The latest Dashboard numbers for Google’s Android operating system have been released. The verdict? One in ten devices is leveraging Ice Cream Sandwich as their mobile OS of choice. The numbers, which are current as of July 2nd, put Gingerbread (Android 2.3) in first place with a 64-percent install base; followed by Froyo (Android 2.2) with 17.3-percent and ICS with 10.6-percent. Jelly Bean (Android 4.1), announced just last week at Google’s IO Developer Conference, was not included in this instance of the report (as it is not officially available yet). Hit the source link to view all the stats, and feel free to let us know what Android codebase your handset is rocking via the comments.
Back when Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich was first introduced in Hong Kong last year plenty of us jaded tech folk took a shine to its new Face Unlock feature, which allows users to unlock their devices with their front-facing cameras.
Of course, we now know that it isn’t terribly secure — a picture of your face was apparently good enough to fool it — but Google seems to have made Face Unlock just a bit more secure in their early Jelly Bean release.
According to the folks on the xda-developer forums (who seem to have had more luck installing the leaked Jelly Bean ROMs than I have), Face Unlock now has a new “Liveness Check” feature that requires a person to blink before the device in question unlocks itself.
Nifty stuff, especially as it removes the possibility of a static photo providing access to a user’s apps, information, and content, but it’s hardly foolproof. What’s to say a recorded video (or even better: a GIF) of someone played back on a monitor or another phone wouldn’t be enough to let some persistent stranger into a device? It goes without saying that even with this new change in place, the more security-conscious among you should stick with something more heavy duty from the outset — say, a heavy duty PIN or password.
Still, Face Unlock is one of those whiz-bang features that lends itself well to being shown off, and it’s reassuring to see that people who do use it have another way to help keep creepers out of their business.
Android 4.0 (a.k.a. Ice Cream Sandwich) is the prettiest, most intuitive version of Google’s mobile OS yet, but hardware manufacturers still insist on dirtying it up. Android skins are inevitable, but who does it best? See for yourself.
In each of the comparisons, below, HTC will be on the left with its Sense 4.0 skin; Motorola will be in the middle, with an unnamed skin (previously MotoBLUR); Samsung will be on the right with its latest implementation of TouchWiz. For your reference, here’s a gallery of the same screen running stock Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich).
At the top of this post is the Android 4.0 homescreen, as interpreted by HTC, Motorola, and Samsung. Each of them has a bottom row of four icons, and they’re all swappable (thank jeebus). All of them also support scrollable widgets, which is very handy. The only major difference among them, really, is that Samsung puts the Apps icon on the far right instead of middle by default. Samsung and HTC let you pinch to see all homescreens, however, and Moto doesn’t. Between that and aesthetically pleasant time/weather widget that’s been Sense’s hallmark, HTC gets the win.
All three skins offer lockscreen shortcuts to jump straight to different apps, and music controls are available without the need for a password. Both handy features. HTC requires that you drag the unlock icon down to a circle below, which rises up to meet you, which isn’t totally intuitive. Its four shortcuts are mirrored from the shortcuts on your homescreen, which is either convenient or not depending on personal preference. Motorola doesn’t let you choose which shortcuts you have at the lockscreen, which is lame. Samsung is nice and clean-looking, but you have to go deep into the settings to set your shortcuts. Also, because a swipe in any direction unlocks your phone, TouchWiz is prone to more accidental unlocks. Or maybe just use a PIN! We’re calling this one a tie between Samsung and HTC.
Each skin gives you multiple options for sorting your content, though with slightly different takes. HTC’s is apps-only; if you want to sift through widgets, you have long-press the homescreen. Motorola leaves ICS pretty well alone here, including both apps and widgets, plus sorting. Samsung includes apps and widgets, though with fewer sorting options. Also, TouchWiz doesn’t include a shortcut to Google Play for downloading more apps. Moto and Sense both do. Point: Motorola.
Samsung takes the win here. Why? HTC is a bit bright, and more importantly, doesn’t include a shortcut to Favorites. Motorola’s got its own problems; if you want to open the dialer, it switches you over to a separate app. Samsung has everything in one place, plus the neat trick automatically dialing a selected contact just by lifting your phone to your ear. Noice.
Speaking of dialers, Samsung wins this one, too, for the exact same reasons it won Contacts.
HTC’s native camera app is not only intuitive and easy to use, but it’s also highly customizable; that can be a difficult line to walk. Motorola’s is nicely laid out, but also very intuitive; it’s just a bit more bare-bones. Samsung (which wouldn’t let me screencap while the camera was open for some reason) has a customizable layout, which is nice, but the menu is actually a bit more cumbersome to navigate. They’re all good, but HTC gets the nod for being the best of both worlds.
HTC’s calendar app is head-scratchingly bad. Not only does the monthly view show no information, but there’s no weekly view option at all. What the hell were they thinking? (UPDATE: You can enable a weekly calendar in Sense 4.0, but it’s buried in the settings. Thanks, slickdylan!) Moto’s calendar app is quite good. Easy to navigate, easy to change which calendars are displayed. Samsung surpasses them both, though. As you can see, the information density is just way, way higher than on Sense or Moto. Not only can you see more info on the individual days, the little itinerary at the bottom is rather useful.
