Android 4.2 Jelly Bean continues the platform's long march toward increasing usability and adds some really great new features. As is common with new versions of Android, it's rare to find phones running the software right now. That’s even more true this time around as the Nexus 4 continues to be almost impossible to order on Google Play.
While you’re waiting to get the newest flavor of Jelly Bean in your hands, you might as well learn how to make the most of your eventual phone. Let’s go over the best tips and tricks lurking beneath the surface in Android 4.2.
Lock screen widgets
When Android 4.2 was announced, I was a little disappointed with the lacking options for included lock screen widgets. The feature is only moderately useful out of the box. If you never take another trip into the lock screen list, you might not even realize that developers can add their own widgets. This changes everything.
It’s going to take time for Android app makers to get updates in the Play Store that take advantage of this feature, but just like home screen widgets, it will happen. In fact, there are already some awesome lock screen widgets from top developers that have changed the way I use my phone.
Firstly, take a look at HD Widgets. This app works great on the regular home screen, but the newest update adds lock screen functionality. These multi-use clocks have weather, alarm info, and even power toggles. It’s very handy to be able to toggle Wi-Fi and other settings without even unlocking the device, especially if you are using a PIN or pattern lock. You can simply replace the stock clock widget with this one. As for Twitter, the new Plume update brings your tweets to the lock screen. You can see the stream, mentions, and DMs without even unlocking the device.
It’s going to be awesome to see how developers use the new, more useful lock screen.
Be a developer
Starting with Android 4.0, Google piled a huge number of useful developer features into the Developer Options menu. In Android 4.2, that entry appears to be missing at first. What Google actually did is hide the page from those that should not be messing with it. You have to know the secret code to get in.
Head into the main system settings, and scroll down to the very bottom. Tap on About Phone, and again scroll to the bottom of the screen. You will see a line with the build number listed. Start tapping rapidly on that number and you should see a small toast notification at the bottom of the screen that says, ‘You are now 'X' steps away from being a developer.” Keep tapping until it reaches zero. With that done, you can head back to the main settings and find your developer options.
If you plan on doing any tinkering, you’ll want access to this menu -- it’s where you’ll find things like USB Debugging, touch data overlays, and GPU rendering options. I hope that making the menu harder to find causes more OEMs to leave these options in their custom ROMs.
Multitouch swiping keyboard
Third-party keyboards like Swype are very cool in their own novel way. The fatal flaw every time I’ve tried to use them full time is that they were terrible at regular typing. Google has added swipe typing to the stock keyboard in Android 4.2 and it’s been great so far.
It’s intuitive to use, and it’s better than the competition in two ways. First, Google makes better use of context to figure out what word you’re trying to insert. I’ve found it to be very accurate with sloppy swiping, so don’t worry about being exact.
The other notable feature of the keyboard is that even the swiping supports multitouch. That means you can slide two fingers around the screen to spell one word more quickly. The idea probably makes your head hurt a little, but it’s actually very cool in some instances.
Take the word ‘closely’ for instance. You can slide through the letters up through ‘e,’ but instead of dragging your finger all the way back to the ‘l’ key, just use your other hand to draw out the ‘ly.’ Give this a try -- it's handy once you get used to it.
Shoot better Photospheres
The camera got a solid overhaul in the new version of Android, and it added one important feature: Photospheres. It’s a natural evolution of the panorama mode from Android 4.0. With this new camera mode, you can make a 3D tapestry of your surroundings just like a Street View image.
To really wow everyone with Photospheres, you need to keep a few things in mind. Don’t just do an arc in front of yourself. Photospheres can stitch together a full sphere. Make sure to add in images above, below, and behind you. The resulting file is a little larger and takes longer to process, but the result is much cooler.
The other thing to keep in mind is that you don’t want to be turning your body to take the individual frames. When you do that, the phone is not just seeing a new area, but a slightly different perspective. Try to make the phone the center of the sphere, not yourself. You might try holding the phone very close in so you can more easily maintain its position as you swivel around.
If you head into the Gallery, there is one more trick with Photospheres. Find a suitable image, and tap the button at the bottom right of the screen that looks like a tiny planet. The app will bend the image around and stitch the ends together, making a round planetoid out of it. If you have a straight horizon in your pic, this will look pretty neat.
The new clock app is finally worth using
This final tip is easy -- use the new clock app. Yeah, it’s just a clock app, but it’s actually an awesome clock app now. The old Android clock hadn’t changed in any substantive way for years. Now it has a built-in timer and stopwatch in addition to the alarms. It’s also attractive in a minimalist sort of way.
For whatever reason, a lot of the Holo UI elements use dials to input numbers. It looks cool, but is actually very tedious to do something as simple as set an alarm. The new clock app uses a good old fashioned number pad, and it’s much better. You just don’t need a third party alarm or timer app anymore. Don’t overlook this addition to Android.
Android 4.1 was a very polished experience, and 4.2 is a further improvement on that. Android is feeling warm and inviting in a way it never used to. The extra touches like a better clock app and Photospheres make Android fun to use. Meanwhile, lock screen widgets and developer tools remind you how powerful it can be. You might have to wait weeks, or even months to get Android 4.2 on your device, but at least now you’ll be a little more prepared.