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What Is Android Jelly Bean?

Android 4.1


A Nexus 7 tablet is shown at the Google Developers Conference running the latest Android Jelly Bean OS.
Mathew Sumner/Stringer/Getty Images News/Getty Images

What is Android Jelly Bean? This latest robotic treat is the update to Android's Operating System, Android 4.1.

All of the major Android updates have had dessert themed code names following in alphabetical order. Jelly Bean follows Cupcake, Donut, Eclair, Froyo, Gingerbread, Honeycomb, and Ice Cream Sandwich. Although Google hasn't officially released a code name for the next update as of this writing, the popular rumor is that we'll be looking at Key Lime Pie, and we'll probably see it sometime next spring.

So what does Jelly Bean bring to the table?

Project Butter

Project Butter isn't a new app. It's a new way to iron out the problems with slow displays in some Android phones and tablets. A new Nexus 7 will scream through anything because it's got a quad core processor in it and powers through things with twice the processing speed as a Galaxy Nexus. That doesn't mean that the Galaxy Nexus is an old or slow phone. It just doesn't look like it's going as fast because of unresponsive graphics in some cases.

Project Butter is designed to make those graphics look smooth as butter. There are a few changes in how graphics display. Opening and closing an app will get a zooming action in Jelly Bean where they got a pinching action in Ice Cream Sandwich, but the average user is just going to notice the speed and smoothness of the display. Part of this is accomplished by prioritizing processing power whenever you're touching the screen and lowering it when you're not. However, this may mean a game of Angry Birds is a bit more of a battery drainer, even if it's much faster.

Better Keyboard Predictions

Android Jelly Bean adds smarter text prediction that can learn from your typing habits and starts to predict the next word before you've even typed it. This function is either pretty amazing or really creepy evidence of Google mind reading skills.

Useful Notifications

Getting a notification alert is useful, but wouldn't it be far more awesome if you could respond to that alert directly from the notification "shade"  instead of launching the associated app? Wish granted. Jelly Bean allows you to do things like respond to a calender event reminder with a reply to all attendees that you're running late or instantly call someone back when you miss a call. You can also expand your email alerts to see whether or not it's an important message rather than just seeing an alert that you've got mail.

Right now these notification enhancements will only happen on Google apps, but it's possible that Google will allow other app developers to hook into it, so you don't have to keep clicking through to find out who added you on Instagram or friended you on Foursquare.

Improved Photos 

Instead of having to launch a separate gallery app from the camera app to sort through your photos (and waiting, waiting, waiting for the app to load), Jelly Bean adds easier editing and sorting capabilities. Now you shoot photos and can quickly switch between camera and filmstrip view to go through your footage.

Widgets Are Smarter

Ok, the resizable widgets are pretty nice, but it's still too easy to be told that there's not enough room because the default size for your widget is too big. Now widgets automatically shrink down to fit the available space, if they can, and any time you drag around a widget, the other widgets move to get out of the way just like text reflowing around graphics in a word processor. It's pretty handy.

Improved Accessibility Features

I attended an accessibility conference last year, and I was amazed at the number of visually impaired iPhone users there. As it turns out, the iPhone is pretty easy to use right out of the box. There are a limited number of places you need to put your fingers to make it work, and it can give useful audio feedback. When I asked about Android phones, I was routinely told they weren't useful. It was hard to navigate them if you couldn't see the screen, and the audio feedback wasn't enough. Android Jelly Bean is attempting to make up for that with better audio feedback and gesture controls.

Android Beam

This is Google's version of the Bump app. Two phones with NFC connections can send each other apps, videos, websites and more by tapping phones together. This is a cool feature, but it requires two NFC phones running Jelly Bean.

Google Now

Google Now is likely to be the coolest or most creepy part of the Jelly Bean experience. Remember how we all suspect Google knows everything about us? Now is Google's chance to show us just how much. Google Now shows the weather when you leave for work, the train schedule when you're standing on the subway platform, the score of the game you didn't even explicitly tell it you were interested in seeing, and the traffic conditions for your drive home from work. That's pretty awesome, and that's also dangerously close to creepy. Let's hope Google does this so seamlessly that it all feels helpful and not stalkerish.

Who Gets Jelly Bean?

As usual for Android upgrades, not all phones will or can be upgraded. Future phone and tablet releases, including the Nexus 7, will likely ship with some version of Jelly Bean pre-installed. Other device makers have to decide whether or not rewriting their proprietary versions of the Android operating system is worth the hassle. Then there are also hardware constraints. Some phones are simply too old to run modern versions of Android. Most likely only popular and fairly recent phones will get the upgrade. As of this writing, the only two confirmed upgrades will go to Galaxy Nexus and Nexus S phones, both made by Samsung and sold by Google. 

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