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Android 4.0: A rundown of key features

Google last night officially debuted the latest version of its Android platform, code-named Ice Cream Sandwich. Here is a rundown of its key features.

The Grand Unifying Android Update. Android 4.0 is the first version of the Android platform that was designed to run on both smartphone and tablet form factors. Android application developers have long complained that it's difficult to create apps for Android because they have no idea which version of Android their app will be downloaded onto and on what screen size their app will appear on. Android 4.0 attempts to unify Android by giving users the same experience whether they're using a smartphone with a small screen such as the Droid Pro, a smartphone with a large screen such as the Droid X or a tablet such as the Galaxy Tab.

BACKGROUND: Google preps developers for 'one-size-fits-all' Android update

Fun with facial recognition. Google has developed a new way to unlock your phone that could be either creepy or cool, depending on your preferences. The Ice Cream Sandwich unlock screen utilizes facial recognition software to ensure that only you will be able to unlock your device by putting your face up to it. While this does sound nifty, it will also make unlocking your Android phone a real pain if you're at a Halloween party.

Oh, and facial recognition isn't the only change that Google's made to your unlock screen, as it will let you see your notifications on the screen even while the phone is locked. This way you'll be able to know who's called or texted even if you can't get your phone to recognize your face for some reason. And if you find yourself overburdened with unwanted notifications, Ice Cream Sandwich lets you dismiss them with a simple swipe gesture instead of opening them all and deleting them individually.

Beam me up! Google has made waves recently using near-field communications (NFC) technology to power its Google Wallet application that lets users purchase goods in stores with their smartphones. But the company is also using NFC to power its Android Beam technology that lets users zap data directly to one another by tapping their phones together. It works like this: Load whatever you want to share on your smartphone screen, be it a map with directions, your contact information or a Web page. Then tap the back of your phone against the back of another user's phone and confirm on your screen that you want to beam them the data. Voila! You've now zapped it right over to them.

Google+ integration. This is a somewhat predictable development but still nifty to see. Ice Cream Sandwich lets you use Google+ to arrange video chats with multiple friends in your "hangout" circles and on Google Messenger. This tight integration with a popular smartphone operating system may be just the thing to make Google+ a distinct improvement over Facebook.

Visual voicemail playback. Like all of us, you probably have friends or relatives who like to leave you long, cumbersome voice mails that take five minutes to get to the point of the message. The new Ice Cream Sandwich visual voicemail playback feature lets you fast-forward through your voicemails to see if your long-winded friend is calling you for a reason or is just letting out hot air.

Buttons no more. And finally, the new version of Android creates digital versions of the three main physical buttons that typically appear on Android phones. We can infer from this that future Android devices will no longer have physical "Home" and "Back" buttons and will instead use the virtual kind embedded in the software.

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