Software updates for smartphones are not just about fixing bugs. They should also usher in a host of new features which will address all existing pain points and ensure a smooth, seamless experience. Although many swear by the iconic iOS, Android is the most popular operating system (OS) for smartphones today, and the major overhaul it is about to witness could enhance its performance by several notches. The final release of the new software is still a few months away, but Google has already released the Android Q Beta 3 for developers and early testers. As of now, it is far from perfect and all the features announced by Google are not live yet. However, we installed this version on Pixel 3 XL to get a glimpse of the new OS.
- Dark Theme: Be it Apple's Mojave OS, WhatsApp or Android Q, the dark mode has become a critical development area over the past couple of years. As the name suggests, it changes all white elements to solid black across the system. The white screen goes black; the black text appears white and all things in-between - system settings, phone app, calendar or even notifications - feature a dark background. It is undoubtedly more comfortable on the eyes, especially for night-time viewing.
The dark mode is not turned on by default, though; it is hidden under Advanced Settings. However, there is one issue. Most applications, including some Google apps, still support white backgrounds. Hopefully, by the time Android Q officially rolls out, most of the apps will support the dark mode, resulting in a consistent experience. There is another plus. When you opt for this mode, fewer pixels are fired up on a large display, helping conserve battery life. Interestingly, the dark mode was auto-triggered when I turned on the battery saver mode on Pixel 3 XL.
- Gestures: They are a convenient way to operate big-screen devices. BlackBerry adopted this in 2013 when it introduced BlackBerry OS 10 and Apple went gestures-only with iPhone X. Several Android OEMs also incorporated gestures in their customised user interfaces (UIs). Google started it with the Android 9 last year.
But with Android Q Beta, I could go fully gestural and disable all navigation buttons on Pixel 3 XL (you will find Fully Gestural Navigation under System Settings). When activated, swiping up from the bottom took me to the home page and swiping up and holding loaded the app switcher window. I was able to switch between running apps by swiping at the bottom of the display. Do a side swipe from either edge of the phone, and it will work as the back button.
- Privacy: Of late, privacy concerns have taken centre stage amid huge data breaches. So, Google is stepping up security measures to restrict apps' access to location data, contact details, Wi-Fi and data from other APIs. In the past, certain apps could read a device's IMEI and SIM card number, but it will not be possible anymore. Google is also giving users a lot of control. For instance, you will find an App Permissions tab under Location that lists the number of apps accessing user location all the time (in my case, 21 apps out of 47).
A quick tap let me choose between 'allow all the time', 'allow only while using the app' and 'deny'. Google says Android Q will send a reminder when the apps not in use (running in the background) access location data. I did not get any such notification, but this feature should be ready soon. Also, the Privacy option within System Settings has a Permission Manager tab, showing in details which apps are accessing the phone's camera, microphone, call logs and more. According to Google, apps cannot start operating in the foreground without user-initiated action. If implemented well, this could be an excellent security feature.
- Bye-bye, Notification Snoozing: Snoozing app notifications for a certain period and getting back to it later is a neat feature. But Google seems to have replaced it with Alert Me and Show Silently options in Notifications. Selecting Alert Me for any app will make the phone ring (notification sound), and the notification will appear on the lock screen or banner. For Show Silently, there will be no notification sound for the app, nor will it appear on the lock screen or banner.
Next on the Cards
Here is the low-down on a few more exciting features.
- Super-fast Google AI: Voice assistants help you interact with the phone without hunting for apps or launching them. And Google Assistant has been the best until now. But with Android Q coming in, this one will deliver even more. Google has reduced the size of its machine-learning and voice-recognition software, which will result in less latency when interacting with the assistant.
- Smart Reply: Google has been putting machine learning to good use. For instance, its Smart Reply and Smart Compose features in Gmail help with composing e-mail messages and subject lines. These features will be part of the Android Q as well. Smart Reply will be available for a lot of apps and will suggest appropriate responses for social networking apps right within the notification slider. In fact, the hardware should be able to identify which notifications are important and what all can be ignored. Unfortunately, Smart Reply was not working during my beta-testing.
- Live Caption: This is not yet available for testing, but it is worth a mention. As the name suggests, live captions will appear on the screen as soon as speech is detected. Pressing down the volume button while playing a video will show an icon, and this can be tapped to see live transcriptions on the screen. This can be turned on from the Accessibility tab and should work with videos, podcasts and audio messages across apps.
- Project Mainline: Apple has aced how OS updates should be delivered. But with so many devices across hundreds of OEMs, updating Android devices has always been a challenge. Google is fixing this with Project Mainline where specific components within the OS will be updated without requiring a full system update. Latest security fixes, privacy enhancements and consistency improvements will be updated in the background without rebooting the phone.