Fine-grain notification controls. Picture-in-picture. Autofill for apps. Smart icons. New emojis. Improved security features won't limit freedom of app choice.
You might not get it soon, or at all. Notification swipes are very sensitive. Developer buy-in required for some of the best features. RIP blob emojis.
- Bottom Line
With its latest Android version, Google aims to make the mobile OS more efficient and comfortable, both under the hood and in your hand.
If your teeth are sore from a year of Android 7.0 N(ougat), don't worry, it's time to prepare your phone for the crunchy and creamy Android 8.0 Oreo. With Oreo, Google streamlines the notification center, adds picture-in-picture to all devices and locks down apps behind the scenes to deliver better battery life. Oreo also brings smart security features, such as autofill for apps and a better way to install apps from outside Google Play. With this version, Android is sweeter than ever before.
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O Is for Oreo
The perennial question with every Android release is what sugary confectionary name will be given to the operating system. Android 4.4 took the branding route with KitKat. Android 5 went with Lollipop, 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. The last iteration of the OS was eventually (perhaps, inevitably) christened "Nougat."
I had hoped that the humble, healthy citrus fruit the orange might make the cut for Android 8.0, but alas not. Word has come down that Android O is for Oreo, that second fiddle to the vastly superior (to my mind) Hydrox cookie.
The State of Android
The last big visual overhaul to Android dates all the way back at Android 5.0, with the rollout of Material Design. Since then, Google has focused on honing the edge of the world's most popular mobile operating system. And that's OK. With so many handset makers and carriers to contend with, smart and subtle updates that keep Android relevant are more important than the kind of tent-pole features that appear with each iteration of Apple's iOS.
But Apple's approach has the advantage of setting a narrative. iOS 11, which drops later this year, is focused on workflows and getting more done on mobile, particularly on the iPad Pro. It's exciting (for iPad Pro owners, at least) and easy to explain. What, then, is Oreo? And what is Android, after eight major iterations?
To me, Android has always been about putting the user at the center of the experience, while Apple puts the operating system at the center. You interact with iOS—it's beautiful, slick, and, admittedly, very smart. But it's inflexible, requiring you use it as intended by Apple. Android, on the other hand, is less elegant but provides you with many avenues to use it however you like.
The example I often reach for to describe the difference between the two operating systems is the Settings menu. There is one way to change system settings on iPhone: in the Settings app. Android has a Settings app as well, but you can access your phone's controls from shortcuts on the desktop, or by pulling down the notification tray. You can use one, all, or some of these, depending on what makes sense for you.
Oreo, in particular, is focused on notifications, which is the part of the OS that people interact with the most. Along with this are a slew of other additions, most of which require buy-in from developers in order to realize their full potential, as well as improvements to security, battery life, and overall performance. To me, however, all of these new changes are about bringing the flexibility and customization of Android to every user, and not just the power users.
Although Android Oreo has already launched, it might be some time before it makes an appearance on your Android device. While some folks have claimed to receive over-the-air updates already, neither my T-Mobile Pixel nor my Verizon Pixel XL has been so blessed.
To test Google's latest operating system, I manually installed Android Oreo on a Nexus 5x and an original Pixel phone. Note that when you get Android Oreo (if your device gets it), your experience may be slightly different from mine. The Pixel, for example, uses Google's Pixel Launcher, and Samsung phones have their own visual experience as well. That's another way in which Android and iOS—which is the same everywhere—differ.
Google has become much better about working with hardware manufacturers to get operating system updates out at a faster pace, but it's unlikely to ever be Apple-like in speed or adoption. Pixel and Nexus owners, who enjoy the pure, uncut Android experience, will be the first to bite into Oreo. In a blog post, Google writes that by the end of the year, upgraded devices or new devices with Android Oreo should be available from Essential, General Mobile, Huawei, HTC, Kyocera, LG, Motorola, Nokia, OnePlus, Samsung, Sharp, and Sony.
This problem, which critics call "fragmentation" and Google calls "variety," has been around for a long time, and doesn't seem to be going away anytime soon. By Google's own accounting, just 13.5 percent of users are using Android 7.0 or newer, with the bulk (some 60-odd percent) stretched between 5.0 and 6.0. That leaves a full quarter running the three-year-old Kit-Kat (or an even older version), as of this writing. To Google's credit, the company has found ways to update and secure devices without having to wait for manufacturers or wireless carriers. Note that Google gathers this information via the Google Play store, meaning that countries where Google Play is unavailable, such as China, are likely not included in the stats.
The Big O
The most obvious difference in Android Oreo is notifications, as I mentioned earlier. You can now swipe gently to the left or right to reveal a cog and clock icon.
Tapping the cog opens a new screen for app-notification settings. At the top is the option to toggle notification dots on or off. I've hated the identifying dots that have long existed on Apple, so I switched them off immediately, but at least Android won't be using the stress-inducing alert badges that show the number of unread emails or Facebook likes.
It's the rest of the settings that are really game changers for Android, and a veritable guantlet thrown at the feet of other mobile operating systems. With Oreo, Android now provides fine-grained control over exactly what kind of alerts you want to receive with notification Channels. Instead of just having an on-or-off switch, Channels let developers break down the notifications they want to send, and then you can opt out of the ones that don't work for you. Twitter, for example, is constantly getting in my face about (mostly horrible) things happening online. With Channels, I can toggle seven different options on or off. Yes to DMs and security messages. No to "related to you and your Tweets," whatever that means. I can even set different preferences for different Twitter accounts.