HTC and Moto are pretty much identical, and very close to stock, which is just dandy. Samsung, though, has a handy set of toggles (which it’s been implementing since the early days of TouchWiz). Need more info? Swipe right. Simple, clean, efficient. We love that, but we wish they were customizable, as you’ll never use most of them, and it’s missing a few options—like screen brightness—that seem like they would’ve been no-brainers. Still we’ll give Samsung the edge.
So Which Is Best?
To be honest, it really all boils down to personal preference. HTC has the edge on looks and intuitiveness. Samsung packs in more functionality, but holy crap is it busy. Motorola is very sparse and simple, but there’s a lot to be said for sticking close to stock ICS.
iOS 6 is coming soon(ish) to an iPhone and iPad near you. But how does Apple’s latest and greatest compare to the latest and greatest out of the Android camp, a.k.a. Ice Cream Sandwich. Gladiators, step forth!
For the record, this is not a review. There will be no review until we have spent some quality time with the final version of iOS 6. This is a look at how these two stack up on paper in 10 key categories.
650,000 apps. 225,000 for iPad. That’s one ginormous ecosystem.
Android is currently at 450,000 apps for Android. While most of those will work on tablets, the number of apps that have been specifically optimized for Android tablets pales in comparison to iOS.
Apple finally has its own Maps, which is a move that surprised no one, since Apple has been buying up mapping companies for years, and because Apple and Google aren’t exactly getting along smashingly. From what we can tell, it’s an elegant solution, with plenty of overlayed information, traffic updates, and yes, finally, turn-by-turn directions (narrated by Siri). It also has a 3D flyover mode (with vector-based graphics) which looks great, but it raises a question: Since none of the iPhones have 4G LTE radios, would 3D maps even be practical when you aren’t firmly tethered to Wi-Fi? This, however, may be a non-issue, as 4G iPhones will likely be out in time for iOS 6 to drop. Big notable omissions: transit directions, bike directions, walking directions, and Street View.
Google Maps is the gold standard (sorry, Bing, you ain’t there yet). You can chose maps or satellite, crazy 3D buildings are coming, along with offline access, and Yelp-like locations/reviews are basically baked in. The banner feature has been turn-by-turn directions, which it’s had since Android 2.0. For regular directions, you can choose driving, biking, walking, or public transportation. They’ve also mapped the insides of museums, malls, and expo centers. And, of course, there’s Street View, which lets you actually see the place you’re going—like, what it really looks like. 3D flyovers are cool and all, but the eye-level view may ultimately be much more useful.
New in iOS 6, your browser tabs can be synced between all of your devices. In other words, the tab you open in Safari on your desktop will be easier to open on your iPhone or iPad. It’s a pretty handy feature. Bookmarks are synced as well (which isn’t new). The problem? Nobody uses Safari.
With Chrome (beta) for Ice Cream Sandwich you get that same thing (tabs, bookmarks, search terms, etc.) synced between Chrome and your desktop. The only difference: people actually use Chrome. Like,the most people. So, yeah.
Twitter got nicely integrated into iOS 5, but what about Zuck’s little project? iOS 6 will have Facebook more deeply tied into the framework. You’ll be able to upload photos directly from the phone’s photo gallery. “Like” apps right from the App Store, and see which your friends “Like.” Apple will be opening up the Facebook API so 3rd party apps can take advantage of this, too.
Sharing has been one of Android’s tentpoles pretty much from the beginning. Facebook is deeply integrated into Ice Cream Sandwich. You can share pretty much anything to Facebook from pretty much anywhere in the OS, through Android’s little share icon (which you can use to share through a zillion other apps, and doesn’t require additional work from app developers). You can choose to sync Facebook info either from people whose contacts you already have on your phone, or you can pull all of your Facebook friends into your phone contacts (but seriously, why would you do such a thing?). Sharing is still easier on Android, hands-down.
Some people might go as far to say that Siri in iOS 5 was Apple’s broken promise. It worked okay, most of the time, but not as well as everyone expected. Siri has been greatly improved, with new capabilities on movies, sports scores, and restaurant info. Also, Siri will now be available for iPad owners, opening the door for even more people to talk at slabs of glass. Another big improvement is support for Siri from a number of auto makers.
The amount of hype around Android’s Voice Actions pales in comparison to that around Siri, but that seems to be a PR problem more than anything else. Not only has it been around longer than Siri, it outgunned Siri in the majority of our tests. It’s also been available on tablets with Ice Cream Sandwich, and there are rumors that it will be even more capable come the next version of Android.
