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Android O Developer Preview: Our first take

Team Oreo or Oatmeal Cookie? Our first taste of Android O is pretty sweet

Why it matters to you

Your next phone is likely to run Android O -- and based on our tests, it sure looks sweet.

Android Oreo, anyone? Or maybe it’s Android Oatmeal Cookie?

Whatever Google ends up calling it, Mountain View is prepping its next major Android release: Android O. On March 21, it made everything official except the name.

Just like last year, Google is offering developers (and intrepid users) the opportunity to test drive the new version of Android before it launches publicly later this year. That means it’s unfinished (and a little unstable), but packs most of the features that will make it into the final version.

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The first Developer Preview is available for the Nexus 5X, Nexus 6P, Nexus Player, Pixel, Pixel XL, and Pixel C. It’s not available as an over-the-air update — it has to be installed manually, which isn’t for the faint of heart.

Luckily, Google’s spilled the details about Android O in a lengthy blog post. And after many trials and tribulations, we managed to get Android O up and running on a dusty old Nexus 6P. Here’s everything we’ve learned, and everything you need to know.

Revamped notifications

The previous version of Android, Android Nougat, added the ability to prioritize certain notifications over others. Android O tweaks that behavior.

Users can snooze alerts and schedule them to reappear at a later time, and developers can change the background color of notifications and cause notifications to dismiss themselves after predefined time increments: 15 minutes, 30 minutes, or 1 hour.

The snooze feature is perhaps the most obvious change, and it works rather well. After dragging a notification to the right-hand side of the notification shade, a clock-shaped icon appears, and tapping on it brings up the aforementioned list of time increments. In our testing, Gmail, Slack, Allo, and Hangouts notifications all reappeared without issue. A word of warning, though: It’s easy to accidentally dismiss notifications while pulling up the Snooze menu. Drag slowly.

Of course, not all notifications are compatible. For example: “Persistent notifications” or ongoing notifications that can’t be dismissed can’t be snoozed, either.

There’s a new prioritization feature in Android O called Notification Channels. More details are forthcoming, but here is Google’s description of how it works: If an important email from a colleague comes in among a flood of junk mail, the colleague’s message will appear on top. Depending on how users tweak Android O’s notification settings, they may not see the junk emails at all.

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App developers can also choose to aggregate alerts of the same kind in a single Notification Channel. If you get several “tech news” updates across a handful of apps, for example, they’ll show up bundled in a single channel — much like Google’s Gmail sorting, which offers granular control over what emails users receive notifications for.

The onus is on developers to implement Notification Channels. We’ve yet to see an app that supports them, because Android O is so fresh out of the oven. We expect to hear more as the new version of Android progresses.

Battery

Android Nougat introduced Doze, a battery-saving feature that automatically “hibernated” apps running in the background. With Android O, Google has taken that idea one step further with “automatic limits” that place strictures on background apps — specifically those that update location of background services. Android O can impose “execution limits” on the latter, which limit system access to certain processes when the app isn’t being used. Location limits, on the other hand, prevent apps that access a device’s location (via GPS or Wi-Fi) from doing so gratuitously. Google’s calling it a “significant change” to the way Android manages apps.

We’ll have to run Android O through its paces to figure out how dramatically the under-the-hood changes impact battery life.

High-quality Bluetooth audio

Wireless Bluetooth headphones, earbuds, and speakers are all the rage these days, so it’s not all that surprising that Android O brings major improvements to wireless audio.

New Bluetooth audio codecs promise to make music crisper, clearer, and richer than on Android versions of the past.

Android O supports Sony’s LDAC wireless codec, which promises big audio performance gains. Here’s the gist: it allows phones to transfer roughly three times the amount of data (990kbps) over the same Bluetooth connection than the average smartphone. That’s more than twice as fast as Spotify’s requirement for Hi-Fi streaming (320kbps), and just short of Tidal’s lossless quality (1411kbps).

LDAC has been around a while — Sony introduced it at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show, and has since built it into its high-end Walkman music players, Xperia smartphones, and MDR-1000X headphones. But Android O will mark the first time the codec’s made available on non-Sony devices.

Unfortunately, not everyone will be able to take advantage. LDAC requires that both the sending device (a smartphone) and receiving device (a pair of headphones) support it — if you don’t have cans with LDAC, you’re out of luck.

AptX, another low-latency Bluetooth streaming format, is also in tow. It’s hardware-dependent, but an increasing number of flagships — including those running Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon processors — support it. Android O’s audio is a dramatic upgrade from Android 7.0 Nougat for wireless fans.

Adaptive icons, picture-in-picture mode, and UI tweaks

Android O is relatively light on UI tweaks and changes, but there are a few notable ones in tow. The status bar is cleaned up. In Android O, new icons indicating your phone’s Wi-Fi and mobile connectivity status sit next to the battery icon. The Settings menu has been overhauled. Compared to Nougat, there are roughly half the number of top-level menu options thanks to aggressive consolidation. Google has done away with the slide-out menu.

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Android’s System UI Tuner gained a bunch new features. Just tap and hold the settings gear at the top of Android’s Quick Settings menu. Once you’ve held it for a few seconds, the gear will begin to spin and a little wrench icon will appear next to it, indicating that the System UI Tuner has been enabled. From now on, you’ll see it near the bottom of Android’s Settings menu.

