Android 2.1’s Best Features in Screenshots

7 Gen/10

Great software needs hardware that can keep up, and my new Nexus One is a sleek, awesome handset. But the most important ingredient in this generation of touchscreen smartphones is the software: the screen is just a canvas that software paints on, and Android 2.1 is a work of art.

Coming from the chunky G1, the thin and flat Nexus One hearkens back to my iPhone days. (It doesn’t require a holster, and slid into my jeans pocket it doesn’t make my thigh look too fat–it gets lots of vanity points for that.) The screen is huge and crisp; the dual noise-canceling microphones are sweet; the true headphone jack is much-appreciated, and the glowing trackball is a nice touch.

Now that that’s out of the way–the best part of the Nexus One is Android 2.1. If all goes well, many existing Android users will get that update even if they don’t get a new handset. After spending just a few hours with my new phone, here are a few of my favorite Android 2.1 features, in screenshots.

Click to enlarge each image to actual size (including the image of my current home screen, shown here).

First off, Android 2.1 has some satisfying eye candy that doesn’t necessarily make you more productive, but does make the phone more fun to use.

The application menu button has been replaced with a button that looks like a grid (see bottom of the first screenshot). When you tap it, your application icons fly into place to take over the desktop in their own grid, and you can scroll them back and forward as if they were on a 3-D cube, shown here.

Android 2.1’s Live Wallpapers move and react in different ways when you touch the desktop–again, not strictly useful, but they make the phone feel as if it is alive in your hand and responding to your every action.

Two new desktop widgets come in way handy: One offers one-click toggle of your most important settings (GPS, Bluetooth, screen brightness, and Wi-Fi on/off)*, and the other has top news stories for idle browsing when you’re on line at the grocery store. I’m not a widget gal–I trashed that big old clock first thing when I set up Android 1.5/6–but these two, along with the Google search box, are keepers.

* Update: Colin Ewen points out that the Power Control widget is not new, it was simply redesigned in Android 2.1. The news widget is new. Thanks, Colin!

Every single text area in Android 2.1 is speech-to-text enabled, which means you can say your text messages, emails, tweets, notes to self, whatever.

It works like Google’s voice-enabled search box does. You tap the microphone button on the keyboard, speak, and then the spinner grinds away at the recording, translating it to text.

The conversion takes a few seconds, depending on how much you said, and it requires a decent internet connection to complete. In a spotty area I got a few “Connection error” messages when I tried to speak my first tweet from the Nexus One using Seesmic. (That was disappointing.)

The results are hit or miss.

Sometimes they’re pretty decent. Here I said, “Every text area is speech-to-text enabled so you can speak your email, text messages, or tweets.” I didn’t say the punctuation, and you can see it borked the “is,” and missed the “so.” Not bad.

Not all results are that close, though. This is another set of results I got, saying the same exact thing as above.

Android continues to offer the best Gmail mobile client available on any platform. The latest version of Google’s Gmail Android app supports “Undo.” When you archive or delete a Gmail conversation, you get the option to Undo the action. (Great for when you accidentally tap something you didn’t mean to.)

The upgraded Gmail app also supports multiple accounts, so you can get mail from your work, personal, and moonlighting Gmail accounts in one interface. (Note that before you could get email from multiple accounts using the vanilla email client, but now you can get the Gmail experience for multiple accounts.)

Another “oh, that’s cool!” Gmail discovery: if you tap the dot next to a contact’s name, you get a pop-up with one-click access to that person’s information with their photo.

Update: Also just noticed the “Older” button at the bottom of an open Gmail message. That takes you to the next message in the list. There’s a “Newer” button in the menu options.

But back to contact photos…

I like to see photos of my friends on my phone, but never had the time or patience to manually assign photos to anyone who wasn’t my Mom or my spouse. Now I have more photos filled in than I ever did, thanks to Android’s built-in Facebook application. The FB app can sync Facebook profile photos into your existing contact list or add your Facebook friends to your phone’s contact list over the air with one tap. LOVE that. I barely use Facebook, but it was worth logging in using the pre-installed app just to suck in photos for my friends and family.

In fact, you can add one-tap Facebook contact access to your desktop. To do so, tap and hold the desktop, then choose “Folders” when the Add dialog comes up, tap “Facebook Phonebook.” The Facebook-branded folder icon opens up to a list like the one shown here.

Android 2.1 has a few web browser upgrades going on as well. Something from mobile Safari’s playbook: when you browse to certain Google Apps (like Wave, shown here, or Google Reader), the address bar hides itself automatically so the webapp goes full-screen. Swipe your finger as if you’re scrolling up to show it.

Your browser bookmarks appear in an attractive grid of thumbnailed page previews, ala Opera Fast Dial and Chrome. (If I’m not mistaken, Safari on the desktop does this, too.)

However, your History and Most Visited sites are just plain text lists. It used to be that the browser’s open windows would tile into previews, but that’s just a text list now as well. Interesting that your bookmarks are the only list of pages that appear as thumbnails previews.

Android 2.1 ships with a new Gallery application for your photos, which syncs with Picasa Web Albums. It includes photos you add to the phone’s hard drive or take with the phone itself. The default view is stacks of images grouped, from what I can tell, by date. (Note: I’m using doubleTwist to move music, photos, and video clips onto the phone.)

Tap on a stack of images to browse the thumbnails or swipe through a slideshow. If you tilt the phone or tap and drag around the edges in stack or thumbnail view, the photos tilt in a strange-but-cool effect (as shown).

New to me (but not Droid owners) is Android’s Car Home screen, for navigational purposes on the road. I haven’t had the chance to try this out yet, but I’m really looking forward to it. (My trusted Android informant Kevin at Lifehacker gave it his thumbs-up.)

It was great to see that Google Voice came pre-installed on the Nexus One, and telling GVoice to handle my new mobile number’s voicemail was literally a one-click affair. (Hopefully no one will ever even know my new mobile number, since I hope to go completely Google Voice from here on in.)

Speaking of, setting up this phone in general was dead-easy. You simply sign into your Google account on the phone and instantly your contacts, email, calendar, and Google Voice calls/history are on the phone–no syncing or importing necessary. The only reason why I connected it to my computer was to take screenshots for this post, and later, to move some music onto it.

I’m still very much on the Nexus One/Android 2.1 honeymoon, but I do have two minor gripes. First, you still can’t take screenshots on the device itself. WTF. (I had to jump through a bunch of developer hoops just to get screen caps for this post.) And second, I’ve accidentally tapped the Nexus One’s search and home buttons while reaching for the spacebar on the touch keyboard more than twice. The touch keyboard in general is going to take some getting used to.

So, what have I missed or glossed over when it comes to Android 2.1? Tell me what else is worth looking at.

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