The new iOS 6 feature Passbook looks really, really cool. It aggregates all of your tickets, passes, and some of your payment cards into one mobile wallet type of solution. It has GPS deeply integrated so info pops up right when you need it (theoretically). It also live-updates, so if your flight is delayed or your gate is changed, it’ll let you know. We have the feeling that this is just the beginning, and that we’re likely to see NFC payments integrated at a later point, making it a true digital wallet
Android has Google Wallet, which some of its phones can use to pay at some places. Large, chain stores and taxis are the most common places right now. It’s cool, but some carriers are really slowing down its growth by keeping it off their networks (looking at you, Verizon). Also, there just aren’t that many places NFC is accepted yet. It can store a few loyalty cards (but not many). For more, you have to go to third party apps. Apple’s Passbook just looks way better than what Google is offering right now.
Has Facetime, which is cool for chatting with other people with Apple devices. It was limited to doing that over Wi-Fi, but with iOS 6, you’ll finally be able to do it over cellular data networks.
With Android, you can video chat with anybody who has Gmail, basically. It works on Macs or PCs, in whatever browser, and on Android phones and tablets. Basically, you have access to many more people. Also, you’ve been able to video chat over cellular data pretty much from the get go.
iOS gussied up its phone a bit for iOS 6, adding a quick-reply by text feature (“Can’t talk now, what’s up?” etc) and a do-not-disturb mode to keep your phone from lighting up or ringing. You can also set it so calls will only come through from certain people. Both nice additions.
Quick replies by text are built into Ice Cream Sandwich. You can pre-write a bunch of your most common responses and just hit one to send it. Android doesn’t have an answer to Do Not Disturb mode, which would certainly be a welcome addition, though you can choose to have certain contacts go directly to voicemail when they call.
iMessages were a disaster in the early developer previews of Mountain Lion, but it’s looking like they’re getting the bugs worked out. You will have a unified ID, so in theory your text messages will sync through your iPhone, iPad, and Mac computer. The ability to reply to text messages via a full-sized keyboard is wonderfully convenient. It also integrates pretty seamlessly with iChat.
Being able to reply to text messages from my browser is one of the things I love most about using Google Voice. That said, most people just want to text from their own phone numbers, so iMessages wins out here. As far as IMs go, though, the cross-platform nature of Google Chat means you can simply keep up with way, way more people.
One of the things we’d hoped for was that Apple would smarten up its app icons. Let them change to display information. Windows Phone does this with live tiles, and they’re certainly more useful than static icons which simply launch an app. Unfortunately, Apple is still stuck in the past on this one.
Widgets have been a part of Android for years now. Not only can they display information in real time, but you can use them to adjust settings on the fly without leaving your home screen. Some of them are even scrollable, saving you more space and looking rather cool. Yes, they come in all shapes and sizes so they don’t look as tidy as Apple’s square grid or even Window Phone’s Live Tiles. But they’re infinitely more useful.
Well, it’s about time that Ice Cream Sandwich made some headway — even if the process is much slower than consumers deserve. According to the Android developer hub, Android 4.0 now accounts for 7.1 percent of all Android smartphone and tablet installations, which is a sharp and welcome increase over the 2.9 percent figure that we reported just two months ago. Naturally, Gingerbread users still account for the lion’s share of the Android ecosystem with 65 percent, but it’s worth pointing out that this segment also grew during the last month — no doubt at the expense of Froyo and Eclair. Don’t know about you, but we like our desserts fresh, thank you very much. Go ahead and hop the break to see the full breakdown.
Have we finally found a tablet match for the 5.3-inch Galaxy Note? ViewSonic sent around a teaser for its “Touch and Connect” series prototypes, including a 22-inch “smart business tablet monitor,” powered by what appears to be Ice Cream Sandwich. The giant touch-enabled device will be joined by a Windows 8 multi-touch display, new cloud computing solutions, high-end laser projectors and some interactive electronic billboards — all set to make their debut on June 5th at Computex. More details will no-doubt be forthcoming in Taipei, so do stay tuned. And you may want to hold off on those giant tabletacquisitions in the meantime — we have less than two weeks to wait for what could just be the largest mainstream tablet to date.
Owners of the Xperia Play, it’s time to curl up with a teddy bear and your favorite ice cream — just as long as it’s not in sandwich form. After the sudden and unexplained disappearance of the “PlayStation Phone” from the Android 4.0 upgrade list yesterday, Sony has followed it up with a full confirmation accompanied by the usual explanation. As you may have already guessed, the manufacturer tells us that after extensive testing, it was determined that “a consistent and stable experience, particularly with gaming, cannot be guaranteed for this smartphone on Ice Cream Sandwich… in this instance the ICS upgrade would have compromised stability.” Sony went on to discuss that it received similar feedback from the developer community after releasing a beta ROM. Still, after being told repeatedly that theentire 2011 smartphone lineup would receive the update, we can’t help but be a bit heartbroken by the news.
In the same breath, however, Sony also updated its timeline for the rest of the lineup that is still on schedule to receive upgrades to Ice Cream Sandwich: the Xperia arc, neo, mini, mini pro, pro, active and Sony Ericsson Live with Walkman will begin receiving their refreshes next week. The Xperia S is still on track for an end of June rollout, with the Xperia P closely following it and the Xperia U sometime in the third quarter. It’s just unfortunate that the good tidings must be balanced out by equally horrible news, depending on which device you own.
