Android Ice Cream Sandwich Review: It's Man Versus Machine

Google puts a lot of effort into talking about what's fun in Ice Cream Sandwich. It's certainly advanced, and powerful, and more human-focused than past Androids. But I'm not sure I'd call it fun. And that's a problem.

Fun is something you do because you want to. Fun is more than just diversion, it's pleasure. It's transcendent. I'm not sure Google gets fun. They have a good understanding of what will objectively appeal to human beings, in the same way a Cylon might. But Ice Cream Sandwich, while powerful, is not a fun experience. For all its cutting-edge features, it can't shake the cold, distant style that's become Android's unfortunate hallmark.

And without the fun, while you may find it useful and even essential, I'm not sure you'll love it.

From the very first time I fired up a G1, Android has always struck me as more powerful than Apple's iOS. Android's always had more gee-whiz features, straight out of the future. Oh, iOS 5 can trigger a reminder when you get to a certain location? Cute, but I was doing that with Locale on Android in 2008. Background processes. Notifications. Built-in navigation. Layers. NFC. Etc. Android has always pushed the envelope of what's possible. That's admirable, but it has often come at the expense of dead-simple usability. And then there's Ice Cream Sandwich.

We're going to have a look at the new Samsung Galaxy Nexus all on its own. But today we want to look at the engine that drives it. Ice Cream Sandwich is by far the most usable Android OS I've tried, on a phone or a tablet. It's the first that doesn't feel so digital and robotic that you want to put your ear against it and listen to it beep and hum. It retains all that power you crave with Android apps, but puts them in a human-friendly package. It's fast and responsive. It's pre-loaded with great Google apps you'll use right from the get go. You're going to want to dive into Ice Cream Sandwich and start exploring. And here's what you'll find.

The Little Big Touches

Everything just works a little better than it has before. Using a Samsung Galaxy Nexus running Ice Cream Sandwich side by side with a Samsung Galaxy SII running Gingerbread was revelatory. The latter felt clunky and boxy and crude in comparison. The Galaxy Nexus was both prettier to look at and easier to use.

Android Ice Cream Sandwich Review: It's Man Versus Machine

Let's start with appearances. Take the the phone icon. In stock Gingerbread, it's a green box with a white phone in the center plain green phone. If you look closely you'll see shading near the ear and mouth piece but for the most part it looks, well, flat and shitty. In ICS, the icon is a borderless handset that floats and hovers. It has rich shading and color differentiation to suggest depth and contour. It looks inviting. It says call me.

Those subtle interface enhancements are everywhere. Everything in ICS is a bit more textured, more rounded, more thoughtfully designed. Even the system font, a bastardized mashup of Helvetica, Myriad and a few others, looks smoother and more modern than the Droid family that preceded it. It is far more visually appealing than Gingerbread ever was.

Even better, there is so much about ICS that's easier to manage. For example, a permanent link to the system settings lives in the notifications tray. So no matter where you are in the OS, you are no more than one swipe and tap away from total control. Notifications themselves are also greatly improved. They still come at you from the top of the screen, but you can dismiss them one at a time now by sliding them to the left or right. On the home screens a new persistent icon on the bottom row leads to all your applications. It's there on every home screen, ready to launch you to all your apps. You can also add four other apps to that row, so you now have ready and easy access to frequently used ones, like your browser or email.

The four longstanding icons that made up your home row have been completely rethought. The icons for Search and Menu are gone. In their place is a single Recent Apps icon that lets you swap functions, or kill running apps with a swipe. (Also notable: while the home row was once on the bezel, it is now moved to the display itself, and made from softkeys that rotate when you rotate the phone).

Android Ice Cream Sandwich Review: It's Man Versus Machine

Individual apps navigate better now as well. In the Books app, for example, the more animated page turns of ICS might catch your eye, but the real meat is the way you access options. Instead of hitting the bezel button, you tap a page, and iconography representing options shows up in the top of the screen, along with a search box. Tap it again for a list of options. It's just faster, and better, and more intuitive.

There's more. ICS is a labyrinth of tweaks and touches. But the bottom line is that navigation is far, far better in dozens of small but important ways. All of these are minor adjustments that add up to less time spent trying to do things and more time spent actually doing them. They mean fewer taps to manage your apps.

Closer to Fine

Ice Cream Sandwich has none of the skeuomorphic touches that you find in iOS, and it even eschewed some that were in Gingerbread. While sometimes this is a very good thing (there is no ugly, screen real estate-hogging embossed leather chrome, for example) other times it's puzzling.

Android Ice Cream Sandwich Review: It's Man Versus Machine

For example, when you scroll to the bottom of a screen instead of bouncing, it glows blue. The bounce works because that's what often happens in real life when you pull something past the point where it is meant to go: it springs back. The blue glow is both less noticeable, and less obvious in its intent. Am I at the bottom, or did I just irradiate my apps?

But often the willingness to experiment visually pays off. For example, when Google replaced Contacts with People. In Ice Cream Sandwich, Contacts are gone, as an app at least. In its place is an app called People that pulls in various services, like Twitter or Google Plus, in addition to pure address book data. It directly shows status updates and in some cases even high resolution photos. In Gingerbread, the Contacts icon is a faceless human silhouette peering robot. The icon for People, on the other hand, doesn't look like a person at all. And yet it smiles at you. In other words, it's been made more friendly. And of course, this is yet another example of Android trying to become friendlier, and more person-focused.

