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Android 4.0 (On the Transformer Prime) Ice Cream Sandwich Review: Tastes Like Honey

Author: Matt Smith
Subject: Mobile
Manufacturer: Google

The Dark Side of Ice Cream Sandwich, Performance

The Dark Side of Ice Cream Sandwich

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For some reason, Google decided to make multi-tasking less enjoyable in ICS. The thumbnail view for multi-tasking no longer includes an “x” which can be tapped to remove an app. Instead you have to long-tap a thumbnail and then select “Remove from list” from the resulting pop-up menu. 

Look, I get it - these apps are not really running in the background, so removing them doesn’t “close” anything. That’s not the point. The point is that removing apps from the thumbnail view is a good way to manage multiple apps, and increasing the time it takes to remove an app only makes multi-tasking more annoying. Edit: A reader has pointed out that thumbnails can now be removed by swiping them away, something I did not notice. It works well, so these negative comments should be disregarded!

And then there are the bugs. Browser crashes with the stock browser happen too often, even on pages that are relatively mundane, such as CNN or our own PC Perspective front page. These crashes seem to happen once very fifteen or twenty minutes and seem to be related to the use of Flash. Using Firefox or Opera proved to be a decent go-around for this problem. 

Another bug I encountered is a tendency for the keyboard to strobe when using the YouTube app if video thumbnails are loading in the background. It makes typing an annoyance, which means I usually had to wait until the YouTube app loaded all thumbnails before I could accurately use the search function. 

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App support remains hit-or-miss as well. Almost all apps will run on the Prime, but many of them don’t make correct use of the tablet’s expanded resolution. Worse, Google lists apps that fail to properly use the tablet’s display resolution as “Staff Picks for Tablets” in the Android Market. A great example of this is Tiny Tower, a popular tower management game that uses an 8-bit art style. On my Thunderbolt the art style is excellent, but on the Prime it is blown up and stretched out, resulting in an unattractive mess of giant pixels. 

Yes, it’s ultimately the developer’s responsibility to make sure their apps look good on Android tablets, but the fact that Google called Tiny Tower a “Staff Pick” is aggravating. I have to wonder if anyone even tested the app on a tablet before nominating it - or perhaps the slim selection of apps properly optimized for Android tablets simply gave Google no choice. 

Performance

As mentioned, neither Google or Nvidia has presented any specific figures on how Ice Cream Sandwich might improve performance. There have been rumors flying, but most of them seem to be wild speculation about better multi-core efficiency and better responsiveness. 

Fortunately we tested the Prime when it had Honeycomb installed, which means we have a number of benchmark results available for the tablet. In fact, before updating the Prime to ICS, I went back and re-tested the benchmarks using both the “Balanced” and “Performance” settings.

Let’s first look at the browser benchmarks. 

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The results here are various. In Rightware Browsermark we see a notable and encouraging increase in performance. However, the Sunspider Javascript benchmark is slightly slower with ICS installed. 

And then we have Peacekeeper, which scores much lower with the updated OS. I ran this benchmark a number of times and rebooted several times, making sure that no other apps were running in the background and potentially sapping resources. I could find no such interference. 

Now let’s have a look at the general synthetic and graphics synthetic benchmarks.

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Quadrant again shows disappointing results, with both the “Balanced” and “Performance” settings reporting lower scores than they did with Honeycomb installed. The gap was particularly notable using the “Balanced” pre-set, and yes, I again re-tested the tablet multiple times to confirm these results. 

The graphics benchmarks, on the other hand, are just a little bit better than before - though not by any significant margin.

Subjectively, I do think that touch input and scrolling, particularly on the desktop and on most web pages, feels smoother than it did before. It is possible that this could be an implementation of the new DirectTouch feature that Nvidia revealed at CES. Or it could be that there has been some software performance optimization made that doesn't show up in benchmarks. Either way, the enhancement in subjective responsivness is appreciated. 

January 19, 2012 | 02:22 PM - Posted by -KenC (not verified)

I have it on the Xoom and have not done a thorough analysis yet, but it definitely runs faster -- and web browsing was pretty darned fast to begin with. Yes, you can access the notifications from the Locked screen on the Xoom. The App launcher was updated, but I haven't figured out what enhancements were implemented yet, either. Many of the user features are not only nicer looking, they are easier to use. There is also a 'developer option' area in settings, which appears to be new.

Thanks for the article.

January 19, 2012 | 03:15 PM - Posted by Matt Smith

It's odd then that the Prime update didn't include those features.

I've shot ASUS an email to see if there is a reason why they're disabled.

January 19, 2012 | 03:01 PM - Posted by pdjblum

Appreciate the updated review, but really question your objectivity. Would very much like to see Ryan's impressions of the device.

January 19, 2012 | 03:18 PM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

Matt is not an Apple fanboy by any stretch. And he has way more experience with these devices in recent months than I.

I am still planning on spending some time with one, maybe the upcoming 1920x1200 version.

January 19, 2012 | 04:43 PM - Posted by pdjblum

Copy that. Just hard to believe when hard core apple guy josh topolsky praised ICS, saying he found it better than IOS. And the review at Anand on the nexus stated:
"As far as Ice Cream Sandwich is concerned, it really is Android perfected. Everything is smoother, faster and nearly all of our issues with the OS have been addressed. ICS brings Android into 2012 and gives Google a great platform to begin to introduce new features going forward. Android is now very close to UI performance parity with iOS, which eliminates a major tradeoff you had to make in the past. If you were hoping for ICS to be iOS with a Google logo on it, you'll be sorely disappointed. However if you're a fan of Android and just wished it were smoother and more polished, Ice Cream Sandwich is what you've been waiting for."

January 19, 2012 | 04:51 PM - Posted by Matt Smith

That's from the Galaxy Nexus review - so, from ICS on a smartphone.

January 19, 2012 | 06:05 PM - Posted by pdjblum

You are absolutely right. Just figured it would have improved the tablet experience to the same extent, more or less. Matt suggests little change at best outside of the battery life.

Guess I am just disappointed in that I really wanted to hear that this device was terrific in every way, and not once again, playing second fiddle to you know what.

January 20, 2012 | 10:54 AM - Posted by Matt Smith

A lot of the enhancements are either things Honeycomb already had (thumbnail multi-tasking) or things that are much more useful for smartphones (like the data usage monitor, camera app improvements, lockscreen camera/notification access).

January 19, 2012 | 08:43 PM - Posted by 8bitvoxel (not verified)

Matt, just a tip, you can remove the apps from the thumbnail view with a swipe now.... You can also press and hold to get a menu to then remove them as you've found but the reason they removed the tiny X to close these thumbs is because they implemented the swipe to clear which is better than the tiny x. Just though you should know since this "issue" took up a whole paragraph in your review, but isn't actually a problem.

Thanks for the updated impression though.

January 20, 2012 | 10:44 AM - Posted by Matt Smith

Thanks! That's much better. I have updated the review to reflect this.

January 20, 2012 | 02:44 AM - Posted by mr_raider (not verified)

Matt there is a quicker way to kills apps in ICS from the task switcher. Just swipe the tab to the right and will disappear from the list.

January 20, 2012 | 07:05 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

To create folders you just drag an app onto another app and it automatically creates folders. Really easy... Not to be disrespective but try to spend more than 5 minutes on a review. The multitasking and creating folders are much improved.

January 20, 2012 | 10:43 AM - Posted by Matt Smith

It does this on the desktop. But I thought ICS was going to offer this in the app tray, too? This does not work there.

January 21, 2012 | 08:14 PM - Posted by Cubits (not verified)

Why would you need that in the app tray? All of the apps you use should be on the home screens, at least in grouped folders. The app tray is where your barely-used apps go. I don't recall google ever promising anything about that, and my vanilla ICS equipped galaxy s is also left without that ability.

Also, after going back to back between honeycomb, gingerbread, ics, and my ipad2, the benchmarking falls a long way short of summing up the perceived performance improvements inherent within ICS. ICS, even on my ageing galaxy s is mountains faster at browsing (scrolling, but especially in zooming) than honeycomb ever was thanks to going to a panel-loading style and the much more extensive hardware acceleration. Side by side, my single core ICS phone is a match for my ipad 2, and that's a heck of a benchmark in terms of fluidity.

Playing with the prime running ICS, it is perfectly fluid between home screens where my tf-101 jerks about in HC. While ICS might not have brought that many new features to the table(t), it was clear that the goal of the update was refinement (to close the massive rift between earlier versions and iOS). In that respect, it truly hit it out of the park, regardless of what sunspider says.

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