Jelly Bean: What you need to know about Android 4.1

At its I/O conference Google unveiled the next update to Android version 4.1, also known as Jelly Bean.(s goog) The update, which will first become available as an over-the-air download next month for the Galaxy Nexus and Nexus S, brings a lot of nice improvements and some cool enhancements to search, notifications and navigation.

There was nothing earth-shattering, but with more than half of the market, Google just needs to keep refining the platform and staying competitive with Apple. A bigger question will be how long it will take for existing Android users to get 4.1, since only about 7 percent of Android users are on Ice Cream Sandwich.

The update does help Android compete better with iOS (s aapl), bringing some cool features that stack up well against Siri. It also makes Android more of a one-stop shop for users, who don’t have to turn to other apps in some cases.

Here’s a rundown of the biggest improvements:

The biggest advances are in improvements to the way users utilize Google Search on Android. Now users can take advantage of Google’s Knowledge Graph along with voice search to get instant spoken answers via Google. So users can ask specific questions with voice search and Google will spit back specific answers on an individual “card.” Users can also access the same information using a regular text search. That gives users direct answers, kind of like Siri, but it also allows people to access regular Google search results with one swipe.

Google is also introducing Google Now, a new way to search that is like a contextual personal assistant. From the Google Search page or with a swipe up from the bottom of the screen, users can access Google Now. The idea is to give people instant access to information based on a person’s location, time of day and search history. So if Google knows you commute to work every day at the same time, it will provide a card showing how long it will take to get to work, offering faster alternatives if the usual route is slow. For appointments, it will tell you how long it takes to get there on time and will show options to get there. If you’re catching a flight, it will tell you if the plane is delayed, what terminal it’s in, and when to leave.

Google Now will also look at a person’s location and show interesting restaurants and places to visit nearby. Users can peruse a restaurant’s menu or check out the best things to eat there. When a user is at a bus stop or transit station, it can show when the next bus or train is coming. The location feature can also tell when a user is traveling and can surface cards with information on currency exchange rates and the local time at home. Sports fans can see sports scores for their favorite teams. This can lessen the need for users to consult other apps such as Yelp (s yelp), Foursquare, ESPN (s dis) and other travel and transit apps.

Google’s voice-recognition service for text input has been enabled for offline use so users can dictate messages without having to be connected. The text-entry system has also been improved to include predictive typing. There’s also automatic widget resizing when you move one around, so a widget can shrink when you relocate it to a crowded page.

Android notifications are getting a lot more powerful. Users will be able to call back people, see emails, control music apps, email upcoming meeting participants, and do other actions right in the notifications pane. Each notification can be enabled with up to three actions. Notifications can also be resized with a two-finger gesture.

Performance-wise, Jelly Bean provides some subtle performance upgrades such as improved system frame rate, triple buffering and making everything work in lock-step to vsync, which runs across all the drawings and animations. That makes rendering smoother and quicker.

Google also introduced Google Cloud Messaging for Android, a service that lets developers send short message data to their users on Android devices. The service, which doesn’t require any special syncing, will order and deliver messages, with up to 1,000 devices able to be reached with a single request.

Other improvements include the ability to transfer videos and photos among devices using Android Beam and Bluetooth and better accessibility for gestures with more tutorials and bidirectional text support for languages that move right to left.

Here’s a video showing how Google Now works: