Android P Beta Hands-On: Five Features Worth Upgrading For

Android P Beta Hands-On: Five Features Worth Upgrading For

Now that I’ve spent some time getting to know the preview build of Android P (version 9.0 has not yet received its dessert-themed nickname), here are five notable changes in what might be the most ambitious leap for the system in a very long time.

Everything’s gestures now (if you want)

The most fundamental change is a new method of navigating around the phone, which replaces the iconic three-button layout with a series of touch gestures. But before you start freaking out, rest assured that the new system adds functionality rather than taking it away, and isn’t too hard to get used to.

The new Home button is a single pill-shaped icon at the base of the screen. Tapping this will take you back to your home screen, while holding it will launch Google Assistant, just like before. But this button is also now in charge of multitasking.

Swipe up on the Home button to get the Overview screen, with previews of the apps you currently have open. These are no longer stacked on top of each other but displayed in full side-by-side. You tap a preview to open the app, but you can also press and hold to select text from any app, in order to launch a search query or just copy it to clipboard. There’s also a Google search bar here, and some suggested apps (more on that below). Hold at the top of a preview to put an app into split-screen mode.

From left: my home screen; swiping up to Overview; selecting text from an app preview.

Swipe up again from Overview to get to your app drawer. At first I thought two swipes instead of one to get to the there was regressive, but in most cases the app I wanted was already in Overview, and it is nice to be able to get to the drawer from any screen. Also, if you’re already at your home screen, you can get to the drawer in just one long swipe upwards.

The very handy Back button might appear to be MIA, but actually it appears to the left of the Home button whenever it’s required, and functions just the same as always.

Finally, there’s a quick way to jump between recent apps. Swipe right on the Home button zoom through previews, and release the button to choose an app. If you’re moving around between the same three or four apps this is much faster than going to Overview or the drawer each time. You can also flick the Home button briefly to the right to go to your most recent app, like double-tapping the square Overview button in current versions of Android.

The Overview is much cleaner and more useful in Android P (right) than Android Oreo. [Image: Tim Biggs]

In the Android P preview the gestures are actually optional, and there’s a toggle in the settings to go back to the three-button system. It’s unclear whether the full release will include this option, or whether phone-makers will be able to decide which method to employ by default.

Actions and AI

Whenever you go to the Overview screen, there are five app icons sitting next to the search bar, and they’re there at the top of the drawer too. But rather than being simple shortcuts to your most used applications, these are actually Google’s best guesses at what app you might be looking for. In the best case scenario Google will predict correctly and you’ll get to your app without even needing to go the drawer (or needing to extend your thumb all over your home screen).
Here the Actions in my app drawer suggest looking back on some memories in Photos, and listening to some new podcasts.

Here the Actions in my app drawer suggest looking back on some memories in Photos, and listening to some new podcasts.

Taking the whole prediction thing to another level, Android P also introduces “App Actions”. These are suggestions that take you to a specific area or function of an app. You see these most commonly at the top of the app drawer, and they change frequently. For example when I connect headphones one of the suggestions is usually for a specific playlist in Play Music, or the New Releases section of my favourite podcast app. At certain times of the day it also reliably suggests I call my wife. If you really like an action you see in the app drawer, you can press and hold to move it to your home screen as a permanent shortcut.

Actions don’t make a lot of sense in the app drawer, but if they start popping up on the lock screen or when you open an app they could be very useful. I can even imagine them on the home screens of watches and smart displays.

Google also says shortcuts to specific app functions will appear in search bar results. I couldn’t make any of these appear, but Google uses an example of searching for “Lyft”. Instead of just sending you to the app, the search results might offer to order you a trip from your current location to your work.
Subtly smarter controls

Volume control has been a menace on Android forever. Volume buttons usually change the ringer volume, except when media is playing at which time they change the media volume. In Android P, the volume buttons change the media volume, full stop. When you hit one of the buttons, an on-screen icon also appears that lets you turn the ringer on, off or to vibrate (you can set how loud “on” is in the settings). This is such a better system, because nobody needs constant granular control over ringer volume, but it’s handy to have for media.

New volume controls; quick settings; and notification prompts.

Quick settings has changed yet again, and now uniformly follow the same behaviour: tap to toggle on or off, hold to go to the relevant settings page. Notifications also get a bit of a rethink, not only bundling together in a smarter way but also offering to turn off for certain apps if the phone notices you often dismiss them without acting.

Finally, to my great delight but maybe not the general public’s, the taking of screenshots is much improved. There’s a new screenshot button in the power menu, so you can just hold that one button instead of trying to hold power and volume down at the same time (although that still works too). Once you’ve taken a screenshot you can annotate, edit or share it directly from the notification instead of relying on separate apps. Progress!

New easter egg

Every iteration of Android has a fun Easter egg that activates if you tap repeatedly on the version number in settings. And while the one in the P preview isn’t as fun as the kitty collector in Nougat (or as weird as the pet octopus in Oreo), but it’s interesting nonetheless. On activating the hidden app, the screen is taken over by a giant stylised letter P, and you can pinch and zoom to make psychedelic circular patterns.

Some online have posited that the colour schemes — which change every time you do it — are proof that Android 9.0 will be nicknamed “Popsicle”, but if you ask me the candy striping on display is way more reminiscent of a Peppermint.

Baked-in wellness features

Google made a big deal of Android P’s built-in anti-phone-addiction functions at I/O, but unfortunately none of them are in the preview build. Because Google dearly cares about your personal wellbeing (or perhaps to absolve it of blame in your future lawsuits about crippling anxiety), this suite of features is designed to help you put your phone down from time to time, and stop thinking about it so much.

Features include a “wind down” mode that turns the whole phone grey at your nominated bed time to remind you that you’re supposed to be relaxing, a new dashboard that graphs your phone usage app-by-app so you can see how long you actually spend staring at Instagram, the ability to set limits for how long you can use certain apps per day and the ability to toggle Do Not Disturb mode simply by turning the phone from face-up to face-down on a flat surface.

This article originally appeared in Digital Life, The Sydney Morning Herald’s home for everything technology. Follow Digital Life on Facebook and Twitter.


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