Ice Cream Sandwich: What you need to know about Android 4.0

At a Hong Kong press event to unveil the Samsung Galaxy Nexus smartphone, Google finally shared details of Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS), the next version of Android. ICS is meant to clean up the user interface found in Honeycomb, the current platform for Android tablets, and unify the platform for both smartphones and slates.

Based on the presentation I saw from Google(s goog) representatives, the company appears to have done an admirable job on both counts. Here’s a look at the new platform:

A cleaner, more consistent look and feel

The user interface is more consistent with left and right swipes: a central action for managing information and applications. A new font, called Roboto, is easier on the eyes and looks great on the high-resolution screen of the Galaxy Nexus. And the useful, customizable widgets found on Android tablets make their way to the handset.

Matias Duarte, Android’s head of user experience (and the main designer for Palm’s webOS(s hpq)), said three design principles were used for ICS because “people like Android and people need Android, but people don’t love Android.” The new edition of Android was built to be “enchanting, easy, and to make me awesome; it’s powerful and smart,” claims Duarte.

Some of that power and smartness is seen in the new notifications, which can be accessed from the lock screen. Individual notifications can be swiped away leaving only important items. And the platform now offers facial recognition to unlock the phone; if the handset recognizes you via the front camera, it unlocks.

Text input is vastly improved with an updated keyboard that uses in-line spell checking and a new cut/copy/paste method. Selected text can be copied to the clipboard or dragged and inserted on-screen. Voice recognition for input is now “instant”; as Duarte spoke during a demo, the handset began typing what he said without waiting for him to finish.

Core app updates

Hugo Barra, Android’s director of product, showed off core application updates, including the browser, Gmail, Calendar, Data Usage, Photos and People. The updated web browser supports up to 16 tabs. A tab can be closed by — this should sound familiar by now — swiping it off the screen. Apps are closed the same way. Offline reading mode, incognito browsing and bookmark syncing with Google Chrome on the desktop are also supported.

Gmail still doesn’t have a unified Inbox, but now has two-line previews and a contextual action bar at the bottom. Offline search is available for 30 days, but the time period is user-configurable. The new Calendar looks cleaner and supports pinch-and-zoom to view event details or different time periods.

New to Android is a native data usage meter showing a graphical display of mobile broadband usage. That’s handy in light of bandwidth caps and ICS supports the setting of alarms to help consumers manage their data use. Geeks will like the drill-down data usage by application where they can disable background data at the app level.

The new Photos application is revamped to make it easier and quicker to snap images. From the lock screen, the camera is accessible with one tap and the zero-shutter lag demonstration shows that ICS — on the Galaxy Nexus, at least – can take photos as fast as you can hit the button. Filters are now part of the photo app and the camera supports face detection for portraits or group shows. A new panorama mode is added as well.

A new feature called People reminds me of the old webOS Synergy function: All social network connections for a given contact are integrated on their People card. Swiping right shows a contact’s aggregated social status updates. And very social ICS users will like the new Android Beam feature that works with a near-field communications (NFC) chip. Tapping two phones together beams data from one to the other: YouTube videos, People records, photos, web pages, maps and more.

I can’t pass final judgment on this version of Android until I use it myself, but based on the demonstration I saw, it’s safe to say that Ice Cream Sandwich is a large, positive step forward for Android. It removes many of the inconsistencies found in the current versions while improving and simplifying the feature set of Google’s mobile platform.