First impressions of Android 4.1 Jelly Bean on Samsung Galaxy Nexus

One of the beautiful things about getting a Nexus Android phone is that the Nexus series are always first in line to get the latest software updates from Google. Frequently described as a “pure Google Android” experience, there were none of the lengthy delays associated with manufacturer customisations such as Samsung’s TouchWiz or HTC’s Sense user interfaces.

The newest version of Android’s dessert-themed OS is 4.1 Jelly Bean, and was recently announced at the Google I/O developer conference on 27 July 2012. Within hours, the developer preview version was available for download at the XDA Developer forums.

Here’s an installation video with instructions you can follow:

I was previously running a custom ROM on my rooted Samsung Galaxy Nexus, so it took me less than 15 minutes to download and install the Jelly Bean ROM. I have been testing it for the past few days, here are some first impressions:

1. It’s Buttery Smooth (Mostly)

Google poured considerable effort into tackling one of the biggest bugbears of Android – the dreaded “Android lag”. In the past, there were frequently delays, stutters, and unacceptable jerkiness when navigating around the smartphone. With their cheekily named Project Butter, Google claims to have solved this problem:

Pretty impressive stuff, and most of the time, it works. Scrolling through the app drawer is a drastic improvement from stock Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS), though comparable to the AOKP ROM on my rooted Galaxy Nexus. There are also improvements in opening the recent apps screen and returning to home screen.

I still notice some lag though. For example, it takes about 1-2 seconds to launch an app from the home screen. Scrolling in the Chrome browser is generally smooth though there is some jerkiness. It is inexplicable, given the power of the 1.2GHz dual-core CPU.

2. Better Battery

An unexpected bonus of Project Butter is the dramatic improvement in battery life, lasting a full day of moderate use. A Galaxy Nexus running stock ICS has pathetic battery life and requires constant recharging throughout the day.

One should easily hit at least 3 hours of on-screen time on the standard 1750mAh battery, which is a common measure of active phone use. I use an extended 3000mAh battery and regularly clock 5 hours of on-screen time.

3. User interface improvements

Placing widgets is now much more convenient. Icons on the home screen will shuffle around to make room for the widget, which can also be automatically re-sized to fit into available space.

I also like the look of the new YouTube app, with a new column layout inspired by Microsoft Windows Metro UI. It is now easier to access the channel feed for subscriptions. Swipe from the right, and large video preview icons slide into place. It’s intuitive, and looks great.

4. Extra features and capabilities

Voice Typing is now possible, even without a data connection. The download package is a minuscule 22mb – pretty impressive stuff. Accuracy is OK after a few minutes of practice, regularly getting around 80% to 90% of the words correct. But probably not good enough to replace typing on the screen.

The new stock Android keyboard now features word prediction, which can save you a considerable number of taps. Some users have reported laggy response when the word prediction option is turned on, but I have not encountered this problem.

Google Now has been billed by some as Google’s answer to Apple’s Siri, but it goes way beyond that. Google Now takes information search one step further by proactively providing you with what you need.

For example, I searched for good steakhouses around Funan Centre. I selected one of the results, Black Angus Steakhouse. Shortly later, there was a notification that the estimated time of arrival to the restaurant from my current location is 22 minutes. Pretty cool, but its relevance needs to be enhanced.

There was a “hidden” feature called Google Song Search, which was disabled by default in the ROM. I used an app called Titanium Backup to restore it, and it then became available in the widget section. This is a song identification app, in the vein of Soundhound and Shazam. But it’s free and has the might of Google behind it. These companies have a fight on their hands now.

Conclusions

The hardware specifications of current high-end phones are currently so powerful, the performance bottlenecks now lie in the phone software. Samsung understood this, which was why its latest flagship, the Galaxy S3, was all about the software enhancements such as SmartStay and S-Voice.

Jelly Bean has made the Galaxy Nexus feel like a brand new phone. It is faster, smoother, and more powerful. I love it.

Unfortunately, most phones in the market will not be upgraded to Jelly Bean. Even if an upgrade is in the pipeline, you better be prepared to wait at least 6 months for the manufacturers to tinker with it.

I expect the next iterations of the Android software to be as big a leap over Jelly Bean, as it was over Ice Cream Sandwich.

This is why I will only buy Nexus smartphones from now on.

[Edited on 5 July 2012: Added installation video.]

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About Hun Boon

A little bit of this, a little bit of that.
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