Wednesday, November 14, 2012

What's New And Subtle In Android 4.2?

So you've probably read all the new features that you've heard about Android 4.2 and that its already rolling out to some Nexus 7 users and also to the 'Takju' build of the Galaxy Nexus but there are some small yet subtle new things that you may not notice immediately in this new Jelly Bean build. I won't repeat most of what you should already know, but will mention some of the more notable ones, so here it goes:

  1. The New Homescreen with Widgets:
    This one is a no brainer actually, you can see it right up at the homescreen. Right now you can only add native widgets to the lockscreen, so you're limited to just the Calendar, Clock & Gmail at the moment until developers take advantage of this and add the capabilities. Prior to this, you would only be able to get such functionality in a 3rd party lockscreen app, now you don't need those as it comes with Android 4.2 out of the box. 

    On tablets, you get to scroll the upper part of the lockscreen to switch to another different lockscreen widget while on phones you swipe the lockscreen itself (I presume) due to the amount of real estate space available on the lockscreen in a tablet, you don't need to swipe the entire lockscreen itself to get to your widgets.

  2. New Digital Clock, Analog Clock Widgets & Clock App:
    Google has finally added a new Digital Clock Widget an updated the look to the Analog Clock widget as well. Not only that, you get a brand new Clock app with a brand new look AND you get some new "mini-apps" inside it namely:

    • A stop watch (yep, finally!)
    • A countdown timer
    • Clocks from different cities around the globe - This one gets a special mention, after adding them, you can see them in the lockscreen just like the screenshot above - looks really cool! On top of that, when you travel to another part of the world, your clock synchronizes to that location's time zone AND there's an option (enabled by default) to add a clock for home - so you'll always know what time it is in your home country! Pretty neat right?

  3. New permissions dialog:
    Google has updated the permissions dialog to make it look a lot better, clearer (especially to laymen) and the best part of all - when installing an app update (especially via an APK), you get a new dialog that tells you what permissions are updated/new! You can check out the new dialog by checking out any existing app's info.

  4. Daydreams "Screensaver":
    In 4.2, you get a new Daydreams screensaver feature that by default activates only when your tablet/phone docks into the docking station. You can however, configure the Daydreams screensaver to activate when your tablet/phone is charging and/or docked via the Android settings page. You get to chooser from the following "Daydreams":

    • Clock - Shows the usual clock, randomly placed around the screen like the one you saw in the old Nokia phones
    • BeanFlinger - You've probably seen this in the Jelly Bean easter egg - this will show lots of Jelly Beans on the screen, allowing you to "fling" them all around - for fun.
    • Colors - Shows you a colorful palette on screen, nothing special
    • Currents - This one is useful - it allows you to show your Google Currents subscription on the screensaver. Pretty neat
    • Photo Frame - Just as the name suggests, turns your tablet / phone into a photo frame slideshow, showing photos from your gallery (you can select which galleries you want to show)
    • Photo table - Shows a collage of photos (that can be enlarged when a photo is touched) from your gallery, this one is pretty neat actually

  5. Developer options "gone":
    In a move made by Google to make Android more user friendly especially to ordinary non-techy users, they have completed removed the developer options menu from not really. Its just hidden by default. To get it back, just go to About Tablet (Or phone), and tap on the "Build Number" at least 10'll get a notification telling you that you're now a developer and the menu is back where it belongs!

  6. Multi-user support on tablets:
    This one is good if you share your tablet with your family and/or friends. Each user gets their own private space where you can customize apps, wallpaper, etc. I won't go into detail about this as its covered on pretty much every other Android site out there.

  7. Filesystem changes:
    I noticed some changes to the filesystem which I believe is to cater for the multi-user support - The default /mnt/sdcard now points to /storage/emulated/0 (its a symbolic link in unix/linux terms). So don't be surprised if some of your file manager apps behave strangely. The developer needs to update it to cater for the changes in Android 4.2

  8. Gmail changes:
    In Gmail, you get to swipe an email right from the main conversation list to delete (or archive) which is configurable via the settings page. You also can do pinch-to-zoom on individual mails now - again, this needs to be enabled via the settings page (you could easily miss it - its called "Auto-fit messages"). The description says "Shrink messages to fit the screen and allow zooming". Enabling that gives you that pinch-to-zoom capability.

  9. Swipe left corner of the screen for notifications, swipe right corner for quick settings (Tablets only):
    On tablets, you get a quick settings page by swiping the top right corner of the notifications bar and if you swipe the top left corner you get the usual notifications bar. The quick settings page is useful for quickly toggling some stuff like brightness, airplane mode, auto rotation, etc. On phones, you don't get this but the settings button has been moved to the top right side of the notification bar where the "clear all" button used to reside (and the settings button gets a new icon too).

  10. Swype like keyboard:
    I'm a big fan of the stock keyboard. I've tried other 3rd party keyboards for a while now like Swype and SwiftKey, but I always go back to the stock keyboard due to its simplicity, reasonably good looks (subjective) and more importantly - speed. Yes speed, but not the typing speed or auto-correction capability that it has compared to SwiftKey (or Swype) but rather, the activation of the keyboard.

    There's this tiny lag time whenever I activate a custom keyboard (Swype is the most obvious one) and when you're on an OS like Jelly Bean you want it to pop up fast. With the new Swype like capability in Android 4.2's keyboard, it makes me want to use the keyboard more. I don't need Swype anymore, sure Swype has more features, themes and better swyping capabilities but overall, the stock keyboard is already 85-90% there - so its all good.

  11. Gallery changes:
    There's some minor gallery changes - for starters, there's a new icon when you swipe through your photos that allows you to directly edit the photo, make some changes to it like brightness, straightening, etc. Also, there's a new filmstrip view versus the original default Grid View.

  12. Complete action changes:
    There was a lot of flak when Google started using the "Complete action" dialog, in Android 4.2 you can double tap on the icon to launch that app instead of taking a two-step action by tapping on the icon first then clicking on "Just Once" or "Always". Of course, double tapping the icon is similar to the two-step action of tapping the icon once, then tapping on "Just Once" in the previous Android 4.1 Jelly Bean build. Take note that this doesn't always work for some reason in certain dialogs.

So is Android 4.2 a step in the right direction? In some ways yes, I think Google is doing a fantastic job although I can say that with the changes made to the platform, it could confuse some of their existing users especially when they're looking towards unifying the platform especially the UI. One obvious change is that in Jelly Bean 4.1 / 4.2, you get a giant phone UI where the back, home and app switcher button smack right in the middle of the screen. In ICS, these buttons are on the left side of the screen with the clock on the right (and the notification bar too) - at least on tablets.

On the new Nexus 10, having the software buttons smack right in the middle will be WEIRD as there's just too much unused spaced on the left and right hand side of the screen especially in landscape mode. Google did this to unify and standardise the UI but it does cause some confusion to the user if they came from ICS, so I don't know if it'll work out in the long-run - we'll just have to wait and see.

One issue with Android 4.2 right now out of the box is that it breaks some apps, the most notable ones are Nova Launcher & MX Player. For Nova Launcher, there's a new 1.3.3 final (no longer beta) build available for update via the Play Store - so that takes care of things. 

For MX Player, it just won't start - it shows an unsupported Android version error when you launch the app. There's probably other apps that don't work with Android 4.2 (such as Stickmount as I've heard), so if you depend on apps like MX Player and Stickmount, don't update to Android 4.2 just yet until you know that there's an updated version of those apps on the Play Store that works with 4.2.

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