The time of a new Android operating system is now upon us, with the venerable Android 8 (aka Oreo) setting in the west and the sparkling, new Android 9 (aka Pie) rising in the east. This latest iteration of the world’s most popular mobile operating system tackles screen addiction and reimagines how we interact with Android with new gestures. It also refreshes the look and feel of Android to be more Google-like. While Google’s Digital Wellbeing features are still in Beta, the overall experience is excellent. Android 9.0 is an Editors’ Choice, along with Apple’s iOS 12.
Apples and Androids
The full name of Android 9.0 was revealed on Aug. 6, 2018, ignoring Peeps and Popsicle and going with the gooey and delicious Pie. Keep in mind that, depending on your device, it may be some time before it’s available for you; if you have an older device, you may not get it at all. Google’s Pixel devices are the first in line, with a handful of partners lined up for early rollout.
Reviewing operating systems can sometimes feel like trying to write a review about the sky or the ocean. They are so large, encompassing so many features, that even trying to sum them up is a daunting experience. In the case of mobile operating systems, it’s even stranger, since consumers don’t really have a choice. You either buy an iPhone with iOS or another phone with Android. You can’t run iOS on a Samsung phone.
While it’s easy to say that Apple is the closed-and-pretty-one and Android is the open-and-messy-one, that’s also enormously reductive. Both Google and Apple are designing for human users and, as such, use a lot of the same tools and tactics in their mobile operating systems. In fact, if you read the comments of any review of either OS, you’ll find fans pointing out the extent to which each “copies” from the other. Still, I find it useful to compare the two occasionally, since they highlight different approaches to the same issues.
This year, Google and Apple both tackled the problem of people spending too much time on their phones. Apple, I believe, delivered the more comprehensive solution, while Google’s still feels unfinished (and is still in beta). Apple also introduced an incredibly powerful tool with its Shortcuts app, that allows determined users to create little scripts to automate activities on their iPhones and iPads. It’s mindblowing on iOS, but Google has relied on developers to create tools like Tasker to fill that niche. Apple pushed hard on AR features, which, strangely, were mostly absent from Google with Android 9.0. With Android Pie, Google quietly delivers an overhaul of Android’s visual design, along with some truly wonderful quality of life improvements. It’s not a dramatic change, but it will make your phone feel fresh, new, and more functional.
Apple still, however, succeeds enormously in delivering updates to users. It’s sobering to see Google’s own statistics on OS adoption, which reflect the fact that, despite enormous strides with the operating system, getting the upgrade to users is still a challenge. As of September of 2018, only 5.87 percent of Android users were on the latest version of the OS, 8.1 Oreo, and only 13.4 percent using its predecessor 8.0. The other 80.8 percent of users were on older versions, some as far back as version 2.3.3. Pixel owners, who get their phones and software directly from Google, tend to have higher rates of adoption, however. The graphic below shows very similar figures from May 2018.
The Look of Android
For years, I felt like little thought was given to the actual look of the Android OS. I presumed this was because Google felt like it was making the foundation that OEMs and others would build upon. That seemed to change with the last generation of Nexus devices, which felt decidedly more unique and more consumer-focused. The Pixel devices (and the Pixel Launcher) cemented this idea: there’s now a unique look to Android. The latest twist in this tale of aesthetics is that Google is pushing out a unified look to more and more of its properties, from Android to Gmail.
The bigger, more rounded look seen in Google Drive and others is seeping into Android. The Notifications pull-down pane has distinct, white cards with rounded corners that feel much more substantial than the previous design. There’s also a setting for a Light or Dark theme in Android now, which recolors these cards as either black or white. You can also opt for Android to choose which theme to use based on your background image.
Some of these new design elements are best seen in the Settings app. The larger search fields and suggestions at the top of the app are far more inviting, and the bolder icon colors more eye-catching. It feels much cleaner, and more like a cohesive statement.
