- Fine-grain notification controls. Picture-in-picture. Autofill for apps. Smart icons. New emoji. Improved security features won’t limit freedom of app choice.
- You might not get it soon, or at all. Notification swipes are very sensitive. Developer buy-in required for some of the best features. RIP blob emoji.
O Is for Oreo
The perennial question with every Android release is what sugary confectionary name will be given to the operating system. Android 4.4 took the branding route with KitKat. Android 5 went with Lollipop, and Android 6 was my least favorite candy, Marshmallow. Android 7 seemed to have stumped the minds at Google, who opened a call for submissions to the public. The last iteration of the OS was eventually (perhaps, inevitably) christened “Nougat.”
The State of Android
The last big visual overhaul to Android dates all the way back at Android 5.0, with the rollout of Material Design. Since then, Google has focused on honing the edge of the world’s most popular mobile operating system. And that’s OK. With so many handset makers and carriers to contend with, smart and subtle updates that keep Android relevant are more important than the kind of tent-pole features that appear with each iteration of Apple’s iOS.
But Apple’s approach has the advantage of setting a narrative. iOS 11 is focused on workflows and getting more done on mobile, particularly on the iPad Pro. It’s exciting (for iPad Pro owners, at least) and easy to explain. What, then, is Oreo? And what is Android, after eight major iterations?
To me, Android has always been about putting the user at the center of the experience, while Apple puts the operating system at the center. You interact with iOS—it’s beautiful, slick, and, admittedly, very smart. But it’s inflexible, requiring you use it as intended by Apple. Android, on the other hand, is often less elegant but provides you with many avenues to use it however you like.
The example I often reach for to describe the difference between the two operating systems is the Settings menu. There is one way to change system settings on iPhone: open the Settings app. Android has a Settings app as well, but you can access your phone’s controls from shortcuts on the desktop, or by pulling down the notification tray. You can use one, all, or some of these, depending on what makes sense for you.
Oreo, in particular, is focused on notifications, which is the part of the OS that people interact with the most. Along with this are a slew of other additions, most of which require buy-in from developers in order to realize their full potential, as well as improvements to security, battery life, and overall performance. To me, however, all of these new changes are about bringing the flexibility and customization of Android to every user, and not just the power users.
Although Android Oreo has already launched, it might be some time before it makes an appearance on your Android device. Note that when you get Android Oreo (if your device gets it), your experience may be slightly different from mine. The Pixel, for example, uses Google’s Pixel Launcher, and Samsung phones have their own visual experience as well. That’s another way in which Android and iOS—which is the same everywhere—differ.
Google has become much better about working with hardware manufacturers to get operating system updates out at a faster pace, but it’s unlikely to ever be Apple-like in speed or adoption. Pixel and Nexus owners will be the first to bite into Oreo. In a blog post, Google writes that by the end of the year, upgraded devices or new devices with Android Oreo should be available from Essential, General Mobile, Huawei, HTC, Kyocera, LG, Motorola, Nokia, OnePlus, Samsung, Sharp, and Sony.
This problem, which critics call “fragmentation” and Google calls “variety,” has been around for a long time, and doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. By Google’s own accounting, just 13.5 percent of users are using Android 7.0 or newer, with the bulk (some 60-odd percent) stretched between 5.0 and 6.0. That leaves a full quarter running the three-year-old Kit-Kat (or an even older version), as of this writing. To Google’s credit, the company has found ways to update and secure devices without having to wait for manufacturers or wireless carriers. Note that Google gathers this information via the Google Play store, meaning that countries where Google Play is unavailable, such as China, are likely not included in the stats.
The Big O
The most obvious difference in Android Oreo is notifications, as I mentioned earlier. You can now swipe gently to the left or right to reveal a cog and clock icon.
Tapping the cog opens a new screen for app-notification settings. At the top is the option to toggle notification dots on or off. I’ve hated the identifying dots that have long existed on Apple, so I switched them off immediately, but at least Android won’t be using the stress-inducing alert badges that show the number of unread emails or Facebook likes.
It’s the rest of the settings that are really game changers for Android, and a veritable guantlet thrown at the feet of other mobile operating systems. With Oreo, Android now provides fine-grained control over exactly what kind of alerts you want to receive with notification Categories (called Channels, for developers). Instead of just having an on-or-off switch, Categories let developers break down the notifications they want to send, and then you can opt out of the ones that don’t work for you. Twitter, for example, is constantly getting in my face about (mostly horrible) things happening online. With Categories, I can toggle seven different options on or off. Yes to DMs and security messages. No to “related to you and your Tweets,” whatever that means. I can even set different preferences for individual Twitter accounts.
