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Android P hands-on review

By Julian Chokkattu

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Artificial intelligence is officially the buzzword of 2018. Almost every announcement that came out of Google I/O, the company’s annual developer conference, was tied to some way or form. It’s no surprise, then, to see Google injecting more machine learning and A.I. into one of its core products — Android.

The next version of Google’s mobile operating system is here, dubbed Android P. We won’t know what dessert name it will be called yet (my vote’s on Peppermint or Popsicle), but you can download the open betaright now if you have a compatible device. Google first released a developer preview back in March, but this week’s show brought even more details. We’re taking a close look here, but you can read about all the new features in our Android P guide.

Editor’s note: Since Android P is in beta, new features and visual designs can be changed, removed, or added before the final version is released later this year.

Visual and navigation changes

Goodbye, sharp edges. One of the first changes we noticed when powering up our Google Pixel 2 XLrunning Android P is just how round everything looks now. Notifications are rounded, the quick settings tiles are in neat circles, and the Settings app has been revamped in a more colorful, rounded interface. It makes the OS feel friendlier, and we’re happy with the change — though we’re sure there will be vocal opposition to it.

Perhaps the most drastic change, however, lies in the navigation menu. Gone are the Android navigation buttons in favor of a single, pill-shaped icon. Like iOS on the iPhone X, Android is now all about gesture navigation: using swipes instead of taps on icons. It’s a welcome move that declutters the screen, but there’s still room for improvement. In our demo, gesture navigation was turned off by default and had to be enabled, but it’s not yet clear which mode will be the default when Google rolls out Android P.

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Dan Baker/Digital Trends

The pill-shaped button acts almost exactly the same as the old home button: Tap it once and you’ll go home; press and hold it and you’ll open Google Assistant. Once you jump into an app, you’ll see the back button appear on the left of the home button. It works exactly the same as before, but it looks a little more angular, it’s not filled in, and it’s smaller. The look is out of character with the new rounded theme, but it’s undoubtedly more compact.

There is no Recents button to see an overview of the recently opened apps, but there’s still a way to handily access them: Quickly drag the home button to the right to switch back to the previous app. You can also press and hold it to the right to move through all your recent apps. To close some of those background apps, do a half-swipe up from the bottom of the screen to see the Recents overview. A full swipe up will open up your app drawer.

We like the new gesture navigation method, but like all new changes, it will take some time to get used to it. Our biggest gripe is how the pill-shaped home button manages to take up the same amount of space as the traditional navigation buttons. It looks a little awkward, with a small pill icon sitting right below a long, rounded and rectangular Google search bar. We think the pill-shaped home button may look better as the old circular home button — either way, we’re hoping for some more visual tweaks here before the final release.

Jump up top to the notification drawer, and you’ll notice some nice haptic feedback when you pull it down. The clock now lives on the left side of the system tray, the quick settings area is now packed with more rounded tiles. It looks cleaner, but we’re sad to see some functionality disappear — you can’t tap on tiles like Wi-Fi to see networks within the same interface. Instead, you’ll need to press and hold it to dive into the relevant section of the Settings app. You can still tap these tiles to toggle settings on or off. In the same vein, if you used to tap the Settings icon at the top of the system tray, that now requires two swipes down as it has moved lower in the notification drawer. We like the visual changes here, but it does feel like a step back in functionality.

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Dan Baker/Digital Trends

A new brightness slider showcase some of the machine learning at play in Android P. Your screen will still adjust to ambient light as it always has, but Adaptive Brightness now learns from the manual tweaks you make throughout the day. It will automatically adjust it to what you think you’ll want, though it also relies on the ambient sensor to detect lighting. Essentially, the idea is that it’s meant to make sure you don’t need to keep changing brightness manually all the time. We haven’t spent enough time to see if it’s more helpful than before, but seeing the slider automatically move is very cool.

Slices and Actions

Machine learning powers two more additions in Android P: Slices and Actions. The latter predicts actions you’re about to perform, and it will inject two buttons in the app drawer. For instance, if you’re about to text a friend, it might offer a quick shortcut you can tap on that will open up your default messaging app and jump straight to the contact. Other examples are re-ordering food through your favorite delivery app at a certain time of day. We haven’t had a chance to try this out yet, because it’s not in the open beta, but we will update this post when it’s available.

Slices adds more details, or “Slices,” when you search your phone for content and apps. For example, if you search type in “Lyft,” you may see some deep links into the Lyft app, such as to find a driver to take you home or to work.

Both of these new features require support from developers to really work, but the machine learning baked into Android P can help put it all together for the end user. Still, we’ll only be able to see it truly in effect closer to the official release of Android P.

Richer notifications, quality-of-life improvements

Android handles notifications incredibly well, and Google consistently adds solid improvements with every version to make the experience even better. In Android P, you’ll now find Smart Replies baked into notifications. These are basically prepackaged replies based on the way you typically reply. Since it relies on learning the way you respond, so you may not find them as useful immediately. They look a little strange floating in the middle of a notification, and they don’t work with every app just yet.

The actions you can perform on notifications look a lot nicer now — “Reply” and “Mark as Read” are no longer divided separately, but instead they float in the notification bubble. The font changes here really help make the interface look cleaner.

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Dan Baker/Digital Trends

There are a lot of other changes that just improve the everyday usability of the OS. For example, Do Not Disturb is no longer a mess of confusing options. Instead, tap it once and the OS will completely block all visual and audio interruptions. You can even flip your phone face down to turn this on. It’s simple, and incredibly effective.