Back when it was unveiled at IFA 2011, Sammy’s famed phablet was more of an attractive oddity than sure hit. Skip to now, and that 5.3-incher’s not only taken the European continent by storm, it’s also made inroads onto these American shores via AT&T. In keeping with the open source embrace begun last October, the OEM’s once again offering up the device’s kernel code, this time for the skinned ICS OSunlocked versions currently run. Devs and the amateur hackers that love them should make haste and hit up the source below to get cracking on this latest software nut.
It’s mid-May — do you know where your Ice Cream Sandwich update is? Six months after Android 4.0 made its debut on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, millions of owners of legacy Android devices are stillanxiously awaiting the day the new firmware gets downloaded on their own electronic real estate. At least the scene today is much more pleasant than it was just a few months ago, as ICS is finally rolling out to several popular devices. But if you’re shopping for a phone or tablet, how can you possibly keep track of which device has what version?
Amidst the confusion, we’ve put together a handy list of the legacy devices (read: didn’t ship with Ice Cream Sandwich natively) that have already been updated to Ice Cream Sandwich, as well as the ones that are promised an upgrade at a future date. Of course, many phones and tablets have ICS ROMs, leaked builds and other unofficial versions of the new firmware available, but we’ll only discuss official downloads here. We plan to amend the list as the update rolls out to more devices, so be sure to check back from time to time. Head past the break to see how much of a reach Ice Cream Sandwich has.
Samsung’s tackling the next version of TouchWiz in a major way, already rolling Ice Cream Sandwich out to a number of unlocked devices — the Galaxy S II being the most significant. And there’s plenty more coming: as we’ve come to expect, updates to branded devices tend to stall in carrier-specific testing, and Galaxy Tab users are still waiting for their turn to get ICS. Still, Sammy’s done the best job so far in pushing Android 4.0 out to its customer base.
|Galaxy S II (unlocked, Canada)||Galaxy S II (AT&T, T-Mo, Sprint)|
|Galaxy S II LTE (unlocked, Canada)||Galaxy Note (AT&T)|
|Galaxy Note (unlocked)||Galaxy S II Skyrocket (AT&T)|
|Nexus S 4G (Sprint)||Galaxy S Blaze 4G (T-Mo)|
|Nexus S (unlocked)||Captivate Glide (AT&T)|
|Select Canadian Galaxy devices (on limited rollout, continuing through end of Q2)||Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus (unlocked, T-Mo, WiFi, Canada)|
|Galaxy Tab 7.7 (unlocked, VZW)|
|Galaxy Tab 8.9 (unlocked, AT&T, WiFi, Canada)|
|Galaxy Tab 10.1 (unlocked,T-Mo, VZW, WiFi, Canada)|
|Galaxy S II X (Canada)|
|Galaxy S II HD LTE (Canada)|
HTC is making waves by offering two different versions of Sense on Ice Cream Sandwich: a beefed-up version (Sense 4) for phones natively supporting ICS, and another for legacy devices. If you own one of the devices listed below, you’ll be blessed with Sense 3.6, the “lighter” iteration that stays true to the UI’s older look.
|Sensation||Amaze 4G (T-Mobile)|
|Sensation XE||EVO 3D (Sprint, Virgin Mobile)|
|Sensation 4G (T-Mobile)||Rezound (VZW)|
|Vivid (AT&T)||Desire S|
|Velocity 4G (Australia)||Desire HD|
|EVO Design 4G (Sprint, Boost)|
|Incredible S / Incredible 2 (unlocked, VZW)|
It took Sony a while, but the ICS ball is finally rolling. The company plans to push Android 4.0 to its entire 2011 Xperia smartphone lineup, and we’ve witnessed the refresh go out to three phones and a tablet, with plenty more following in the near future. Sony has a forum post that goes into excruciating detail as to which models (and which sales IDs of each model) already have been upgraded.
|Xperia Ray||Xperia S|
|Xperia arc S||Xperia arc|
|Xperia neo V||Xperia Play|
|Tablet S||Xperia neo|
|Xperia mini pro|
|Xperia ion (AT&T)|
|Live with Walkman|
Motorola has set up a page on its forums that details the progress for each device. Note that a large number of phones and tablets not on our list are still in “evaluation and planning” stages, which means they are under consideration for receiving ICS, but not all of them will make the cut. The devices we’ve listed below have been specifically promised an upgrade.
|Xoom WiFi (USA)||Atrix 2 (AT&T)|
|Atrix 4G (AT&T)|
|Droid Bionic (VZW)|
|Droid RAZR (VZW)|
|Droid RAZR Maxx (VZW)|
|Droid 4 (VZW)|
|Xoom (WiFi global, Family Edition USA)|
|Xoom 2 / Xoom 2 Media Edition (unlocked)|
|Xyboard 8.2 / Xyboard 10.1 (VZW)|
Unlike its Korean rival, LG has been taking its sweet time readying Ice Cream Sandwich for its legacy devices. As you can see below, we know the company’s cooking something up for most of its latest handsets, but only a few phones are slated for an update before the end of June, with the remainder taking the back seat until the third quarter of this year.
