Android 4.0: The ultimate guide (plus cheat sheet)

How to find your way around Google's Ice Cream Sandwich operating system and make the most of its new features

In the world of mobile technology, things change fast -- and there's no better example than Google's Android operating system. In the span of three and a half years, Android has evolved from a rough and limited newcomer into a sleek and polished platform that dominates the smartphone market.

With the release of Android 4.0, a.k.a. Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS), late last year, Google ushered in a new era for its mobile OS. Android 4.0 gives the platform a unique visual identity and a long-overdue coat of polish. It introduces a host of powerful features, too. Like any major OS update, Android 4.0 can require a bit of adjustment, whether you're coming from a previous version of Android or from another smartphone platform.

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What about Jelly Bean?

Although Google announced Android 4.1, a.k.a. Jelly Bean, in June, that release is just now starting to roll out to devices and likely won't reach the majority of phones for a while. Android 4.0 is the OS that most of us are getting to know right now; it comes preloaded on many new phones and is currently being rolled out to existing handsets. And as the version number indicates, Android 4.1 is more about refinement than revolution; once you're up to speed with ICS, Jelly Bean is a short hop away.

Not to worry, though: We're making your ICS transition easy. This guide has all the info you need to get comfortable navigating through Android 4.0 and utilizing its updated features. And the accompanying cheat sheet provides quick reference charts that show you how to perform an array of tasks in Android 4.0.

Note: For the purposes of this story, we're focusing primarily on Google's stock Android 4.0 software as it applies to phones. Many manufacturers modify the software with their own custom interfaces; depending on your device, some elements of the operating system may be slightly different from what's described here.

So sit back, relax, and get ready for a treat: It's time to tuck into Google's Ice Cream Sandwich.

Just want to know how to do a specific task in Ice Cream Sandwich? Check out our Android 4.0 cheat sheet.

Home screen and system navigation

As with past versions of Android, the heart of Ice Cream Sandwich lies in its home screen; it's the main way you'll get around and get things done. If you've used Android before, the first thing you'll notice is how different the home screen looks in the 4.0-level release: With Ice Cream Sandwich, Google phased in a completely new graphic design, revolving around a blue-and-gray "holographic" interface and a custom font called Roboto.

Appearances aside, some things work a little differently in ICS than they have in the past. Follow along for a guided tour of the Android 4.0 home screen.

The Android 4.0 home screen has a completely new design and several new features.Click to view larger image.

Status/Notification bar: The status bar always sits along the top of your phone's screen. On its right, you'll see the current time along with your battery level and data connection status; on its left, you'll see alerts and notifications, which have gotten a serious boost in Android 4.0.

Search bar: Android 4.0 features a Google search bar at the top of every home screen panel. You can tap here and begin typing a search term, or tap the Voice Actions icon on the right to initiate a voice search or perform other voice commands.

Home screen: You can fill this area with any combination of app shortcuts, folders and live, dynamic widgets ( more on those in a bit). Android 4.0 gives you five home screen panels; just swipe left or right to move to the next or previous panel and access whatever you've stored there.

Favorites tray: The Favorites tray is like a dock for your home screen: The shortcuts or folders placed there stay present as you swipe from one panel to the next. By default, the tray includes commonly used items such as your Phone app, People app, Messaging app and Browser, with an icon for launching your app drawer in the center -- but you can customize it to include any items you want.

Navigation buttons: Instead of relying on a phone's physical buttons as in previous versions of Android, ICS has three main navigation buttons built into the interface at the bottom of the screen:

The Recent Apps tool allows you to multitask and switch among recently used applications. Click to view larger image.

The Back button, which looks like a left-facing arrow, takes you back one step from wherever you are.

The Home button, which looks vaguely like a house, returns you to your home screen.

The Recent Apps button -- a new addition to Android 4.0 -- allows you to multitask and switch among recently used applications. You can tap the button from anywhere in the system to get a list of recently used apps, then tap on any app to jump directly to that program. You can also swipe left or right on any app to dismiss it and remove it from the list.

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