Ice Cream Sandwich on My Nexus S

On Friday, my Nexus S finally got its long-awaited Ice Cream Sandwich, i.e. Android 4.0.4, upgrade.

One of the reasons I switched to a Nexus phone last year was to get to new versions of Android quickly. Google first showed ICS in October, and they released the upgrade in conjunction with the Galaxy Nexus release in November in Europe and December here in the US.

Six months seems like a long time to me, but that feeling is probably influenced by a touch of envy watching other phones get the upgrade first. The fact that carriers were rolling out upgrades to their high-end phones more quickly than Google could roll out vanilla Android to its Nexus line was the kicker.

Anyway, after several days using the new OS, I have a few observations that might interest you.

Upgrade process

The upgrade itself was very smooth. The download was a scant 400-ish MB, which came down very quickly over wifi, and installed itself quickly. Within 10 minutes, I was live again.

If you’ve used Honeycomb (Android 3.0) on a tablet, there’s very little that will surprise you; the ICS UI is virtually identical. If you haven’t used Honeycomb and are coming from Gingerbread (Android 2.3.x), then you’re in for a whole new world of surprise and delight, or frustration and annoyance, depending on your perspective.

New stuff I like

I like Android’s widgets, something you won’t get in iOS. For you iOS people, a widget can surface pieces of an app’s functionality on the phone’s desktop, e.g. your email, a music player, a tweet box, etc. Honeycomb added the ability to resize widgets, which was a very helpful, especially for the calendar widget. In Gingerbread, the calendar widget was a tiny 2×3, not big enough to be useful. Now, I can enlarge the calendar widget to see several events, rather than just the next one.

I haven’t tested extensively, but it seems like the GPS issues that plagued the Nexus S may have been fixed. Even with wifi assisting, apps like Maps were unable to get location on Gingerbread, which is exceeding annoying if you’re trying to use one of Android’s flagship apps, Navigation. To fix this problem, I had to add an app that would clear the GPS cache. I’m cautiously optimistic that this issue is fixed now.

Another observation that I haven’t fully vetted yet is improved battery life. On Gingerbread, I had to add Juice Defender to get through a full day without charging, but so far, ICS seems better at managing the battery. The real test will be turning off Juice Defender, but I haven’t been brave enough to do that yet.

Now that I’m running ICS, I can try out the Chrome beta Android version. So far, I like it, but that’s only from a very limited amount of use.

Overall, the UI is much more polished. I like the new Android font, Roboto, which, like any font has its fans and haters.

That’s pretty much it so far.

Stuff I don’t like

My biggest annoyance with ICS is that it’s sluggish, which lends some validity to the long wait. Tasks I’m used to performing on Gingerbread are no longer as snappy, which is one thing, performance. Plus, when I tap and get no response, I continue to tap, which is another thing, affordance.

Couple these two, and you get some wild behavior. I doubt this will ever change, given that ICS is built for faster specs, and adding affordances is essentially a backport. Google wants me to upgrade, so I don’t see a lot of incentive for them to build nuances into ICS for older devices.

I’m also highly irritated that Picasa uploads are wonky on ICS. I use the Picasa integration all the time to upload pictures of my daughter; ICS actually adds a shortcut to the Gallery to do this with one tap when viewing a photo. However, I’ve hit two issues; first, I hit the “Failed to retrieve account information” error, which appears to be caused by conflicts with other synced accounts. Removing the accounts for LinkedIn and Dropbox resolved this problem.

Now, I’m able to upload, but the new photo doesn’t show up immediately in the Gallery on the phone or on Picasa Web Albums. Not immediately anyway because uploaded photos eventually do show up, leading me to believe this is a sync lag. I tried manually syncing to get that sweet instant gratification, but without success. I’ll have to spend more time diagnosing this one.

One Gingerbread annoyance that hasn’t been resolved is the default ringer volume is too quiet and more importantly, the volume resets after you raise it. For me, this has resulted in a bunch of missed calls and texts, and ICS doesn’t seem to retain a volume setting either.

Semi-related, the Phone app has been a bit dodgy as well. I’ve entered phone numbers and tapped the call button, only to have the app silently fail, without remembering the number. I’ve also had the Phone app redial the last number I called right after I ended the call.