|No legacy devices updated yet||Optimus LTE|
|Prada by LG 3.0|
|Nitro HD (AT&T)|
If your device isn’t made by one of the above manufacturers, take a look below. There are plenty of other phones and tablets that will benefit from an update to ICS, and this section is as good a place as any to make sure they’re all included. One company notably absent from the list is ZTE. We still haven’t heard a peep about its plans, if they exist, for upgrading legacy devices.
|ASUS Transformer TF101||Pantech Burst|
|ASUS Transformer Prime TF201||Pantech Element|
|ASUS Eee Pad Slider||Meizu MX|
|Huawei MediaPad 7||Meizu M9|
|Huawei Honor (demo firmware)||Notion Ink Adam|
|Acer Iconia Tab A100||Toshiba Thrive 7|
|Acer Iconia Tab A200||Toshiba Thrive 10|
|Acer Iconia Tab A500||Panasonic Eluga|
Over the last year, HTC has established a reputation for fragmenting its proprietary Sense UI even within the same version of Android. Why, Gingerbread alone is the foundation for at least three different iterations (2.1, 3.0 and 3.5) of the firmware. The bump to Ice Cream Sandwich is no different, with legacy devices getting an update to Sense 3.6 and the One series (and presumably any future devices) benefiting from version 4.0.
Sense 4 is a different story. It’s lighter, cleaner and much more visually appealing than older versions of the user interface, and it has the full suite of ICS goodies to go along with it. HTC also throws in its own imaging technology, dubbed ImageSense, to offer some cool new enhancements to the camera. Ultimately, HTC has successfully tweaked Sense’s design in a way that keeps the spirit of stock Android 4.0 alive, while still offering something familiar to loyal HTC fans. The tour is about to begin, so park yourself in your favorite chair and join us.
The home screen of Sense looks like, well, a slightly modified version of Sense. As silly as that sounds, HTC didn’t break a lot of new ground here. Perhaps the company figured this was a great way to help ease customers into the transition from yesteryear to the new era. Unlike stock ICS as seen on theSamsung Galaxy Nexus and Nexus S, Sense 4 doesn’t feature the non-removable Google search bar at the top of every panel (though it’s offered as a removable widget by default), and it also lacks a virtual row of navigation buttons on the bottom of the display since HTC opted to use three capacitive keys on the One series instead. We can’t just assume that this means the manufacturer will never try the virtual buttons on for size down the road, but it seems rather unlikely at this point.
Even though the virtual buttons aren’t offered on Sense 4, HTC still made sure to throw in an ICS-style launch bar along the bottom of the screen, with app menu access flanked by up to two customizable app shortcuts on either side. You can choose whatever app you want — heck, you can even toss in a folder if that’s what really moves you. The launch bar’s also a tad different here than it is on 3.6, since it’s chopped off on each side and uses only one color tone (in contrast to a two-tone black and grey motif). This means there’s a little extra space in the two bottom corners; it’s not enough real estate to take advantage of, but it lends a greater feeling of minimalism, as well as a cleaner appearance.
The signature clock / weather widget is still there, eating up the entire top half of the screen, but it has a more modern look to it. The massive dark grey box that serves as the backdrop for the entire widget is gone, which makes it seem less intrusive somehow. And, as always, you can simply remove the widget if it’s taking up too much space. Easy enough. It’s not like you’ll be hurting for clock options, considering HTC spared no expense by throwing in a wide variety of possible widgets to choose from. Good news: the 3D carousel in older versions of Sense that spins your main panels around and around like you’re playing the Wheel of Fortune? Retired.
The 3D carousel in older versions of Sense? Retired.
Another Sense staple that’s sticking around for the long haul is the overview screen, which gives you a card-style view of all seven home panels. It’s still accessible by tapping once on the home capacitive key or using pinch-to-zoom, and once you arrive here you’ll be able to change the panel order and even add or remove unwanted screens. This comes in handy if you’re looking to avoid clutter.
Finally, long presses have changed a bit. For instance, performing this gesture on the capacitive keys no longer do anything. Doing it on one of the home panels, however, takes you into a modified screen with a layout that emulates what you’d see if you did the same thing on a Honeycomb tablet: it pulls up a menu that shows thumbnails of your main panels on the top, tabs for widgets, apps and shortcuts on the bottom and a section in the middle that allows you to choose from a variety of options related to whichever tab you’ve selected. When looking at widgets, for instance, you can use a drop-down menu or do a search to quickly find something specific. This part of Sense seems to take advantage of the ICS design style, but the screen itself is nowhere to be seen on the stock version.