The Good Gets Great

There are major changes, too, the kinds of sweeping overhauls that you expect from a major release. And they're occasionally terrific, like the overhauled Camera app's automatic panorama stitcher. All you need to do is pivot the phone and you can capture stunning panoramic landscapes. I call this one Pumpkin on the Beach:

Android Ice Cream Sandwich Review: It's Man Versus Machine

Meanwhile, photos fire in what seems like real time, the shutter speed is mind-blowing. Tapping the screen not only focuses, but actually works very well. Face tracking was also nearly flawless. Bottom line: You're going to use the hell out of this camera.

The other major renovation, not to be underestimated? Typing. Android keyboard has always made me want to kill things. One of Android's selling points I've often heard is that you can radically customize the keyboard with an app like Swype. That's great. But the problem is that you basically need a third-party keyboard in Android. No more. The keyboard in Ice Cream Sandwich is positively zippy. It's responsive, accurate, and the predictive text works quite well.

Here's the same chunk of text, fired off as quickly as I could input it, using default keyboard in Gingerbread and Ice Cream Sandwich.

Ice Cream Sandwich:

So, I'm just trying to writs something s bit longer here, as quickly as I can withour! Regard for typos or errors.
I just want to see how quickly I can use the keyboard, and in fact it seems greatly improved.

Gingerbread:

So, Im just tryibg to write something a bit lobger here as quivkly as i can without revard for tyops or errors.
I just want to see how quickky i canbuse ge keyboard and i face it seems greatly imporved.

It's sweet relief. But.

You're Trying Too Hard

Sometimes Ice Cream Sandwich literally pleads with you to enjoy it. Take the built-in video effects. They do things like swell up your nose or mouth, or shrink your face. They're kind of amazing, when you first encounter them. Because it doesn't just alter one spot on the screen where the OS predicts your nose or mouth may be; it actually recognizes your facial features and distorts them even as you move your head from side to side or back and forth. In the reviewer's guide for the video effects, Google offers the following guidance: "Note: These are fun." Thank you, Google. That is good to know.

And then there is the built-in social. Google has bet big on Plus. Google is using Ice Cream Sandwich to push Plus like beer in a bar. Plus is everywhere. It comes with apps for Plus and G+ Messenger built in. Your photos are automatically uploaded to Google Plus. Sharing options, even for media, all lead to Plus.

You aren't always going to want that Google Plus integration. Very many people who I will never attempt to email, call or message are listed my People app because they are Google Plus contacts. Although you can select which circles to display, if, like me, you haven't invested much time in setting up your circles you end up with thousands of acquaintances or no one at all. Worse, when I tried to send an email to my wife it fired one off to me instead. Why? She had never filled out her Google Plus profile. Yet for some reason, her Google Plus info was populated with my address data. There was no way to edit this. I eventually turned off the option to sync my Plus contacts because it was all too annoying.

I admire the attempt, however, and it largely works. An android is not simply a robot. It's a robot with human characteristics. If there is one thing that Google's Android OS has lacked, it's humanity. While extremely advanced, it has never been personable.

Man vs. Machine

Ice Cream Sandwich is Google's attempt to make Android not only more advanced from a technology perspective, but also more human. It is sprinkled with little traces of humanism throughout. From the People app that's front and center by default, to the deep-if-flawed social integration with Google Plus, to those zany video effects. I mean, you unlock it with your face. Ice Cream Sandwich is Google's attempt to design for human beings. And it pulls it off, mostly.

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And of course, Ice Cream Sandwich is a brilliant technology achievement. It's loaded with powerful features, like a great data management tool, built-in photo editing, and NFC that enables you to do things like share photos or videos from phone to phone simply by tapping two of them together.

This tech forward focus can eventually be a downside. An old Android phone typically feels aged beyond its years. Because when your advantage is technology, time is always your biggest enemy.

And in many ways it is still rough around the edges. It lacks the polish of iOS or Mango. Scroll through a list of albums in Rdio on ICS and iOS 5 side by side and it's apparent how much slicker the latter's UI is. The iOS version moves at more variable and natural speeds and glides to a stop. Android moves more jerkily and stops more abruptly. (You can alleviate this, somewhat, by forcing GPU rendering for third party apps, but it is still noticeable.) The corners are more squared off on the album icons in Android, giving it a boxier, less sophisticated appearance. Even in native apps, like the Web browser, I noticed that text tended to skitter up the screen, rather than flow.

But overall it's a powerful, wonderful, visually interesting upgrade. It's certainly the most user friendly version of Android to date. It's more navigable, more responsive, and all around a better experience. As a longtime Android user, I really dig it. I find it compelling, even. Yet as a recent iOS 5 convert, I'm not sure it's enough to make me go back.

Here's a final example to illustrate what I mean. Ice Cream Sandwich makes it really easy to take a photo and share it with all my contacts and circles on Google Plus. iOS makes it really easy to take a photo and share with my father on a letterpress card in the United States mail. The mail is decidedly lower tech. But in its own way, it's also far more enjoyable. For most people, technology outpaces upgrade cycles. In two years, style and flash can fade. But fun can persist. Fun matters.

Competence is one thing, but I prefer joy.

Portions of this review initially compared ICS to Samsung TouchWiz instead of Gingerbread. This has been amended where appropriate.


You can keep up with Mat Honan, the author of this post, on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+.