Android 4.1 Jelly Bean overview: Everything you need to know

Android 4.1 Jelly Bean logo and Nexus 7

Android 4.1, Jelly Bean isn’t a complete overhaul of the platform, but it is an important update. It’s polished, it’s slick, and it’s all about the user experience. But has Android finally matured? Let’s take a closer look at what Jelly Bean brings to the party.

It wasn’t long ago that Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich was released, but a lot has happened since it burst onto the scene with the Galaxy Nexus last November. If you’ve forgotten what was so desirable about ICS then here’s a reminder in the shape of five reasons you need Android 4.0. The Android 4.1 Jelly Bean announcement came hot on the heels of Microsoft and Apple announcements amidst a flurry of new hardware from Google.

While Android 4.1 is, as the name would suggest, mostly a refinement rather than a major jump forward for the platform you might not be expecting much. Here’s what’s new, at a glance.

Google Now (phone)

Google Now

This ambitious feature is aiming to be the virtual assistant you always wanted. By drawing data about you, your location, and your activities from your smartphone, Google Now is supposed to make your life easier. Voice commands offer search and control over basic functions, but the real attraction of Google Now is that it will learn about you over time and get better at pre-empting your desires and needs with relevant suggestions.

It will create cards for you based on things like weather, traffic, places, and currency. To give an example: a transit card should pop up when you are at a train station or bus stop and offer a timetable for your trip, or a sports card might pop up with the latest score when your favorite team is playing a game. The information is all divined from your own interactions with the device so the more you put in, the more you’ll get out.

It is still in beta so people are reporting mixed results and you can opt out if you don’t like the idea.

Smoother performance

Each new version of the Android platform has improved on the performance of the last but 4.1 Jelly Bean is supposed to lift it to new silky, buttery smooth heights. This is part of Google’s “Project Butter” which is all about hunting down and eradicating every last millisecond of lag it can find. Scrolling is reportedly faster and smoother than in previous versions of the platform. Overall responsiveness has been improved so any interaction with your device is noticeably snappier.

To achieve this Google has set a standard framerate of 60 frames-per-second. Triple buffering has been introduced to allow the CPU, GPU, and display to run independently.

Notifications and widgets

You can now expand your notifications for extra information and even take action directly. This new interactivity allows you to reply to a tweet or share a photo from the notifications screen.

You’ll also find that notifications from the same app are now tied together and you have the option of turning notifications off for a specific app or even uninstalling it directly from the notifications screen.

Widgets are now easier to place as other items on your home screen will automatically move to make way. Resizing works better (when supported) and you can get rid of widgets by flicking them off the screen instead of having to drop them in the bin. The performance update also makes dipping in and out of apps faster and smoother.

Camera and gallery

Some slight refinements here allow you to swipe between the camera and gallery apps seamlessly. The overall theme of subtle improvements continues with the ability to pinch zoom into filmstrip mode, swipe up to delete a photo, and the addition of improved animations for focusing on an object, switching between front and back cameras, and more.

android 4 1 jelly bean overview whatsnew keyboard

Keyboard and voice input

The keyboard is more responsive and both autocorrect and the predictions that pop up as you are typing have been improved. You can also add shortcuts to your dictionary to creating your own shorthand. The keyboard offers more custom options so you can tweak it to suit your tastes.

Voice input for text is still a possibility for dictating notes or messages, but you can also use the feature offline now.

Google search and apps

Google Now is the big news but there have also been a series of small improvements to Google integration with native apps and services.

You can access Google search more quickly, in fact you can say “Google” to activate voice search. You can also have answers spoken aloud back to you.

Google + functionality has been improved quite a bit with a new layout, the ability to create Events, access live video streams in Hangouts, and +1 things without having to enter the app.

You’ll also find small improvements to Gmail, YouTube, Chrome, and Maps. Most notably, you can get the full text of a new email on your notifications screen now, and you can cache an area in Google Maps for offline viewing.

Updates for Google Play improve recommendations. You’ve also got a new My Library widget for quickly accessing your recent books, movies, or music. The Book, Movie/TV Show, and Music apps have all been slightly tweaked for more efficient syncing and easier purchasing amongst other things.

Other improvements

There are quite a few additional small improvements so that big ICS features like Face Unlock and Android Beam work better. You can get a full list of Android 4.1 updates from Google if you want to review every aspect.

How do I get it?

Android 4.1 is an attractive platform update but not everyone will be able to enjoy it. Right now it’s on the new Nexus 7 tablet and it rolls out first to the Galaxy Nexus, Galaxy Nexus S and the Motorola Xoom. We can expect to see it reaching most of the other high-end devices on the market in the coming months but you’ll have to check with your manufacturer for details of if and when it’s coming to your device.