Fine-grain notification controls. Autofill for apps. Supports communication between devices via Wi-Fi without a Wi-Fi network. Support for multiple displays and enhanced colors. Improved audio support. Smart icons.
Currently lacks tight integration with Google Assistant. No tentpole component. Lacks VR or AR support.
- Bottom Line
With its latest Android version, Google aims to make the mobile OS even more efficient, both under the hood and in your hand.
By Max Eddy
Google's freshly released Android O is the logical follow-up to Android 7.0 N(ougat), and brings a variety of subtle changes to the world's most popular mobile operating system. Android O is currently only available in a developer preview that anyone with a supporting device can install, but you're better off waiting until it's ready for primetime. Still, if you're brave enough, you can take a peek at what will be on (some) Android phones and tablets very soon.
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Unless you're a developer, technology journalist, or a crazed hobbyist, there's no point in installing the OS right now. O is a developer preview, and getting it running requires you to download the OS from Google and manually install it on your Android device. It's not impossible, but it is a bit of a pain. It's also far from complete, and won't likely deliver a sterling experience. Google's own documentation warns "system and app performance is known to be periodically slow or janky."
Google's Android Beta Program, which delivers over-the-air updates to its beta releases, is the best and easiest way to get an early look at new versions of Android. But Android O is not in the Beta Program. At least, not yet. Again, this is a developer preview, and isn't really for public consumption—not even for beta users!
If you absolutely must take a peek at the future of Android, you can load Android O onto the Nexus 5X, Nexus 6P, Nexus Player media hub, Pixel C, Pixel phone, and Pixel XL. Or you can do what I did, and fire up an emulated version on your computer using Android Studio.
Although Google has become much better about working with hardware manufacturers to get operating system updates out at a faster pace, there's a good chance you won't see Android O anytime soon. Pixel and Nexus owners, who enjoy the pure, uncut Android experience, will be the first. Motorola and other hardware manufacturers that don't overlay their own skins on top of Android will also probably be in earlier release waves. But if your device is powered by a heavily modified version of Android, such as the one Samsung uses, your experience with O (including when you get the update) may be very different.
This problem, which critics call "fragmentation," has been around for a long time, and doesn't seem to be going away anytime soon. By Google's own numbers, only 2.8 percent of Android users are using Android 7.0 or newer. The bulk of users are distributed between KitKat, Lolipop, and Marshmallow. To Google's credit, the company has found ways to update and secure devices without having to wait for manufacturers or wireless carriers. So let's take a look at what's new in this iteration.
Don't O-verlook Notifications
The most recent, public release of Android was 7.0 Nougat. This version overhauled app notifications, and O continues with additional tweaks. First and foremost are notification channels. Channels break down app notifications, so you can suppress the notifications you don't need to see without shutting off all notifications from a particular app. By way of example, Google points to messaging apps. A developer could create a separate notification channel for each group chat in a messaging app. A user could opt to see all the direct messages from their parents, but turn off notifications from their coworkers.
It's a smart move from Google, and one that I hope developers will adopt. With news apps, messaging apps, and social media apps all vying for our attention, notification channels have the potential to put us back in control of what we engage with. Unfortunately, it's up to developers to implement notification channels in their apps.
One of the biggest innovations in email of the last few years is the ability to snooze an email and have it reappear in your inbox at a preset time. This first appeared in now-defunct Mailbox from Dropbox, but has been adopted far and wide—including in Google's Inbox by Gmail app. Android O notifications have snooze features, too. Instead of simply dismissing a notification, you can have it reappear at a later time. One neat benefit is that apps can update snoozed notifications (say, with the current status of an eBay bidding war), but doing so won't cause the snoozed notification to reappear prematurely.
For any notification, swipe part way to the left or right to reveal a cog icon and a clock icon. Tap the clock and you can select the duration of the snooze. I was surprised, and pleased, to see that this feature was already so cleanly implemented in so early a version.
Similar to snoozed notifications, developers can now establish notification timeouts. This lets developers set a time limit on notifications, removing them from the notification tray when no longer relevant. This has a lot of potential to clean up notifications, which can get messy even after the bundling introduced with Android Nougat.
A neat tweak to look forward to in Android O is that developers can now define a background color for their notifications. It's a great way to draw special attention to particularly important events. But Google has a lot more to say in its documentation about not using colors, meaning it's unlikely our notification trays will be transformed into garish rainbow displays. I am, for the record, in favor of garish rainbows.
