Accordion Al - image by Ivy, age 10

Business in Vancouver

Canadian Freelance Union- CEP

Nexus brings Ice Cream Sandwich to the masses

by  Alan Zisman (c) 2012 First published in Business in Vancouver March 6-12, 2012 Issue #1167 High Tech Office column

Last time, we started to look at the state of Android, Google’s smartphone operating system that is used by the likes of Samsung, Motorola and HTC to bring touchscreens, apps and media features to their phones.

Once little more than an iPhone wannabe, Android phones have rapidly improved, and while no single model out-sells Apple’s, Android phones – in total – top the smartphone charts.

Google makes its Android operating system freely available to manufacturers. That lets them customize it as desired. That can be a good thing: Android-powered models offer features (like keyboards, large screens, memory card slots and more) not available on iPhones.

But it also can be problematic: when improved or more secure versions of Android are released, it takes time for manufacturers to fit the new version to their customizations. The result: your new Android phone is probably running last year’s version. It might be upgradable eventually – or not at all. Apps might require specific Android versions and might not work on your phone.

Since 2009, Google has worked with selected manufacturers on various “Nexus” phones – the flagship Android device at the time of its release, showing off the pure Android experience free of any customization. I spent a few weeks with the most recent: Samsung’s Galaxy Nexus, courtesy of Virgin Mobile, the first to offer it in Canada, though it’s now offered by other mobile networks as well.
Virgin prices the Galaxy Nexus between $160 and $650. The Nexus showcases the new Android 4.0 – code-named Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS). (Google has used dessert names in alphabetical order for Android releases: Frozen Yogurt for version 2.2, Gingerbread (2.3), Honeycomb (3.0).)

The Galaxy Nexus hardware is reasonably nice – like the models from Motorola and HTC we looked at last time, it’s got a speedy dual-core processor and a large screen. It’s not cutting-edge: while the camera is fast, it’s a mere five megapixels; many high-end Android phones offer eight megapixels. And while it comes with a reasonable 16 gigabytes of built-in storage, it lacks a memory card slot. High-speed LTE versions are available in the U.S. but not yet in Canada.

What differentiates the Galaxy Nexus from the flock is its support for the new ICS Android version. Many of its features came first to Android 3 (Honeycomb), but that version was tablet-only; ICS also supports smartphones.

Earlier Android phones sported dedicated buttons (home, back, etc.) below the screen. ICS makes them part of the standard home screen. That takes some screen real estate and means the buttons aren’t always available, but lets them rotate to the bottom when the phone is held sideways. Like Apple’s iOS, users can easily create folders holding multiple apps.

Email is now more readable, and Microsoft Office-format attachments can be read without any additional software. Email users can also dictate their messages.

The phone boasts near field communications (NFC), which provides capabilities ranging from sharing data with nearby NFC phones to being used as a digital wallet for retail purchases. But with a scarcity of other NFC devices – and a total lack of retailer support – this is more a promise of things to come than a real feature.

Cool – and usable now – is Face Unlock. The feature allows the phone to unlock itself when it recognizes its user’s face.
Expect Ice Cream Sandwich on upcoming Android phone and tablet models. But, for now, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus is the way for Android fans to see the shape of things to come.