The catch to Categories is that developers have to opt into them. But Google makes a compelling argument. The previous model meant that if someone got annoyed with a new kind of notification from an app, they’d either switch off all notifications or, worse, delete the app. It’s clear, however, that there’s going to be some fudging with Categories. A final Category in Twitter, for example, is a catchall and makes vague mention of more options being available in the app. Still, this is a huge change for Android and one that I hope will come not only to other mobile platforms, but also browsers and desktop operating systems as well.
That’s what the cog icon does on notifications, but tapping the clock lets you snooze notifications. What’s snoozing? Just one of the biggest innovations in email of the last few years. Android Oreo will let you snooze a notification until later, just as you can do for alerts from Inbox by Gmail app. One benefit is that apps can update snoozed notifications (think of the current status of an eBay bidding war), but doing so won’t cause the snoozed notification to reappear prematurely. Developers can even cause notifications to time out if the message becomes irrelevant while it’s snoozed.
Right now, Google is letting you snooze notifications for one hour by default, with additional options for 15 minutes, 30 minutes, and 2 hours. I wish Oreo had more options, the way Inbox does, letting me push something off for a day, or until the weekend. I also struggled to not swipe notifications away when I only meant to swipe slightly to open the hidden notifications. Google’s Oreo wizards might want to tweak the sensitivity a smidge.
A smaller but pleasing tweak to notifications in Oreo is the splash of color that developers can opt to add. It’s a great way to draw special attention toparticularly important events. When I was listening to Jay Som in Spotify, a notification appeared in the tray with playback controls, as well as album art and a dash of blue. I think it’s great that Google is letting Android become a little more colorful, but Google has also made it clear it doesn’t want developers to get carried away. That’s too bad.
A Fresh Look
Beyond notifications, there are a few other areas where you’re likely to see the changes from Oreo. Icons, for example, are no longer merely images in Android Oreo. Instead of a simple image, Android icons are large buttons, masked and trimmed by the operating system. For end users, it means round or square icons, depending on the device.
The coolest part of these adaptive icons is that they can now be animated. Because the icons are larger than they appear, just masked by a template, the icon can move left and right in response to touch, a little like moving a picture back and forth on the other side of a keyhole. Icons also support a button-press animation, which I spotted on both my Pixel and my Nexus 5x. I’m looking forward to see how these effects are used, but there aren’t any examples as I write this.
App icons are also more powerful. Long-press on one to see options like shortcuts to features, each of which can be broken out into its own home screen icon. You’ll also see any notifications associated with that app.
I was finally able to experience PIP with Google Duo, the company’s purpose-built video chat app. It was surprisingly simple. During my chat, I just tapped the home button. I returned to the desktop and the video chat shrunk to a movable, resizable window. Note that Hangouts, the workhorse of Google chat, doesn’t use PIP. Note also that humans, the workhorse of Android, don’t use Duo.
If you’re like me, you use emoji a lot. Sometimes, I skip words altogether and only send emoji messages. In Oreo, Google completely overhauls the look of its emoji, rounding out the blob heads to more traditional face-shapes. Personally, I miss the weird little flan people, and the rest feel much more generic than the old set of Android emoji. Thankfully, Android Oreo uses Unicode 10 and has new emoji that include new careers (like women welders and programmers), as well as a woman in a headscarf. There’s also a dinosaur. Rarr.
Note that iOS 11 also adds some emoji updates, for iPhone X users at least. Those who shell out the big bucks for Apple’s highest-end handset can use its face-scanner to map their facial expressions to “animoji,” the company’s name for animated emoji.
Under the Hood
A big savings comes from stricter limitations on background location data. When an app isn’t directly in use with Android Oreo, it won’t be able to check your location as often. That’s regardless of whether the app was written recently and with Oreo in mind, or even if it’s an ancient app written years before. This is a welcome change, as so many of the most interesting parts of new operating systems go ignored by developers.