Also predominant in past versions of Sense has been the personalize menu, which was featured as a non-customizable shortcut on the launch bar. Essentially, this screen was an extension of the settings app, with several options for display, sound and shortcuts. It’s still around (minus the shortcuts option, since you can find that by long-pressing the home panel), but it seems to have lessened in priority now. How can we tell? The only points of access to this screen are in the settings itself and as a shortcut in the app menu that can be added to whatever spot you want it to go. But that’s the key: you can do whatever you want with it. Freedom to choose. No longer is this menu stuck on your home screen without any way of removing it.
When it comes to staying true to stock ICS, the notification bar in Sense 4 may not be a direct copy, but at least it gets much closer to the general idea than 3.6 does. Individual lines take advantage of the original style, and you can swipe each one to the left or right to get rid of them. And just like the pure vanilla version, you can find buttons to clear notifications and access settings on the top, but HTC pushes them over to the top right corner and adds words to each symbol, helping you understand exactly what each one is there for. Instead of going the same route as Sense 3.6, which offers a section for recent apps near the top and a quick settings tab at the bottom, HTC kept only one tie to earlier versions of the UI: it keeps ongoing processes and one-time notifications separate.
The notification bar in Sense 4 does a much better job of exemplifying the spirit of stock Ice Cream Sandwich.
The new version of HTC’s user interface also throws in extra choices for viewing notifications. Not only can you pull down the bar to see the full list without even unlocking the phone — standard for Ice Cream Sandwich — you can also choose a new lock screen style that lets you view a small selection of notifications directly on the lock screen. You can view missed calls, messages, email (from the standard Mail client, but not Gmail) and calendar events this way. What’s more, you’ll be able to pick and choose specifics: display missed calls from Bob only, view calendars A and C but leave out B, show messages from your wife. We have no idea why Bob’s calls would be more important than your spouse’s, but you certainly have that option at your disposal.
The standard Face Unlock feature is available, as is the standard Sense ring and accompanying quick access shortcuts at the bottom. The apps featured here will ultimately reflect whatever you have hanging out in your launch bar, regardless of what it is. And since you can choose the number of apps you have laying on the bottom of your home panel, this means you can have anywhere from zero to four shortcuts to choose from.
Just as with vanilla ICS, you can pull down the notification bar directly from the lock screen. And if that’s not quick enough access for you, it’s not a bad idea to choose the “productivity” lock screen style mentioned earlier. Calendar events and changes in the weather will also pop up from time to time, and it’s easy enough to simply dismiss them and get those notifications out of your way.
Unlike Sense 3.x, version 4.0 adopts the appearance of Matias Duarte’s horizontal app menu, but you’ll notice one significant difference right off the bat: no widgets. Those can still be accessed by long-pressing the home panel screen, as we discussed earlier, and that’s the only place you can find them. We assume this decision was made to avoid possible confusion when switching back and forth between apps and widgets, but it’s a significant enough departure from the true ICS setup.
In the top right corner you’ll have a search button, Play Store access point and options menu at your disposal. Within the latter you can find the ability to manage, share or sort your apps. There aren’t many options to customize the app menu — you won’t be able to move the icons around to fit your liking, but you at least still have more flexibility with Sense than the vanilla OS. Also, tucked between the icons and tabs is a menu progress indicator that tells you exactly where you are in the potentially vast expanse of app screens.
HTC has made it possible to edit the tabs lining the bottom of the app menu.
Last but not least, HTC has made it possible to edit the tabs lining the bottom of the app menu. If you’ve played with earlier versions of Sense and couldn’t stand the frequent or download tabs, you can remove them on 4.0 simply by going into the app menu options on the upper right corner of the screen and clicking on “edit tabs.” Boom goes the dynamite. If you like your tabs but hate the order they’re displayed in, you can rearrange them however you’d like. The best part is that this isn’t the only part of Sense that allows this — a plethora of apps within the UI now offer the same ability. Customization FTW.
The multitasking (or “recent apps,” if you prefer) menu is different. Very different. HTC’s design choice took us completely by surprise, because it opts for a card layout that’s actually closer in function and appearance to webOS and Windows Phone 7.5 than what we see in stock Ice Cream Sandwich. Each open application is presented as a card, and the entire series of apps is displayed in a horizontal setup that looks like it was inspired by Cover Flow. The slide to close feature is still around, but you flick the card up to get rid of it. We can’t help but be reminded of webOS every time we use it.
Multitasking on Sense 4 is much closer to webOS or Windows Phone Mango than Ice Cream Sandwich. It’s by far the biggest departure from Android you’ll find in Sense.
While we enjoyed this method on webOS, seeing HTC adopt it on its Android devices is a bit of a letdown. One of our beefs with previous versions of Sense is that the UI is so involved, so overbearing, that it often takes you away from feeling like you’re even using Android in the first place. HTC has sought to eliminate much of that same concern in its latest firmware and it largely succeeded in doing so by making the interface more closely resemble Matias Duarte’s vision. The multitasking screen, however, is a gargantuan departure to that philosophy. It functions well, but it’s as if we’re using a completely different OS. Here’s where it gets even weirder: Sense 3.6, also considered to be a heavier, more “watered down” version of ICS, uses the stock app switcher.
