Despite needed improvements, Android Q feels like a minor update.
There are several key underlying changes to the Android framework — such as how Google can deliver security patches in the background without requiring a phone restart — but many of the user-facing changes are quality of life improvements instead of innovations. Google’s efforts to give people better privacy and location controls are long overdue, the biggest addition comes from new on-device machine learning capabilities that are creeping into Android. Here’s everything you need to know.
Revised navigation controls are the first change you’ll notice. Google introduced a new way to navigate Android with gestures in Android 9 Pie, but it wasn’t very good.
The new gesture navigation system needs to be enabled in the Settings app, but it’s a much better experience. There’s an elongated bar at the very bottom of the screen, mimicking Apple’s approach on iOS, and you can swipe up from it to go home when in any app. Swipe up and hold to access your Recent apps, and swipe up all the way to see the app drawer. You can also swipe left or right on the elongated bar at the bottom of the screen to quickly swap to a previously open app.
The iconic back button has disappeared. It’s gone for good — but that doesn’t mean you can’t go back without gestures. A swipe from the left or right edge of the screen sends you back, and you can see a back arrow pop up and disappear quickly when you make this action. This is tough if you have a case on, however.
They take some getting used to, but these controls make me much happier. You can enjoy more screen real estate because the navigation bar no longer takes up room on the bottom. Things are still a little janky, though. You now can’t access the app drawer while in another app. You have to go home first. There’s also no access to Google Assistant other than the “Hey Google” voice command, or by squeezing the phone if you have a Pixel, or tapping a dedicated Google Assistant button if your phone has one (most don’t).
At least the new gestures are simple to understand, and while they’re not as fluid as gestures on iPhones, they’re a step in the right direction. Like all features in the beta, though, they can change. Gestures could change significantly before release.
I love dark mode. I don’t hate bright interface designs, but I understand the benefits of having a dark mode in apps and operating systems. On devices with OLED screens, true dark modes can help conserve battery life, and it’s easier on your eyes when you use your phone after dark. After years of begging, Android is finally getting a native dark mode.
It’s not the weird dark mode you see in some Google apps like News, which uses a dark grey palette instead of true black. Dark Mode is easy to flick it on and gives almost everything a dark background, from your notifications in the notification drawer, to the app drawer and settings app.
Still, I don’t love Google’s implementation — yet. Google has stripped a lot of color from notifications, making them look a garbled mess. Swap to the Light theme and colors come back, making a giant list of notifications more digestible. I think there’s good reason to leave the colors in for the dark theme, and I hope this happens for the final release.
Apps can also support Dark Mode if developers update appropriately, and Google has enabled it for several of its own apps including Google Photos and YouTube. These aren’t true black, though, but the dark grey color Google used in its News app. Apps like Google Photos don’t look the best in dark theme, but hey, it’s a start.
On-device machine learning or on-device artificial intelligence (A.I.) are words you’ll hear more over the next few years. It means there’s no need to connect to Google’s cloud servers for certain tasks — rather, phones can perform smart functions offline. Take Smart Reply, for example. It’s not a new feature, but it offers up short responses you can send for select apps as Quick Replies. These responses try to match the way you talk and understand the context of the message received.
With Android Q, Smart Reply now works with any messaging app. From WhatsApp and Viber to Signal and Facebook Messenger, you’ll be able to get these contextual, short responses in the notification itself to send directly to friends and family. Smart Reply can also predict actions you may want to take. For example, if a friend sends an address, you’ll get a button that will open the address in Google Maps. It saves you the hassle of copying the address, opening Maps, and pasting it in. It’s an improvement you’ll frequently enjoy.
The coolest feature in Android Q is one you may not use. It’s called Live Captions, and it’s something you need to enable in a phone’s accessibility settings. After that, while watching a video, you can tap any volume buttons to see a new control that lets you turn Live Captions on. As the name suggests, you’ll start seeing captions for everything you watch, in any app you use, from Google Photos to Instagram.
From the demos I’ve seen, it looks impressive, but it only works for English at the moment. Still, it’s an amazingly helpful feature for those who need it, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I found myself using it on the train or the bus.
Location and Privacy settings
Google is giving Location and Privacy their own hubs in the Settings app in Android Q. It’s long overdue, especially with the numerous scandals the company has faced over saving location data. The new Privacy hub makes it easier to see what services are being accessed, like which apps can use the phone’s camera or microphone. It doesn’t offer anything new but makes it easy to find select controls in one area. You can customize whether you want to have notifications show content in the lock screen here.
Similarly, the Location hub lets you see exactly which apps have permission to access your location. You could see this before, but the big distinction is that you can now set apps to only use your location data when you are in the app. You can also deny apps completely or allow constant access.
I must admit, I was startled to see 31 of my 50 installed apps have unlimited access to my location. This is Google playing catch up to Apple, as iOS had this capability some time ago, but it’s a welcome addition.
Focus Mode, and parental controls
I’m looking forward to checking out Focus Mode, though it’s not available in the beta yet. It’s a new mode that lets you set specific apps to not disturb you when you want to be left alone, rather than just turning a blanket Do Not Disturb mode on. Google says this mode will come to phones running Android Q and Android Pie devices later this year.
Google’s also bringing elements of its Family Link parental controls app into Android Q. It’s now under the Digital Wellbeing settings menu, where you’ll be able to set daily limits on apps, view how long an app has been used, and even set bonus time when kids have finished chores. This isn’t in the beta yet, so we’ll have to wait to see how it works. Alternatively, just download the Family Link app now and try it out.
Android Beam is gone
The most disappointing part of Android Q is the departure of Android Beam, a feature that’s been in Android since the days of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich in 2011. It lets people bump the back of two Android phones together to transfer files or photos — even without an internet connection — and for a time it could be used to set up a new phone and transfer data from the old one.
It’s a feature I used a lot, and I even made it a point to make others aware as much as possible of its existence. That said, most people seemed to ignore it. I can see Google’s reasoning, but I wish it wasn’t going away.
Foldables and 5G support
Android Q also brings native support for 5G and foldable phones, the two big trends coming to phones this year. For foldables, we’ve already seen one of the main features Google is adding — App Continuity in Samsung’s Galaxy Fold. Google’s calling it Screen Continuity, and it lets you seamlessly continue the app you are using on the front display to the unfolded screen.
So how and when do you get it?
There are several other updates in Android Q, but those above are the ones that might impact your everyday use. As I said, it’s a relatively minor upgrade from Pie, but the changes are largely positive.
Android Q’s third beta is available now on 21 phones from 13 brands, ranging from HMD’s Nokia 7.1 to OnePlus’ 6T. We won’t know what dessert treat Q will be named after until its official launch, however, likely around August.
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