Google Android P Preview – Smarter software controlled with gestures

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Google released a beta of the upcoming Android version, known as Android P for the time being, on Tuesday evening. Normally this means users of Pixel phones can test the new version, but this time the number of supported phones is many times greater. In addition to two generations of Pixel phones, users of the Essential Phone, Vivo X21, Oppo R15 Pro, Xiaomi Mi Mix 2S, Sony Xperia XZ2, Nokia 7 Plus and OnePlus 6 can also get started with the beta. The last one is especially striking, since that phone isn’t even out yet.

The reason Google is able to release the beta on so many devices is Project Treble, a change from Android Oreo that stripped the underlying kernel layer from the Android the user envisions. Google’s claim that this makes it easier for developers to release new updates has been clearly proven with the P beta. According to Google, Android P is mainly about intelligence; thanks to more use of artificial intelligence and machine learning, Android P must respond smarter to user wishes. We installed the beta on a regular Pixel 2 and went looking for the innovations.

Navigation is on the shovel

One of the most notable innovations, and one that greatly affects the use of the phone, is the redesigned navigation functionality, which still needs to be manually enabled in the beta. Since Android 4.0, Google has used a navigation bar at the bottom of the screen, with a back button, home button and multitask button. In Android P, the first and last disappear by default, leaving only the home button, which now looks like a horizontal line. Tap it and you’ll open the launcher’s main screen as expected, but swipe up and you’ll be taken to the new multitasking menu.

In it, apps are no longer displayed vertically, but horizontally, so that you can see the content of the app better. You can also scroll through the open apps by swiping sideways on the home button, which is accompanied by fine taps from the vibration motor. With this, Google has clearly looked closely at Apple, because the gestures on the iPhone X work very similarly.

If you want to quickly switch between your two most recent apps, you can make a short swipe to the right from the home button. This action replaces the double tap on the multitask button. While the action itself is quick, the animation that accompanies the toggle is fairly long, so it doesn’t feel quite as fast as the double-tap from previous Android versions. Hopefully Google will correct that.

If you swipe up twice, you get an overview of all apps in front of you. That the multitasking menu only requires one swipe and the app drawer now requires two, shows that Google cares about the former. We also notice that at the bottom of the multitasking menu, five apps are now suggested that you may want to start. These are the apps that Google also shows at the top of the full app overview in the current version of Android. Google’s hope is therefore clear that you will always find what you need there, and therefore hardly ever have to open the full app overview.

In the relatively short time we’ve spent with the beta so far, the new navigation has worked just fine. However, it takes some getting used to and it often happened in the beginning that we wanted to open the app overview, but ended up with multitasking. That happens if you don’t make the swipe long enough and therefore don’t move far enough across the screen. We know from the current Android version that the suggested apps that Google presents to you sometimes do very well with what you wanted to do, but whether it works so well that the app drawer is hardly needed, we dare not say yet.

One of the most important navigation elements in Android, the back button, is no longer at the bottom of the screen by default, but only when it can actually be used. As a rule, this means that you do not see it on the home screen, but that it comes into play as soon as an app is open. Where the back button did nothing in previous versions in some situations, in Android P you know that it always performs a function when it is on screen.

The new way of navigating feels like the first step in a two-stage rocket, because Google still reserves the same amount of vertical space for that small, redesigned home button, which means that useful screen space is not used. And the fact that the back button constantly appears and disappears doesn’t feel as polished as you’d like it to be either. We wouldn’t be surprised if the end point that Google has in mind is that apps use the entire screen by default and only the home bar is visible at the bottom, but we’re not there yet.

Actions and Slices: predict what you want to do

The previews of the open apps are not static screenshots, but live views. This means that you can, for example, select text from an app that appears in this overview. If you swipe up a second time, the familiar overview of all apps installed on the phone opens. Since Android Marshmallow, apps that you often use are displayed on the top row, with Google, for example, also looking at the time when you view the list. That technique is now being expanded with Actions, shortcuts to an action within an app. The same Actions can be shown in search results. Google gives the example of a user who searches for the name of a movie and gets a link below the search results to buy tickets in a ticketing app or watch the trailer in the YouTube app.

In addition to Actions, Google is working on the related Slices, which consists of a kind of information widgets that developers can display. To begin with, these will be used for search results on the phone, where the Actions are also shown. A small widget can then be displayed at the bottom of the list of search suggestions. For example, if you search on the taxi app Lyft and you have installed it, you will see a small overview showing how close the nearest Lyft car is and how far it is to your work and home address.

According to Google, it’s relatively easy for developers to add Actions. Android apps are already built up internally from different modules that you can link directly to, developers just have to specify these clearly in an xml file that they bundle with their app. A little more work needs to be done for Slices and Google says it is already working with many services on implementations.

