Android Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) marks a major change for Android smartphone owners lucky enough to receive the upgrade. As Google has outlined and demoed on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, ICS is a major leap for Android design and navigation, and just short of a major overhaul. The good news for tablet owners is that just about every major dual-core Honeycomb tablet released in 2011 and early 2012 will also receive the update, which was designed to unify Google’s tablet operating system, Honeycomb (3.x), with its smartphone offering, Gingerbread (2.3).
At the time of this review, two Android tablets already run ICS: the ASUS Transformer Prime and the Wi-Fi Motorola Xoom. From our time with ICS on the Wi-Fi Xoom, we can safely say it’s an upgrade in every sense of the word. However, the move from Honeycomb to ICS isn’t as big a leap as Gingerbread to ICS, simply because Google built much of ICS off of Honeycomb elements and aesthetics, including the 3D-like homepage transitions and general “Tron” look and feel.
There’s no doubt ICS is a more stable operating system than Honeycomb. Google already squashed most of the bugs by the time Honeycomb 3.2 rolled out, and with ICS, it seemingly completed the job. Our Xoom loaner has yet to crash or freeze outright during two weeks of steady use. Even Netflix, which frequently gave Honeycomb fits, consistently ran smoothly.
And smooth is the best way to describe the transitions; whether between home screens, pages of app icons, or while opening and closing programs, ICS is sleek. This is especially evident when web browsing, particularly with pinch to zoom and page scrolling. ICS finally rivals iOS in that department. Other updates to the browser include a convenient and easy-to-access option for requesting the desktop version of a website, and the option for saving webpages for offline browsing.
The tablet seems zippier too with ICS. It starts up fast, and web pages seem to load faster. Comparing both the Quadrant (performance) and Sunspider (web rendering) benchmarks on the Xoom with Honeycomb and ICS reveals little measurable difference (ICS only slightly outperforms Honeycomb), but the real-world result is noticeable, and for the better.
ICS brings a few slight changes to tablet navigation. The familiar back, home and recent app soft keys are still ever-present on the lower-left corner of the display. Depending on the app, a series of three vertical dots signifying the menu can reside either next to them or in the upper-right corner.
On the homepages, the app tray icon resides in the upper-right corner. From here, users can swipe through page after page of app shortcuts and widgets, which can be opened with a tap, or placed on a homescreen with a tap and hold. Apps already on the homescreen can be stacked to form folders, which the user is then free to name. Folders are such a useful and simple feature, it’s amazing it took Google this long to include them in Android.
Tapping and holding a blank spot on the homescreen pulls up the option to swap wallpaper, whereas in Honeycomb, that was how users could also pull up widgets and app shortcuts.
Borrowing an element from Lenovo and its Android tweak for tablets, users can now swipe away apps from the recent apps popup to either strike them from the list or close them out if they are still running. We’ve said before that Android does a great job of memory management and it’s often not necessary to close out apps, but it’s still nice to have the control, particularly when it comes to maximizing battery life.
Notifications, which are still tucked away in the lower-right corner can be swiped away individually, or canceled all at once.
The keyboard has also been tweaked slightly, and is a little cleaner and less cluttered, and features lighter color keys for a greater contrast than before.
The ICS folders and recent apps/notification management are big improvements over Honeycomb, while the UI tweaks are a wash. That said, ICS seems a well-organized operating system. Nothing feels shoehorned in or forced.
By merging two Android versions, Google hopes ICS will inhibit the fragmentation that negatively affects the platform, particularly with apps. While Android tablets can typically run most Android smartphone apps, there are few tablet apps that take full advantage of the large screen. It’s a major reason Honeycomb tablets failed to take off with consumers.
At the time of this review, ICS does little to improve on the situation. Great apps like Flipboard and Instagram are still absent, as are games by TellTale and the Infinity Blade series, and Hulu Plus is still confined to smartphones and the Vizio Android tablet. Most of the apps that are available aren’t optimized for tablets. This is extremely apparent when comparing the Twitter app for Android with its iPad counterpart. Twitter for the iPad is a stellar example of a tablet app done right. It’s clean, spacious, and completely self-contained; tweets with web links open within the app. Take a look:
On Android, it’s nothing but tiny text and tons of whitespace. Links open within the Android browser and require the user bounce back and forth between the browser and app.
With ICS, Google includes a small menu item near the notification tab that enables the user to either zoom in on the app to fill the screen (and kill its resolution), or stretch it out over the full display. This feature was announced with a previous version of Honeycomb, but this is the first we’ve seen it implemented on a wide scale. It’s kludgy at best and hopefully not Google’s long term solution to the tablet app problem.