Android Central

Using a skinned version of Android? You’re already up-to-date on 4.1.

We’re not huge proponents of using the term “skin” to describe the manufacturer customizations put on most Android-based smartphones. In most cases, the changes are more than skin deep. Look at the latest versions of HTC’s Sense and Samsung’s TouchWiz and you’ll see features and UI changes that go beyond mere visual gimmicks. But it’s a term that most people are familiar with, so let’s stick with it.

So if you’re using a skinned Android phone, chances are you’re accustomed to waiting for software updates. It’s a fact of life for every non-Nexus smartphone. And with the announcement of Android 4.2 earlier this week comes the certainty of more waiting for updates to drop. Few devices are on Jelly Bean, and OEM updates already in the works will be based around 4.1 rather than 4.2. After that, there’s the standard maze of regulator and carrier approval processes to traverse, adding additional weeks to the update roll-out timeframe. And with the holidays looming, and CES and MWC approaching thereafter, we doubt we’ll see Android 4.2 on many current devices before spring 2013. Engineering effort will be spent getting new products ready for launch rather than chasing a minor OS update.

But really, that doesn’t matter. And the reason why goes to the heart of what Android 4.2 actually is. Before release it was referred to internally as Jelly Bean MR1 -- MR standing for “maintenance release.” And a glance down Android 4.2’s feature list further confirms that there’s not a whole lot of game-changing stuff to be found, rather additional polish to the existing Android UI. Hence the decision to stick with the Jelly Bean moniker -- Google is striking a balance between pushing out new features and allowing hardware partners to catch up.

Read on to find out exactly what's going on, and why owners of Sense or TouchWiz devices need not worry about Android 4.2.

Of the features included in Android 4.2, most will be overwritten by manufacturer customizations, and those that aren't will be made available through the Google Play Store anyway. Let's break down the list of new stuff.

  • Android Central Multi-user support -- A biggie for tablet users, depending on how they use their devices, but 4.2’s new user-switching support doesn’t apply to phones at all. That’s understandable -- a phone is a much more personal device.
  • Keyboard with gesture typing -- A big deal for users of vanilla Android, but the stock keyboard is one of the first apps to be stripped out of Android by manufacturers. Samsung, HTC, Sony, LG and Motorola all have their own custom keyboards, and many of them already license proprietary tech for trace-based typing. If you really must have this feature on an unsupported device, we’d recommend checking out SwiftKey Flow in the weeks ahead.
  • Photo sphere and the new camera app -- Again, the stock camera app rarely makes it across into manufacturer-customized UIs, so we’d be surprised to see this in 4.2 updates for phones like the Galaxy S3 and HTC One X. As photo sphere uses Google’s own street view imaging tech, it’s highly unlikely it’ll be open-sourced. This presents a barrier to it being bundled into manufacturers' camera apps.
  • Wireless display -- It’s great to see this included on Nexus devices as standard, but two of the major Android manufacturers, HTC and Samsung, already use competing methods for wireless video streaming. HTC has its Media Link HD, while Samsung has AllShare. In any case, it’s probably fair to call this a niche feature.
  • Android CentralGoogle Now enhancements -- These have already been pushed out to devices running Android 4.1 through the Google Play Store. As of the latest update, Google Now can pick up new info like delivery tracking numbers from your Gmail, if you allow it, without requiring a 4.2 update.
  • Lock screen widgets -- Though unavailable on our Nexus 4 review unit, lock screen widget support will be present on retail Nexus 4 phones sold from Nov. 13. This allows you to choose a handful of widgets to place on your lock screen. Major manufacturers tend to have their own custom lock screen setup, but we wouldn't be shocked if they found a way to incorporate this feature into their own UIs. But this is another one we'd hesitate to call a major feature.
  • Music explorer -- This is a feature of the Google Play Store, and so should be quietly rolled out to most handsets over-the-air, regardless of OS version. If you've got access to the Google Play Music store, you'll be able to organically browse through related artists when the latest store update pushes out.
  • Quick settings area in notification bar -- Most manufacturers have been doing this for the past year or so, albeit not quite as elegantly as Google does it in Android 4.2. A quick, simple two-finger gesture will throw up a settings dropdown in stock Android, but if you’re using 4.1 on a Galaxy S3 or One X, you’ve already got these options elsewhere in the notification dropdown.
  • New gallery app -- Samsung, HTC, LG, Sony and others replace the gallery app in their skinned versions of Android. Chances are that’ll continue when Android 4.2 rolls out to their handsets.

