Friday, 30 November 2012

REVIEW: Android 4.2

Having found the long-awaited 4.2 Android update pushed to my Galaxy Nexus earlier this week, now is a good time to take a quick early look at the new system for the benefit of those considering the pros and cons of installing it on their own devices.

To start with, the "Photosphere" feature is probably the most talked about element added in 4.2, granting the ability to take all-around shots of a location from multiple angles which are then composited to provide a single scrollable panorama, much the same as provided by the "Street View" function of Google Maps. While there are a few teething problems for the feature (for example, it sometimes struggles to sew the images together correctly, leading to mysterious gaps and duplicates of objects) it is on the whole very well done. The major computing work is carried out remarkably quickly and is largely completed in the background, leaving the phone free to do other things, and the effect produced is very pleasing when it works properly, making the Photosphere a solid flagship for the new system. It can be accessed from within the Camera app and, for the time being at least, exists alongside its predecessor, the "Panorama", which now appears sadly lacking in comparison.

Beautiful, but not without its errors: a "Photosphere"

Also available now within the Android Camera/Gallery app is an updated suite of photo editing tools which, outshone by the Photosphere, seems to have slipped under the radar somewhat. This is a pity, since what it offers is arguably better and more useful. While the tools remain fairly basic and lightweight, they now give the option to apply a greater selection of Instagram-like effects to images as well as to perform simple enhancements, such as modifying image sharpness or colour vibrancy. They only add a little to what is offered by previous Android distributions, but they're fun to use and largely eliminate the need to employ Picasa's image editing in all but the most disastrous cases.

The new quick-access menus, taking on the role of the "Settings" widget, are easy enough to use, although they might frustrate those who were happy enough with the previous format by requiring one extra "click" to get to the standard menu options. The addition of Swype-style functionality to the keyboard should also please those users with the tenacity to stick with the stock keyboard in place of more function-laden alternatives, adding yet another way to type text messages quickly while on the move without resorting to voice control. Google Now maintains an increasing presence, although its progression remains largely independent of the Android version installed. The past few months have seen, among other things, GMail notifications, disaster warnings, stock prices and sports results added to the myriad data it offers. I was tentatively enthusiastic about it in my last review, and Google Now remains the service to watch for those interested in serious innovation in mobile computing.

While it has certainly gained a lot of ground, 4.2 is unfortunately not without its fair share of bloopers. For example, upon finishing the upgrade, new users will be greeted first by the newly designed lock-screen. The ability to preview new emails, text messages and upcoming calendar events from this screen is a welcome addition to Android that has been a staple of iOS devices for years, although its arrival is heralded by an annoying shrinkage of the password keypad and the appearance of an inelegant white border to signify the presence of multiple widgets.

Even more noticeable however is the redesign of the clock app, also present on the lock-screen, which has already attracted a fair amount of criticism from the Android community. Abandoning the clean-cut lines of the previous distribution, the new clock opts for a black-and-white Century Gothic-style font that is better suited to a school newspaper than the latest mobile software on the market. Complaints have also been made about the fact that the hours alone are presented in bold lettering, making it easy to miss the precise time in minutes, and about the ugliness of the clock app itself, having a dull grey background and a series of unintuitive menus in place of the simple stylishness of its predecessor. In my experience so far however the most irritating element by a large margin is the lack of control given when the device is in a dock. Relying upon my mobile also as an alarm clock, it was frustrating to find I could no longer dim the display with a touch, instead needing to unlock the phone and navigate through a series of settings menus to set the default mode to "night". The white-on-black display is also considerably more jarring than the previous gentle dark blue, making it much more likely to disturb sleep when used as a bedside clock.

Much of this trouble emerges from the new "Daydream" system used to manage device behaviour when docked. "Daydream" controls are found in an obscure corner of the "Display" menu, making them easy to miss, and contain a lot of options (such as the "Colours" screen) which, while visually pleasing, seem fairly pointless. It is still early days for Daydream, so a few small mistakes should be fairly excusable, though when they affect the workings of one of the most important and visible functions of the device, blunders are bound to draw some well-deserved criticism. It is not all bad, however: while the Daydream clock lacks customisability, forcing users to adopt the ugly black-and-white digital display, it does allow the option of using an elegant analogue alternative. It also handles being prodded while in the dock a lot better, reverting back to the clock automatically after use.

While not as big a deal as the original leap to 4.1.1, 4.2 is still a significant version for Android, though it finds itself seriously marred by a number of details that still require a little tweaking. Coinciding with the release of both the Nexus 4 and the Nexus 10 devices, it is tempting to suggest that this distribution was just "something" to release alongside these devices to make sure they had something extra to offer, and that it could have benefited from additional testing. This is a shame, since fairly minor aesthetic flaws here detract from a number of genuinely impressive new features. In short, it's worth installing for many very good reasons, though best avoided by those easily awoken by bright lights and bad typography.

For more information on the features of Android 4.2, please see the official site here, to which credit for the above image is also due.