Ice Cream Sandwich is great, but Google still has work to do

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Google's latest update to Android, version 4.0 (better known as Ice Cream Sandwich), has been around for nearly a month now. Seeing as only one device officially supports it and few devices – none of which I own – have Ice Cream Sandwich ROMs ready for prime time, I had yet to get my hands on the software for an extensive amount of time prior to this weekend. On Friday, however, I acquired an unlocked International Galaxy Nexus (I may or may not have mugged someone at knife point).
As many of you know, I've been ranting and raving about this phone since we first caught word of it. Sure, the specs are topnotch and the design is certainly drool-worthy. But you purists and Nexus lovers should be able to understand the true beauty of the Galaxy Nexus. It's not about the hardware or specs, but the vertical integration with the software, something that makes it a bit more iconic than your typical Android device. And this go around, unlike with the Nexus S, the software upgrade was a major improvement over previous versions.
I've been digging through Ice Cream Sandwich (almost nonstop) since Friday. The verdict? It's fantastic. I love everything from the new typeface, Roboto, to the new home screen look and, surprisingly, the side-scrolling app drawer. I originally thought I would hate the on-screen buttons. But to be honest, they aren't too different from capacitive buttons, and much to my surprise, they do completely hide themselves when viewing media. ICS even introduces unique features like Face Unlock, Android Beam (which I cannot wait to try) and a data usage tracker.
The new software from Google is smooth, beautiful and polished ... finally. But there's a problem. Despite all of the improvements and how much I love about the software, there are some changes in Ice Cream Sandwich that neither make sense or make it easy to get used to.
The Android development team revamped a lot of things in this update – most notably, the Settings app. Before, navigating to your battery usage information could be done two different ways, yet neither were in logical locations – one was tucked in a sub-menu for Applications and the other was located in About phone. This update brings Battery Usage to the main list in the Settings app. While this particular change was a step in the right direction, other options like wireless controls fell to the wayside. They have been given a portion of their own in the Settings app, and as pictured above, the functions of toggle switches to the right are rather obvious. However, there is nothing indicating that the labels beside the switches (WiFi and Bluetooth) are actual sub-menus of their own.
While this wasn't exactly hard to figure out, the buttons were not popping out at me, begging for my attention or asking me to press them. And I feel a lot of the system is now like that. Despite the fact that I love the minimalist approach from Google, all of the black and grey themed interface components (buttons and tabs) are sometimes too subtle and blend too well.
What's more is that the system is inconsistent. Since there are no physical menu buttons on some devices, they must be a coded into the interface as a soft button for use as needed. Much like the problem I ran into when Honeycomb first released, not all developers are on the same page with menu buttons, not even Google. As indicated above, the placement of the menu button is different in almost every app. Sometimes it can be found in the top right corner, other times you can find it on the lower left corner of the app. The rest of the time, the menu button gets tucked beside the Application Switcher. This varies between third-party apps and even between Google's suite of applications.
Lastly, another part of Ice Cream Sandwich that makes no sense at all to me is the new placement of widgets. Instead of long pressing on the home screen to add widgets (that only brings up the wallpaper changing menu now), you must open the app drawer, click on the Widget tab, find the widget you desire, long press and drop it where you want it on the home screen. Not only are there more unnecessary steps involved, the new location makes no sense at all. I understand the need to separate the addition of widgets from changing wallpapers, but why on earth are my widgets found beside my applications? There are several different ways they could have separated changing wallpapers and adding widgets, but randomly sticking the widgets in with applications was not the answer.
Overall, I'm thoroughly impressed with Ice Cream Sandwich and the Galaxy Nexus. In fact, I love them both. Android no longer looks like beta software and many things that have needed improving have finally been answered. But Android has always been known for being slighly more complicated than other mobile platforms. And I understand that with more customization and functionality comes the added complexity. But some of these changes in Android 4.0 neither make sense or make things any easier than before, which is what Google should be aiming for. Android needs to be more consumer friendly and easier to pick up and learn than it currently is. Ice Cream Sandwich is a step in the right direction, and I have faith Jelly Bean will only make things better.
As for the inconsistency in the location of menu buttons, this should become less of a problem as more application developers update their apps for Ice Cream Sandwich support. However, Google should be setting the example here by updating all of their applications prior to the release of Android 4.0, and having consistent placement of the menu button.
What say you, folks? Have you had some hands-on time with Ice Cream Sandwich? How do you like it so far? Do you, too, find some inconsistencies and the placment of system components questionable at times? How do you feel Google should approach this in future updates?


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