Some UI annoyances I’ve noticed:

  • ICS adds a Google search widget to every desktop, and to remove it, you have to disable Google Search.
  • The wifi and carrier signal strength icons don’t always show blue (used to be green in Gingerbread) to indicate data flow, and the addition of arrows to the wifi icon greatly decreases its usability IMO. Classic overdesign.
  • The Phone app is elegantly redesigned, but there are UX problems. First, the end call button is very large, a good thing, but I quickly noticed that the tappable area is smaller than the button. I understand why (accidental taps), but why not make the button smaller and fully tappable?
  • The Favorites window of the Phone app is nicely rendered now, implementing a pane design (vs. a list in Gingerbread), similar to what I’ve seen of WP 7. However, the panes are too big, forcing scrolling, which is not what you want in a favorites (i.e. shortcut) feature.
  • Those accustomed to long-pressing the physical Home button to get the list of the last eight apps launched may be disappointed with the Honeycomb-style switcher, which is a wide list of apps and screenshots. On a smaller screen, this list requires scrolling, making it much less efficient than the old icons.

But what about the features that had me excited back in October?

Camera updates: I was stoked for zero-lag shutter speed and rapid fire snapshots. While the shutter speed has improved, I’m not sure it’s zero-lag, and I don’t see any rapid fire options in the new Camera app. Perhaps this is a hardware limitation of the Nexus S. Maybe someone can comment.

Face unlock: Requires root, bit of a bummer, but honestly, this is a Siri-like feature that I’d probably show off to people, but not use regularly.

So, what’s the early verdict?

Android continues to inch closer to iOS, but there are a lot of little details that I’m sure Apple would not abide. Of course, Apple tends in the other direction, adding fanciful touches that are patronizing. I guess I fall in the middle somewhere.

The evolution of Nexus phones, L-R Nexus One, Nexus S, Galaxy Nexus, Image from Techcrunch

What’s clear about Android is that big screens are its target and future. The Nexus S is a great balance between screen size and usable dimensions, slightly bigger than an iPhone with a noticeably larger screen. ICS on the Nexus S, with its four-inch screen, feels cramped, and that’s a bad portent of things to come.

The Galaxy Nexus is a monolith by comparison, impossible to use with one hand, unless you can easily palm a basketball. You’ll never carry that phone in your pants pocket. Please don’t try.

I’m stuck in a two-year contract, but I don’t expect that I’ll have a ton of attractive (to me) Android options when that ends. Form factor is a big deal for me, given how much I use my phone, and bigger isn’t always better.

Have you jumped to ICS? Thoughts?

Find the comments.




  1. I just got ICS in the last week or so. I do think it’s a slick UX,if a little too fluid in parts.Still, overall, I like it.

  2. On which phone? How’s the phone app working for you? The UI is nice, UX is spotty, overall it’s too sluggish.

  3. Waiting for ICS on my S on AT&T.  Very disappointed that it hasn’t been pushed yet.  I very much look forward to this update!

  4. I thought the GSM S got its update before the CDMI did. I remember they released it late last year, then pulled it. Bummer. I have to say that the phone was more solid running Gingerbread. I guess you’re willing to put up w all the stuff I mentioned 🙂

    It is annoying that Google seems to have fragmented its own reference implementation phones.

  5. Wow, maybe HTC sorted all this out in Sense because I have not had all these problems on my HTC Incredible. Maps+GPS+Nav works great… I laugh when my hubby asks if he should bring the Tom Tom; ringer is steady; Google+ auto uploads photos to itself (leveraging picasa somewhere I’m sure) etc etc. Ironically enough I agree the Phone app is the weakest and hardest to use. Maybe all these problems were introduced w/GB. Verizon/HTC actually has an update issue w/GB. It was pushed last Nov but I still cannot successfully get it installed. Apparently needs nearly ALL the space on the phone to extract and install. Also need to get into HBOOT to clear phone’s cache.

  6. Picasa upload has sorted itself and works as it did in Gingerbread, but the Phone app continues to disappoint me. I still feel like the performance is laggy, but I suppose that’s the old device tax at work, although the Nexus S isn’t all *that* old.

    Some of the stuff I recall being stoked about in the announcement didn’t make it, e.g. face unlock, continuous shutter shots. I think those may require rooting the phone, which is too much work on the S.

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