Jelly Bean Impressions: Android’s Most Important Update Yet

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Jared Newman / TIME.com

Android 4.1, or “Jelly Bean” as it’s nicknamed, is not an update full of showstopping features. You can gather that much from the version number, in which only the decimal has changed.

But don’t be fooled; Jelly Bean is arguably the most important new version in Android history.

More than ever, Google understands what it has to do to make Android a top-notch phone and tablet operating system for ordinary consumers, not just tech-savvy users. Instead of just piling on more features with Android 4.1, Google is focused on usability.

Project Butter

Google’s so-called “Project Butter” is a big part of Android’s newfound usability. Four years after the first Android phone shipped, and a year after the first wave of tablets, Android matches Apple’s iOS in smoothness. Although the last Android update, Ice Cream Sandwich, added hardware acceleration to make scrolling smoother, Jelly Bean picks up on finger swipes immediately, and extends the smoothness across the user interface.

To test this, I held a phone in each hand, one running Ice Cream Sandwich, and the other running Jelly Bean. The ICS phone always took a moment to detect my thumb swipes and jumped to pick up the slack, while the Jelly Bean phone started scrolling immediately.

The Android fan base of geeks may not care so much about Project Butter. It’s just a cosmetic change, not a new feature. But when a phone or tablet responds perfectly to the touch, it creates a magic moment, one that was exclusive to the iPhone for years (In fairness, Windows Phones are just as smooth.) It’s more fun to use a device that doesn’t lag or get choppy. On tablets especially, where having fun is a top priority, Project Butter will make Android a worthy competitor to the iPad.

Remembering the Newbies

The significance of Jelly Bean isn’t just about Project Butter. It’s also about the little tweaks that Google made to help ordinary users figure out Android.

A few examples:

  • Widgets are easier to add in Android 4.1. When you hold one over the home screen, other apps and widgets slide around to make room, and the widget resizes itself to fit when you drop it on the page. It’s also worth noting that in Android 4.0, the master lists of apps and widgets were combined into a single menu, so people who were oblivious to widgets before might actually notice, and give them a spin with Android 4.1.
  • Google is placing media front-and-center in Jelly Bean. On the Nexus 7 tablet, the home screen shows a visualized list of your movies, music, books and magazines in the form of a giant widget, and the app tray is filled with Google’s own multimedia apps. The message–yes, Google sells consumable content–was missing from previous Android tablets.
  • Google Chrome becomes the default browser in new Jelly Bean devices, starting with the Nexus 7. It’s miles ahead of the previous stock Android browser, and it’s a brand that people will recognize and latch onto. (As evidence, I submit Chrome’s new iOS app, which is already at the top of the App Store’s popularity chart.)

Finally, there’s Google Now, a competitor to Apple’s Siri that was strangely announced without a lot of fanfare.

The interesting thing about Google Now isn’t that it has a computerized voice that answers questions, but that it works automatically by figuring out usage patterns. It learns where you live, and tells you the weather in the morning. It remembers your work commute and warns you when there’s a traffic jam. If you’re waiting at a train platform, it tells you when the next train is coming.

The importance of the automation shouldn’t be underestimated. In the past, Android’s biggest lure was the ability to customize it, but I’ve seen too many ordinary users ignore everything that they can do with the device, because they don’t have time or inclination to learn. I haven’t used Google Now enough to render a verdict, but if it works as advertised, it could be revolutionary. (I get the feeling Google Now is a work in progress, which might explain why Google isn’t going nuts about it.)

Of course, Jelly Bean’s improvements don’t mean much if phone and tablet makers don’t update their devices in a timely manner. The slow delivery of updates has been a major failing of Android, but Google says it has a plan: Two months before the launch of new versions, hardware makers will get access to a “platform development kit,” designed to help them get their devices up to speed. Select partners have already received the kit for Jelly Bean. Time will tell if this strategy works, but it’s at least a more concrete plan than the failed Android Update Alliance, which as far as I could tell was just empty words.

Android 4.1 isn’t perfect. In my time with the Nexus 7 tablet, I ran into occasional glitches, such as apps that crash, and web pages that render Chrome unresponsive. It’s unreleased software, and I hope Google works out the kinks. Either way, the latest version of Android is a pleasure to use. Most importantly, you needn’t be a tech whiz to truly enjoy it.

(MORE: Google’s Nexus 7 and Nexus Q: A Photo Tour of the New Hardware)

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