Google’s Nexus 7 and Jelly Bean OS: made for each other

With the launch of the Nexus 7, Google is switching up its approach to tablets and showing its manufacturing partners what it thinks its Android operating system can really do.

This is no repeat of the Honeycomb/Xoom experiment, when Google launched its tablet-only operating system on a partner device. This time the tablet is Google-branded. And it’s essentially designed to show off Google’s latest version of Android, Jelly Bean, a much cleaner-looking interface designed for a more robust and customizable operating system.

Tweaks to the system are small but intended to make Android more user-friendly. For example, users can drag widgets — small snapshots of apps on their tablets — to the homescreen and have it resize automatically. That may sound like a minor change, but it’s almost certainly welcome news to Android users who’ve been frustrated by their inability to get their phone to look exactly as they want. The feature should be particularly useful on the Nexus 7’s 7-inch screen, which doesn’t give users quite as much real estate as do other Android tablets.

The Nexus 7 beats its closest competitor, Amazon’s Kindle Fire, in some ways: adding a front-facing 1.2 MP camera, a microphone and a physical volume rocker. Also, one of Google’s biggest OS announcements was the addition of a much deeper vocal search.

A response to Apple’s Siri program on the iPhone 4s, the Google vocal search responds to questions in much the same way as the virtual assistant program -- based on results from — where else? — Google’s search engine. The look of Search itself has changed to the tiled view of Google’s new Knowledge Graph feature, which should lend itself well to a tablet screen.

Smartphone users should take note that Jelly Bean has a lot of features for them, as well. For example, thanks to a richer Notifications build, users will be able to do such things as call, share or read e-mail straight from the notifications pane instead of launching a full app. And the feature called Android Beam should make it much easier to pair your favorite headset with your device — just tap to set up a connection. Tapping will also let Android users send or share photos, provided that their recipients also have devices with NFC chips.

Jelly Bean also offers features that should help users cut down on data and battery consumption.“Cloud Messaging” will let developers notify their users about new data or, say, a new message, without downloading it automatically. And Smart App Updates will make it possible for users to download only the new parts of an updated app, rather than the whole thing. Both should cut down on the amount of data Android devices download on a regular basis — something all Android users can appreciate.

Related stories:

Google announces new tablet, Nexus 7

Nexus Q: Google’s streaming entertainment hub

Google I/O: Google Glass detailed

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.



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