A final thought on aesthetics. Google seems to be consciously shifting attention away from Android and toward Google itself. Case in point: when I reboot my Pixel it doesn’t say Android in bright letters anymore. It says Google with the words “powered by Android” in smaller letters at the bottom. Using Android is now, really, the experience of using Google on your phone.
That doesn’t mean that Android’s days are numbered. But it is significant that Google has spent much more time talking up its new flavor of Chrome OS. There are currently two tablets that run Chrome OS and support Android apps. Perhaps more will be coming, or perhaps not. What’s clear is that something is shifting with Google and that the future of Android and Chrome OS are in flux.
Tackling Screen Addiction
This past year has seen mounting concern about screen addiction; the social and health consequences that come from staring at screens all day. At Google I/O 2018, this topic received a lot of time. Google even offered an antidote to Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) with the Joy of Missing Out (JOMO). To that end, Android Pie includes a series of powerful new Digital Wellbeing tools to give users more insight into how they use their phones and hopefully curb their usage.
The idea of Google trying to get customers to use their phones less might, at first, seem laughable or even disingenuous. After all, the company presumably wants as many people using Android apps and Google services as often as possible. But there seems to be an unspoken fear that if consumers get fatigued by the modern smartphone experience, or overly concerned about screen addiction, they might stop using their phones altogether. Better, perhaps, to encourage healthier and sustainable long-term usage.
If you’ve got Android Pie on your phone, you probably don’t have any Digital Wellbeing options. The features are still in beta, but you can try them out by downloading a special app from the Play Store. Once you do, a new option for Digital Wellbeing appears in your Settings menu. You have the option to add it as an app in the app drawer, if you’re into that.
At the center of the Digital Wellbeing effort is a circular chart breaking down of how much time you spend on your phone and in which apps that time was spent. Stats for the number of unlocks and notifications are less useful, but the former does drive home to me how many times I look pointlessly at my phone and do nothing.
Note that you can opt-out of usage statistics by tapping the Overflow menu (aka Three Dot or Hamburger menu) in the upper corner.
Fine-grained information about time spent in apps, unlocks, and notifications is in the Dashboard section. This shows a day-by-day breakdown over the course of a week. You can swipe backwards to see historical information, too. A list of apps at the bottom can be ordered a few ways, such as the apps you use the most or sent the apps that produced the most notifications, with the invitation to set a timer for those apps. Once set, the timer temporarily locks you out of the app when it expires. You can also tap each app to see even more usage stats, adjust timers, and even change the app’s notification settings.
Digital Wellbeing also sports a customizable Do Not Disturb function. Apple also overhauled Do Not Disturb, which effectively mutes notifications and sounds for set periods of time. Apple also added a geofence option, to end Do Not Disturb after you leave a certain geographic area. Google doesn’t look at notifications for its Do Not Disturb, but does give you more controls over how it behaves. You can adjust what apps can disturb you, and how they do it. It’s remarkably flexible.
One feature I particularly like is Wind Down. Set a time range for when you want to use your phone less, and your device will fade to black and white during that interval. It’s a powerful visual cue, reminding you to take a break. It also guts the strongest and most alluring part of smartphones: the lush colors and dopamine squirt-inducing visuals. One interesting note: screenshots taken when in Wind Down mode are still in color.
I’ve used Wind Down for some time, in addition to the Night Light feature that tints my screen amber at night and supposedly helps me sleep by filtering out blue light. I have found that both are excellent visual reminders for me to take a break but Wind Down had an unexpected side effect: many features of my phone are unusable in black and white. It’s almost impossible to play many Android games without the assistance of color. It certainly succeeds in making me put down my phone and go to bed, but also a hint to developers that perhaps their apps should take into account the experience of people with color blindness.
Apple also has taken aim at screen addiction in iOS 12. It’s interesting to see what while both tackle the problem differently, they’re clearly using similar features to achieve similar goals. iOS 12, for example, greys out individual app icons instead of your whole screen, and gives you an easy opt-out if you really need to use an app. These tools are a bit more striking on iPhone if only because there has been no way to get this kind of control over the device before, whereas Android has enjoyed a wide variety of parental control solutions for years. That said, I think the Wind Down feature has more impact than Apple’s approach.
