Android P Review: Hands-on Impressions
As expected Google released the open public beta of its new operating system, Android P, at its Google I/O event on 8 May 2018. It’s an update that brings noticeable visual change along with some quite dramatic gesture controls.
For the first time you can download the beta on more than just the last few Pixel phones. Here’s how to do it.
We’ve been using P (confectionary name TBC) for a few days by now, so here’s a run-down of what we think about the new look including new gestures, menus, settings and adaptive features.
We downloaded Android P onto a Pixel 2 XL and it’s a bigger overhaul from Oreo than Oreo was from Nougat and there’s a lot to unpack.
Google introduced what it calls Material Design into Android in 2014, and Android P is an evolution of that aesthetic. We vastly prefer this look over Nougat and even Oreo with more playfully rounded edges on menus, icons and settings.
The settings menu gets a refreshing splash of colour in the icons and the whole UI features more of Google’s own fonts in headings, but keeps most text to the usual Android font, Roboto.
The small tweaks are enough to be completely refreshing coming from Oreo, and there’s more rounded corners and white space in text boxes and the notification shade.
App animations mean apps now pop up from their icon and are then dismissed with a sweep to the left when you press home, with the search bar (still not removable) and your five chosen apps springing back into place.
It’s very clean, it’s very Google and it’s more playful than Oreo’s oddly austere look. But it’s not a huge redesign, and if you’re a Pixel user you won’t have trouble adapting.
The volume control is a cool new design too, and appears at the left of the screen when you press one of the volume keys. You can tap the top icon to cycle through sound on, vibrate or silent, while the volume control is for media playback rather than tones, which makes much more sense.
One thing you can turn on that isn’t on by default is Swipe up on Home Button – hidden in Settings>System>Gestures. It, for the first time, replaces the three Android nav buttons with one pill shaped one. You lose the Overview button altogether, and the back button only appears when you have an app open.
This is more to get used to. The pill is a home button but is that shape to indicate you can always swipe up on it. If you’re Home or in-app, a short swipe opens the brand new app switcher view, which is similar to Apple’s on iOS.
You can swipe up on an app to dismiss it from the switcher (like iOS) or scroll through them to find the app you want. The pill at the bottom can also be dragged left or right to scroll through, but it’s a bit slow and we’d be surprised if Google doesn’t change how this works in the final build.
It’s notable though that you can no longer clear all notification – perhaps a sign that Google knows your phone actually runs better if you don’t compulsively close every app all the time.
When in app switcher mode, five app icons are at the foot of your screen as the last five apps you opened, for even quicker access. As ever, tap home and everything is back to normal.
A longer held swipe on the home screen still opens the app draw but it’s easy to accidentally open the app switcher, which is annoying. There are far more swipes in P than prodding and tapping, and while Google no doubt sees this as more flowing and elegant, it’s a big jump to get used to, just as it was for some on iPhone X.
The notifications on P are improved from Oreo’s already excellent integration, but we find it odd that they are bigger with more white space. Oreo’s notifications are angled and compact to their advantage; dealing with them is easy and on the Pixel 2 XL, you can see absolutely loads of them at once to dismiss or action.
On Android P, the notification boxes are plump and rounded, and fewer fit on the screen. This is a little step backwards that we hope Google changes, but actioning the notifications themselves is improved.
You can reply in-line to messages as before, but rather than auto-dismissing, the notification now displays the message and your reply if you don’t open the app. There are also auto replies in some cases, but with only three replies so far.
There’s also subtle little haptic additions, like a small buzz when you open the quick settings from the top of the screen. The clock has also moved over to the left, no doubt to accommodate the onslaught of notches on Android phones this year.
You can still snooze notifications and granularly turn off particular types of notifications in apps if they allow it, which can be better than blanket turning them off for an app.
If you want to go nuclear though, do not disturb has been updated. You can block them from appearing when the screen is off if you don’t want the phone buzzing away, or select block when on too, so that only basic phone activity and status shows (time, battery, alarm, etc.).
We quite like this. Phones are distracting, and Google is trying to wean you off the stuff that doesn’t matter. Delve further into the settings, and you can customise hiding notifications from the ambient display, disabling the blink light and other options. It’s a welcome addition that has already made us stop mindlessly picking up and unlocking our phone because we know it won’t be displaying anything until do not disturb is turned off.
Two new notable features on Android P are adaptive, and they make a ton of sense working silently (but optionally, of course) in the background.
Adaptive brightness auto adjusts your brightness in unison with the light sensor as ever, but the slick addition is that if you disagree with its choices, it’ll learn your preferences as you manually adjust the brightness yourself.
Adaptive battery is an evolution of Doze that limits the battery consumption of apps that you don’t use much. A prompt says your phone will ‘learn how you use apps over time’ and echoes a similar promise Huawei makes about its phones with a Kirin 970 processor. That this feature is now baked into Android P is far more pleasing.
These adaptive features are there in part to help save battery life, but they will also play a part in performance too. A phone with apps pushed to the background taking up less battery will always perform better than one with no optimisation at all.
In the app drawer there’s also the small addition of app actions and AI predictions, where the OS will try and guess what you might want to do next, whether that’s text or call a certain contact, or open a certain app. It hasn’t popped up much yet as it’s designed to improve over time – adaptive, see.
A final addition is Slices, which didn’t work for us on first go but learn your behaviour. Google’s example is typing Lyft in Google search, and seeing a link to tap to take you to home or work.
Three new features that weren’t on our initial Android P download are some of the most interesting, in dashboard, app timer and wind down. These are Google steps, along with those do not disturb features, to help you chill the hell out.
Dashboard tracks how much time you’re spending on your phone to straight up scare you into using it less. Then app timer is the next step to action that by restricting daily use or a particular app – when your time is up, it goes grey and you can’t access it. You can undo it, but that is defeating the point.
Wind down turns on Night Light automatically when it’s dark where you are, and then turns on do not disturb and full grayscale at your chosen bedtime. This is a great idea – mute everything and make the phone a black and white slab will make you put it down.
This is so refreshing to see from Google, a company with a lot of power and whose software powers the majority of phones in the world introducing features to make you use it less.
But the big problem is, next to none of those people will actually get to use Android P any time soon.
Only the rich can afford a Pixel or Galaxy, and while they will eventually get Android P, you can be sure that the billions of phones around the world still on Lollipop, Marshmallow and even Nougat won’t.
These updates are great, but it’s all in vain when you consider Android’s severely fragmented distribution.
SHOULD I BUY ANDROID P?
Uptake worries aside though, Android P like O before it is now the best ever version of Android. The adaptive features are excellent, the design is more fun and the gestures, if tricky and iPhone X-like, are a welcome (and optional) shake up of an ageing user interface.
Add to that the superb admission that you should use your phone less with features to help you do that, the P in Android P may end up standing for that little bit of peace you forgot you needed.
We'll have a full review soon.