Since the beginning, Android has felt slower and clunkier than Apple's iOS.
There's always a slight lag with today's touchscreen devices, but it was especially noticeable on Android. Scrolling through web pages or swiping around the home screen was a stuttery, jerky experience.
In a few weeks, Google will release its new version of Android, named Jelly Bean, that fixes many of those problems. In fact, it's just as smooth and as fast as iOS is.
At first glance, Jelly Bean is nearly identical to Ice Cream Sandwich, the current version of Android that Google released late in 2011. Many of the new features in Jelly Bean are either under the hood or improvements to the overall aesthetics of the operating system.
Jelly Bean is a lot faster than older versions of Android because of something Google calls "Project Butter," a system of slick animations and speed improvements that make the OS a delight to use. Now Android can predict where you're going to swipe your finger next and animate the screen to reflect that.
I've been using Ice Cream Sandwich almost since it first launched, and I noticed the difference in Jelly Bean right away. It's not an Earth-shattering improvement in speed, but it's enough to make you think, "Wow, this feels just as good as the iPhone."
The new animations look great too. Now you can rearrange your home screen's apps and widgets by dragging them around. Other icons and widgets pop out of the way, similar to the way apps move around on the iPhone. (I think the animation is slicker on Android, however.)
I'm also a fan of the updates to Android's notifications menu. I've always thought Android does notifications better than iOS, and the improvements in Jelly Bean simply crushes what Apple has been able to do. Instead of just a simple notification, you can perform actions a variety of actions like sharing photos on social networks and responding to Foursquare checkins without opening a separate app.
Google also added a new offline mode to Google Maps, which lets you download an entire city or region to your phone. This is huge for international travelers who don't want to pay out the wazoo in data plans. If you're going on a trip overseas, just download the map of your destination ahead of time and you're good to go.
Perhaps the most important new feature in Jelly Bean is Google Now, the voice-powered search assistant that appears to be Android's answer to Siri. Unlike Siri, Google Now focuses on search, which I've found to be much more useful. The app uses Google's "Knowledge Graph" to come up with the single best answer to your query. If that's not what you're looking for, you can still scroll through the regular Google search results.
But Google Now is more than just a search tool. It essentially acts as your brain, giving you updates on your flight information, meeting times, and even scores for your favorite sports teams. These updates show up as cards within the Google Now app, giving you the latest information. (You also get an alert in your phone's notifications menu.)
Here are a few real-world examples of how Google Now has helped me over the last week:
About an hour before a meeting, Google Now sent me a notification telling me to leave so I could make it on time. It even took traffic into account and offered to navigate me to my destination with Google Maps.
Based on my Google searches, Google Now knows I'm a Mets fan. I now get automatic updates on scores for every game. I can even ask it "When is the next Mets game?" and get the answer.
Since public transportation is built in, Google Now tells me when my train is about to leave so I can make it to work on time.
Best of all, Google Now is insanely fast. Whereas searches on Siri can take several seconds depending on how Apple's servers are doing that day, Google Now returns results almost instantaneously, just like a normal Google search on the desktop. Impressive.
Jelly Bean isn't perfect.
While Google did a great job at sprucing up the look and feel of the operating system, the same can't be said about the offerings in its Google Play store, where the company sells apps, movies, books, and magazines.
Android apps still tend to look a lot worse than their iPhone counterparts. And developers still tend to make the latest and greatest apps for iPhone first before moving on to Android. Plus, with so many different devices running Android these days, not all apps work on every phone. For example, the HBO GO app is incompatible with my Galaxy Nexus running Jelly Bean.
Content offerings such as music, movies, TV shows, and magazines in Google Play aren't as good as Apple's or Amazon's either. You won't find music from Warner Music. You won't find TV shows from CBS. You won't find magazines from Time. Google Play is a lot better than it was just a few weeks ago, but it still needs a lot of work to match its rivals.
Finally, as great as Jelly Bean is, the sad truth is most people probably won't get to try it for a long time. Jelly Bean will only be available on the Galaxy Nexus, Nexus S, and Nexus 7 tablet at first. It's up to Google's carrier and hardware partners to bring it to other phones. And as history has shown, that could take several more months.
Here's the new lock screen for Jelly Bean. Swipe left to launch the camera, up to launch Google Now, and right to unlock the phone.
From the home screen, you can swipe up from the bottom of the display to launch Google Now.
Here's what Google now looks like. Information pops up in separate cards. You can tap the microphone to do a voice search.