Whereas Ice Cream Sandwich brought sweeping UI changes, and Jelly Bean (4.1) introduced new usability and performance enhancements, 4.2 is a maintenance release that’s more focused on adding extra stuff for Nexus users, and prettying up the stock Android experience. If you’re running a skinned version of Android, the changes will be all but invisible.

What’s more, we expect to see more of the vanilla Android UI pushed out to Google Play, just as Google's done with its Calendar app in recent weeks. This allows Google to take back some control of its platform without waiting for manufacturers, carriers and regulators to push out OS updates.

That’s not to dismiss the importance of Android 4.2's features for Nexus phones, or for the OS in general. On any Nexus device, the new stock Android experience, though not radically different, will add plenty of new stuff to make phones and tablets more usable and enjoyable. And of course, there’ll be plenty of stuff that’s not user-facing -- bug fixes and security improvements that can’t be shown off in glitzy video demos.

So if you’ve got a Nexus device, you’re in for a treat in the weeks ahead. Android 4.2 will give you plenty of new toys to play with. For non-Nexus, "Android-based" handsets, Android 4.1 is the benchmark to aim for -- features like "Project Butter" and Google Now provide tangible benefits on all devices. Don’t worry too much about 4.2 -- it’ll arrive, in time, and when it does, it won’t be a big deal.

(And if you're a Verizon or Sprint Nexus owner, well, you at least have our condolences.)


Reader comments

Why you shouldn't worry about Android 4.2 updates


One thing about the new lockscreen that is quite major is this:

As far as I could tell from the Verge video, you can now access the camera without entering the pattern/pin lock.

Before if you had any kind of lockscreen security there was no quick access to the camera. I am interested to see how they implemented this. I imagine that it will allow you to take pictures, but as soon as you go to look at the gallery it will make you unlock the phone.

This change will mean I finally will use a pattern or pin to unlock my phone, in the past I was forgoing the (important) security in exchange for the quick camera access.

That's the exact same way it behaves on my HTC Evo 4G LTE, which is still on ICS (4.0.4)--I can access the camera without entering my pattern unlock.

From there, I can take pictures or shoot video.

When I want to look at a picture or video I've taken, the pattern unlock shows up and I must unlock my phone before I can view them.

That's not how it works in stock ICS?

One of the major bennies of Sense is the HTC lock screen, the "favorites bar" echoing on the lock screen (ICS), and -- on my Amaze -- hardware buttons for still and video camera launch. You still have to unlock to access/change the settings.

Not at all. In stock android, setting a PIN or pattern unlock completely replaces the "gesture to unlock" screen where you can swipe into the camera app quickly. The benefit is that you don't have to do an extra swipe on you're unlock screen before typing in a PIN (like I have experienced on Xperia phones and the iphone) but the disadvantage is that you are left unable to get to the camera app quickly.

It looks like this lock screen widget thing will be the solve-all for stock android in that respect.

Also: We'll finally have Pandora controls (and other music widgets) on our lockscreens with the widgets support. Hooray!

This is mostly on a per app basis, not something that needs implemented by Google.
Poweramp already has "ICS Lock Screen" in addition to the lock screen widget it's had since 2.1(?), and both work beautifully in conjunction with the pattern lock security measures. I imagine a few other music players also have the lock screen widget, but I wouldn't know since I don't use them.
It was reported a few days ago that Pandora will be getting a major update in the next few weeks, and one of the features that would come with it *might* be lockscreen controls.

Wait a sec... what's wrong with being a Verizon customer? I'm so close to upgrading, this was going to push me back to getting a Nexus vs. a Galaxy S III... are you saying Verizon is slow to push updates, or is there something more I should know?

Considering I plan to root/mod my next phone though... will it matter?

This is off topic.
Alex when are we going to be able to like or up-rank comments? Also, it would be nice to be notified of new comments to the post .

