News Column

Android 4 Smarter, but Not Simpler or More Beautiful

Dec. 1, 2011

Troy Wolverton


Google describes the latest version of its Android operating system -- dubbed Ice Cream Sandwich -- as "simple, beautiful and beyond smart."

I don't think it lives up to that promise.

Don't get me wrong, I like a lot of the new features in the software, which is officially called Android 4.0 and was released to developers in November. But in terms of usability and accessibility, I think it takes some steps backward.

One of the biggest problems with Ice Cream Sandwich, which like all Android versions is named after a dessert, is its buttons and icons. In a graphical operating system, icons are a crucial feature, because they serve as symbols for the operations or applications that users want to access. The more confusing the icons or the harder they are to find, the more difficult the operating system is to use. Unfortunately, Google doesn't seem to understand that.

Ice Cream Sandwich replaces the four permanent system buttons that had been standard on prior versions of Android with three virtual ones. In addition to home and back buttons, users now have a button that brings up recent applications. That's a useful touch, because it was not immediately clear in previous versions how to switch among open applications (tip: you held down the home button until their icons came up).

But while adding the new button, Google removed the menu button and the search button. Users may not miss the loss of the search button, because it's been replaced with a search box that is at the top of every home screen. But they will likely miss the menu button because many Android features -- such as forwarding an email or tweaking the settings within a particular application -- have only been accessible by pressing the menu button. Those menu options haven't exactly disappeared, but they're now harder to find.

Instead of a fixed menu button, users are now presented with one that shows up in different places -- or not at all -- depending on the application. Sometimes this new menu button is placed beside the change applications button. Sometimes it shows up in a row of icons just above the system buttons. Other times, it's at the top of the app or placed somewhere within it. And in some cases, you get more than one menu button on a particular screen.

Adding to the confusion, the menu button is now represented by an icon consisting of three vertical dots. Not only is it unclear by looking at it what the icon represents, its design makes it easy to overlook. Combine that with its inconsistent placement, and you're likely to find yourself frustrated.

Other buttons in Android 4 are similarly cryptic. The home button's icon, for example, has morphed from a reasonable semblance of a house to something that looks more like a fat up arrow. On the home screen, it would seem a reasonable guess that tapping the button might reveal the tray in which all the Android applications are stored. Instead, you access the application tray by pressing on another confusing icon, this one being a circle-shaped button that has six dots in it.

One of the headline features in the software is that it includes a facial recognition system that allows you to unlock your phone by simply looking at it. But half the time, the feature didn't work because it couldn't find my face or there was not enough light. Regardless, it was simpler and faster to unlock the phone by simply swiping my finger on the screen.

Admittedly, some of these complaints are nitpicks. And Android 4 does include many other new features that are fun, compelling and useful.

One I liked is that you can set the Android browser so that it always asks for the PC version of a Web page, not the mobile optimized one. That's great, because many mobile websites provide only a truncated version of the full site, and I often find myself manually requesting the full page.

The built-in camera application in Android 4 is also much improved and lightning fast. On the Samsung Galaxy Nexus phone I was testing it on, I could take a picture with almost no lag time and subsequent ones nearly instantaneously. I loved how quickly Apple's iPhone 4S takes pictures, but the Galaxy Nexus blows it away.

Android 4 also adds the ability to take panoramic pictures from within the camera app. And it includes some fun new video recording features. You can give people in your recordings funny faces, such as big eyes or swollen mouths. Or you can swap out the background, so that it looks like they are standing on the moon or in a field at sunset.

I don't know if features like these make Android 4 "beyond smart," but they do make it more compelling and functional than previous versions. I just wish that Google had spent more time trying to make Android simpler and more beautiful, because those parts still need work.



-- Troy's rating: 7.0 (out of 10)

-- Likes: Super-fast camera app; cool built-in video effects; browser can be set to always request full Web pages

-- Dislikes: Confusing icons; standing menu button replaced with one that's inconsistently placed; facial recognition spotty

-- Web:



Troy Wolverton is a technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News. Reach him at or follow him on Twitter @troywolv.

Source: (c) 2011 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)

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