I can’t say I’ve noticed a dramatic difference in battery performance, but I am looking forward to what Ajay Kumar and Sascha Segan find as they begin testing phones that ship with Android Oreo. I have, however, noticed an irritating notification at the top of my screen informing me that LastPass and other apps are running in the background. Other than taking advantage of the new notification snooze feature, I can’t figure out how to get rid of it.
Want to send a message but don’t have cell service or a handy Wi-Fi network nearby? The Wi-Fi Aware technology baked into Oreo might help. According to Google, if your device has the appropriate hardware it can detect other devices using the onboard Wi-Fi radio. Then, the tech sends files and information back and forth between two devices over Wi-Fi, but without a Wi-Fi network in the area. It’s basically turning your phone into a walkie-talkie. It’s really neat, but there aren’t yet any compatible devices nor any apps that use the API.
Last is Project Treble, which effectively divides Android into three sections. One is where the apps live. Another is all the stuff carriers and manufacturers put in. The middle is what is provided by Google. This means that Google will allow manufacturers to cut out a few steps in bringing Android updates to the masses.
On the Android site, Google writes that Treble will be “enabling device makers to deliver new Android releases simply by updating the Android OS framework—without any additional work required from the silicon manufacturers.”
This is a great, if small, step forward for Android, making it possible for people to get the latest versions of the OS more quickly. But, make no mistake; it’s not going to mean that every Android-powered device is going to start receiving new updates at lightning speed. This is the problem with Android. What Google calls diversity often feels like a mess of different software and hardware versions. That Google is even trying to take more control over Android is, to my mind, can only be a good thing.
Each iteration of Android has seen security improvements at a fundamental level. That’s why, despite oodles of research on exotic attacks and the largest user base the world has ever known, experts admit that Android is a fairly secure experience. I’ve picked out just a few that are the most relevant to the average Android user.
The first has to do with WebView, which is the integrated browser that lets you click a link in Twitter and see the web page without jumping out of the Twitter app. Previous versions of Android introduced the option to make this web content an isolated process. That means that a malicious link wouldn’t be able to affect the rest of your phone. In Android Oreo, Google makes this the default. In my experience, isolation is a good thing, particularly when you’re dealing with links, which can be used to disguise dangerous websites.
Additionally, Google is now letting developers verify URLs in WebView through Google Safe Browsing. That’s great since Safe Browsing can screen out websites serving up malicious apps and block phishing sites, too. Modern browsers like Google Chrome have become very adept at detecting and protecting against potential dangers. Bringing that same protection anywhere a link is clicked is a major win for you and me, on the other side of the screen.
Another tweak is actually in the Google Play store itself. A little shield icon now appears throughout the Play app store, letting you know that the apps and your device are safe. The Google Play store has an iffy reputation, built in part from the sheer volume of (mostly not great) Android apps and the semi-automated process that approves them for sale. But Google has always checked for potential security problems with real humans, and has only gotten better at ferreting out threats to the ecosystem it manages. This little icon just makes some of those efforts, many of which are now branded as Play Protect, more visible.
And speaking of apps, Android Oreo does away with the option to allow installation of apps from “unknown sources.” This basically means sideloading or installing apps from anywhere that’s not Google Play. But instead of locking down Android devices, as Apple has done for iPhones and iPads, Google now lets you approve or disapprove of sideloaded apps on a case-by-case basis. This gives you more control and, far more importantly, means that there won’t be a single setting that can be used to compromise your phone. It’s a big win.
Another security feature is a new autofill API, which lets Google or other apps fill in passwords throughout Android. For years, we at PCMag have said that getting a password manager is the one single thing that people can do to improve their security, by generating, storing, and recalling unique, complex passwords for every app or service. Password managers can automatically input this information into browsers, but have relied on notification shortcuts and weird floating windows to provide the same service for apps.
That’s changed with the autofill API, which recalls the passwords as you need them. Google notes that this feature is rolling out as part of an update to Google Play Services. I found that I could access some autofill options by long-pressing on a login field. By default, you’ll have any passwords that you’ve saved with Google through Chrome and Android. But users can select an autofill app the same way they select a keyboard. Unfortunately, there are currently no other apps supporting the service. Hopefully, that will change soon, and I can use my personal choice, LastPassFree at LastPass.
I’m really excited about this particular feature, because password security is such an easy fix. With an option to replay passwords at the core of Android, these Oreo handsets will have a real leg up on Apple’s devices. That said, I really want to see the ability to generate passwords made part of the experience.
