Google Android 4.1 Jelly Bean will be available starting in mid-July. That’s when Google will offer free over-the-air software updates for the Samsung Nexus S and Galaxy Nexus smartphones and the Motorola XOOM tablet. It’s also when the source code will be released and when the Nexus 7 tablet with Android 4.1 will start shipping.

Google Android 4.1

Phone and tablet makers will likely start to offer their own Android 4.1 software updates in the following months.

But the Android 4.1 Software Developer Kit is already available for download today.

So what’s new in Android 4.1 Jelly Bean? Here are some of the highlights:

Speed enhancements

Google has optimized Android to enable faster animations and reduced touch latency. In a nutshell, when switching apps, scrolling between home screens, and performing similar activities on an Android 4.1 phone or tablet, everything should look smoother.

Google Now

Many of the changes in Google Android 4.1 are related to search and text input. But one of the most impressive new features is something called “Google Now.”

If you opt into the service, Google Now will take all the data Google already has about you and use it to provide information depending on your location, the time, calendar appointments, and other details.

For instance, if you commute to work at the same time every day, Google Now can automatically check for traffic conditions at the appropriate time and let you know if you might want to take an alternate route.

When you approach a bus stop, your phone can bring up the schedule and show you when the net bus should arrive.

Or when you enter a restaurant, Google Now can bring up menus and reviews.

Some aspects are a bit creepy. For instance, if you want sports schedules or scores, you don’t even need to enter the name of your favorite team — Google probably already knows it based on your past web searches.

Search

Google recently introduces its Knowledge Graph features for desktop search. In Android 4.1, the graph comes to mobile. When you search for specific types of data, Google will interpret your query and attempt to present some of the most relevant details in a card on top of the search results.

For example, if you search for an actor you’ll see their photo and bio. You can swipe to make that image go away and see the normal search results.

Voice

Android has allowed you to search by talking to your phone for ages. But now your phone will answer by talking to you.

Google Android 4.1 combines voice recognition, text-to-speech, and that Google Knowledge Graph to answer your questions. It all works a lot like Apple’s Siri.

Android 4.1 voice search

Ask what time it is and your phone will tell you. Want to see pictures of cats? Just ask your phone and it will bring up a Google Image search.

Google also shrunk the voice recognition engine so that it fits on a phone or tablet — you no longer need an internet connection.

Text Input

Now that you don’t need an internet connection to use your voice with your phone, you can use speech-to-text on your phone at any time.

Google has also added predictive text to the keyboard, so it will recommend words as you type.

Notifications

The notification area has been revamped in Android 4.1, with support for notifications that can show more content or offer more interactive options.

For instance, a media player can show album art and more details. A social networking app can show the latest photos uploaded by your contacts. The default Gmail app now expands to show additional subject lines. And when you miss a phone call, there’s an option in the notification area to “call back.”

Notifications can now be expandable, letting you show additional content or shrink the notices so they take up less space.

Widgets

Android 4.1 can automatically resize home screen widgets when you move them from one screen to another. If there’s not enough space for a widget on the new screen, the operating system will automatically shrink it to fit.

The OS will also automatically move other widgets and app icons out of the way to make space for the new widget.

Photos

There’s a new film strip view that lets you pinch on your camera roll to zoom out of your photos and scroll between pictures.

You can quickly delete any image by dragging it up to the top of the screen. If you accidentally erase a picture and want to recover it, there’s an undo option.

Android Beam

Google is adding more ways to use the NFC (Near Field Communication) chips in a handful of Android phones and tablets. You can now tap two devices together to initiate photo, video, or file transfers using Bluetooth.

You can also pair an Android phone or tablet with a Bluetooth headset or speakers by tapping it with a supported audio device, allowing you to make a connection in about one second.

Media

Developers now have low-level access to media codecs supported by a device’s hardware and software, allowing them, for instance,’ to create apps that can play DRM-protected content.

Android 4.1 also adds support for USB audio output, enabling support for new types of audio docks, among other things.

Google has also added support for multitchannel audio output through HDMI as well as built-in support for encoding and decoding AAC 5.1 audio.

Developers can also use preprocessing effects including noise suppression to apps that involve audio recording.

Contact photos

Google Android 4.1 can support higher-resolution photos for your contacts, with pictures as large as 720 x 720 pixels.

Smart App Updates 

When you download app updates from the Play Store, instead of downloading the entire app again you’ll now only download the parts of the APK that are new. In general, Google says this means you’re only downloading about a third as much data as you would with a full app update.

The feature will be implemented automatically, so developers don’t have to do anything special to offer smart app updates.

This is actually a chance to the Google Play Store, not Android itself — and will be supported by all devices running Android 2.3 and later.

Input Devices

Android has supported external gamepads such as Xbox or PlayStation controllers for a while. Android 4.1 can now make use of vibrator services for game controllers with that feature.

Developers can also write apps that are automatically notified when a new USB or Bluetooth device is attached so they can take advantage of the hardware when available.

Languages and keyboards

Apps can now support text that reads left-to-right or right-to left.

Users can also install their own keymaps for special keyboard layouts, although Android 4.1 includes 27 international keymaps for different languages and for the Dvorak keyboard layout.

Brad Linder

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