We have a feeling many ICS fanatics will shun the native Sense browser in favor of Google’s own Chrome flavor, but there’s still plenty to like about HTC’s version — and it’s especially beautiful on a high-performance phone like the One X, given how incredibly smooth it works. We had a very difficult time finding any lag, and tiling on the browser was practically non-existent. And just like the Galaxy Nexus, Sense’s version scored a perfect 100 / 100 on the Acid3 test.
The native browser keeps many of the stock settings and adds a few of its own for kicks and giggles. Instead of throwing in extra stuff just for the sake of being different, however, the new features can actually become quite useful: a toggle switch to enable Flash, wireless printing (not new to Sense, but it isn’t on the vanilla ICS browser) and an “add to” option which lets you easily stash your current page on bookmarks, an icon on your home panel or a reading list — Sense’s version of offline reading. Incognito mode is still there, but it takes you one additional step to pull it up; on Sense, it can only be accessed when you go through the action of adding a new tab.
The quick access shortcut menu in the native browser is still there, and HTC has added a couple more options to make it even better.
Also retained in this version of the ICS browser is the clever labs feature in which a semi-circle with quick access shortcuts can appear simply by dragging your finger onto the screen from the left or right bezel. Sense, not satisfied with keeping it precisely the same as what you’d find on vanilla Android 4.0, has added two extra options. In addition to buttons for settings, window toggle and URL bar, it allows you to add a new window and go directly to your bookmarks. They’re not crucially important, of course, but it was pretty handy.
HTC has armed the cameras in its Sense 4 devices with a new weapon: ImageSense. This technology is made possible by integrating a custom chip and enhancing several other parts of the camera like the lens, sensor and software in general. While all of these elements are crucial to ensuring ImageSense works as advertised, we’ll focus on the cam’s user interface specifically.
With Sense 4, there are no more specific “modes” in which you need to access a toggle switch to move back and forth between still and video. Instead, both options are available to you together to the right of the viewfinder, the two buttons hanging out together in peace and harmony as one mode. We appreciate this setup because it’s much more convenient when you need to quickly choose one or the other, such as when a precious moment is going on. Switching from still to video (or vice versa) ends up taking a few seconds you just won’t get back, after all. But it’s also structured this way to accommodate one of ImageSense’s biggest features: the ability to take still pictures and videos at the same time.
ImageSense’s ability to do stills and videos at the same time is absolutely stunning.
Before we get to the gallery, let’s turn back to the main camera UI. In addition to the pair of shutter buttons to the viewfinder’s right, you’ll also see gallery access on the bottom corner, with a odd blue lens on the top. The blue lens, when pressed, shows you a menu of different effects and modes to take advantage of: depth of field adjust, distortion, dots, vignette, vintage and the usual suite of greyscale, sepia, negative and others are all there. These aren’t anything new to the Sense UI, but you definitely won’t see them in stock ICS.
The opposite side of the screen reveals three options: settings, flash mode and camera scenes. You get the usual HTC smattering of settings, such as resolution, ISO, white balance, exposure / saturation adjustments, face detection, video stabilization and so on. Continuous shooting — which lets you hold down the shutter button to fire off a machine gun-style round of images — is also available as a toggle here. Moving on to camera scenes, there’s plenty to choose from. Panorama, landscape, low light, HDR and slow motion are a few examples of various options here. Also, the bottom of the viewfinder offers a slider for zoom in / out.
A few more words on continuous shooting. One of the biggest feature enhancements in the new Sense is speed: first you’ll notice the 0.7-second startup and a 0.2-second autofocus. Then, by holding down the shutter button, you’ll be able to rapidly fire off a full series of continuous shots for as long as you’d like (though there is a setting in which you can choose to limit the number of captures to twenty). When you’ve completed your series, you’re automatically taken into an album-within-an-album in which you can look at each individual shot that you captured and pick and choose whichever ones don’t fit the bill. Or, you can choose to keep just your favorite shot and delete all the rest.
Now, the gallery. We already mentioned the shutter button that’s available when you’re previewing a video, but what about the rest of the options? On the top right you can adjust volume and brightness. The bottom left reveals a share button, where you can choose to export the video to several possible apps. Along the bottom is the back / forward / pause and play, as well as a slider to fast forward or rewind your current selection. Finally, the bottom right corner offers a “more” button that gives you more choices. You can go here to find a Beats toggle, go into full screen mode, lock controls or trim the video (although anyone looking to do more with their movie can use Sense’s movie editor app).
With Sense, you have the standard photo album view in the gallery, but you can choose to hide certain ones that you don’t want to look at or let someone else see by accident. When going into an album, you’ll first see the full layout of the images along with options to share, delete or even play the whole thing as a slideshow. When you go into an individual image, you can edit the specific picture, set it as your wallpaper, share it or print. And just like previous versions of Sense, if you begin flipping through the album the pictures turn into smaller thumbnails and scrolling between each one becomes much faster. This comes in handy if you have a plethora of photos to scan through and want to save extra time.
