Google's Android 2.1: How it'll change your phone

Android 2.1 is expected to reach the Droid, Cliq, and other devices soon. Here's what to expect when it comes to your phone

Google's Nexus One smartphone

Google's Nexus One smartphone

Google officially launched its Android 2.1 software development kit (SDK) this week, giving programmers their first glimpse under the hood of the updated operating system.

Android 2.1 debuted on the new Nexus One handset and is expected to reach other Android devices -- including the Motorola Droid, Motorola Cliq, and HTC Droid Eris -- very soon. While Google calls the update a "minor platform release," Android 2.1 includes several interface changes that are sure to catch your eye.

Here's a look at what you can expect.

Live Wallpapers

Those cool "live wallpapers" seen on the Nexus One are actually a standard feature of Android 2.1. The interactive backgrounds move in different ways: Some shift and swirl as you navigate around your home screens; others generate visualizations based upon music or finger-taps.

Additional Home Screens

Compared to the three home screens found by default in Android 2.0 (and the slightly updated Android 2.0.1), the 2.1 release of Android gives you five home screens to fill with shortcuts and widgets as you wish.

Updated Home Screen Navigation

Along with the added home screens comes a thumbnail-based navigation system that allows you to quickly jump to any screen. You can still swipe left or right normally to move through the various screens, but the thumbnail system gives you the option to also see small icons of all five screens and tap directly on any one to jump straight to it.

New App Launcher

The standard Android app launcher gets a new look in the 2.1 release. Compared to the drawer-like look seen in previous versions -- where the app list would slide up from the bottom of the screen -- the 2.1 app launcher flies the icons in from the corners of the screen while fading in a dark background behind them. It then uses a rolling effect as you scroll down through the list.

Voice Typing For All Text Fields

Android 2.1 builds upon previous versions' voice-to-text capabilities by providing voice recognition for all text fields. As first demonstrated on the Nexus One, the expanded voice typing system allows you to do everything from sending texts to writing e-mails by simply speaking the words into your phone.

New Widgets

The newly black-colored system widgets introduced in Android 2.0.1 are present in the 2.1 release. Google has also added a widget that displays the latest news stories and weather on your home screen, then offers multiple tabs of news and weather information when opened in its full size.

3D Photo Gallery

The photo gallery in Android 2.1, developed with Cooliris, shows all of your images in a slick three-dimensional view. It also integrates two-way sync with online photo albums stored at Picasa.

Other Considerations

Neither Motorola nor HTC has announced an exact date for when specific Android handsets will receive the 2.1 upgrade. Motorola has, however, stated that all of its Android devices will be updated. HTC has mentioned the Droid Eris as an upgrade certainty and has suggested certain other models will also be included.

(During the Nexus One news event, Google Android guru Andy Rubin did say that some older Android phones may not be able to fully support the 2.1 experience, so it's quite possible that some of the early Android handsets may not end up getting the upgrade.)

One thing still conspicuously absent from Android in its 2.1 incarnation: native multitouch support. With that said, you can get multitouch-driven pinch-and-zoom Web browsing on your Android phone with the free Dolphin Browser application.

For more tricks to maximizing your Android experience, check out my in-depth guide: "Master Google Android: 40 Tips and Tricks."

JR Raphael frequently covers mobile technology for both PC World and eSarcasm, his geek-humor getaway. Check out his new Facebook page: facebook.com/The.JR.Raphael

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