Android 4.0: The ultimate guide (plus cheat sheet)

How to find your way around Google's Ice Cream Sandwich operating system and make the most of its new features

In the world of mobile technology, things change fast -- and there's no better example than Google's Android operating system. In the span of three and a half years, Android has evolved from a rough and limited newcomer into a sleek and polished platform that dominates the smartphone market.

With the release of Android 4.0, a.k.a. Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS), late last year, Google ushered in a new era for its mobile OS. Android 4.0 gives the platform a unique visual identity and a long-overdue coat of polish. It introduces a host of powerful features, too. Like any major OS update, Android 4.0 can require a bit of adjustment, whether you're coming from a previous version of Android or from another smartphone platform.

What about Jelly Bean?

Although Google announced Android 4.1, a.k.a. Jelly Bean, in June, that release is just now starting to roll out to devices and likely won't reach the majority of phones for a while. Android 4.0 is the OS that most of us are getting to know right now; it comes preloaded on many new phones and is currently being rolled out to existing handsets. And as the version number indicates, Android 4.1 is more about refinement than revolution; once you're up to speed with ICS, Jelly Bean is a short hop away.

Not to worry, though: We're making your ICS transition easy. This guide has all the info you need to get comfortable navigating through Android 4.0 and utilizing its updated features. And the accompanying cheat sheet provides quick reference charts that show you how to perform an array of tasks in Android 4.0.

Note: For the purposes of this story, we're focusing primarily on Google's stock Android 4.0 software as it applies to phones. Many manufacturers modify the software with their own custom interfaces; depending on your device, some elements of the operating system may be slightly different from what's described here.

So sit back, relax, and get ready for a treat: It's time to tuck into Google's Ice Cream Sandwich.

Just want to know how to do a specific task in Ice Cream Sandwich? Check out our Android 4.0 cheat sheet.

Home screen and system navigation

As with past versions of Android, the heart of Ice Cream Sandwich lies in its home screen; it's the main way you'll get around and get things done. If you've used Android before, the first thing you'll notice is how different the home screen looks in the 4.0-level release: With Ice Cream Sandwich, Google phased in a completely new graphic design, revolving around a blue-and-gray "holographic" interface and a custom font called Roboto.

Appearances aside, some things work a little differently in ICS than they have in the past. Follow along for a guided tour of the Android 4.0 home screen.

The Android 4.0 home screen has a completely new design and several new features.Click to view larger image.

Status/Notification bar: The status bar always sits along the top of your phone's screen. On its right, you'll see the current time along with your battery level and data connection status; on its left, you'll see alerts and notifications, which have gotten a serious boost in Android 4.0.

Search bar: Android 4.0 features a Google search bar at the top of every home screen panel. You can tap here and begin typing a search term, or tap the Voice Actions icon on the right to initiate a voice search or perform other voice commands.

Home screen: You can fill this area with any combination of app shortcuts, folders and live, dynamic widgets ( more on those in a bit). Android 4.0 gives you five home screen panels; just swipe left or right to move to the next or previous panel and access whatever you've stored there.

Favorites tray: The Favorites tray is like a dock for your home screen: The shortcuts or folders placed there stay present as you swipe from one panel to the next. By default, the tray includes commonly used items such as your Phone app, People app, Messaging app and Browser, with an icon for launching your app drawer in the center -- but you can customize it to include any items you want.

Navigation buttons: Instead of relying on a phone's physical buttons as in previous versions of Android, ICS has three main navigation buttons built into the interface at the bottom of the screen:

The Recent Apps tool allows you to multitask and switch among recently used applications. Click to view larger image.

The Back button, which looks like a left-facing arrow, takes you back one step from wherever you are.

The Home button, which looks vaguely like a house, returns you to your home screen.

The Recent Apps button -- a new addition to Android 4.0 -- allows you to multitask and switch among recently used applications. You can tap the button from anywhere in the system to get a list of recently used apps, then tap on any app to jump directly to that program. You can also swipe left or right on any app to dismiss it and remove it from the list.

If you've used Android before, you might be wondering what happened to the Menu button. As of Android 4.0, the Menu button is a thing of the past: All options and commands now appear on-screen instead of being hidden away like they were with previous-generation devices.

An icon that looks like three vertical dots contains additional functions relevant to your current activity. Click to view larger image.

If an application has more options than can fit on the screen, you'll see an icon that looks like three vertical dots; tapping that icon will bring up a list of additional functions relevant to your current activity.

(Curiously enough, the location of the vertical-dots icon is not always consistent, which was one of my criticisms of ICS in my initial review of the software.)

If your phone has hardware buttons: It's worth noting that while Google's Android 4.0 design guidelines call for virtual on-screen buttons, some phones still use hardware buttons instead -- either because they're older devices that have been upgraded or newer phones whose manufacturers have opted to stick with the older-style setup. If you're using an Android device that has physical buttons, those buttons should more or less correspond with the same functions described above.

A couple of exceptions: If your phone has a physical Menu button, some options in applications will remain hidden behind that button, as they have in the past. You can press the Menu button in various applications to see what additional options are available to you.

If your phone has a physical Home button but no Recent Apps button, meanwhile, you can access the app-switching function by pressing the Home button and holding it down for a few seconds.

Android 4.0 notifications

Notifications have always been a strength of Android, and with Android 4.0, they become more powerful than ever. Notifications appear on the left side of the status bar at the top of your phone's screen. The icons you see here indicate everything from new email and text messages to missed calls and calendar appointments.

Swiping down on the notification bar gives you detailed information about your pending notifications. Click to view larger image.

To view your notifications in detail, touch your finger to the Notification bar and swipe downward. A panel will pull down over your screen showing you all of your pending notifications; you can tap on any notification to view more information about it or swipe your finger left or right on it to dismiss it from the list. You can also tap the "X" at the top-right of the notification area to dismiss and remove all of your pending notifications.

The type of notifications you get depends on what apps and accounts you have configured on your phone. With any app that's capable of sending notifications, you can customize what events trigger notifications or even disable notifications altogether; just look in the settings of each individual app to find those options.

You can customize or disable notifications within the settings of individual apps. Click to view larger image.

In Gmail, for example, you can tap on the vertical-dots icon at the bottom of the screen (or press the Menu button, if you're on an older phone) to access the app's settings.

Within the Settings menu, tap on the line representing your Gmail account -- if you have more than one Gmail account configured, you can control notifications separately for each one -- and then check or uncheck "Email notifications" to enable or disable notifications for that account. You can also configure whether a sound and/or vibration will accompany each new mail notification.

Similar controls exist in other notification-capable apps, including the Messaging app (for text messages), Google Voice, Google+, Facebook and most Twitter clients.

The Android 4.0 notifications area can display active controls, such as playback commands for audio applications.Click to view larger image.

In addition to basic activity-based alerts, the notifications area can display active controls for certain types of apps, such as the Android Play Music app; when you're playing a song in that app, pulling down the notification panel will reveal a set of interactive playback controls that allow you to pause, play or stop the music, or navigate through the album's tracks.

Apps in Android 4.0

If the home screen is the heart of Android, the apps are the blood that pump through its veins. Much of the Android experience revolves around applications, whether they're basic system apps like the Phone and Browser apps or third-party apps like Dropbox, Flipboard and Google Reader.

If you've used an earlier version of Android, you'll find that installing apps works the same way in ICS, so you can skip directly to "Accessing and organizing apps" below.

Finding and installing apps

You can access the Google Play Store directly from your phone or from any PC. Click to view larger image.

Android allows you to install apps from any source you wish. That said, most people use the Google Play Store to get new applications; it's the official Android market for apps ( formerly known as the Android Market, fittingly enough) and the simplest and most direct way to get new programs onto your phone.