Where iOS succeeds is in delivering data about app usage and setting limits. With Apple devices, you can sync your usage stats between all devices for a more complete picture of your app habits. Apple also focuses on setting limits for categories of apps, and then making exceptions (either long or short term) later on. Android, on the other hand, encourages you to set limits on specific apps. The process of setting those limits just felt overly fiddly on Android, while it took seconds on iOS.
Apple also tied parental control features into its Screen Time controls. Parents can not only limit how long their kids spend on certain apps, they can also restrict certain content and even prevent their kids from changing some important Settings. It’s remarkably powerful for iOS. Android Pie doesn’t have much to offer on this front. You can still create multiple users, but setting limitations on specific apps and services is probably best left to stand-alone parental control services.
Google has a strong first effort with its Digital Wellbeing, but so does Apple. What Google needs to do now is continue to improve and iterate on Digital Wellbeing, and not simply move on with the next update.
The Top of the Screen
App notifications and the Android menu bar are likely the main ways people engage with their devices. Notifications show us what’s happening and give us the opportunity to take actions. The menu bar has critical device information like battery level and the current time. Android Pie carefully tweaks both of these areas, giving consumers a quality-of-life boost.
Although it is a very small change, Android Pie moves the current time from the far right corner of the screen to the far left. I actually like this move since it helps tidy up the top of the phone, but it’s mostly there because of the notched-phone fad that we’re all suffering through. And yes, Android Pie absolutely supports notched devices, as can clearly be seen with the new Pixel 3 XL.
With Android Pie, notifications support media, like the images sent as attachments. You’ll also be able to see the avatar of the person messaging you, which makes the notification experience far more complete. Similarly, Android Pie has AI-generated canned responses, like those seen in Gmail. They’re particularly handy for sending quick, rote responses, but I haven’t yet seen them outside of Google apps.
All of these improvements are about seeing more relevant information in notifications and having more options available to respond. That leads directly to the improvement I’m most excited about: drafts. I am a verbose person by nature, and rarely fire back a short response to a text. I’m the kind of person who tries to type out the entire text of Beowulf in that one-line text field. I am a monster. That means I am also the kind of person who screams in agony when I accidentally tap out of the notification and lose everything I just typed. Thankfully, Android Pie includes a draft function that will automatically save what you wrote in the notification reply field as a draft. Huzzah!
While I’m interested to see the changes coming to notifications in Pie, I am a not convinced the full potential of these changes will actually be realized. The major push in the previous version of Android was reworking notifications to give the user more control over what they see and when. The introduction of notification Channels, intended to let consumers toggle off some kinds of notifications from individual apps was a radical change, but one that, in my experience, hasn’t been widely embraced by developers. I hope that, with the arrival of Pie, more developers will take advantage of these tools to make notifications less of a nuisance.
One new notification irritation comes from Pie, as well. Periodically, I see a notification that comments on how often I’ve dismissed a particular app’s notifications and asking if I want to mute that app. While I appreciate Google highlighting the feature, it seems overly aggressive. Just because I didn’t tap the notification to take action on it doesn’t mean it wasn’t useful. Pie needs to chill out in this regard.
Highly Appropriate Gestures
The three buttons at the bottom of every Android device have been like an anchor for the operating system, remaining unchanged as the stars spun overhead. Sometimes they have different symbols, sometimes they are physical instead of just displayed on the glass, but they’re almost as iconic as Apple’s single home button design for the iPhone. And just as Apple did away with the home button with the iPhone X, Android Pie puts a whole new twist on its navigation scheme. Now, there’s just one button and a whole lot of gestures.
After a factory reset and clean install of Android Pie my Pixel XL defaulted to the same three icons at the bottom of the screen. That’s odd, because Google took time to highlight the new interface during the I/O developer conference, suggesting it’s an important new feature. To activate the new Gestures, open the Settings>Gestures page and toggle the “swipe up on Home button.”
