First look: Android 4 'Ice Cream Sandwich'

Google's mobile OS gets a major upgrade next month, but there's no need to wait to see some of the new capabilities in action

InfoWorld's visual tour of the new Android OS

The first smartphone sporting Google's latest version of its mobile OS -- Android 4.0 "Ice Cream Sandwich" -- is the Samsung Nexus S due in mid-November, with more devices expected for the holidays and upgrades available for at least some existing devices. Android 4 unifies the tablet and smartphone with a single OS that promises a more compelling, touch-savvier, and slicker interface.

Although no devices running Android 4 are yet available, InfoWorld ran Android 4 on Google's SDK simulator to provide a first look as to what's different in Android 4 from the previous Android 2.3 "Gingerbread" version for smartphones and Android 3.x "Honeycomb" for tablets. The screen images here are from the smartphone emulator.

Most of what's new in Android 4 is new to smartphones, which have been running the 2.x OS versions for a year or more; many of the new capabilities for Android smartphones -- such as many of its security and widget capabilities -- come from Android 3.x for tablets. But Android 4.0 also has new features for both smartphones and tablets, such as its ability to recognize your face and use it to unlock your device.

Widgets on the home screen

Widgets are a popular feature in Android 3.x "Honeycomb"; with Android 4.0, they come to smartphones as well.

Corporate security for all

Another capability lifted from Android 3.x tablets and made available to smartphones in Android 4.0 is support for a moderate set of EAS (Exchange ActiveSync) protocols, such as managing password histories and enabling on-device encryption, that puts it in the same ballpark as Apple's iOS. Although Motorola Mobility offers Android 2.x-based smartphones that have these capabilities now, Android 4.0 makes them standard on all new Android devices.

VPN and credential support for all

Android 4.0 brings to smartphones support for VPNs, a feature found previously in just the stock Android 3.x OS for tablets. Also new is improved support for security certificates.

Larger browser tabs

Android 4.0 improves the handling of browser tabs (formerly called windows) in smartphones. You now get a larger visual preview of open tabs that you scroll through, rather than the small thumbnail images in Android 2.x. On tablets, Android 4.0's browser tabs are essentially the same as in Android 3.2, with desktop browserlike tabs.

More browser controls

Android 4.0 ups the ante on the browser controls, bringing private browsing (incognito tabs), the ability to bookmark Web pages for a separate "for later reading" list, and an option to tell websites that you're using a desktop browser so you don't get the "optimized" mobile site if you don't want it. The first two options mirror recent enhancements to Apple's iOS.

Custom gestures

Another new capability in Android 4.0 that debuted in the competing Apple iOS is the ability to create your own custom gestures to save effort on using complex movements.

Visual usage indicators

Android 4.0 brings graphical display of your bandwidth and storage usage status, similar to a feature that's in the developer preview of Windows 8.

Greater notification control

Android 4.0 enhances the notification options for how apps may alert you, adding the ability to display alerts through pop-up boxes. This makes Android's notification options more like those in iOS , which significantly copied Android-style notifications in the recent iOS 5.

Larger text and other UI tweaks

Android 4.0 has a multitude of user interface tweaks, including the ability to display text in menus and other standard UI elements at a larger size. Other controls provide more custom feedback for touch gestures and custom intervals for long taps.