A Fresh LOOk and Sound
For developers, Android O's new Adaptive Icons are a total overhaul of how icons work. Instead of a simple image, Android icons are large buttons, masked and trimmed by the operating system. For end users, it means round or square icons, depending on the device.
The coolest part of adaptive icons is that they can now be animated. Because the icons are larger than they appear, just masked by a template from the operating system, the icon can move left and right in response to touch, a little like moving a picture back and forth on the other side of a keyhole. Icons also support a button-press animation. All in all, it gives a new life and bounce to the humdrum Android home screen.
A major feature of Android Nougat was support for split-screen apps. These work particularly well on the Pixel C tablet, whose unusual aspect ratio makes it perfect for two side-by-side apps. Less celebrated was a picture-in-picture mode, which was limited to devices running Android TV. With Android O, tablets and handsets can run picture-in-picture viewing, finally letting all of us realize the dream of watching YouTube and writing an email simultaneously.
Android O goes even further than split screens and now offers multi-display support. Like the initial release of picture-in-picture, this will probably see a lot more use in Android TV, or perhaps on Chrome OS-powered devices, such as the Asus Chromebook Flip. Still, I can look to the stars and dream of a Continuum-style connection between my computer and my phone, or even a radical new mobile device design, such as the Lenovo Yoga Book.
Android developers will appreciate that Android O supports wide-gamut color displays. New devices sporting these high-quality devices can take advantage of Android's improved support for these swanky pixels. Android O also has numerous audio tweaks, including AAudio, which supports apps that need high-quality, low-latency sounds, and better quality Bluetooth codecs, such as Sony's LDAC. Wireless audio is notorious for its poor sound quality, but hopefully we'll see a difference with Android O.
Interestingly, the emulated Android operating system in the Android Developer Studio uses the Pixel Launcher, even when I emulated a Nexus 6P. This subtle skin on stock Android premiered with the Pixel and Pixel XL phones in 2016, and is available in the Google Play store. That said, it only seems to work with Pixel devices. I hesitate to read too much into its inclusion in the emulation of Android O (it showed up when I emulated the latest version of Android Nougat, too), but it at least hints that the Pixel Launcher might be the direction Google wants to go with Android.
Most phones communicate with each other through intermediary networks. When I send you a text message, for example, the message doesn't just shoot from my phone to yours. Instead, it travels through at least one wireless carrier's infrastructure before it can appear on your phone. This may change with the Wi-Fi Aware technology that's baked in with Android O.
According to Google, if your device has the appropriate hardware it can detect other devices using the onboard Wi-Fi radio. Then, the tech sends files and information back and forth between two devices over Wi-Fi, but without a Wi-Fi network in the area.
Imagine that you're on a boat with your family, and you want to share a picture you just took of a whale and your uncle. He loves whales, after all. You're far away from any functional Wi-Fi network, and there's not a cell tower for miles. The two of you could whip out your Android O phones and send the photos to him. No networks, no problem.
Messaging and file sharing are the two scenarios Google lays out for Wi-Fi Aware technology, and it's very exciting. But again, it seems like much depends on whether or not developers embrace it. Furthermore, the hardware caveat has me wondering how ubiquitous this feature could really be.
Remember how I mentioned that Android O's multiple screen support could be the foundation of a Continuum-like experience? Wi-Fi Aware could be another piece of that. On the iPhone, you can use AirDrop to send files via Wi-Fi to other Apple devices, be they desktops, laptops, iPads, or iPhones. With Wi-Fi Aware technology, you may be able to do something similar, but without the need to be on the same Wi-Fi network. We'll have to see how this actually plays out, but there's a lot of promise in this feature.
Each iteration of Android has seen security improvements at a fundamental level. That's why, despite oodles of research on exotic attacks and the largest user base the world has ever known, experts admit that Android is a fairly secure experience. In this preview of O, we get a look at two new security features which help users enormously.
The first has to do with WebView, which is the integrated browser that lets you click a link in Twitter and see the web page without jumping out of the Twitter app. Previous versions of Android introduced the option to make this web content an isolated process, but Google makes this the default in Android O. In my experience, isolation is a good thing, particularly when you're dealing with links, which can be used to disguise dangerous websites.
Additionally, Google is now letting developers verify URLs in WebView through Google Safe Browsing. That's great, since Safe Browsing can screen out websites serving up malicious apps and block phishing sites, too.
Another security feature is a new autofill API Google will make available to developers. For years, we at PCMag have said that getting a password manager is the one single thing that people can do to improve their security. A password manager generates and stores a complex, unique password for each site and service that requires one, meaning you only have to remember the password for the password manager. Although password managers can automatically input this information into browsers, the experience isn't as seamless when it comes to apps.