Once you do, you’ll now have a single lozenge-shaped button in the center bottom of the screen instead of three buttons. Tap it and swipe up all the way, and it will display the full apps tray. This is everything you’ve installed on your device. It’s not far off from how the Pixel Launcher displays apps now. Tap the center button from anywhere, in any app, and you’ll be taken back to the home screen. Note that you can also swipe up to view the app tray from the home screen even without Gestures enabled and the three traditional buttons at the bottom of the screen. With Gestures enabled, the swipe-up action works in any app.
In the past, the far right button (sometimes shown as a square or a menu icon) opened a view that displayed all the apps currently running on your device. You could flick them away to close the app, or jump quickly from one app to another. In more recent versions of Android, this view also let you run apps side-by-side in a split screen view. With Gestures in Android Pie, most of these functions are shifted over to the home button.
To open the app tray with the center button, you need to keep your finger on the screen pretty much all the way to the top. It’s not a flick action. But flicking or dragging just partway up the screen does open a new task manager view, typically handled by the far right button. In this view, cards show each app currently running. The icons on top match the icon for each app, and the rest of the card shows what’s currently happening in the app. I am surprised that in at least some cases you can copy and paste from these app previews, but it’s not clear how much action can be taken from this view. The bottom of the screen shows a smaller app tray, showing a set of apps that seem to be derived from how I use my phone. Android Oreo has a similar feature already in the full app tray view that displays frequently used apps.
You can scroll left and right through the app cards, and toss the cards away to terminate apps. Dragging an app to the top of the screen will still start a split screen session, so not much has really changed.
One new Gestures trick is when you tap the center button and drag to the left. This opens a fast app-switching screen. It’s a simplified version of the app manager view, minus the app tray at the bottom. Without lifting your thumb, you slide left and right through the apps currently running on your phone. Release your thumb and whatever app is in the center position will move into focus. It’s much faster than opening the old app manager of the half-swipe up gesture
I really struggled with this one in testing. It’s just too fast. I’d either let go when I didn’t intend to or swipe all the way to the end of the list and lose it. Google should tweak this particular gesture to make it easier to use. Explaining this big change to the average consumer, and getting them to use it without frustrating themselves, however, could be a much bigger issue. While using it I was reminded of how I learned to drive stick or, more recently, used the gestures available with the Apple Magic Trackpad. It’s all muscle memory, and I am sure I could learn to use it in time, but I don’t find it particularly compelling.
The left-hand button traditionally moved you back one screen, and doubled as the back button on some browsers, too. It would be hard to imagine that OS without it, which is probably why it still pops up from time to time. Every now and again while using the gesture button, a tiny triangle appeared in the lower left, which you can tap and move back. This downgrade makes sense, since the single home button will always take you back to the home screen. You just don’t need it in sight all the time.
My expectations of the Android Pie gestures were way out of line with what I experienced in the developer preview version of the OS. From what I read online, and saw on stage at I/O, I had imagined a totally new way to interact with my phone. It’s not that. It’s a smart redesign that’s largely optional, but still with a few rough edges to work out. I’m curious to see how it performs in the long term, but honestly I wouldn’t mind if Google went even further overhauling the navigation in Android. The OS is nearing a decade in use, and smartphones are ubiquitous enough that companies can stand to be a little more experimental than they were in 2008.
Two tweaks in Android Pie both take advantage of your screen’s horizontal space in new and interesting ways: new screen rotation controls and an improved volume bar.
Screen rotation was one of those ooh-ah moments with the iPhone when the OS smoothly moved between landscape and portrait views depending on how you held the device. It’s an essential feature that’s on every kind of modern smartphones, but it’s also deeply annoying. How many of us have been laying in bed, reading our phones, only to have the screen spin around to an inconvenient angle when we make the slightest move? Too many, that’s how many.
Sure, you can toggle screen rotation off in the Settings (or in the menu available in the notification tray) but that’s such a huge commitment? Once you toggle Auto-rotate off in Android Pie, rotating your phone creates a tiny, animated rotating arrow icon at the bottom of the screen. Tap it, and the screen will rotate to match your phone’s position. Otherwise, it stays right where it is.
