One of the biggest highlights coming out of this year’s Google I/O Conference was the announcement of the latest and greatest version of Android, 4.1. This version (codenamed Jelly Bean) looks to take the huge step forward that was Ice Cream Sandwich and take that just a little bit further. Between an improved user interface and cool new features like Google Now, there’s a lot to be excited for.
However, for everyone not rocking a Nexus device, it will probably be a while before you see an update to Jelly Bean. A good number of you will never see the update at all. Manufacturers can be a sloppy about this kind of thing. That’s why we have XDA to provide custom ROMs that are faster, more secure, and support more devices. Put on your flashing hat, because we’re going to put Jelly Bean on devices that were never intended to run it.
A Taste of Jelly Beans
Right now, Jelly Bean has rolled out to only the Galaxy Nexus. However, official updates are coming to Asus tablets, the Galaxy S III, and HTC’s One line. As long as you bought the device within the past year or so, it will probably get the Jelly Bean update sometime soon.
Unfortunately, a lot of people (read: us) are locked into two year contracts and still carry ancient phones that didn’t get Ice Cream Sandwich. Our aging Evo 4G is destined to remain forever on Gingerbread. There’s no way it’s getting an official update to Jelly Bean.
It can, however, get an unofficial port. Google released the source code to 4.1, and the good folks at XDA have not been idle. There are already early builds of ROMs based on Jelly Bean. The ROM depends on your device. Our advice is to search “(your device) jelly bean xda” or something along those lines on Google.
We flashed an alpha build of CyanogenMod 10 on our Evo 4G for general reviewing purposes. It did involve installing a new custom recovery. Again, your installation will vary by the device. Just be ready to deal with some technical issues.
It’s Pretty Alpha
Unfortunately, this is not an official copy of Jelly Bean. As a matter of fact, the ROM we installed is an early alpha build of a port of an early alpha build of a custom ROM based on Jelly Bean. So, it’s not quite the stock Android experience.
Our copy of Jelly Bean was extremely laggy and buggy as hell. However, this is almost certainly due to running an unofficial copy than any fault inherent to Jelly Bean. Unfortunately, the bugs preclude any sort of legitimate way to review Project Butter and the speed enhancements Google claims to have put in Jelly Bean.
User Interface Done Right
Even without getting a look at Project Butter, we did get a good eyeful of the redesigned user interface. Man, has Android come a really long way from the bad old days of Gingerbread. Jelly Bean looks good. Dark gradients, bright blue highlights, and the new Roboto font all add up to one extremely streamlined user experience.
Android has really come into its own with this iteration. The UI is good enough that we actually prefer it to iOS, a first considering how much care Apple puts into their mobile OS. Which aesthetic is better is a matter of personal preference, but we’re partial to Android’s grey-and-blue scheme.
The New Stuff Is Cool
The first thing you’ll see upon starting up Jelly Bean is the new launcher. It takes the old ICS features such as an improved app drawer separated into apps and widgets and adds to them with a few new additions.
The one that will probably prove most useful in the long run is the new moving behavior. When trying to put an app or a widget down on the desktop, the other items move out of the way. Rearranging home screens should be a bit easier now.
The launcher also comes with a search bar across the top of every page to provide quick access to Google Now.
The Android Siri
Did we say Google Now? Mountain View’s latest addition to the OS that is clearly not copied off of iOS is, well… awfully similar to Siri. The two are about equivalent, with slightly different strengths.
The good news is that Google Now is a totally functional service that works quite well. It picks up your voice with little to no errors. We can’t vouch for other languages, but the service certainly had no trouble with understanding American English even in a crowded room full of other people talking.
As an answer service, Google Now is pretty good. It knew the drummer for the Beatles and the release date of The Godfather. It did not know the height of Liam Neeson or who voiced Commander Shepard in Mass Effect.
However, even when Google Now could not come up with an answer, it quickly pulled up a page of search results that always had the answer within the first few links. Even the questions it can answer come with a page of links for you to find further information.
Overall, we were quite impressed with Google Now. As a Siri competitor, it works. As a voice search machine, it’s reliable. As a Jelly Bean feature, it makes us wish we could run Jelly Bean as our daily driver (it’s too glitchy).
Jelly Bean doesn’t bring any serious changes to the stock apps included with Android. As readers no doubt know from our Beat The Stock series, there’s really no reason to use the stock Android app for… well… anything, really.
The stock browser is improved. It now comes standard with offline reading, inverse colors, adjustable font size and zoom, and a full screen mode to hide the status bar (a neat feature borrowed from the Sense browser). With that said, we’d still recommend Chrome or Dolphin or other awesome browsers over this as they still have more features.
Stock messaging still sucks. There’s really no other way to put that. Get Go SMS or Handcent or other cool messaging apps, they are better in every way. You’d think Google would have pop-up messages by now.
The new keyboard, on the other hand, is the one part of the system you might not have to replace. Similar to Swiftkey, it tries to predict what you write. The longer it is used, the more accurate it becomes. The guessing is about as good as Swiftkey and the autocorrection is almost as good as Perfect Keyboard, and it’s free.
We came away from Jelly Bean feeling very impressed. Even though we were running a buggy alpha build, the clarity of Google’s vision shone through unobstructed. The OS looked good, ran (somewhat) well, and was packed with cool features. Personally, we can’t wait until there’s a stable Jelly Bean ROM for our phone.
If there is the remotest possibility that your Android device can handle Jelly Bean, we recommend you head over to the XDA Forums and search for a ROM for your device. Its worth it.