Small changes and a friendlier look

Android P is also full of small visual and functional changes. For example, the Quick Tiles look different, with blue icons, and the drop-down menu that was under the WiFi toggle, for example, has been removed. We think that’s a shame, because especially with WiFi and Bluetooth it was a fast way to connect to another network or device. Other minor ux changes relate to the volume control, which now appears vertically next to the physical button, and which by default adjusts not the call volume, but the media volume. A small, but very nice change, because that will be the thing that most users change most often. If you long press the power button, you will now get an option to take a screenshot. That’s a lot easier than physically pressing the power and volume down buttons at the same time.

Visually, it is striking that almost all windows have rounded corners. Buttons are also rounded and the same applies to, for example, the search bar in the settings menu, which now also has colored icons and has therefore come to resemble the interface of Samsung and LG, among others. All this makes the entire operating system look less ‘hard’.

A last small, but also very useful innovation relates to the automatic rotation of the screen. You know it, you lie in bed on your side at night playing with your phone and you have to be careful that the screen does not always tilt horizontally. You can then turn off the automatic rotation, but in some situations you do want rotation. In Android P, if you tilt the phone and auto-rotate is not on, you will see a small icon at the bottom of the screen. If you tap on this, you can force the rotation: very handy.

Better battery life and smarter light sensor

With every new Android version, Google introduces a new feature with a nice name that should make the battery last longer. In Android P, that feature is called Adaptive Battery. This technique keeps track of which apps you don’t use much and then imposes strict restrictions on what those apps can do in the background. That relates to when and how the phone can be woken up and whether the fast or the slower and more efficient CPU cores can be used. According to Google, it saw a 30 percent decrease in the number of times the phone is woken up by an app in the background in its tests.

The automatic brightness control should also be smarter. So far, it uses the light sensor to measure ambient light and then adjusts the screen brightness accordingly. This does not always produce the desired result, so that users still have to make manual corrections with the slider. If the lighting conditions change, the screen can be too dark or too bright again and you have to adjust it manually. In Android P, Google will keep track of those corrections, link them to the amount of ambient light and learn from them. For example, the system will recognize exactly how a user prefers to adjust the brightness and make these corrections automatically. We haven’t spent enough time with Android P to say how well it works, but if it does what Google promises it will certainly be useful.

Save from smartphone addiction

Part of the innovation in Android P revolves around what Google calls ‘digital wellbeing’. In other words: Google wants to protect you from a smartphone addiction. To achieve that, it introduces three new features: Dashboard, App Timer and Wind Down. The first one is fairly self-explanatory and shows which apps you use the most each day, how often you unlock your phone and how many notifications you receive. If you see an app on the Dashboard that you think you should use less, you can set an App Timer for it, which indicates when the limit you set has been reached. The icon of the app will turn gray and when tapped indicate that you have to turn off the limit via the settings to be able to use the app again.

Wind Down is the third feature in this tripod and is intended for people who want to check something on their phone in bed at night, only to be staring at it an hour later. This feature first ensures that the screen gets warmer in the evening to reduce the amount of blue light that keeps you awake and even makes the screen completely black and white at the bedtime you set. That should prompt users to put the phone away. Turning on Do Not Disturb mode has also been simplified; all you have to do is place your phone face down.

A sober person might say of all this that with a little willpower you can get there, but we can well imagine that there are users who really benefit from these features, if only the Dashboard to confront you with the the way you use your phone. That’s why we were disappointed when after a lot of searching we had to conclude that all this is not yet present in this beta of Android P. Whether Google will distribute it later via the Play Store or whether we will have to wait for the next beta is not yet clear at the time of writing.

Preliminary conclusion

In addition to the features we touch on in this preview, Android P includes even more innovations, some of which were already known, such as support for screen notches, a multi-camera API and stricter restrictions that prevent apps from using the microphone and camera in the background . During the Google I/O keynote, Google added the introduction of ML Kit, a toolset that allows app developers to use Google’s machine learning toolkit without having much knowledge of it themselves.

The beta of Android P significantly improves the picture we received at the beginning of March with the first developer preview . We then had the idea that P would be an unexciting update, but it is now clear that Google has quite a bit in the pipeline, of which the renewed navigation is the most eye-catching. We are very curious how this will be received, because it certainly takes some getting used to in the beginning. The fact that the beta will be available for so many different devices makes us hopeful about Project Treble ‘s potential to provide faster software updates. That is perhaps the most promising aspect of this release, because in the end such a new Android version is of no use if it does not run on your phone.

If you own one of the supported phones, you can sign up for the beta on this page . At your own risk of course; there may still be serious bugs in the software and if you want to go back to Android 8, the phone will be completely erased. Tip: The new navigation bar is not on by default, but can be forced via the Gestures/Gestures option in the settings menu.

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