Thankfully, Android Pie is smart enough to not interfere with apps that are intended to be viewed in a different orientation. For example, launching my favorite board game app Roll for the Galaxy flipped the view to landscape, as always.
Upgrades to the volume slider in Android Pie also fall into the quality of life department. Now, pressing the volume rocker switch on your phone will tick the volume up and down as before. But in Android Pie, the volume menu pops in from the right of your screen and runs down the horizontal axis of your phone. The animation, position, and shape of the volume menu are the same as the shut down/restart menu that appears when you press and hold the power key.
Moving the volume menu out of the notification area and mimicking the power menu makes so much sense. It’s a visual cue that you’re interacting with the operating system, and puts the menus closer to the actual position of the buttons. It’s smart all around.
The smartest part, however, is that the volume buttons control media volume by default. If you want to mute your ringer, you tap a button at the top of the volume menu. The logic is simple: most of the time, people want their ringers either on or off, and want to have fine-grained control over their music and media volume. Other volume controls, like alarm volume, are in the Settings menu, to which Google has thoughtfully added as a shortcut at the bottom of the new volume menu.
This is miles better than the weird context-specific menu in Oreo, which had the media or ringer controls visible depending on what was happening when you pressed the volume control. It was far too clever to actually be useful. The new option is elegant, and bested only (perhaps) by a physical mute button on your phone.
In the Background and Under the Hood
As with all operating system updates, there’s a lot going on with Pie that might not be immediately obvious to the user. Here’s a quick rundown of the highlights as taken from the developer documentation.
In the realm of security, Google has changed the conversation about Android in a big way. Rather than talk about putting out fires, Google wants to challenge ideas of what a phone can be safely used for. It’s a statement of confidence, and one that’s quite refreshing. For Android Pie, users can look forward to improved encryption for the device and device backups, the latter of which will now require a PIN or pattern code to unlock.
Android Pie also brings improvements to the autofill framework, which lets apps fill information directly into websites and other apps. If you use a password manager (which you should) the Autofill framework is a game changer that takes the pain out of entering passwords. Android Pie makes that experience seamless.
Fingerprint readers, and other biometrics, are now common across smartphones. Android Pie simplifies the experience by having one system-level prompt for users to place their finger or thumb on the sensor. This assures the user that it’s a legit request for their biometric information.
Google continues to tighten what apps running in the background can do in Android Pie. In addition to the limits we saw in previous versions, Pie restricts apps from receiving sensor information when they’re in the background. Best of all, background apps can no longer access the microphone or camera. In my opinion, this is a long time coming but a much welcome improvement.
Android Pie also expands the support for dual-camera devices (that is, smartphones with two cameras facing in the same direction). Features like bokeh, seamless zoom, and stereo vision are now possible. You’ll see some of that on display in the Pixel 3, but not older devices that run Pie.
A Delicious Pie
When I first saw Android 9.0 on stage at Google I/O and in the developer preview, I assumed that the biggest feature would be Digital Wellbeing’s assault on screen addiction. That was certainly true with Apple’s iOS 12. But I’ve been surprised to find how little those features have impacted me compared to what else is going on in Android Pie. I’m very impressed with the new gestures, and the tweaks that need to be made seem obvious and easy. I’m also very intrigued by changes to the look and feel of Android going forward, as it becomes more bound to the Google visual experience.
With Digital Wellbeing still percolating in beta, it’s possible that Google will iterate more on it in the future. I certainly hope so, because it’s a bit short of my expectations. I’d also like to see tighter integration with the growing galaxy of Google Assistant powered smart devices, like the Home and Hub.
Android 9.0, aka Pie, is making its way to phones as you read this. Perhaps it’s already there, waiting for you to take a slice. We’re impressed with the quality of life and visual improvements of Pie, which continues Android’s history of excellence. Along with iOS 12, it’s an Editors’ Choice for mobile operating systems.
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