While it’s not surprising that Android Oreo is a humble update to a mature operating system, there are still features that seem to be missing. Voice assistants are everywhere, but I didn’t find tighter integration with Google Assistant. Google has positioned itself not as a search, advertising, or mobile company, but as a company focused on machine learning, and yet I didn’t see a space for that to be leveraged in Oreo. VR has been slow boiling in Google since the company showed that a cardboard box could be a more effective VR platform than an $800 VR headset, and Project Tango has been the best implementation of AR that I have ever seen, but neither is to be found in Oreo.
That’s because Google’s approach for all of these appears to be focused on the app level. The Google Assistant is more powerful with Oreo, but in the sense that it plays nicer with third-party apps. I think that’s the company’s plan for the future, especially since a big theme of Google I/O 2017 was encouraging Android app developers to build apps for the Google Assistant.
Machine learning is best put on display in the Google Photos app, which does an amazing job reading photos, even identifying the same person from baby to adulthood. At Google I/O, the company teased Google Lens, an AR information overlay that is meant to do all kinds of things. I had hoped that it would roll out with Android Oreo, but there’s still no sign of it months after the I/O conference.
VR and AR stand apart from the others. That’s partly because VR and Project Tango AR both require special hardware, either as a headset or a special sensor stack. Apple, on the other hand, is including ARKit in iOS 11, which quickly and effectively detects flat, horizontal surfaces using only the single onboard camera and internal sensors. I’ve used the company’s demo application, and it works remarkably well.
A week after the unveiling of Android Oreo, Google released ARCore, which also can create AR scenarios using standard smartphone sensors and a single camera. I have tried Google’s demo app, and I’ve so far been disappointed with the lackluster results. It feels a little too “me too,” especially since the company has done so well with Tango and its VR effort, Daydream View.
The Path to Android P
Google has been hard at work since Oreo’s public debut, and has already released a developer preview of Andoid P. This next major update isn’t quite ready for public consumption, but it’s a sure bet that another public Beta will be right around the corner.
Even this early on, we can get some hints of what Android P will be bringing to the table. Support for Wi-Fi Round-Trip-Time (RTT) means that developers can build apps that take advantage of indoor positioning. Using, but not connecting, to at least three Wi-Fi access points will allow your Android device to determine your position within one or two meters. Google has suggested that this could be used for determining who is speaking to a smart speaker, or for pushing location-specific ads.
Google will also be changing some fundamentals of Android, specifically moving the time all the way to the left corner of the screen. This appears in all of the screenshots Google has released of P thus far, but that doesn’t mean it’s a sure thing. Similarly, P will include support for Android phones with the hideous iPhone X-style notch.
Following in the footsteps of Android Oreo, Android P will bring even more improvements to notifications. The new notifications will include media (like photos sent via text message), as well as user avatars, so you can see who sent those pictures. Suggested replies, which first debuted in GMail, are now coming to notifications as well, so you can send off an AI-suggested canned reply with a tap. Most importantly for me, however, is that apps can now retrieve the messages you started writing in the notification’s response field as a draft message. This is great if you, like me, get halfway through a text response and then accidentally close the notification.
One improvement I am particularly interested in will continue an Oreo trend and restrict background apps from even more activities. Notably, Android P will restrict access to the microphone and camera. There are more than enough devices spying on us, and I’m glad to see Google continue locking down Android.
Those are just a few of the highlights in the Android P developer preview, but keep in mind that they are not set in stone. Any of these features could vanish before the final release, and many more will likely be added.
O is For Outstanding
It often strikes me as silly to write reviews of operating systems. A lot of the time it feels like comparing apples to, well, Oreos. And besides, it’s not as if you can install a different mobile operating system on your phone or tablet.
This year, however, there are especially useful comparisons to make. Apple is focused on usability and creativity for tablets, while Android is focused on making all mobile devices easier to use, and less annoying to boot, with better controls for notifications. Android continues to walk a line between providing choice and blocking off attackers, while Apple stresses privacy by doing more locally on the device.
Neither Apple nor Google have the “wrong” approach to mobile, but after years of using both platforms the customization and control offered by Android really appeals to me. I used to say that Android was for people who wanted to muck around in the guts of their phones to make them work exactly as they wanted. That might still be true, but Android Oreo shows that it no longer takes an experienced developer to make Android into something that fits for you. Apple’s unofficial motto might be “it just works,” but Android just works for you