Android O’s top 10 features
MICHAEL SIMON explores the developer’s preview of Android’s latest operating system and found some exciting new things
Google I/O is just around the corner, but we’ve already had a sneak peek at what Google is planning for Android O. To help developers make sure their apps are in tip-top shape for the public release later this year, Google has given them the first preview a little early, opening up a brand-new box of tricks and tools.
While we’re not sure how many of these features will make it out of Developer options and the System UI tuner and into the main release, but there are a bunch of cool tricks we’ve found while exploring the new settings. Here are our 10 favourites.
1. Superior Settings
The most obvious front-facing change in the first Android O Developer Preview is the Settings app. Not only does it have a new icon, it’s been revamped from the ground up, with a new look and smarter organization. And we’re hoping Google extends it to the rest of its apps, because it’s vastly superior.
For one, the slide-out menu is gone, so all return navigation is done via the back button. It also steals a bit from its partners with a suggestions tab at the top, and the organization is more condensed and logical (for example, data usage and Wi-Fi are bundled into Network & Internet). It makes navigating the app much more pleasant and should cut down on the number of times you need to search for something you can’t find.
2. Cooler notification shade
We’ve always had a love-hate relationship with the notification shade. But thankfully Google understands that there’s room for improvement, and in Android O it’s made another round of useful changes.
When you pull down, you’ll see more icons in the status bar, including battery and percentage, Wi-Fi and SD card status. It’s a subtle change, but a good one. Also Google has added more functionality to notifications. Long-press on one and you’ll get an option to disable notifications for that app rather than just silencing them. And when you swipe right you’ll also see a new clock icon that lets you snooze it for 15 minutes, 30 minutes, or an hour. Again, this is a subtle change, but it’ll go a long way toward helping us keep the shade clutter-free.
3. Notification channels
Speaking of notifications, Google has revamped more than just the shade. In Android O, notifications won’t just be an all-or-nothing affair. You’ll have more control over what you see and what apps can send you thanks to a new feature called notification channels.
Just like you can choose which ESPN channel you want to watch on your TV, notifications channels let you select which type of alerts you want to get from each app. For example, message apps could only send you notifications for messages from people in your contacts lists, or you could opt to only get audible alerts for certain system processes. It has the potential to make notifications way more manageable on Android O.
4. Better security
Whether it’s a Google beta or the newest version of WhatsApp, a lot of us side-load apps onto our phones. Over the past few versions of Android, Google has taken steps to help ensure that malicious apps can’t make their way onto your phone, and in Android O, Google has made it even more secure.
Now, when you try to load an official APK or an app from an unknown source for the first time you’ll have to give explicit permission from the app itself, not just for the file. That means an app won’t be able to install anything without your permission and the chances of one of them surreptitiously installing a piece of malware on your phone is significantly lessened.
5. Picture in Picture
Android TV users have enjoyed picture in picture since Nougat landed last year, but in Android O Google is bringing the feature to phones and tablets, too.
Primarily for video playback, the feature puts a tiny floating window on your screen that will continue to show what you were watching while you work in other apps. It’ll stay on top of whatever you’re doing until you either maximize it or close it. There are a couple caveats – it currently only works with the YouTube app, requires setting the navigation bar key code to 171 to get it to work, and the image isn’t quite right – but it’s surprisingly watchable, even on a phone.
6. New badges
If there’s one feature we’ve wanted from iOS for years, it’s icon badges. A few launchers and some manufacturers have already seen the light, but Google has been resistant to adding them to Android proper, until now.
Over in the notification settings there’s a new “Show badge” toggle for each app that lets you choose whether to show an unread counter on the accompanying home screen app. The feature isn’t live yet (the image above shows how it looks on the LG G6) and you’ll still need to keep the status bar notification turned on, but we’ll take what we can get.
7. Extra navigation buttons
One of the best things about phones like the LG G6 (page 70) are the extra options they give you in the navigation bar at the bottom of the screen. Along with the usual back, home, and overview, you can add things like a screen capture and notification shade shortcut, and now you’ll be able to do it all across Android.
It’s still limited to the System UI tuner, so we’re not sure what buttons Google is going to allow in the final product. But so far there are options for the clipboard and keyboard switcher, as well as a keycode that can be configured with either a circle, plus, minus, cursor, or menu icon. You can also tweak the layout to be compact, left-leaning, or right-leaning, but we’ll have to wait until the final release to see how much personalization Google will give us.
8. Lock screen shortcuts
We’re all familiar with the lock-screen shortcuts for the camera and voice assist, but on other phones, we’re able to change them to apps that we use more often. In Android O, Google is giving us the same ability.
In the System UI tuner there’s a new Lock screen option that lets you change the left and right shortcut to just about anything you want. Along with launching one of the apps of your phone, you can also add shortcuts for a load of useful actions like opening a new tab in Chrome, taking a selfie, or composing a new Gmail message. It’s a neat twist on the standard customization, and it could turn the stock lock screen into one of the best launchers around.
9. Battery benefits
The one thing we all want above all else is better battery life. And Google is looking to up its game in Android O. One of the most important changes to the way the OS functions behind the scenes is in what apps can do when you’re not using them. For starters, Android O will place restrictions on how often background apps can retrieve your current location, as well as target battery-draining activity in implicit broadcasts and background services.
And there are some changes you can see, too. The battery icon in the status bar now puts the percentage alongside it rather than cramming it inside so you can actually see it. Additionally, the settings have been changed to put important options like the battery saver and adaptive brightness front and centre.
10. Awesome autofill
We’re long used to autofill for simplifying web forms that repeatedly ask us for our address and phone number. But if we’re not using Chrome, the system isn’t quite seamless, requiring jumps between password managers or switching to special keyboards that integrate with our stored data.
Google is making it easier in Android O by opening up an autofill API. So, if you use a password manager, it’ll be able to integrate a secure autofill method right into the password field, letting you quickly log in to whatever app you’re using. While it’s not live yet, both 1Password and LastPass have already demonstrated how it will work within their apps, and it looks incredibly fast and effortless. As AgileBits describes it, “Like all great technology, it feels like magic.”