It can be a little intimidating, but you can disable any part of Google Now that you’re not comfortable with.
Great! Where’s my update?
If you have an unlocked Galaxy Nexus or Nexus 7, the update is going to be hitting your device in the coming weeks. If you have any other phone or tablet, I would not recommend holding your breath. This is the flipside of Google’s relentless, iterative march of progress. Google comes up with awesome ideas, but it takes a long time to filter down to the peasantry.
The only feature you might hope to see soon is the new Google Now functionality. Since the Google search app is in the Play Store, devices running Android 4.1 can get the new goodies. Keep in mind that this app won’t add Google Now to a device that doesn’t have it. Updates to Android 4.1 have started appearing, but only just recently. Actually, that’s the problem.
OEMs have been dragging their feet on getting Jelly Bean out the door, and now they’re even farther behind. You might go through months of waiting only to find that your Jelly Bean update is the wrong flavor. OEMs that have been working on Android 4.1 updates aren’t going to scrap them and start over on 4.2.
It’s the eternal curse of Android users. If you have an unlocked Nexus device, Google treats you like a king, spoiled with software updates. If not, you’re left in the tortuous care of OEMs and carriers. Android 4.2 is not a massive rethink like 4.0 was, but it has enough great features that you should still be dismayed it’s going to take so long to reach your device.