Google says that Android O users can select an autofill app the same way they select a keyboard. The app will hold all your important information, and the API will simply provide a means to get that information into apps. This not only includes passwords, but information like addresses and credit card information that can be tedious to enter again and again.
LastPass, my preferred password manager, has been able to use a special floating window and cut-and-paste notifications to bridge the gap between password manager and app. Improving on the existing autofill options is great for everyday users, as well as giving Android a significant leg up on iOS.
One last vaguely security-related point: Android O supports fingerprint gestures. This would let developers use a device's fingerprint sensor as an input device for swiping and scrolling. It's a small feature, and one that may not ever really be used, but I'm excited for it. Several Android devices, the Nexus and Pixel line included, have fingerprint sensors on the back. Turning that into a handy scroll button would let me read without having my thumb taking up valuable screen real estate.
System UI TOOner
Hardcore Android fans often sing the praises of the System UI Tuner, a special menu item that you unlock by pressing and holding the cog icon in the notification tray until it spins. In Nougat, this let you tweak which icons appear in the status bar and similar small options.
In Android O, there are a few major changes. For one, you can add buttons on the left and right of the Navigation Bar that runs across the bottom of the screen. That's the sacred home of the three glyphs you use to control your Android: the triangle, circle, and square. The UI Tuner also lets you change the shortcuts that appear on the left and right of the lockscreen.
I found these changes by browsing around the web, and confirmed them myself. But I didn't see them in Google's developer notes. Perhaps I missed them, perhaps they were overlooked by Google, or maybe they won't last. Either way, it's an interesting level of customization.
KnOw Your Battery
We've all become used to our smartphones lasting little more than a day, and far less when used frequently. Android O fights back against power hogging by limiting what apps can do in the background. The goal is to give preference to apps that you're using or are active, and put a harder pause on those that are out of sight at the moment.
A big savings comes from stricter limitations on background location data. When an app isn't directly in use with Android O, it won't be able to check your location as often. That's regardless of whether the app was written recently and with O in mind, or if it's an ancient app written years before. That's a welcome change, as so many of the most interesting parts of new operating systems go ignored by developers.
Google says that, for the moment, background apps only retrieve location information "a few times each hour." Google notes that this could change before final Android O release, suggesting that the company hasn't staked out an optimal position just yet. Also, there are many ways background apps can get location information. It seems that Google is prodding developers into a direction that takes it easy on the battery.
Note that early adopters that install the Android O developer preview probably won't see any big battery improvements just yet. One of the several issues Google lists along with O's overall "jankiness" is battery life problems.
O Is fOr…?
The perennial question with every Android release is what sugary confection the operating system will be named after. Android 4.4 went the branding route with KitKat. Android 5 went with Lolipop, and Android 6 was my least favorite candy, Marshmallow.
Android 7 seemed to have stumped the minds at Google, who opened a call for submissions to the public. Perhaps they realized that asking internet denizens to submit various n-words wasn't the best idea because Android 7 was eventually (perhaps, inevitably) christened "Nougat."
There have been rumors that Google will once again partner with a tasty brand for Android O. Oreo has been tossed around. Personally, I am hoping that Google tones it down and goes with Orange Slice. It's a healthy classic, and citrusy fresh to boot!
The Story of O
We're at the very beginning of Android O, so it's difficult to tell what we'll get when Google releases this version. It's not even clear from Google's documentation (or the developer preview) if this is Android 8.0 or some other iteration similar to 4.4 KitKat.
With Android O's tweaked notifications, behind-the-scenes efficiencies, and autofilling information into apps, Google seems to be responding to consumers' wants rather than pushing revolutionary new features. And that's fine. But I fully expect to see more intriguing information in the run-up to Google I/O in May. It's very possible—almost a certainty—that the Android O of today is just the minimum of what we can expect to see soon. We'll update this preview as more features are unveiled. And we'll score Android O when the OS is officially released.
By Max Eddy Software Analyst
Max Eddy is a Software Analyst, taking a critical eye to Android apps and security services. He's also PCMag's foremost authority on weather stations and digital scrapbooking software. When not polishing his tinfoil hat or plumbing the depths of the Dark Web, he can be found working to discern the 100 Best Android Apps. Prior to PCMag, Max wrote for the International Digital Times, The International Science Times, and The Mary Sue. He has also been known to write for Geek.com. You can follow him on… More »
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