Android O gives you full control over the navigation bar’s appearance and behavior. You’re free to change the layout of the buttons, or add an extra right and left button. A new Compact mode squishes them closer together. If you’re the methodical type, you can assign buttons custom codes that trigger actions like launching the calendar app, pausing/playing music, and opening the default dialer.

Not all of them work equally well. We were able to add a custom button for the Calendar (code 208) and Dialer (5), but others like the Camera (27) and Calculator (210) seemed buggy. We expect Google to fix these sorts of niggles in developer previews to come.

A second welcome addition to the System UI Tuner is lockscreen shortcuts, which allow you to add shortcuts to your phone’s lockscreen. You can add a dedicated button for Chrome tabs, or a shortcut to the settings menu — the sky’s the limit, really.

A feature called Adaptive Icons let developers adjust the look and shape of app icons depending on what home screen theme users select. If a user swaps Android’s default theme to a custom pack they downloaded from the Google Play Store, for example, app icons that tap Adaptive Icons will automatically switch to match the styling and color scheme of said theme.

There’s growing evidence that Android O will introduce support for themes. In the display settings, there’s a section for “Device theme” and two options: Inverted and Pixel. The former, as you might expect, swaps the color palette of every Android settings menu — white icons become gray, and grey backgrounds become white.

Google didn’t announce themes as part of the first Android O Developer Preview, but we wouldn’t be surprised to see the feature fleshed out down the road.

Also in tow with Android O is support for iOS-style home screen badges. Apps that support them will show animated notifications for things like the number of unread messages in your email inbox or the number of mentions you’ve gotten on Twitter.

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Android O packs a picture-in-picture mode for videos, too, plus support for launching activities on a secondary display and a pop-up window for third-party apps. An optional “wide-gamut color” promises to make apps more vibrant and colorful than ever on high-contrast screens.

It’s incumbent on developers to support Adaptive Icons, home screen badges, picture-in-picture mode, and wide-color gamuts — as of now, there doesn’t appear to be a way to manually enable them. We’ll keep searching, but it seems we’ll have to wait for developers to do their part.

Other conveniences

Android O is also packed with miscellaneous goodies aimed at addressing longstanding annoyances.

Good news if you’re a frequent Skype user: Android O’s “telecom framework” will let you swap out your phone’s default dialer for a third-party VoIP alternative.

A new Networking Aware Networking feature will allow Android devices to communicate directly with each other over Wi-Fi, even if the network isn’t connected to Wi-Fi, GPS, or cellular data. There’s a low-power connection mode that allows for sharing small bits of data like sensor readings, location, and more.

New keyboard shortcuts including “arrow and tab button navigation” will make using physical keys a little less painful.

An autofill API will make it easier for password, address, and user name managers to register themselves as the system’s official autofill app. When a user encounters a password field, they’ll be able to paste a stored password from a list.

Apps installed from outside the Play Store now have to be granted permission manually. In Android Nougat and older, a toggling a universal “Install from unknown sources” option was enough to permit any third-party app access to your phone’s internal storage. Now, you’ll be prompted every time an app attempts an install.

Rumored future features

It’s still in the early days, and Android O is far from finished. There are quite a few of the features that could make their way into Google’s new operating system ahead of its public debut.

According to a report from VentureBeat, the Mountain View, California-based company is working on three new features that will coincide with the release of Android O. They’re described as “intelligent,” and said to bring Android to parity with Apple’s AI-powered efforts on iOS.

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One feature, Copy Less, will combine machine learning — software that self-improves without human intervention — and computer vision — software that extracts and analyzes data from images — into a labor-saving feature. According to VentureBeat, it aims to cut down on the number of times users have to copy text from one app to another.

Take food, for example. If you’re having a Facebook Messenger conversation with a friend about where to have dinner and switch to Yelp for recommendations, Copy Less will recognize the context — it will “know,” so to speak, that you’re looking for a nearby place to eat, and use that information to save you time. Once you’ve settled on a spot and switched back to the chat interface, Copy Less will suggest relevant replies to your friend’s questions. If he or she asks for the restaurant’s address, it will serve it up.

Another contextualization feature reportedly in tow is address recognition. When you receive a message with a street address, it will recognize the text as an address — tapping it will show the address in Google Maps.

Google has already experimented with context recognition in the form of Now on Tap (now called Screen Search), an Android feature that launched with Android 6.0 Marshmallow. Screen Search, once activated, suggests relevant links and shortcuts based on what you’re browsing. If you’re searching a Spanish web page, it will automatically translate sentences. If you’re on a band’s Facebook page, it will serve up quick links to concert tickets.

Google’s final major accessibility feature involves gestures. If you draw a letter C anywhere in Android, for example, a short list of contacts will appear onscreen. This feature, VentureBeat notes, could still be scrapped.

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Google is expected to unveil Android O at its I/O developer conference in May. If history is any guide, the search giant will release a series of work-in-progress developer previews ahead of a public launch in the fall. We’ll keep this article updated as we hear more about Android O.

Updated on 03-23-2017 by Kyle Wiggers: Added in screenshots and observations from the first developer preview.