Google is getting ready to bridge the gap between Android smartphones and tablets by rolling out a new version of its mobile operating system that’s designed to run on both. Google Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich will start shipping on phones (including the Samsung Galaxy Nexus) in the coming weeks.

The Software Developer Kit for ICS is available today.

The operating system should also soon be available as an update for existing phones and tablets — and unlike Android 3.x Honeycomb, Google is expected to release the source code for Ice Cream Sandwich.

That’s good news for independent developers that create custom ROMs such as CyanogenMod and MIUI that are based on Android as well as device makers looking to put Ice Cream Sandwich on their phones, tablets, and other devices.

So what’s new in Android 4.0? A lot. While the operating system looks a bit like Android 3.2 Honeycomb re-designed to fit small screens as well as large, it’s actually much more than that. It’s also Google’s first attempt at creating a truly unified interface for Android that looks and feels consistent from screen to screen and device to device.

That includes a new font called Robot which is used throughout the system. It looks like Roboto will largely replace Droid Sans.

Like Honeycomb, Ice Cream Sandwich is designed to be used on devices without physical buttons. Instead, on-screen Home, Back, and Recent Apps buttons can show at the bottom of the screen — but they disappear when you don’t need them. There’s also support for gestures throughout the operating system.

Android folders have been retooled. You can now create a folder by dragging two app icons together — the same way you do on iOS. You can also customize folders, and add folders to the tray where your Home, Back, and Recent buttons hang out.

Google has also revamped the notification tray by adding picture icons for your contacts. You can now dismiss notifications one at a time by swiping from left-to-right, just like you can do with some custom ROMs such as CyanogenMod.

You can also remove apps from the Recent Apps menu using the same swipe gesture.

Google has added spell-check to the operating system as well as a more consistent copy and paste feature.

Voice recognition has been built into Android for a while, but now Google has improved it so that it can recognize speech immediately. Previously you had to say a few words at a time and wait for the app to catch up before you continued talking. Ice Cream Sandwich will continue entering text as you talk.

The web browser has been updated to include:

  • Bookmark synchronization with your Google Chrome browser on a PC
  • Incognito mode
  • Honeycomb-style browser tab view
  • Option to request full desktop version of any web page
  • Ability to save pages offline

The Gmail app has been updated with a new simpler user interface that makes it easier to add or remove contacts for a message. You can search the last 30 days of messages even when you’re offline — and you can change that date. Gmail also now lets you swipe left or right to navigate between messages.

Google has updated the Calendar app to support pinch-to-zoom so that you can see more details.

There’s a new option under Settings which lets you see which apps are using the most data and set a mobile data limit to help you keep from going over your monthly allotment.

You can also prevent individual apps from using any data in the background — so they’ll only connect to the internet when you actually launch the app.

Android 4.0 also includes some camera improvements. You can launch the camera from the lock screen by dragging the lock icon to the camera instead of the unlock area.

The Camera app also now has a slider which lets you zoom without digging into the settings. You can also take panoramic photos.

Google has also added facial recognition, which allows you to unlock your phone by looking at the camera.

There are also new photo editing tools built into the Gallery app which let you apply filters, adjust angles, crop, remove red eye, or make other changes. Edits are saved as copies so you won’t lose the original photo by editing it.

Ice Cream Sandwich has a new People app which may just be the best looking contact manager I’ve ever seen. It grabs photos, social networking profiles, phone numbers, email messages, and other data and puts it in one place. Google is making APIs available so that any developers behind a social network or other app can tie into the new People app.

You can also access the People data using the Quick Contacts feature from your Gmail app or any other app where you can click on a contact’s name.

The phone app also shows contact photos. Google has also finally integrated voicemail and visual voicemail into the Call Log screen. You can also now adjust playback speed for a voicemail to get through long messages more quickly.

Google also added a new feature that takes advantage of the NFC (Near Field Communications) technology in the Samsung Galaxy S and Samsung Glaaxy Nexus phones. It’s called Android Beam and it lets you share content between two Android devices with NFC just by touching two devices together and tapping a Beam button.

This lets you share web pages, YouTube videos, People cards, maps, and other data. If you’re playing a game or running another app, you can send an Android Market link to another device with a simple tap.

Brad Linder

Brad Linder is editor of Liliputing and Mobiputing. He's been tinkering with mobile tech for decades and writing about it since...