Ice Cream Sandwich? Really? In the annals of product code names, that's either one of the best or one of the worst. I refer, of course, to Android 4.0, the latest major update to Google's smartphone and tablet operating system.
The OS source code was released on the web in November of last year, but it's not the sort of thing one can just download and install—hax0ring excepted, of course. That code first has to pass through verification testing with device makers, which roll their own versions to push out to the products in consumers' hands. Not all devices are guaranteed to be updated, and some manufacturers are taking longer than others to deliver Google's latest.
Asus has been particularly aggressive about keeping its Transformer tablets up to date. The Transformer Prime received its ICS update while we were at the Consumer Electronics Show in early January; we downloaded it over the hotel Wi-Fi, in fact. Then, in the last week of February, the original Transformer got a helping of Android 4.0. Since both tablets have been bouncing between my living room and the Benchmarking Sweatshop, it's time for a Transformer update.
The art of getting out of the way
Although my experience with Ice Cream Sandwich on the Transformers is probably representative of what one can expect from similar tablets, the fact is each device maker does its own thing with the OS. Some fiddle more than others, which may explain why so many devices are still running Honeycomb, the last version of Android targeted at tablets. It surely helps that Asus doesn't feel the need to layer its own UI on top of the perfectly good one that already comes with the OS. Custom interfaces would need to be updated for a major release like Ice Cream Sandwich.
The first thing one notices about Android 4.0 is that the unlock screen now features a shortcut to the camera app, no doubt a handy feature for smartphones. Once unlocked, the GUI appears very much like the last one. You wouldn't know the OS had been updated by looking at it, but one swipe of the touchscreen is enough to notice the difference. The interface is noticeably more responsive on both Transformers; UI transitions are smoother overall, and the Prime verges on silkiness. It remains the snappier of the two, although the improvement on the old Transformer is just as palpable—if not more so.
While the interface is undoubtedly more fluid, the web browser doesn't always feel faster in day-to-day usage. Page rendering times have purportedly been cut, but I haven't noticed a dramatic improvement. My Core 2 Duo-based ultraportable consistently brings up pages quicker. Once the ICS browser has a page loaded, however, zooming and scrolling both feel smoother than on Honeycomb. The Android 4.0 browser also seems to do a better job of keeping the page's contents visible while scrolling, especially on the gen-one Transformer.
Scrolling and zooming may be invoked less frequently because of the browser's biggest flaw: a propensity to load the mobile version of pages regardless of the fact that the Transformers boast 10" panels with 1280x800 pixels. Honeycomb allowed the default browser's user agent string to be modified, presenting devices as desktop systems with no fear of full-fat web pages. There's no such capability in ICS, although the browser does include an option to request the desktop version of a given site. The fact that something so simple—and vital on a 1280x800 tablet—now requires an extra step is painfully annoying. (If you want the user agent string back, try ICS Browser+, a free app available via the Android market.)
Digging into the default browser's advanced settings reveals optional quick controls that can really speed up navigation. This semi-circle of convenient shortcuts is dragged in on either side of the screen, allowing the title bar to collapse and provide more real estate for the page. The virtual buttons are just the right size, but the tab preview windows are quite small, suggesting the quick controls were designed primarily with smartphones in mind. Nevertheless, the controls are extremely useful on the Transformers, especially since they can be activated anywhere along the sides of the display in both portrait and landscape modes.
Speaking of shortcuts, Asus' quick-launch panel remains an integral part of the OS. Notifications are now cleared with a swipe rather than clicking a close icon, which is also true for the pseudo-multitasking interface. Tapping is arguably quicker, but swiping a touchscreen feels more satisfying to me than stabbing the glass.
The Transformer Prime's ICS update doesn't change the tablet's already excellent file manager. However, the old Transformer has now been updated to match. The newer interface is much cleaner, and shortcuts make it easier to transfer files between the tablet, memory cards, and USB devices.
Exploring the OS settings menu reveals a reorganization of options, plus some new ones. Android now tracks data usage by application, which is a nice way to see which activities would hurt the most if the currently Wi-Fi-only Transformers were tied to a data plan. Browsing consumes the bulk of my usage, but it's amazing how quickly the megabytes can add up when flipping through the improved gallery app bundled with ICS. Unfortunately, the battery usage statistics aren't quite as detailed as they were on Honeycomb.
A collection of developer options rounds out the settings menu. Screen overlays can be enabled to track touchscreen input and CPU utilization, which should benefit enterprising coders. The speed of the UI transitions can also be changed if you want to slow things down or to enjoy instant transitions without any visual flair. There are other tweaking options, too, but few folks will want to get their hands dirty in this section of the OS.
That's really it for big changes, at least as far as the Transformers go. Ice Cream Sandwich has subtle tweaks throughout, like the ability to resize desktop widgets and stack application icons in pseudo folders, but those tweaks don't have as big of an impact on the typical user experience.