A Week With Android 4.1 Jelly BeanI have had Jelly Bean for just over a week now on my Galaxy Nexus and so far, it has been a wonderful experience. So, as I sat around wondering what I could possibly write about (if my lack of articles was any indication, I struggle with writer’s block), it hit me that I might as well talk about what I like, as someone coming from Ice Cream Sandwich, as well as what I think could be improved upon and what I look forward to in future Android iterations. Jelly Bean, for those who are wondering, is slated for an official release sometime in the middle of this month, coinciding with the Nexus 7 release (which I’m also excited to get my hands on). Without further ado, let’s get cracking.

The UI

The user interface (and with it, the user experience) was completely overhauled in Ice Cream Sandwich. Gone was the plastic-feeling UI that was inconsistent in places, replaced with a beautiful, smooth slate of simplicity with dashes of color. In Jelly Bean, the UI has been tweaked a bit further. There’s a a bit less of the trademark blue now, instead replaced with grayish hues in a few places. Overall I really like the polish that is being put into what was already a wonderful sight by the Android team.

The Notification Shade

The Notification Shade, accessed as always by swiping down from the top of the screen, has gotten a bit of a revamp. Before, the shade behaved as though the shade was an extension of the status bar itself. Now it adopts its own unique look in which the time and date are made a bit more noticeable and space is left at the top for a few additional actions, adopting its own Action Bar of sorts. Each individual notification is also now able to take on one of four height configurations, ranging what Google has deemed “1U” to “4U.” This allows notifications to provide much more useful information at a glance that before and is a much welcomed change. I also can’t stop playing with the swipe gesture that resizes the notification’s height; it’s quite entertaining.

The Navigation Bar

The Navigation Bar (the row of software buttons at the bottom of the screen that replaced physical buttons on devices like the Galaxy Nexus) has learned a new trick, as well. Now you can swipe up from the bar and be presented with a ring of options to choose from, but currently the only option is to enter Google Now. This seems like a poweruser feature that will be heavily customized and utilized in third-party ROMs such as CyanogenMod and I can’t wait to see what the community comes up with.

“Project Butter”

I have been an Android user since the T-Mobile G1 (which ran Android 1.1 by the time I got my hands on it). Since then, I have enjoyed the countless Android updates over the years as each one added new and exciting features. However, the one thing that has plagued Android from the beginning is the occasional lag or rendering hiccup. However, Jelly Bean is, without a doubt, the smoothest and most delicious update yet thanks to the work done by the Android team.

Jelly Bean is, without a doubt, the smoothest and most delicious update yet…

Coined “Project Butter,” the improvements made in Jelly Bean correct some of the flaws in Android’s rendering process, most notably by flipping on Vsync throughout the entire system and rendering graphics buffers in lockstep. The Android team has also improved the way the system responds to input events, synchronizing said events with the Vsync timing as well. The result is an experience that is much, much smoother as well as being much more consistent overall. You can read more about Project Butter on the Android Developer site.

 Google Now

Perhaps one of the most anticipated features of Jelly Bean, Google Now has launched and it has its sights set on all those people infatuated with Apple’s Siri. From my usage so far, I think Google Now does a pretty good job where it can. If support doesn’t exist for a particular type of input (for example, the question “When is the next full moon?” does not currently provide an information card), you’ll still get the list of Google search results for your query that often times include the information you’re looking for at a quick glance anyway.

Aside from the Siri-like aspects, Google Now also provides typical information directly relevant to my current status, providing more information each day as it continues to “learn” about me. It knows where I live, assumedly based on where I spend most of my time, so whenever I’m out and about it will provide quick access to directions home as well as an estimate of how long it’ll take to get there. Other information cards Google Now provides include weather, upcoming calendar events, public transit, and local places I might be interested in checking out (might be useful whenever I decide to travel to a new place).

Overall I’m really impressed with the offering Google has presented for Jelly Bean and can only hope that Apple responds with further innovation in order to keep the ball rolling on voice assistance on our mobile devices. Perhaps one day will reach a sort of “Jarvis” level of functionality where our devices are in voice assistance mode by default.

The Future

All in all, I am really, really excited about what Jelly Bean brings to the table. Truth be told, it has gotten to the point where I don’t actively notice that there are any critical features missing from Android itself, so everything that is added after this point is really just icing on the cake (or should I say Jelly Bean?). As a user, I’m satisfied.

As a developer, I am of course curious to see how Jelly Bean gets deployed to existing Android devices. I can rest easy knowing that aftermarket distributions such as CyanogenMod will easily port Jelly Bean back to older devices, but the real traction comes from manufacturer and carrier decisions to push out official updates. I have discussed the slow update roll-outs the Android ecosystem deals with in the past on more than one occasion and I already believe Google is doing what it can to clean up the mess ultimately caused primarily by carriers and secondarily by the manufacturers, especially now that they are pushing their own Nexus devices once again on the Play Store.

However, at Google I/O this year it was announced that a Platform Development Kit (PDK) would be released to key hardware manufacturers a few months prior to future Android releasing including Jelly Bean. Hopefully this move, in addition to the pressure Google has placed on the rest of the ecosystem by pushing its own devices, will encourage manufacturers to support their devices for longer periods of time and get updates out quicker. That said, the only roadblock that truly remains is the carriers, who really want to exist as more than dumb pipes. I don’t blame them for wanting this, but the way the market exists now simply makes a mess of things.

But I digress.

Again, as a developer there are a few things I look forward to that ordinary consumers might not think of. Me, personally? I’m a bit of a native nut, so I would love to see further emphasis on the Native Development Kit (NDK) provided for app development. I really hope that one day developers can be given the option to bypass the Dalvik VM completely on Android and opt instead for their application to exist entirely, UI and all, in native code (that is, written in a language such C/C++ rather than Java and compiled natively for the devices instead of being run atop a virtual machine).

Apart from the OS itself, I’d also like to see even more talks and resources provided by the Android team and Google that touch on existing and emerging code and design patterns. The more Google supports developers with such resources, the more awesome the apps will become.

So, that’s my look at Jelly Bean after having used it for just over a week. Again, I’m impressed with what Google has put on the table and am excited as always to see what awaits the mobile OS ecosystem from here on out. With that said, I suppose I should ask the community what they like most about Jelly Bean and what they’re looking forward to in the future. Consider that asked.