Will Android’s Ice Cream Sandwich Take a Bite Out of iOS 5?

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The Samsung Galaxy Nexus is here, and it knows your face. Literally.

Though Samsung’s Galaxy Nexus will be ready for primetime in November (we can only surmise that it will drop on Verizon), the announcement of the Android 4.0 HSPA+- and LTE-capable phone raises another question: who can make the best software?

(MORE: Samsung Announces Android Flagship ‘Galaxy Nexus’ Smartphone)

Sure, the nuts and bolts of the device share similarities with what other high-end phone manufacturers are pushing out these days. But beneath all the hardware, there’s Google’s new software: Android 4.0, also known as Ice Cream Sandwich. Andy Rubin, the SVP of Mobile for Google, has noted that Ice Cream Sandwich will be available for both phones and tablets, unlike its Honeycomb platform which was developed exclusively for the latter.

Though Rubin refused to acknowledge any direct competitors (*cough* Apple), at the All Things D conference in Hong Kong, he did remark that these days, its mostly a software game. Not too long ago, Apple also announced the latest phone in their lineup, the iPhone 4S. But much like yesterday’s Android announcement, Apple’s shining star was the introduction of iOS 5, with the added capabilities of iMessage and a computerized personal assistant named of Siri.

Ice Cream Sandwich adds a whole slew of new features, in a revamped and more attractive user interface reminiscent of the Honeycomb software running on Android tablets. The camera app on the Galaxy Nexus has been updated so that there is zero shutter lag, and taking panoramic pictures of landscapes are an absolute breeze. Near-field communication (NFC) technology is also present in a feature called “Android Beam” which let users sync information by touching two NFC-equipped phones together in a motion very similar to a popular app called Bump.

(MORE: Apple: iOS 5, iCloud Both Launching October 12)

There’s also facial recognition that makes phone unlocks virtually effortless. The web browser has also been updated: Though surfing on most sites is relatively painless, they’ve added an option to quickly switch between a desktop or mobile view on the device you’re using.

In a strange twist, it should be noted that Google has decided to forgo a universal mail app entirely, leaving only an option to check your Gmail. You’ll need to download a third-party app if you use another e-mail service provider. This has to do with the fact that the Samsung Galaxy Nexus was created as a “Google experience” phone, free of any manufacturer modifications to the core software.

[UPDATE: A Google representative reached out to us to say that there is a Mail app available on ICS; however, several people noticed it conspicuously absent in our observations. It is possible that things may be subject to change prior to launch.]

It’s a substantial overhaul from Gingerbread, Android’s most recent version, and if I may go out on a limb for a second, it’s quite impressive. Which begs the question: With the bar being constantly raised, what will consumers ultimately reach for? Will they go with the one with mass market appeal? Will they go with the one with the most powerful slew of features?

Though Apple continues to be the forerunner, Android’s share of the market continues to grow. At the end of the day, Apple has got to be feeling this crunch from Google.

Erica Ho is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @ericamho and Google+. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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