He probably would have replied already if there had been some sort of automatic notification when people reply to your posts. This makes me chuckle.

Yes, Verizon is slow to push updates. Also, to date there have been no plans to launch the N4 on Verizon that have been made public.

Yes. VZW and other carriers have to do their own testing before releasing the update to customers. Just another layer of wait after it comes from Google and the manufacturers.

Carrier phone - Google > Manufacturer > Carrier > Customer.
Nexus phone - Google > Customer

I only have one thing to add to your list there.

Carrier phone - Google > Manufacturer > Carrier > Customer
Nexus phone - Google > Customer
Verizon/Sprint Nexus phone - Google > Carrier > Customer

I, for example, have a Sprint Galaxy Nexus and I guess I'm fortunate to have only bought it a month ago since I received the 4.1.1 update as soon as I set it up with Sprint's network. I wonder how long it'll take for us to get 4.1.2 (let alone 4.2).

Apparently the other commenters cannot or did not read. The Verizon and Sprint Nexi will get the OTA later than their GSM equivalents, but they will still get them well before and for much longer than ANY other phone on those networks.Verizon gNex is AOSP supported. Lastly and most importantly, you said you plan to root/mod your phone. I have the lastest and greatest on google and/or the devs on my LTE nexus WAY before any OTA update. Carry on.

THANK YOU! Everybody bitches and moans about the VZW GNex getting "slow" updates and that its not a "real" Nexus. What people dont realize is that it gets "slow" updates compared to ONE phone: the unlocked Gnex. Compared to every other phone, it still gets fast updates. Plus, like you said, if you root your phone and use custom ROMs, then it doesnt matter since it gets updated by custom ROM makers at the same time as all the other Nexus devices.

Verizon GNex AOSP support is only considered "experimental". That's why the Google images are still 4.1.1 while the GSM versions are 4.1.2. There's not a lot of difference between the two builds in real life though.

I see the Music Explorer feature now on my Nexus 7 (Play store 3.9.16). It's pretty neat. I don't see it on my Verizon Galaxy Nexus (also 3.9.16), but it wouldn't surprise me if this were a tablet-only feature.

What @Crankerchick said. I'll have it within days of release on my Verizon Galaxy Nexus. Already running the new camera, gallery, and keyboard. :)

Exactly. Same here (and 4.2 GMail). Most likely we'll be running leaked 4.2 builds BEFORE the N4 is released.

I don't worry about the updates. I get them when I get them. I've yet to see an update yet that is worth wasting money on an intentionally gimped phone

Problem with 4.2 "arriving in time" on non-Nexus devices is the fact that a newer version of Android will probably already be close to release if current trends are anything to go by. Here in Canada we're still waiting for Jelly Bean on the Galaxy S3 which is now slated for "late November" or 4-5 months after it was originally released. Once Samsung gets around to 4.2 which could take a further 4-5 months, Google will be onto Android 4.3 or 5.0 or whatever is next.

It sounds like AC thinks manufacturers and carriers might skip 4.2 entirely. In that case, they get to finish up their work on 4.1 and then start on 5.0. 4.2 is there primarily to improve the stock experience for Nexus users and perhaps modders.

If that's really what Google intended, it's a pretty sharp move. It allows them to continue to add polish to their stock user experience while giving the carriers a chance to catch their breath. Amidst the complaints that Android has been iterating too quickly and the carriers too slowly, it makes a lot of sense.

... Also provides an interesting cross-sell experience for buyers. They can buy the latest, greatest skinned devices with the value-add that HTC, Samsung, et al add to the devices, OR ... get a Google device with a non-skinned verison with features and amenities that are specifically on Google Nexus devices, or AOSP-based ROMs.

I think this is a subtle strategy on Google's part, to give their customers an appealing device with frequent updates. This can light a fire under manufacturers to ensure their value-add, and bug fixes, are worth the customer's patience and money. In my case, I'm ready to abandon HTC in favor of stability and bug fixes from AOSP that HTC isn't sufficiently motivated to give me. Nyeah.

LOL, "(And if you're a Verizon or Sprint Nexus owner, well, you at least have our condolences.)"!!!!!

Yep, sa soon as 4.2 is outed to AOSP the Devs at XDA will be pushing out Rom's even before GSM Nexus users get it. Same thing happend with 4.1.2.