Always have trouble with the volume control buttons? Now if you increase or decrease the volume, it defaults to changing the media volume, and the visual pop up sits vertically next to the volume rocker (at least, on the Pixel). It’s unclear yet if this will sit next to the volume rocker on all phones. If you want to change your phone’s sound profile, there’s one single button you can tap on three times to cycle through modes: Sound, Vibrate only, or Mute. A settings icon will take you into the full volume control menu. It’s a delightfully beneficial change.

You can now take screenshots by tapping the new icon in the power menu (it appears when you press and hold the power button), and edit screenshots right when you take them. This long overdue feature allows you to markup screenshots, rotate them, and share them quickly.

One other neat improvement on the main home screen is that if you press the mic on the Google search bar, it’ll directly trigger a voice search with Google Assistant, rather than simply transcribing your text into Google Search. It’s a neat way to integrate Assistant a little more in day-to-day use.

Does your phone screen sometimes rotate when you don’t want it to? One of our favorite new features is a new icon that pops up to the right of the home button when you rotate the phone — the app doesn’t automatically rotate. Instead, tap the icon and it will rotate. If you turn the phone back to portrait orientation, the button will show up again and you can tap it to go back to normal view. It’s such a handy change that removes the frustration of auto-rotate.

google android p news io 2018 simplicity
Dan Baker/Digital Trends

Notice a trend? These changes may be minor, but together they drastically improve the day-to-day Android experience, and we’re excited about them.

Some other quality-of-life changes that are worth mentioning are the magnified view when you move the cursor on text (like in iOS); a new Alarm tile in the navigation drawer so you can see when your next alarm is scheduled; more details in the Night Light tile that reminds you when night mode kicks in; a new section in the Settings menu that shows recently-received notifications; and the fact that you can now see battery life on the Always-on Display.

If you keep swiping away some notifications without interacting with them, the OS will also ask if you want to stop receiving those alerts completely. A new Manage Notifications button at the bottom of your notifications gives further control, like toggling notifications off and on, app by app.

Some of these changes may depend on your smartphone manufacturer, but we’re thrilled to see them baked into Android.

Digital Wellbeing, and spending less time on your phone

A recent Motorola, Harvard, and Massachusetts General Hospital survey found that more than 53 percent of respondents (born in 1990s and the early 2000s) described their phone as their “best friend.” It’s clear we spend too much time on our phones, and Google wants to address this with a few “Digital Wellbeing” features in Android P.

There are four key components to Digital Wellbeing, but sadly only one is currently available in the open beta. The updated Do Not Disturb option, which we mentioned earlier, helps completely block out all alerts so you can focus or pay attention to the task at hand.

But there are more coming. An App Timer will let you set a limit for how long you can use an app. After you hit the limit, the app’s icon goes grayscale to remind you to adhere to your limit. This is helpful feature does require the user to do some setup, but it’s an excellent addition.

There will also be a Dashboard where you can see the amount of time you spend in an app hourly and daily, which may be beneficial if you just want to keep track of what takes up most of your time. You may not want to see that you spent five consecutive hours on Facebook, but hey, maybe that realization will get you to take a step back and do something else.

The final feature is called Wind Down, and it’s a set of steps that take place when you tell Google Assistant you’re ready for bedtime. The whole smartphone screen goes grayscale so you don’t have the desire to click on icons, and it also toggles on Do Not Disturb mode.

We’re excited to see these new additions in Android P. It’s tough to see if any of these will reshape our lives for the better, but it’s entirely up to you on how you want to use them, and that’s crucial. Some may require specific hardware on smartphones, but we’ll be learning more about this initiative in the months to come.

Under-the-hood improvements

As with every update, there are things happening under the hood that aren’t immediately noticeable. One of the most important is Adaptive Battery. Google said it’s working with its DeepMind division to analyze user behavior, so that the OS can predict the apps you’re most likely to use next, and ready up resources accordingly. Google said this will result in a 30-percent reduction in CPU wake-ups, which should help improve battery life. We’ll continue testing this throughout the beta and see if we notice a significant difference.

Another significant addition is that apps that are running in the background can no longer access the microphone or camera. It’s worrying to think this wasn’t the case before, but we’re thankful it’s here. There’s also now a consistent fingerprint authentication prompt across all apps and services, so it looks the same throughout the OS.

This consistency is another running theme, not just for Android P, but to all of Google apps and services. Google is helping developers integrate its Material Design elements into their apps as well thanks to a Material Theme Editor, which helps unify the design. Of course, it completely depends on if the developer is on board.

Android P also has notch support, for the increasing number of phones that have a little cutout at the top for the camera and earpiece.

Big changes ahead

The final version of Android P will likely roll out sometime in August, though that doesn’t mean your phone will receive the update. That’s Android’s fragmentation problem: It needs manufacturers and carriers to push out the updates. What’s promising is that Android P’s open beta is available on more phones than ever before, not just Google Pixel phones. And thanks to Project Treble from Android 8.0 Oreo, which added a way for manufacturers to push out Android updates faster, we can definitely expect to see Android P on a greater variety of phones in 2018.

Regardless, Android P may be one of Google’s biggest updates to Android in some time. Android 7.0 and 8.0 were largely under the hood updates, but there are a lot more visual changes and additions this time around. We’re still getting used to the new gestures, and barring a few inconsistencies, we’re content and excited with what’s new.

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