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Google’s Ice Cream Sandwich is a tasty Android upgrade

By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / December 22, 2011
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So here’s the deal: Give Verizon Wireless $300 for a new cellphone, and you’ll get an Ice Cream Sandwich at no extra charge.

Ice Cream Sandwich is Google Inc.’s name for the latest version of its Android operating system. In coming months the software will be rolled out free of charge to millions of Android phones and tablet computers, but for now you can get it only by purchasing the new Galaxy Nexus smartphone from Samsung Corp.

You might not want to do that. It’s a nice enough phone, but rather pricey at $299.99, and afflicted with poor battery life. If you’re hungry for Ice Cream Sandwich, it might be better to buy a less expensive model that’s compatible with the software, or keep the one you have and wait for an upgrade.

It’s a pretty substantial upgrade, too, as significant as Apple Inc.’s recent rollout of its improved iPhone software. Up to now, Google has delivered separate versions of Android for phones and tablet computers. Ice Cream Sandwich combines valuable features from both versions and adds a lot of welcome improvements.

One of the biggest is in speech recognition. No, Android phones still haven’t caught up with Apple’s voice-controlled personal assistant Siri. But Ice Cream Sandwich makes it far easier to dictate e-mails and text messages. With earlier versions, you basically spoke one phrase or sentence, then waited for the software to do its stuff. Now, the process is continuous. Just keep talking, and remember to verbally add punctuation marks, like “comma’’ and “period.’’ The software transcribes sentence after sentence with surprising speed and impressive accuracy. It’s so good that you might start dictating all your text communications.

Ice Cream Sandwich’s experiment in facial recognition isn’t as successful. You can already set an Android phone to “lock’’ when idle, so you need a password to reactivate it. The new system lets you set the phone to restart when its front-facing camera sees you. This cute idea has been built into laptops for years and rarely works properly. Same here. Unless the lighting and camera angle are exactly right, the Galaxy Nexus doesn’t know me from Adam.

A more practical feature helps you manage your cellular data account. Going over your monthly limit can get expensive, so Ice Cream Sandwich will warn you when you’re nearing your quota and can shut off the data service when you hit the limit. And it gives you an onscreen chart showing which apps are sucking down the most bits, so you can see at a glance when it’s time to cut back on the YouTube videos.

For a taste of sci-fi cool, the new system offers Android Beam, a handy way to let smartphones talk to each other simply by touching the devices. This feature will work only with Android phones that contain a special “near-field communication,’’ or NFC, chip, which sends out a tiny radio signal. Samsung and a few others have begun adding these chips to their phones, and a few retailers let you use such phones to pay for purchases. Instead of swiping a credit card, you just wave the phone over a scanner.

Android Beam uses NFC to let a pair of phones share data on contact. Say you’ve got a favorite app and want your Android-toting friend to check it out. Just start the app and put the two phones together, back to back. The other phone immediately launches Android Market, where its owner can download his or her own copy of the app.

My personal Android phone, a Samsung Nexus S, hasn’t gotten its Ice Cream Sandwich upgrade yet. But since it has an NFC chip, it can receive incoming Android Beam messages. It doesn’t always work; for instance, it won’t let me transfer photos. But it performs splendidly when sharing news stories, address book contacts, or apps.

There are a stack of other improvements, quite enough to justify the excitement. So when can you get your Ice Cream Sandwich? Beats me. The software should be compatible with most late-model, high-end Android phones, but with dozens of models on the market, you should ask the manufacturer if your phone is getting an upgrade.

Or just wait. When the new software is ready, your cellular carrier will automatically “push’’ it to all compatible phones. Next thing you know, you’ve got an Ice Cream Sandwich in your pocket. A pretty tasty one, too.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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