At the I/O 2021 developer conference in May 2021, Google showcased upcoming features and updates for its range of products. Google Maps is getting eco-friendly and safer routes feature. Google Workspace is getting Smrt canvas feature that will allow users to communicate and collaborate more effectively. Google also announced its next-gen chatbot LaMDA, a language model for dialogue applications, with an awesome demo. But the most exciting announcement from the keynote was centered around Android 12, which brings the biggest design overhaul to the world’s most popular smartphone OS.
Google revealed that Android OS now powers three billion devices globally. The new changes and privacy features coming to the platform are designed keeping the growing user base in mind. Google also released the Android 12 Beta for the Pixels and a bunch of smartphones from other OEMs. These include select smartphones from Asus, OnePlus, OPPO, realme, vivo, TCL, Xiaomi and ZTE. Even a budget smartphone from TECNO, the Camon 17, is a part of the beta program, which is quite interesting.
Detailed steps to install Android 12 Beta on compatible smartphones can be found on the Android Developers website. Google will be releasing a series of beta updates over the next couple of months. The final build of Android 12 is expected around August. I have been trying out the beta update on the Google Pixel 4A (review). Here is a look at the new features and my first impressions.
Material You: More Colorful and Appealing UI
Over the years, Google has been tweaking and improving the Android User Interface (UI) here and there. However, the vanilla Android interface was always simple and boring, until now. Android 12 with ‘Material You’ design language brings the biggest overhaul, making the interface more colorful, appealing and functional.
The changes start from the lock screen with a huge clock along the front and center of the screen. You also get a new PIN number pad with round buttons. The notification panel gets a big overhaul too. The Quick Settings area that displayed around six circled icons now shows a big grid with two icons per row. It looks neat and less cluttered, but more icons could have been better. The brightness slider is also missing from the first swipe, but it is available on the second swipe.
Users can also personalize the interface with the custom color palette and choose between different fonts and icons. The whole UI reminds me of the Metro Design on Windows Phone 8 OS. The palette color that you set works on the notification shade, and on the keyboard too.
Google also talked about the color extraction feature, which was not a part of the first beta update. It looks like Google has included it in the second beta that we are running, but it seems broken. Irrespective of the wallpaper you choose, the color scheme changes to pink. According to Google, the features will allow the system to automatically determine the dominant colors from your wallpaper and apply those colors across the interface. This means the volume controls, notification shades and the lock screen will get adjusted as per the wallpaper of your choice. Google has also introduced animations throughout the interface, adding a subtle touch.
Privacy: More Granular Control Over Apps Accessing Your Data
Data privacy has always been a pressing concern for users, especially when we now heavily rely on our smartphones and apps. While Google has always been one step behind Apple, it is good to see new privacy features offering more granular control to the users. Your Android phone has access to crucial data, including your contacts and location, among others. A new Privacy Dashboard has been introduced in Android 12 which will offer quick insights about camera, mic and location permissions granted to various apps in the past 24 hours.
Users will be able to revoke access right from the dashboard, without opening individual apps. The feature was not a part of the first beta but it has been included in the second beta. It is available under Settings > Privacy Dashboard.
The location data, in particular, is used by a lot of apps. From Maps to social media, e-commerce apps, and more, all need access to your accurate location. But if you are uncomfortable with sharing the exact location, you can now assign “approximate location” from under the location settings. This is a good addition.
Google Chrome is the default browser on Android, and a lot of users use Chrome on their mac and Windows PCs too. Chrome also includes a Password Manager, making it easier for users to sync passwords across multiple devices. More recently, there have been several data breaches on some popular sites, which puts your account passwords at risk. A new feature added by Google detects potentially compromised passwords and prompts a pop-up to change the password.
The microphone and camera on the smartphone are highly vulnerable to attacks as hackers can take control of them without users noticing them. If hackers want, they can listen to every conversation or look around the user’s surroundings using the camera, even when the phone is sitting idle.
To offer users more control over privacy, Google has added new indicators to inform you when apps are accessing mic and camera. So, whether you are on a Zoom call, a WhatsApp, or a Duo call, the mic and camera indicators will appear on the top right of the screen. A new toggle will also be available in the drop-down notification for the camera and mic. Once turned off, no app can access the camera or mic. With mic and camera turned off, whenever you use an app like Google Duo, Zoom, Camera App, Google Assistance, and more, a pop-up will appear asking whether you want to unblock the mic/camera. After the call is complete, you will have to again manually toggle it off.
New Features Bring Improved Usability and Convenience
Google introduced the ability to snooze notifications with Android 8 Oreo. But to enable that, users had to pull down the notifications panel and left-swipe the notification, tap on the bell icon, and then select between 15 minutes and two hours. With the latest update, Google has a convenient option to snooze notifications. You now get a Clock Icon on the bottom right of the notification. Tapping on the icon, notifications from that app will be snoozed for one hour by default. It will also show a dropdown menu to select between other options.
Notification history is another interesting addition that will come in handy when you accidentally dismiss some important notifications. The feature needs to be enabled manually. You can do so by heading over to Settings > Notifications > Notification History and turning on the toggle. The dismissed notifications can then be accessed from the same path.
Smartphone screen size has been steadily increasing over the years with increasing content consumption. In the US market itself, the display size share of 6.5-inch and above in the $100-$250 segment was above 35% in February 2021. And with the display form factor getting taller, the new One-Handed Mode will help users operate their smartphone single-handedly. The feature is identical to the Reachability feature on iOS. Users can invoke the mode by swiping down on the gesture navigation bar, after which the screen will shrink to half. To exit the mode, users can swipe up on the navigation bar. The feature is not enabled by default, and users can activate it by heading over to Settings > System > Gestures > One-Handed Mode.
Google has also added other features where the smartphone can be used to control other devices. For instance, users can control their Android TV by using the smartphone as a remote control. The feature will be available in the Android 12 OS itself. Users can also use the on-screen keyboard on the smartphone to enter the passwords and to use the search feature.
Chromebook users will also be able to unlock the laptop using their Android phones. But that is not all, they can also use the file manager to wirelessly transfer files between the Chromebook and the Android smartphone. Lastly, NFC and Ultra-Wide Band (UWB) technology will enable the Digital Car Key feature on select Pixel and Samsung smartphones. It will let BMW car owners lock, unlock and start their vehicles with the help of this tech. Google also mentioned that there are now over 100 million cars compatible with Android Auto.
Google Teams up with Samsung to Strengthen Wearable Efforts
Rumors were rife that Samsung’s next Galaxy smartwatch will be powered by Google’s WearOS. At the I/O 2021, Google formally announced the partnership where the tech giants are merging the WearOS with Tizen. The partnership will help in offering faster performance and improved battery life in smartwatches powered by WearOS.
The unification of the Google and Tizen ecosystem is good news for both consumers and developers. The move also means that the next Galaxy smartwatch will come with Google Maps and Play Store, giving users access to even more apps. But more interestingly, it will also likely bring native support for Google Assistant, allowing users to control smart home devices with their voice. It will also enable users to perform basic voice search, set alarms, ask for weather updates, add appointments and more.
Initial Thoughts: Most Promising Android Update in Years
Overall, Google has announced exciting new features for the Android 12 OS, and it is definitely the most promising update in years. But as is the case always, there is a possibility that not all the announced features would make their way to the final version. While OS fragmentation has always been a concern on the Android platform, it remains to be seen if the situation can improve with the latest update. This is considering how an increasing number of OEMs are not committing to multiple years of OS upgrades and security updates.