You can access the Google Play Store directly from your phone, via the Play Store icon (it looks like a shopping bag); you can also access it online from any PC by going to play.google.com. Whichever interface you use, just follow the tab for Android apps to browse through categories of popular and recommended applications. You can also use the Play Store's search function if you're looking for a particular title or type of application.

When you find an app you want, touch the Download or Install button to put it onto your phone. If you're using the Play Store website, the app will be sent wirelessly to your device. If you have multiple Android devices connected to your Google account -- a phone and a tablet, for example -- the website will prompt you to select the device you want to use via a drop-down menu.

If you see a price in place of the Download or Install button, that means the app isn't free; tap the button with the price if you want to buy it, and the cost will be charged to whatever credit card you have connected to your Google account. (The Play Store prompts you to set up a payment method the first time you connect or attempt to purchase an application.)

Accessing and organizing apps

The Android 4.0 app drawer houses all of your phone's apps and widgets. Click to view larger image.

You can always access all of your applications by tapping your phone's Apps icon -- the circled cluster of dots located in your Favorites tray at the bottom-center of your home screen.

This opens up your All Apps area, commonly called the app drawer, which contains a complete list of apps installed on your phone; swipe left or right to scroll through the list, and touch any app to open it.

If you want easy access to an app, you can add it as a shortcut on your home screen. Just press and hold the icon in your app drawer, then use your finger to drag it around until it's in a place you like. You can move the shortcut between home screen panels by sliding your finger to the very left- or rightmost edge of the current panel -- and if you decide you want to move a shortcut somewhere else later, all you have to do is press and hold the icon on your home screen to pick it up and relocate it. To remove a shortcut from your home screen, press and hold it, then drag it to the Remove icon that appears at the top of the scren.

To uninstall an app or find more info about it, drag it to the Uninstall or App Info icon.

Want to completely uninstall an app from your phone? Easy: All you have to do is press and hold it in the app drawer, then drag it to the Uninstall icon that shows up at the top of the screen. You'll also see an App Info icon; dragging the app there will allow you to view detailed info about the program's usage and permissions as well as clear its cache or data storage.

Android 4.0 makes it easy for you to create folders on your home screen that contain apps, in case you want to group similar items together to save on space or make things more tidy. While previous versions of Android had folders, they're easier to manage in 4.0, and their appearance has a sleek new look as well.

Android 4.0 makes it easy to create folders of applications on your home screen (left). Tap a folder to expand it and see what's inside (right). Click to view larger image.

To create a folder in ICS, all you do is drop one icon on top of another on your home screen. You can add more items into the folder the same way.

Once a folder's been created, you can tap the folder to open it and show all the apps within; you can remove any item from the folder by touching it and dragging it out. You can name the folder, too: Just touch your finger to the text that says "Unnamed Folder" and type in any name you want.

Finally, you can place any items you want in the Favorites tray below the home-screen panels so they'll always be handy: Just touch and hold any icon that's already in the tray to move it out, and touch and drag any other icon in to replace it. You can even create folders within the tray, if you're so inclined.

Working with widgets

We can't talk about Android apps without talking about widgets. Widgets are one of the most powerful features Android provides; they essentially give you live, functioning programs right on your phone's home screen. Widgets let you do things like scroll through your inbox or your calendar, flip through current forecasts for multiple cities, and adjust your phone's basic settings without ever having to open a program or leave the home screen.

Many widgets can be resized in Android 4.0.Click to view larger image.

Widgets are frequently included as components of applications. For example, if you download the Pandora app, you'll also get the Pandora widget, which you can put on your home screen (or not) as you like. Some developers also offer standalone widget downloads, like the popular Beautiful Widgets and HD Widgets collections.

You can see a list of widgets on your device by touching the Widgets tab at the top of the app drawer and swiping left or right through the list. Placing a widget on your home screen is no different than placing an app shortcut: You press and hold the widget you want, then drag it wherever you wish on your home screen.

With Android 4.0, many widgets can be resized, too: Just press and hold any widget on your home screen, and if it's resizable, you'll see a blue box appear around it. Drag an edge of the box up, down, left or right to make the widget larger or smaller.

Want more widgets? Head to the Google Play Store; there's an entire section there devoted to apps with widgets, and you can always try searching, too.

Android 4.0 settings

Almost everything in Android can be customized, and Android 4.0 introduces a completely revamped settings area with a streamlined interface and numerous new options.

The simplest way to get to your phone's settings is to pull down the notification panel and then touch the icon directly next to the date (it looks like a series of sliding controls). Alternatively, you can find the Settings app within your app drawer; you can even put the shortcut directly on your home screen if you want.

Many of the items in the Android 4.0 settings area are self-explanatory. A few things are worth pointing out, though:

The Data Usage feature is a new and noteworthy addition to Android 4.0. It allows you to view your mobile data usage and see exactly how many bytes each application and process is utilizing.

It also lets you set a monthly mobile data limit; once set, the system will cut off all non-Wi-Fi data transfers above the limit to ensure you don't exceed your carrier's monthly data cap. You can set limits on background data transfers for specific apps, too, if you want to restrict activity for particularly data-hungry programs.

Android 4.0's settings area has a streamlined interface and numerous new options, such as a Battery section that shows detailed information about your phone's power consumption.Click to view larger image.

The Battery feature is another Android 4.0 addition that's well worth exploring. It allows you to get a grasp on your phone's power usage by seeing exactly how much of your battery charge is being consumed by each app and process during the day.

The Apps section of the settings shows you a complete list of all apps on your phone, including those you have installed and any that came preloaded on the device (touch the All tab to view preloaded applications). You can opt to disable any preinstalled app from here, which effectively hides it from the system and gets it out of your way.

This is useful for carrier-installed bloatware, which is often baked into the phone and impossible to uninstall. Just be careful in deciding what to disable, as disabling an important system process could have unintended consequences. As a general rule, if you aren't sure what something is, it's probably best to leave it alone.

The Accounts & Sync section shows you every account connected to your phone -- Google accounts, third-party email accounts and service-based accounts for apps like Dropbox or Facebook -- and allows you to change the autosync settings for each account as well. You can add new accounts and delete old ones from this area, too, which can be useful if you change email providers at some point or decide to add another inbox into the mix.

The Security section is an area you'll definitely want to visit. It houses the commands to set up a PIN, password or pattern lock for your phone. (Android 4.0 has a face-recognition unlock feature, too, but -- while incredibly novel -- it's far less secure than the more traditional methods.) The section also enables you to encrypt your phone's data and require a PIN or password to decrypt it every time the device is powered on.

As far as your data goes, Google can automatically back up your basic phone settings as well as your installed applications; if you should ever move to a new device, your settings and applications can then automatically be restored. Just make sure you have the "Back up my data" and "Automatic restore" options checked in the Backup & Reset section of your phone's settings if you want this feature to work.

Android 4.0 search and voice control

Google is famous for search, so not surprisingly, search is a core part of the Android 4.0 experience. The basic search functionality in ICS is the same as in past Android releases, but there's a new, more convenient way to access it: via a persistent Google search bar at the top of every home screen panel. (Some manufacturer-modified versions of ICS may put the bar in a different location or make it an optional element you can choose to include.)

To search for anything -- whether on your phone or on the Web -- touch your finger to the Google search bar. This will pull up a box that you can type any term into; your phone will start displaying relevant results for items on your phone and on the Web as you type, much like Google does with its Google Instant search feature online.

By default, the Android search function will look through a lot of different types of content, including apps you have installed, contacts you have stored, bookmarks and recently visited Web pages, and music files in your personal collection. You can customize exactly what types of content are and aren't included by tapping the Menu icon at the top-right of the search screen and selecting Settings and then "Searchable items."

In addition to standard search, Android includes a robust voice search system. Simply tap the microphone icon in the Google search bar and begin to speak; your phone will transcribe and then search for whatever words you say. Like regular search, the voice search will include items both on your phone and on the Web.

The microphone icon also gives you access to Google's Voice Actions technology. Voice Actions lets you complete numerous functions on your phone just by speaking (yes, kind of like Apple's Siri -- only this has been around since 2010). Try pressing the microphone and saying some of these commands:

  • send text to [contact] [message]
  • call [business name and city]
  • call [contact]
  • send email to [contact] [message]
  • go to [website]
  • note to self [note]
  • navigate to [location/business name]
  • directions to [location/business name]
  • map of [location]
  • listen to [artist/song/album]

Android 4.0 text input

Android 4.0 has a virtual keyboard that pops up anytime you're able to enter text. The 4.0-level keyboard is dramatically improved over the one in past Android releases; even when you type sloppily and miss a lot of characters, it can usually figure out what you're trying to say. The keyboard also has built-in word suggestion and spell-check capabilities.

In addition to the regular tap-style input, you can use Android's voice recognition technology to enter text anywhere in the system. Just tap the microphone icon on the keyboard and begin to speak; the system will transcribe text on the fly and show your words on-screen as you talk.

One nice thing about Android compared to other mobile platforms is that you aren't limited to using only the default system keyboard; you can opt to replace or supplement it with a third-party alternative if you'd like. Several popular third-party options exist, including SwiftKey -- which is known for its impressive text-predicting technology -- and Swype, which lets you type by sliding your finger from key to key without ever lifting it up.

Android devices can support a wide range of USB input devices, too, including mice, keyboards and game controllers; you can also wirelessly connect a Bluetooth keyboard to your phone if you really want to get down to business.

Android 4.0 file management and sharing

Unlike other mobile platforms, Android gives you complete control over the files stored on your phone. You can browse your Android device like a computer, moving and copying files or opening and sharing documents at will.

Android 4.0 has a built-in Downloads app that lets you access files you've downloaded from the Web, but the key to truly unlocking your phone's file management potential is installing a good file management app. I like Astro File Manager, which is available for free in the Google Play Store. (The free version of the app has ads; a $3.99 "pro" key will give you an ad-free experience.)

When you open Astro -- or any other comparable file management utility -- you'll see a list of folders and files in your phone's storage. You can navigate through the folders just like you would on your PC's hard drive; pressing and holding any item will give you a list of options like copying, moving, renaming or deleting. It'll also give you an option to send the file to any other compatible application -- if you want to share a document with someone via email, for example, or send it to your Dropbox or Google Drive account.

Android devices can interface with PCs just like portable hard drives, too: Connect your phone to an open USB port on a Windows computer, and it'll automatically show up as a media device (using the MTP protocol). You can then open the device on your computer, click through folders, and copy or move data back and forth as needed.

Mac OS X doesn't natively support the MTP protocol that Android utilizes, so you'll need to install an Android File Transfer application before you can connect your phone to an Apple computer.

Android 4.0 includes full support for near-field communication (NFC), which opens the door for some interesting contact-free device-to-device file sharing. You can pass along a contact, Web page, YouTube video or application from one NFC-enabled Android 4.x device to another simply by touching the two phones together back-to-back; once the connection is established, the system will prompt you to "beam" whatever content is currently loaded on your screen.

With its Galaxy S III phone, Samsung expanded on Android's NFC beaming functionality to allow for contact-free sharing of images, video files and music files; that expanded functionality, however, works only between two Galaxy S III phones and is consequently rather limited in practicality.

So there you have it: the ins and outs of Android 4.0. Bookmark this story, print out our cheat sheet charts for future reference, and you'll be well on your way to becoming an Ice Cream Sandwich pro.

Next: Android 4.0 cheat sheet

JR Raphael is a Computerworld contributing editor and the author of the Android Power blog. You can find him on Google+, Twitter, or Facebook.

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