Wasn't there a mention of the SE Linux kernel support for enhanced security and a proper VPN tunnel building and termination so data doesn't leak out from the phone?

Miracast isn't DLNA, which is what HTC and Samsungs hubs use. It's more equal to AirPlay mirroring, which is pretty awesome.

I think it absolutely is worth worrying about it. We don't yet know if 4.2 adds a new API level. And there could be security fixes. The extreme difficulty in upgraded Android-based devices to current versions is a major problem. Duo Security claims that over 50% of Android devices have at least one major security hole (for which a patch is already available).

Perhaps 4.2 will be a fairly minor update, but absent a more detailed changelog, it's too early to say.

Personally I'm just glad 4.2 is still Jelly Bean. I know that's major minority but a new dessert so fast isn't needed. I want the updates to continue as much as anyone but feel Jelly Bean is really very good and should stick around for a bit.

Sorry, gotta make a fairly big correction here: photo sphere is open source. It is just a bunch of XML jammed with the jpeg, anyone can build a viewer

Just flashed the new 4.2 camera apk and gallery today to my GNex and I love the improvements. Photosphere is very cool. I am looking forward to Peter Alphonso building a new version of Bugless for 4.2, these new improvements sound quite nice to me.


You missed the biggest one of all - the new Gmail. Pinch to zoom in Gmail! And like most of your responses, this one shouldn't matter to "skinned" phones either. This will be pushed through the Play Store since Gmail is available in and updated through the Play Store.

GMail updates can be locked down to Android versions. Look at the difference in GB and ICS Gmail apps. It's one of the reasons why I'm looking at alternatives to Android. Not only do you get the OEM keeping you down on old Android versions, but Google intentionally restricts access to the latest GApps and Services to older Android devices (i.e. Google Now on ICS, for example, Chrome on GB, GApps updates limited to ICS+, etc.) to carrot upgrades.

I'll upgrade, it just won't be in this ecosystem.

I've had too many Android phones. How long do they expect users to put up with this? Forever?

And really, does the GMail app really matter? I've switched everything over to Hotmail months ago and use it through the Stock Email application, which is superior to the Gmail app because it has everything the 4.2 Gmail app has, and more, in addition to being more compatible (without third party apps/workarounds/clients built for GMail Support) on other platforms. Whether I use iOS, WP, Android, BB, Windows 7, Windows 8, OSX... whatever. (Hotmail) always works exactly the same way and basically looks exactly the same way... The same cannot be said for Google's services.

Don't have to worry about ActiveSync, Gmail App, CalDAV, CardDAV, IMAP, Labels, whatever.

Realizing this is VERY old... if you use / hotmail as your primary, why would you use an Android? The whole idea is using Google's services on Google's phone and OS right?

So why not switch to a windows phone?

On the off-chance you reply, I'm just curious - not trying to stir up trouble. :)

The new improvements to the lock screen are the most interested thing I find in the new update

I wish that you can access the notification bar from the lock screen now, I wish

You guys sound just like the apologists at iMore. Always trying to explain away the ills of the platform. Not getting timely updates IS a problem, no matter how you try to spin it.

Even more hilarious when you put it into its full contexts. People are trying to say Tablets will replace PCs. When Windows 8 released to consumers you could download it on day one and install it on your PC. When OSX releases a new version, you can just download it.

You don't sit in a corner sulking for *months* because you want to iMessage from your OSX machine but Apple is "testing the update" or you want some free music Streaming on your Windows Laptop, but Microsoft is "testing the update." You just get it, right then and there.

iOS doesn't have that issue, has all the apps (and often Ad-Free paid versions for those of us willing to spend i.e. Words with Friends, even Windows Phone 8 is getting a version that doesn't abuse you with Video Ads, but Android isn't - laughable), performs well, and has better interoperability with other form factors.

This Android post-sales support/update issue is getting to be disgusting, as is Google's lack of agility when it comes to fixing obvious bugs in their OS. There have been well-known issues that took YEARS for them to fix. For example the issue with being locked out of your phone if you failed the pattern lock too many times took over two years for them to fix. I had to get a Warranty Exchange because of that issue back when...