Android Go: Everything you need to know

These are the Android Go phones Google unveiled at MWC 2018

Android Go app icons
Tech enthusiasts drool like Pavlov’s dogs at the mere hint of a new $1,000 phone from Apple or LG or Samsung, but in reality, many people don’t buy flagship phones. But even inexpensive phones should be great too, right? That is the theory behind Android Go — and at MWC 2018, Google unveiled a wave of phones supporting the platform. Here’s everything you need to know.

Aren’t there lots of versions of Android already? Why build yet another?

In developing markets like India and Brazil, smartphone infrastructure is the biggest barrier to the adoption of online services, not handset ownership. Hundreds of millions of people in India use Android phones — more than in the United States, Google says — but they suffer from expensive, spotty networks that make it difficult to reliably access the web. To address that problem, in May of 2017 Google launched Android Go: a new platform for bandwidth-optimized apps.

“Part of Android’s mission is to bring computing to everyone,” Dave Burke, Google’s vice president of engineering, said in a blog post. “We’re excited about seeing more users come online for the first time as the price of entry-level smartphones drop, and we want to help manufacturers continue to offer lower-cost devices that provide a great experience for these users.”

In December, Google officially launched the platform at a Google For India 2017 press conference. And at the 2018 Mobile World Congress event, we saw several phones running Android Go.

OK, so how does it work?

Android Go was designed from the get-go with slower, low-memory devices in mind, Google said. It supports phones with less than 1GB of RAM — as little as 512MB, in some cases — and exposes device-level connectivity settings to internet subscribers. Carriers can let people top up their data in their phone’s settings menu, and Chrome Data Saver — Google’s traffic-saving tool that uses proxy servers, compression, and machine intelligence to cut down on the amount of data consumed by web pages — will be switched on by default.

Google said Data Saver alone helps to save 750 terabytes of traffic every day.

Android Go will also collate Google’s other low-bandwidth offerings in a new section of the Google Play Store. In fact, devices running Android Go will only show apps that have been optimized for it — specifically, apps smaller than 10MB in size.

It will include YouTube Go, which launched in beta in early 2017 and was released in earnest a few weeks ago. It includes data-saving features like the ability to preview and download videos, more choice in resolutions, and YouTube P2P — the ability to share videos with local connections like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Smart Offline, a recent addition, downloads content overnight, when data rates tend to be cheapest.

What did we see at MWC then?

Google took the wraps off of a number of phones at MWC 2018, including a few that we didn’t expect to see. Some companies also teased that they would be releasing Android Go phones at some point in the future — like Huawei, which said at the show that it would bring an Android Go phone to “all major emerging markets” in the near future.

As far as specific phone models go, we saw a few of them. For starters, the Alcatel 1X was released as one model in Alcatel’s new lineup. We also met the Go-powered ZTE Tempo Go, and saw Nokia introduce the Nokia 1 — a $100 smartphone that is perfect for Android Go. There is also the Micromax Bharat Go, and the General Mobile GM8 Go, phones that we expected to see at MWC but didn’t know all that much about just yet. The Lava International Lava Z50 will also be released in around 100,000 stores in India.

In a blog post announcing general plans for the show, Hiroshi Lockheimer — the senior vice president of Platforms and Ecosystems — offered some clarification on Go apps and services — and tied Go closely to Android 8.0 Oreo.

“With Android Oreo (Go edition), these phones are able to provide a high-quality experience, with the latest version of Android, Google Play Protect, and dedicated areas in Google Play highlighting apps optimized for Go edition. Android Oreo (Go edition) phones also include a set of apps from Google that are designed to use less memory and storage space, but still offer excellent experiences,” Lockheimer said. “For example, Google Go is built specifically to help new smartphone users find the information they want, YouTube Go is optimized for limited connectivity, and the Google Assistant for Android (Go edition) lets people quickly send messages, make calls, set alarms, and more with their voice and a single touch of the screen.”

This description sounds very similar to Google’s original vision for Android Go. We look forward to testing out the handsets.

Tell me a little about these Go apps

Google has released a spate of Go apps in the last two months. Go Maps came first in late December; it’s a lightweight version of the popular mapping tool.

The app will only be downloadable for a specific subset of Android smartphones; any device that has less than 1GB of RAM, and is running Android 4.1 or newer. It’s a very specific band of users, and unlike the implementation of Files Go, which was made available as a general file managing app for any Android smartphone.

google maps go vs google maps
A comparison between Google Maps Go (left) and Google Maps (right) on the Galaxy S8

Gmail Go is the latest app, launching in mid-February. How different is it? Who knows? Google never formally announced Gmail Go, but there is a listing for it on the Google Play Store. Because of the lack of formal announcement, we can’t really compare the normal Gmail app and Gmail Go.

And input is key, and that’s one area Google has worked hard on. Just look at Google’s keyboard, Gboard, which launched in late January. It automatically recognizes when you begin typing in more than one language, and uses real-time Google Translate to transcribe typed text.

In early 2017, Google added support for 11 new languages to Gboard, including Hindi, Bengali, Telugu, Marathi, Tamil, Urdu, and Gujarati. They’re replete with support for auto-correction, prediction, and two layouts each — one for the native language script and one for the QWERTY layout for transliteration, which lets you spell words phonetically using QWERTY alphabet and get text output in your native language script.

The latest version of Google Translate, which will feature prominently in the Android Go app store, can interpret the most widely used languages that are widely on the Indian subcontinent — Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu, Gujarati, Punjabi, Malayalam, and Kannada. Alongside those improvements, Google’s added machine learning-powered translation to Android Go’s built-in Translate functionality — when you encounter a webpage with foreign text, the Chrome browser will automatically offer to translate it using Google’s new neural network-assisted technique.

Updated on February 27: Added phones announced at MWC 2018.