Chris Alexander

On Engineering

Android 4.2

2nd December, 2012

Android 4.2.1 has recently landed on both my Galaxy Nexus and Nexus 7. Of course the Nexus 7 came with 4.1 out of the box and the Galaxy with 4.0. The Galaxy had 2 updates in as many days, the first to 4.2 and the second with the incremental fix for 4.2.1 (I forgot to check whether the Galaxy had the same bug as the others with December missing in the People app before I hit the update button. That was probably quite an expensive indexed-by-one-not-zero error that someone had to fix and test post-haste).

There are quite a few new features which arrived with 4.2 which work very well on both the tablet and phone form factors, and I want to take a look at a few of them. For me, they really set Android out from other devices that are available.

Lock screen widgets

Something that Android has been kind-of doing for a while has finally arrived mainstream - lock screen widgets.

Prior to 4.2, in fact some as late as version 2.2, some lock screen widgets were available - for example, the Music app showed play/pause/skip buttons on the lock screen. Note that iOS does this if you double-click the home button twice from lock.

Now in 4.2, there are full-on widgets available on the home screen. Any app developer can make their widget (yes, the same one they make available for the main home screen) eligible for rendering on the home screen. By default a clock is shown, but you can scroll to the left and right from there onwards without having to unlock the device to view widgets. The ones that come by default on 4.2 are Messaging (if you have an SMS-capable device), Gmail, Calendar and Clock. Here’s how Gmail widget looks on a tablet layout:

(No alt specified)

On mobile form factors, the lock option can be hidden away and the whole screen taken up by the widget. Here’s how it looks on the Galaxy:

(No alt specified)

(No alt specified)

(No alt specified)

Additionally, on devices with rear-facing cameras, slide to the right to get quick access to the camera. You can also flick back through the gallery like you would in normal camera mode, up until the photos taken before you swiped over to the camera this time - just tap to unlock them. Here’s how it starts out:
<div class="img block"> (No alt specified) <p class="credit"></p> </div>

So what about security? As you will observe, I have a lock code requirement on my Galaxy Nexus. Well, you are inherently taking the risk of displaying the widget on your lock screen - that’s your choice to do so. Want your data hidden away? Then it’s very easy to remove the widget, so the data can’t be seen without the unlock code. What happens if you interact with a widget, for example try to open an email or click on a calendar item? The unlock screen is simply brought to the front - once you have entered the PIN then you are taken straight to the item you clicked on. My Nexus 7 used to have no PIN code, and it went straight through as you may expect (I have since changed this to face unlock with PIN).

Photosphere

Just as Apple finally caught up and released Panorama photos with iOS 6, Google pull out Photosphere for Android. Unlike panorama mode, which takes photos in a row (this is still available, by the way), Photosphere allows you take an entire circle of pictures - going up and down as well as left to right. It is helped by the accelerometer in the device to line up the pictures, and you can browse them by dragging around in 3D much like you would with Street View on your phone/tablet (sorry iPhone users, one day you might get to feel what that’s like). You can also zoom and share with Google+ too.

New dropdown menu

Android 4.2 also has a new dropdown menu. Previously, if you wanted to get to the settings, you could either load the app using the usual means, or drag down the notification tray and hit the settings button. Now, there is a dropdown menu which gives you quick access to the common options and a link to the main app for more.

In mobile form factors this is implemented as a button you click on the notifications dropdown. Drag the notifications down as usual, and you can hit the square icon in the top right to flip it over and get the settings screen. It looks like this:
<div class="img block"> (No alt specified) <p class="credit"></p> </div>

If you’re on a tablet, drag from the left half of the screen to get notifications, and from the right half to get the settings stuff. It looks more like this:
<div class="img block"> (No alt specified) <p class="credit"></p> </div>

Others

I’ve noticed a few other settings and tweaks since the last major updates too, although I’m not sure if they were 4.1 or 4.2 specifically which delivered them.

Google Music is now available in the UK (finally!) so there is some extra functionality in the Music app. The Play Library widget now has a music-only mode (if you’re like me and don’t use Play for books and movies so much, this is a much better view of your content), which looks rather tasty. On the Nexus 7:

(No alt specified)

And on the Galaxy Nexus too:

(No alt specified)

There are also the enhanced notifications, with much more information and options on them. This is the screenshot one, for example, showing what was captured:
<div class="img block"> (No alt specified) <p class="credit"></p> </div>

(When it’s done, a Share button also appears to immediately share it.)

One final extremely useful thing I noticed - that when you have a bluetooth keyboard on, the lock screen password / PIN input now no longer disappears. What used to happen is if you had a keyboard connected and your phone locked, you would have to unlock it by typing the PIN on the keyboard. Fine, unless you are in another room, for example… so I’m glad they fixed that one. On the down side, I have noticed 4.2.1 doesn’t seem to support Apple Magic Trackpads any more. You used to be able to use them like mice, but now it seems they connect and you can click with them, but moving the cursor doesn’t work. I haven’t been able to verify that any other bluetooth mice work as I don’t have any, but I will be filing a bug with Android over that one.

To conclude - Android 4.2 is really great, lots of nice new features and no performance issues so far as I can see.