Tech Trends columnist John Brandon checks out how Google's highly anticipated new operating system, Android 4.0, stacks up.
This spring, a slew of smartphones and tablets running on Google's highly anticipated new operating system, Android 4.0, is set to hit stores. The operating system, whimsically code named Ice Cream Sandwich, boasts cutting-edge features, including the ability to swap contact information with a tap of the phone. I got my hands on two Android 4.0 devices, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus smartphone and the Lenovo IdeaTab S2 tablet, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January and gave them a whirl.
The 4.8-ounce Samsung Galaxy Nexus, which is available for $300 with a Verizon contract, has a bright 4.7-inch HD screen and lasts up to eight hours fully charged. The phone contains a near-field-communication, or NFC, chip that allows it to communicate via radio signal to other NFC-equipped devices. Using the new Android Beam feature, I instantly shared information on 3,000 contacts with a colleague by tapping the back of my phone against her Galaxy Nexus and pressing my screen. I could also beam my individual contact card, maps, YouTube videos, Web links, and a variety of other information with a tap.
Another cool feature of Android 4.0 is the ability to respond to a call with a text message automatically, which came in handy during meetings at the show. Instead of answering calls, I could flick up my phone's screen lock and choose from several stock messages ("Call me back later") or type in a custom message.
I also tried Android's new security feature, Face Unlock, which lets you set your device to recognize your face and unlock only when you look at the screen. My phone unlocked each time I looked at it, which made me feel kind of like James Bond, but Google admits the technology is not foolproof.
I was less impressed with the Lenovo IdeaTab S2, a 10-inch tablet set to hit stores this spring. The tablet, which weighs 20 ounces and runs for 10 hours fully charged, has a front-facing camera and comes with a keyboard dock. The tablet runs on Ice Cream Sandwich but lacks an NFC chip, so it doesn't support some of the system's best features, including Android Beam. However, there was one big upside: Until now, Android tablets and smartphones ran on different operating systems, so apps designed for phones often crashed on tablets. Because Android 4.0 runs on both kinds of devices, the apps on the Galaxy Nexus worked well on the Lenovo tablet, a big plus.
My verdict: Android 4.0 has enough compelling features to warrant an upgrade. Just be sure to purchase a device that makes the most of its capabilities. That way, you'll be able to have your ice cream sandwich and eat it, too.