Despite that it is not a x.0 version, Gingerbread is another trailblazing release, which brings along numerous additional features for users and developers alike. Let's cut to the chase, and dig what's in store for us come December 16th.
Although under the hood the changes from a developer's standpoint go deep and thorough, on the surface it is clear that if there will be a revolutionary overhaul in the interface, it has been left for the tablet-friendly Honeycomb, which should be appearing a few months from now. This way Google has prepped the groundwork for developers, including added support for larger screens, such as those found on tablets, and still left itself enough time to achieve a "wow" effect with the overhauled Honeycomb interface. In essence, Google is just playing catch up with a lot of the interface features introduced in Android 2.3.
The default homescreen is basically the same, just the launcher icons have been repainted greenish, maybe as a tribute to the small robot's coloring. Green is also the highlighting color of the status bar icons when you've synced to a Google account, or when you enter a number in the dialpad, whose background is pitch black now. The lights are off throughout the interface, not only in the dialpad - black is the background of both the pop-up menus, and the the notification bar now, which had a greyish background before.
The Android team still hasn't implemented having the connectivity and profile switches in the notification bar, like on Samsung's TouchWiz 3.0, or LG's Android phones, which is a much better solution than fiddling with the default widget. Speaking of which, we didn't notice any new widgets, only a few new live wallpapers. The homescreens have received a new option in the pop-up menu now, called "Manage apps", which takes you directly to a process management app. Apart from some tab reshuffling, it now clearly shows precisely how much memory the running applications are gulping out of the available resource.
The screenshot pairs show the changes in interface from Froyo - on the left are the stock Froyo screens, while the right ones are Android 2.3.
The Super AMOLED screen on the Google Nexus S consumes the least power when displaying black, but Gingerbread will be installed on devices with LCD displays too, so those phones' battery consumption won't be affected as much by the darker backgrounds. Upon selecting something, now it lights up in bright orange, compared to the yellowish one in Froyo, and also when you get to the end of a list while scrolling, it produces a subtle orange glow - both solutions are more visible than the previous scheme in Android 2.2. Also, some icons in the settings list, such as the ones for the Wireless&networks and Accounts&sync apps, have been changed.
One of the first things people are doing when they get an Android phone, is to install some sort of task kill and management app from Android Market, since Android didn't allow proper task management and active multitasking. Because of that, with time you ended up with unoptimized applications leaking resources and battery power, even when inactive.
Gingerbread has remedied the situation with an active task manager, where it kills processes and even applications when they start to hog down the handset, and haven't been used in a while. Neat and necessary to address. Now you can pause the game you are playing, when you receive push email, leave it, reply, and return back to the exact same monster you were about to chop into pieces, without waiting for the game to reload. Long press on the home button, and you receive a snapshot of your running applications, like in Froyo, so you can pick one and continue precisely where you left off.
Another new addition which we can file in the "it was about time" category, is the download manager. With a dedicated app, it stores and manages all your external downloads (from emails, Android Market, the browser, etc.) in one place, allowing you to reopen or delete them from a single location. Maybe we'll see a full-fledged file browser next.
the keys are more spaced-out, allowing for faster and more accurate typing. The Froyo keyboard also has accented versions of a letter upon long-press, just not so many. We particularly liked that all the punctuation symbols are in one place now, and the use of multitouch in the keyboard now allows to slide your finger to the symbol of choice after the long press.
The new text selection method now uses a large handle to place the small blinking cursor exactly where you want the selection to start, instead of the wimpy little triangle we had trouble pinpointing in Froyo. Afterwards a second handle is used to mark the text in all directions, and the process is easy as pie, just not launched the same way in all applications, which is a bummer. Then you tap on the selected text to copy/cut and then paste wherever needed. Neat, but not as uniform as the existing text selection solutions in iOS, WP7, or even in HTC Sense, for that matter.
These "changes" were present in HTC Sense's virtual keyboards a couple of years ago, when Windows Mobile still reigned supreme. Our Samsung Galaxy S, updated to Froyo, has roughly the same keyboard in its TouchWiz 3.0 interface, as Gingerbread, so it's just a case of taking the good ideas out there, and plugging them in.
The new stuff in Gingerbread is native support for NFC chips, multiple cameras and VoIP, motion and other sensors, sound mixing, as well as larger screens, such as those on tablets, for instance. Let's see how developers can take advantage of those.
Near Field Communication (NFC) technology
Google Nexus S has a chip inside that can fetch various info with a tap on any item with an NFC transmitter, or from a few inches away. The application, running it it in Gingerbread, is called Tags. From what we hear the chip is limited to read-only for now, and can't be flashed like Samsung's new NFC chip, which didn't make the cut on time to get into the Nexus S. Unlocking the two-way NFC communication, which could allow mobile payments, should be coming to the Nexus S with a firmware update. In Japan they use the NFC technology in phones for entering public transport, paying at cash terminals, as an employee ID for access to office buildings, or simply to scan items at stores and price compare.
The possibilities here are almost endless, and limited only by the developers' imagination. It is not a big deal right now, since there is not much NFC infrastructure in place in the US, but since Google, Apple, RIM, the carriers, retailers and banks are all jumping on board now, this thing should take off very quickly.
