What's new in Android 2.3 'Gingerbread?' Tablets, NFC, Games

Monday was a big day for Android as Google simultaneously unveiled the latest Android Developer phone, the Samsung-built Nexus S, and Gingerbread, the newest version (v 2.3) of the Android mobile operating system.

Android 2.3 includes performance upgrades and a few superficial additions for users, but the major new additions to the platform have been made with developers in mind, and they may not be visible to users right away, but they will result in exciting new devices a little further down the road.

Near Field Communications (NFC)

Undoubtedly the biggest addition to Android this time around is support for hardware supporting Near Field Communications, the low-power wireless technology that enables quick data transactions simply by passing the phone near an NFC terminal. This is the fundamental technology in "wallet phones," that AT&T, Verizon Wireless, and T-Mobile USA recently formed a joint venture to support.

SIP support

Developers can now build apps that support internet telephony over the Session Interface Protocol. With the SIP API, applications can now have voice calling features without having to manage sessions, transport-level communication, or
audio.

New Sensors

Gingerbread now offers developers the ability to utilize many different types of sensors not previously supported by Android, including: gyroscope, rotation vector, linear acceleration, gravity, and barometer. Additionally, screen orientation has also finally received "reverse" orientations. That is, now instead of just right side up landscape and portrait modes, the screen will re-orient itself no matter which end of the device is facing up.

Front-facing camera support

While video chat already exists on one Android phone, the ability for an app to automatically detect and remember more than one camera on different types of devices was not present. New camera APIs now let applications query the device for the number of cameras it has available, and the capabilities of each one.

Bigger Screen Sizes

The Android SDK now includes a new resource qualifier, "xlarge," to let applications utilize tablet-sized screens. Previously, Android only had Small, Medium, and Large, which presented some limitations for companies looking to put Android on a device with, for example, a laptop-sized screen.

Better Performance

The Dalvik virtual machine that is the heart and soul of Android has gotten a concurrent garbage collector, and the JIT compiler that was added in 2.2 has received further optimizations, the OpenGL ES video drivers have been updated, and support for the Khronos OpenSL ES audio API has been added, to let applications control audio input, output, and processing directly from the native code.

Experience Upgrades

Behind the homescreen UI, Android is generally based on a white background. The notification bar and all sub-menus were all black text on white. With Gingerbread, that has been changed to black and grey. The soft keyboard now has multi-touch events for alternative key and numerical input. Before, users would have to switch keyboards or longpress individual keys for punctuation and numbers; in Gingerbread, users can now hold "shift" or "?123" and tap on a key for the alternate text or symbol to pop up.

Also, the application manager is now a button in the options menu in both the home screen and launcher. This way, users can now just hit their menu button and have access to the application manager from their most commonly-used screens. Within the manager, a new tab dedicated to running applications has been added, which shows the active apps and the resources they're consuming.

In the end, this is a very significant update to Android because it branches the OS out into new territory with support for new screen sizes, new sensors, and new functionality. Consumers may not immediately see the benefit, and there will be the usual cries of "fragmentation!" from users still running 2.1, but there is an awful lot here for developers to toy around with, and the fruits of those new features will be borne within the next few months.

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