Keyboard: HTC loves its virtual keyboard so much that the layout remained nearly identical, with the exception of a standard set of arrows on a fresh row at the bottom. This means if you weren’t a fan before, nothing’s going to change your mind now. Of course, part of the beauty of Android is the fact that you can simply download a new keyboard and use it instead, so this really isn’t a make-or-break factor when you’re thinking of purchasing a device. On a positive note, we were quite pleased to see the trace functionality still baked into the Sense keyboard, and it worked brilliantly.
Calendar: Sense’s calendar is colorful and easy to read. You can view multiple calendars and incorporate tasks, contact birthdays, Facebook events and more. The weather for the city of your choosing is spread out across the top of each individual day, but if the daily layout isn’t for you, just touch one of the tabs at the bottom to switch to week, month and agenda views.
Phone: The layout is very much what you’d come to expect from Sense, but a few elements have been tossed around to make room for uniformity with other parts of the UI. For instance, tabs now run across the bottom of the app and the rest of the keypad has shifted up the screen to make room for them. Two of them — groups and call history — can fortunately be removed if necessary. What can’t be taken away, though, are the phone and contacts tabs.
Beats Integration: HTC must have received a lot of complaints from customers upset that Beats Audio couldn’t be used in third-party apps, because the company added the functionality into Sense 4 and used it as one of the update’s key talking points at Mobile World Congress in February. While only certain legacy devices (such as the Vivid) will get the feature alongside version 3.6, every phone or tablet bearing 4.0 will likely boast this capability. We checked it out on the One X, and was indeed able to take advantage of Beats on several third party apps.
Widgets: Most widgets made available by Sense 4 aren’t all that different from any other HTC device that has come before it. There are a few native Android widgets scattered about, but be prepared to wade through a much larger sea of available options with Sense than you would have on pure ICS.
Disabling apps: Not every app or process can be disabled in Sense, and there doesn’t appear to be any rhyme or reason to which ones are affected. The camera app and bluetooth share can’t be disabled, for instance, but the dialer and contacts apps can. With that said, there are still plenty more options to get rid of stuff on Sense 4 than any Gingerbread-running version.
Dropbox: The One series is lacking in expandable storage, but we’ll give HTC credit for trying to come up with a solid alternative method to make up for it. The Taiwanese company has once again partnered with Dropbox to hook you up with 25GB cloud storage space when you’re rockin’ on a Sense 4 device. This is more than plenty of real estate for many people, and it’s most likely sufficient if you’ve been taking advantage of other cloud services or streaming music options such as Google Music, Spotify or anything else. Our primary concern here isn’t a matter of running out of space; it’s the fact that nearly all of these services end up becoming a huge drain on capped data. If you don’t have unlimited, you’ll want to be incredibly picky about how much you listen to on a regular basis.
As a sidenote, we’re unsure if you can still get the same amount of storage via Dropbox if you port the new Sense firmware onto an older device, but we’d love to find out from any aspiring devs who want to give it a shot.
Clock: Gone is the desk clock tab, and the world clock has undergone a makeover. While the same clocks are still there, they’ve been restricted to the bottom half. Taking its place on the top section of the screen is a Google Earth-style globe that can be rotated, tilted and zoomed, all the while displaying weather conditions in major cities as you go. Nearly all of the other tabs within the app have barely changed, with only slight variations in style.
Screenshots: Yes, Virginia, screenshots are included in Sense 4. Hold down the power and volume down buttons and kapow — the shot is stored in your gallery, and you can do whatever the heck you want with it.
Easter eggs: Perhaps only a handful of people really give a darn about if their phone comes with hidden easter eggs, and perhaps HTC agrees, because Sense doesn’t come with the typical stock Android gems. There, there, heartbroken reader. You’re a trooper, everything will be okay.
Test menu: For those that like to dig really deep into menus, we combed through the test menu (accessible by dialing *#*#4636#*#* in the phone app) and found it to be identical in setup to stock Ice Cream Sandwich.
Ah, Android skins. We’ve vehemently opposed many of them over the years, because each manufacturer chooses to value differentiation and “user experience” more than the nature of the OS itself and completely misses the point. Additionally, a healthy portion of these skins are loaded up with so many extra frills and gimmicks that the performance of the actual device suffers as a consequence. HTC’s proprietary UI is no exception to this, and in the past has been one of the worst offenders.
With the exception of a few questionable nips and tucks, HTC’s latest UI, Sense 4, has avoided this same reputation. Peter Chou’s company has largely succeeded at its goal of bringing a lighter version of its skin to the One series. While it doesn’t look like a copy of vanilla Ice Cream Sandwich, it’s able to maintain its unique personality but still holds on to the spirit of what Matias Duarte has been working hard to accomplish with the Android OS. By this, we mean offering a fresh design, important new features and great performance — all of these being elements that were sorely needed. For the first time in ages, we’re loving the experience of a Sense-powered device.