Android Oreo review

The eighth version of Android is - rather unsurprisingly - called Oreo. Come on, it was always going to be called Oreo wasn’t it?

Android 8.0 is available for Google’s own devices and we’ve been using it on Pixel and Nexus phones here at Tech Advisor. It’s a pleasingly refined update to Nougat. Google’s attention to detail is improving, and Oreo represents an Android user’s dream of granular customisation mixed with genuinely useful and thoughtful tweaks to the user interface.

It’s an operating system that is reaching maturity following the larger aesthetic changes brought about by Marshmallow and Nougat. There aren’t any big new headline features to show off here, but Google is wise to resist.

All to worry about now is how skin-heavy manufacturers like Samsung will bring Oreo to their smartphones.

If you want more details on how version 8 compares to its predecessor and Apple's latest, read: Android Oreo vs Android Nougat and Oreo vs iOS 11

Android Oreo Availability

Android Oreo is available to download now, for free, for Google’s Pixel, Pixel XL, Nexus 6P, Nexus 5X and Pixel C tablet. The discontinued Nexus Player also gets it, weirdly.

Design

Android Oreo is an update lacking in a headline feature. Nougat was good enough on the Pixel and subsequent iterations from OEMs that Google is in the enviable position of being able to make some core, sometimes unnoticed but important flourishes to its OS.

I’ve been running the public betas of Oreo on a 5in Pixel and now having used the full public release can say it’s the best to date – but you knew that already, didn’t you?

iOS and Android by and large at are their best at their most recent. There hasn’t been a Windows Vista situation for either yet, and given the yearly, iterative upgrade patterns of both, it’s reassuringly unlikely to happen any time soon.

Of course you’ll get the cleanest possible Oreo with a Pixel, and while I like the minimalist look, many prefer the slick twenty-first century skin of Samsung. But Google has indulged the fashion for white’n’clean and it’s a smart move.

The dark greys in the menus of Nougat are gone in favour of white with blue accents. This gives a fresher feel to the OS, and the newly uncluttered Settings app, while slightly trickier to navigate with fewer main options, is now less of a minefield with more options grouped into fewer initial categories.

Even if you tap into a setting category, there is still further to tap sometimes with a little drop down menu for more advanced options. It makes sense, but coming from Nougat will take a little getting used to.

Other than this, Oreo largely looks the same – a new lick of paint as opposed to a full renovation.

Notifications

If Nougat brought more realised notification design, then Oreo improves it with little quirks that aren’t exclusively for power users. An example is the ability to snooze notifications with a left swipe, making sure you don’t fully swipe it away. Tap the cog and set when you want the reminder to ping back up again; in 15 minutes, 30 minutes, one hour or two hours. You can also undo:

This is surprisingly useful, particularly to set reminders for specific emails and IMs and is a good addition to general Android housekeeping.

The notification shade is off-white now instead of grey, and pulling it fully down gives you quick launch icons on the bottom to switch Google account user, Settings, or to edit the order of the command icons.

Persistent notifications are now smaller and subtler and sit at the foot of the list, while an excellent little animation lets the notification icons pop into their relevant panels when expanded, or flow into the lower bar when out of view so you can glance at the icons that usually sit in the status bar down at the bottom of the shade. It’s a thoughtful and some might say unnecessary addition, but I loved it and it makes total sense.

This is in tandem with the granular controls now afforded to apps with notification channels, whereby you can mute certain types of notification from an app you don’t want to tailor your experience accordingly.

Picture in Picture

One of the biggest draws for Oreo in Google’s marketing of it is picture in picture, a clunky way of saying pop up. If you’re running a video on your phone in full screen and hit the home button, you’ll return to the home screen with a small pop up of the video still playing.

You can swipe down for it to disappear or, as is intended, continue watching uninterrupted while you do something else. This is great if you want to reply to text or check the timeline without stopping a video (you millennial multi-tasker, you).

It works well from Chrome, and it’s easy to drag round the screen, or tap to enlarge it slightly. But you’d assume it was great in YouTube right? Unfortunately Google has decided that is a privilege reserved for subscribers to YouTube Red

Not only this, but even if you sign up to Red, which is $9.99 per month, PiP is limited to the US, Australia, South Korea, Mexico and New Zealand. Sorry UK. I find this pretty annoying considering the emphasis Google put on its inclusion in Oreo, only to exclude it from the Google-owned video app that most people use.

If you can get over that, then PiP works great, and even in split screen mode though juggling three windows on the 5in Pixel is a laughably terrible idea that I indulged in.

Nope

Tasty treats

A more useful thing for most people is autofill for passwords. If you’re logged into your Chrome account and that account has passwords saved, the corresponding apps (if updated) sync with the data to autofill the forms if you’ve not yet signed in. It works well, but not every app on your phone will support it.

There’s also more intelligent suggestions when highlighting text. For example, highlight an address, and the pop up menu will show ‘Maps’ before ‘cut’ or ‘copy’. And those addresses should now be easier to select thanks to smart text selection, as Oreo is cleverer at detecting an entire address in a block of text and selecting it all, though I found this inconsistent.

I found these features to work well, but not always. There are still a few bugs to be ironed out in OTA updates, but it’s brilliant to see Google implementing whole OS changes to interaction and encouraging developers to get on board. It seems to be working.

Another neat touch by Google is adaptive icons. With developer mode enabled you can change compatible icons to display as default, square, rounded square, squircle (yes really) or teardrop. This is for user preference, but in the long run is so that users who opt for devices from OEMs like LG that really mess with icon design can tweak the settings so that all icons looks uniform.

Oh, and emojis have changed. If you were a fan of the classic ‘blobs’ Android is well known for, they are out in favour of new designs that ape adaptive icons in all being based on a more uniform design language.

I quite like them, but the changes have left Google at the wrath of the Android community, who argue the uniformity moves them closer to the visuals of iOS.

Performance and security

I have not seen any noticeable performance gains since upgrading to Oreo, despite Google insisting better battery life. If anything, I now get less, with the Pixel sometimes hovering under three hours screen on time without being punished very hard, which is rubbish.

System optimisations, Google claims, are working behind the scenes to clean everything up and get rid of temporary files in an efficient way, but any improvements are tough to judge on Android’s already best-in-class speeds on the Pixel. A better measure will be loading Oreo onto a Galaxy S8 to see how it deals with Samsung’s copious UI changes and background processes.

Oreo has background execution and location limits to have more control over how pesky apps run when you're not using them to improve overall system performance and stop degradation over time. It's great to see this come directly from Google rather than leave it to OEMs to struggle over.

Google claims the Pixel will book twice as fast, but it was never a slow phone. Google also pushes monthly security updates to its own devices, so the PIxel and Nexus are always the most inherently secure Android devices.

Vigilant users of other handsets that will eventually get Oreo will benefit from Google Play Protect, which scans 50 billion apps per day to keep on top of the security of apps you have or haven't installed. 

OUR VERDICT

Android Oreo is, obviously, the best version of the OS to date. On the Pixel, it's a clean minimalist dream to zip about on. The thoughtful changes to notifications stand out above the plethora of behind the scenes tweaks that you'll benefit from but never notice.

Oreo's biggest test will be over the coming months as it lands on devices by HTC, Samsung, LG and beyond. It'll be interesting to see how these companies end up implementing Google's sensible changes but as ever, stock Android is where it's at for the purists.

Roll on Android P.