Google just announced it is expanding its Hotpot and Places services with a pilot program in Portland. They distribute Places kits to local businesses, that will include tips on boosting their online presence, as well as NFC decals that say "Recommended on Google." These NFC decals will be able to communicate with the new Google Nexus S device, taking customers to that shop's Places page on their device. The pilot is designed to offer us a taste of what it will be like to have NFC infrastructure everywhere.
We have more info on contactless payments and NFC usage in a dedicated article here. Moreover, Visa just approved a microSD card with NFC capabilities that can be used by existing phones that don't have the embedded chip, so it's a matter of time US goes the way of the Samurai.
integrated in your Gingerbread contacts list. Developers can take advantage of it in numerous ways, such as calling within apps, and it will be easy to implement due to the native support.
We can't imagine the carriers being ecstatic about this feature, and Google knows it, since in the Gingerbread manual we read: "Support for the platform's SIP and internet calling features on specific devices is determined by their manufacturers and associated carriers." Hey, no need to downplay this - every bit that might take us away from the carrier lock helps.
Access to multiple cameras
It is not a big deal by itself, except for crappy self portraits, but giving developers access to multiple cameras is where it's at, provided that your Android smartphone has more than one shooter. The possibility to access both the front and rear cameras, when capturing video, opens a bunch of application possibilities for the coders.
Access to motion and other sensors
Now this is a big one. How about going all Nintendo Wii on your phone? The six-axis gyroscope from InvenSense, which is in Nintendo's MotionPlus controller should be in the Google Nexus S. Android 2.3 should also support the newest 9-axis one, so precise measurements of linear acceleration and gravity can bring anything to your Android phone. That spans from virtual baseball games, to the phone being able to figure out if it is in your pocket or backpack just from the way it bounces up and down, and thus tell your fitness app and doctor the real story about your daily activities on the coach. Oh, the funny one is support for a barometer - we haven't heard yet of a handset that has this inside, but it will surely be helpful in more accurate predictions of your local weather conditions, and measuring altitude in general.
Google has really gone all-in to support game development for the Android platform now, and the upcoming Sony Ericsson PlayStation phone, running Gingerbread, is a proof of that. Observant folks spotted dedicated gaming controls support in the Android 2.3 SDK the first day it launched. Of course, the iPhone 4 and others have had these motion sensors for a few months now, and smartphones are gradually becoming the most wide-spread mobile gaming platform, so obviously Google doesn't want to miss out on the lucrative mobile gaming revolution. In Google's words - "a game application could use readings from a gyroscope and accelerometer on the device to recognize complex user gestures and motions, such as tilt, spin, thrust, and slice."
See a demo of the InvenSense technology in the company video below, where a Nexus One with a planted gyro commands a virtual airplane and a sword - the cool stuff starts at 3:43. That's what's coming to Android, thanks to Gingerbread. Yay to slicing!
Gearing Android 2.3 towards the gaming aspect has been further backed up by improving support for 3rd party video drivers, used in 3D graphics acceleration. Additional system level enhancements include minimized application pauses, which ensure smoother animations, and increased responsiveness in games. Also, the Gingerbread platform now recognizes touch and keyboard events faster, and at the same time with minimized CPU load. This helps all interactions with your Android phone to appear smoother, but the main application is heavy 3D games, which use touch controls.
On the video codec front, Gingerbread now embeds support for Google's WebM open video standard, thus manufacturers won't have to pay royalties for high quality video compression like H.264, which is patented. It is good enough for the web in the way that JPEG and MP3 formats were for pictures and music compression, so it might one day become a standard for online video.
Google hasn't stopped with the graphics department. Audio has also received a boost with the support of the AMR wideband speech codec, that can be used to significantly improve voice quality over 3G networks and sound capturing in general. A few carriers in Germany, UK and France are already supporting such high-definition voice service. The other big addition to the Gingerbread audio portfolio is support for the AAC codec, which is deemed as the successor of the MP3 format, achieving better quality at similar compression rates.
Mixable audio effects are introduced with Android 2.3, which allows developers to easily add equalizers, bass boost, headphone virtualization, and reverb to audio on Gingerbread devices; these can be applied to one, or multiple tracks.
Support for extra large screens
famous Motorola tablet, running Honeycomb, which Android's Andy Rubin showed briefly the other day. Smart move on Google's part, this way tablet manufacturers can have big-screen compatible apps right now for Gingerbread, and what will be left for the Android team is to focus all efforts on the tablet-friendly user interface, coming in Android 3.0.
As a whole. Android 2.3 Gingerbread surprises pleasantly mainly with the range of additional functionality under the hood. Developers haven't seen so many extra possibilities from Android since Donut (Android 1.6). Now with Gingerbread, the coding aficionados are having a rich playground with the support for motion sensors, multiple cameras, 3rd party video drivers and NFC chips, so the ball is in their court to surprise us even further. Oh, and on extra large screens as well, please.
Android 2.3 Gingerbread Video Walkthrough: