If you've heard of Android, chances are you've heard of its various versions. It's both a curse and a blessing. Regardless, it's good to have a little context. Each major version of Android has a dessert-based nickname. Below is a quick primer on the the different versions of Android alive and kicking, from newest to oldest:
The follow-up to Honeycomb was announced at Google IO in May 2011 and released in December 2011. Dubbed Ice Cream Sandwich and finally designated Android 4.0, Ice Cream Sandwich brings many of the design elements of Honeycomb to smartphones, while refining the Honeycomb experience.
The first device to launch with ICS was the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. The Motorola Xoom and the ASUS Transformer Prime were the first tablets to receive updates, while the Samsung Nexus S was the first smartphone to make the jump to Android 4.0.
Android 3.X - Honeycomb
Android 3.0 came out in February 2011 with the Motorola Xoom. It's the first version of Android specifically made for tablets, and brings a lot of new UI elements to the table. Things like a new System bar at the bottom of the screen to replace the Status bar we see on phones, and a new recent applications button are a great addition for the screen real estate offered by Android tablets.
Some of the standard Google applications have also been updated for use with Honeycomb, including the Gmail app and the Talk app. Both make great use of fragments, and the Talk app has video chat and calling support built in. Under the hood, 3D rendering and hardware acceleration have been greatly improved.
We can't talk about Honeycomb without mentioning that it also shows Google's new distribution method, where manufacturers are given the source code and license to use it only after their hardware choices have been approved by Google. This dampens third party development, as the source code is no longer available for all to download and build, but Google assures us they will address this issue in the future.
Improvements to Honeycomb were announced at Google IO in May 2011 as Android 3.1, and Android 3.2 has followed.
Android 2.3-2.4 - Gingerbread
Android 2.3 came out of the oven in December 2010, and like Eclair, has a new "Googlephone" to go along with -- the Nexus S. Gingerbread brings a few UI enhancements to Android, things like a more consistent feel across menus and dialogs, and a new black notification bar, but still looks and feels like the Android we're used to, with the addition of a slew of new language support.
Gingerbread brings support for new technology as well. NFC (Near Field Communication) is now supported, and SIP (Internet calling) support is now native on Android. Further optimizations for better battery life round out a nice upgrade.
Behind the scenes, the fellows at Mountain View spent time with more JIT (the Just-In-Time compiler) optimizations, and made great improvements to Androids garbage collection, which should stop any stuttering and improve UI smoothness. Round that out with new a multi-media framework for better support of sound and video files.
Android 2.4 also is in the Gingerbread family.
Android 2.2 - Froyo
Android 2.2 was announced in May 2010 at the Google IO conference in San Francisco. The single largest change was the introduction of the Just-In-Time Compiler -- or JIT -- which significantly speeds up the phone's processing power.
Along with the JIT, Android 2.2 also brings support for Adobe Flash 10.1. That means you can play your favorite Flash-based games in Android's web browser. Take that, iPhone!
Froyo also brought native support for tethering, meaning you could use your Android smartphone's data connection to provide Internet (wirelessly or with a USB cable) to just about any device you want. Sadly, most carriers will strip this native support in exchange for some sort of feature they can charge for. (Can't really blame them, can you?)
Android 2.0/2.01/2.1 - Eclair
Eclair was a pretty major step up over its predecessors. Introduced in late 2009, Android 2.0 first appeared on the Motorola Droid, bringing improvements in the browser, Google Maps, and a new user interface. Google Maps Navigation also was born in Android 2.0, quickly bringing the platform on par with other stand-along GPS navigation systems.
Android 2.0 quickly gave way to 2.0.1, which the Droid received in December 2009, mainly bringing bugfixes. And to date, the Droid remains the phone phone to have explicitly received Android 2.0.1.
The now-defunct Google Nexus One was the first device to receive Android 2.1 when it launched in January 2010, bringing a souped-up UI with cool 3D-style graphics. From there, the rollout of Android 2.1 has been relatively slow and painful. Manufacturers skipped Android 2.0 in favor of the latest version but needed time to tweak their customizations, such as Motorola's Motoblur.
HTC's Desire and Legend phones launched with Android 2.1 later in the year, touting a new and improved Sense user interface.
Android 1.6 - Donut
Donut, released in September 2009, built on the features that came with Android 1.5, and expanded them. While not very rich in the eye-candy department, Android 1.6 made some major improvements behind the scenes, and provided the framework base for the amazing features to come. To the end user, the two biggest changes would have to be the improvements to the Android Market, and universal search.
Behind the screen, Donut brought support for higher resolution touchscreens, much improved camera and gallery support, and perhaps most importantly, native support for Sprint and Verizon phones. Without the technology in Android 1.6, there would be no Motorola Droid X or HTC Evo 4G.
Android 1.5 - Cupcake
Cupcake was the first major overhaul of the Android OS. The Android 1.5 SDK was released in April 2009 and brought along plenty of UI changes, the biggest probably being support for widgets and folders on the homescreens.
There were plenty of changes behind the scenes, too. Cupcake brought features like improved Bluetooth support, camcorder functions, and new upload services like YouTube and Picasa.