Android 4.0 ICS Comes to Razr Maxx: A Review

So I'm just back off vacation -- yes, I had a great time; thanks for asking -- and while I was away, my Motorola Droid Razr Maxx received the update to Android 4.0, Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS). Finally. Seems a bit strange to just now be getting this as new when all the talk is shifting to the next Android version, Jelly Bean, but that's the way this ecosystem works.

Because I wasn't at work when the update came, checking email, calendar, Twitter, and so forth throughout the day, I really didn't experience much of what's new in ICS. Now that I'm back to the routine, my smartphone has again resumed its position as my constant companion, and I've been getting enough ICS to cause a brain freeze. Which is to say, I'm not entirely sure I'm pleased with the update.

To be sure, ICS is a big update with many changes -- probably the biggest update in Android history to date. I'm left wondering the whys and wherefores of many of the changes, however, which seem largely to be change for change's sake. My biggest concern initially is that overall battery life seems to be suffering with this update: My superior Razr Maxx battery life now appears to be performing merely as good to acceptable.

Unlock & Home Screen

Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich unlock screenLet's take a look at some of the ICS changes as they've appeared to me. First, there's the unlock screen, which is completely different. Instead of the traditional slide-to-unlock, we now get a key icon, which you tap. Then you have the choice of unlocking generally or going directly to phone, text messaging, or camera. Of course the idea is to get you quickly to the features you use most -- which for me is none of these, so the basic unlock is all I need here. Now, if the unlock screen were customizable with the apps I chose to be there, that would make this a cool feature.

If you're into security for your phone (and I hope you are), ICS adds Face Unlock to its methods of securing the lock screen. Using facial recognition software and the front-facing camera, your phone can be set so that only you can unlock it. This feature seemed to work fine for me, although it appears to be a security method geared toward narcissists. Since I'm not really interested in looking at my face every time I want to unlock my phone, I choose to stick with a standard password. The keyboard layout for entering a password has been changed slightly in the ICS version so numbers aren't shown; it took me a while to figure out I could tap and hold a letter on the top row to get the appropriate number underneath and thus avoid switching the keyboard to the numbers/symbols screen.

You'll find differences to the home screen that are both obvious and subtle. There are now five icons instead of four in the Favorites tray that stays with each home screen, and the All Apps icon is in the center instead of at the right. Why? I don't know. You can easily create folders by dragging one app icon onto another, which can be useful to help de-clutter home screens if you're big into putting everything there. On the notification window, you can dismiss individual notifications by swiping left or right -- which is kind of neat but I'd say is not quite as easy as just tapping the X that used to be beside the items.

One of the new features I was most looking forward to in ICS was the bloatware kill switch. I've just gone through and disabled all the carrier provided nonsense. Actually being able to uninstall junk such as Netflix and Verizon Apps would be far better, but perhaps now they won't be trying to get updates from the Google Play Store every day. Here's one tip: If you have bloatware apps that have previously been updated, you need to uninstall updates before you'll have the option to disable the app.

Data Management

Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich Data Usage appA couple of ICS features do appear fairly positive and useful. First, there's an improved voice input engine. Although I haven't used this feature a lot, my brief experiments showed its accuracy well above what I'm used to. It also shows dictation as you speak, and you can speak punctuation as you talk, thus giving the ability to compose longer text messages or even email messages hands free. You can also use Google Voice Actions to makes calls, load websites, go into navigation, and many other tasks. Take that, Siri.

The other truly nice new feature is the Data Usage app, which you can find by going to System settings and selecting Data usage. This app shows a graph of your data usage throughout your billing cycle. You can choose to set a data limit, in which case you'll see two additional horizontal bars on the graph. The first is for you to set a warning level and the second lets you set an absolute data limit; you simply slide the bars to appropriate levels. Mobile data is the default view in the app, but you can also switch to view Wi-Fi or Ethernet data.

Beneath the graph, you'll see a list of all apps that have used data, ranked from most to least. You can tap any app to get more detail on what it's been doing, and when. You also have the option to restrict background data use either by individual app or globally -- although keep in mind if you restrict all background data, features such as push email suddenly become useless unless you've got a constant Wi-Fi connection. Overall, this app really lets you keep track of and take control of your data usage -- if you're on ICS, you should definitely give it some attention.

Battery Life

So we come back to the battery life. My initial impression was that the battery drained much more quickly in the first few days of ICS use. However, one thing to note is that the battery indicator on the notification bar now apparently shows more degrees of health, which means it might appear to change more frequently.Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich homescreen So part of the battery issue could be just a matter of impression. Note also that the battery indicator, along with the clock and signal strength indicator, is now blue in ICS instead of the more traditional green. See, when I see a green battery symbol, it makes me feel good, like a green traffic light. Green is for go; green is good. What am I supposed to make of blue? Now I'm just afraid my phone is cold all the time.

I also took the time to investigate all the running services and processes and stopped everything that I couldn't identify. In fact, I found a couple of things running supposedly because of using MotoCast to sync files with my PC that were hogging a great deal of bandwidth. Since I rarely use the syncing capabilities of MotoCast, I felt good about killing those processes, knowing full well they'll pop up again if needed. Likewise, disabling the unused but non-uninstallable apps helps keeps background processes down. As a result, battery life might just have returned to expected pre-upgrade levels. Unfortunately, I don't have hard data on the pre- versus post- battery usage.

A Mixed Bag

Overall, I've found the ICS upgrade to be a big mixed bag. There's definitely some interesting and useful new stuff here -- including much that I didn't even mention, such as the new ability to take screenshots (hold down the power button and the volume down button together for several seconds). And then there's lots of other changes that I just scratch my head over and wonder why someone thought they would be an improvement. Naturally, I also have to wonder how much of my ICS experience is filtered by whatever gloss Verizon has put on it compared to what a pure ICS deployment would be.

Verizon has a web page to get you ready for the ICS upgrade, or just to introduce you to the new features you might already have if you've been upgraded. You can also find information from Google about what's new, changed, and taken away. Other carriers or phones have had ICS for some time already; Razr Maxx and Droid Razr have it available now, and who knows what other phones and carriers are doing -- the story changes frequently. If you're using ICS, I'd love to hear your thoughts on how it compares and what your experience has been.

Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins
Follow Windows IT Pro on Twitter at @windowsitpro

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