The catch to Channels is that developers have to opt into them. But Google makes a compelling argument. The previous model meant that if someone got annoyed with a new kind of notification from an app, they'd either switch off all notifications or, worse, delete the app. It's clear, however, that there's going to be some fudging with Channels. A final Channel in Twitter, for example, is a catchall category and makes vague mention of more options being available in the app. Still, this is a huge change for Android and one that I hope will come not just to other mobile platforms, but browsers and desktop operating systems as well.
The clock lets you snooze notifications. What's snoozing? Just one of the biggest innovations in email of the last few years. Android Oreo will let you snooze a notification until later, just as you can do for alerts from Inbox by Gmail app. One neat benefit is that apps can update snoozed notifications (think of the current status of an eBay bidding war), but doing so won't cause the snoozed notification to reappear prematurely. Developers can even cause notifications to time out if the message becomes irrelevant while it's snoozed.
Right now, Google is only letting you snooze notifications for one hour by default, with additional options for 15 minutes, 30 minutes, and 2 hours. I wish Oreo had more options, the way Inbox does, letting me push something off for a day, or until the weekend. I also struggled to not swipe notifications away when I only meant to swipe slightly to open the hidden notifications. Google's Oreo wizards might want to tweak the sensitivity a smidge.
A smaller but pleasing tweak to notifications in Oreo is the splash of color that developers can opt to add. It's a great way to draw special attention to particularly important events. When I was listening to Jay Som in Spotify, a notification appeared in the tray with playback controls, as well as album art and a dash of blue. I think it's great that Google is letting Android become a little more colorful, but Google has also made it clear it doesn't want developers to get carried away. That's too bad.
A Fresh Look
Beyond notifications, there are a few other areas where you're likely to see the changes from Oreo. Icons, for example, are no longer merely images in Android Oreo. 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, 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, which I found did work on my Pixel and 5x. Unfortunately, I couldn't find any context where the parallax effect was used.
App icons are also more powerful. Long-press on one to see options like shortcuts to features, each of which can be broken out into its own home screen icon.
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 (PIP) mode, which was limited to devices running Android TV. With Android Oreo, tablets and handsets can now run also picture-in-picture viewing, finally letting all of us realize the dream of watching YouTube and writing an email simultaneously.
At first, I had a hard time testing PIP since apps that take advantage of it are few and far between. My first choice was YouTube, but I discovered that I would have to sign up for a monthly YouTube Red subscription to take advantage of PIP. That's disappointing, and I hope other companies don't follow this example.
I was finally able to experience PIP with Google Duo, the company's purpose-built video chat app. It was surprisingly simple. During my chat, I just tapped the home button. I returned to the desktop and the video chat shrunk to a movable, resizable window. Note that Hangouts, the workhorse of Google chat, doesn't use PIP. Note also that humans, the workhorse of Android, don't use Duo.
If you're like me, you use emoji a lot. Sometimes, I skip words altogether and only send emoji messages. In Oreo, Google completely overhauls the look of its emoji, rounding out the blob heads to more traditional face-shapes. Personally, I miss the weird little flan people, and the rest feel much more generic than the old set of Android emoji. Thankfully, the new emoji include new careers (like women welders and programmers), as well as a woman in a headscarf. There's also a T-Rex. Rarr.
Note that iOS 11 also adds some emoji updates, for iPhone X users at least. Those who shell out the big bucks for Apple's highest-end handset can use its face-scanner to map their facial expressions to "animoji," the company's name for animated emoji.
Under the Hood
Every OS update always includes a bunch of features that most people will probably never see, or even know exist. That's because they're for developers, not regular people. But there are a few worth mentioning because they will (or at least, could) change how you experience Android.
We've all become used to our smartphone charge lasting little more than a day, and far less when used frequently. Android Oreo 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 Oreo, 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 even 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.
I can't say I've noticed a dramatic difference in battery performance, but I am looking forward to what Ajay Kumar and Sascha Segan find as they begin testing phones that ship with Android Oreo. I have, however, noticed an irritating notification at the top of my screen informing me that LastPass is running in the background. Other than taking advantage of the new notification snooze feature, I can't figure out how to get rid of it. If Google's plan is to shame developers with this warning, all they've managed to do is tick me off.
Want to send a message but don't have cell service or a handy Wi-Fi network nearby? The Wi-Fi Aware technology baked into Oreo might help. 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. It's basically turning your phone into a walkie-talkie, and might be really exciting if I can eventually find an app that supports it.
Last is Project Treble, which effectively divides Android into three sections. One is where the apps live. Another is all the stuff carriers and manufacturers put in. The middle is what is provided by Google. This means that Google will allow manufacturers to cut out a few steps in bringing Android updates to the masses.
On the Android site, Google writes that Treble will be "enabling device makers to deliver new Android releases simply by updating the Android OS framework—without any additional work required from the silicon manufacturers."
This is a great, if small, step forward for Android, making it possible for people to get the latest versions of the OS more quickly. But, make no mistake; it's not going to mean that every Android-powered device is going to start receiving new updates at lightning speed. This is the problem with Android. What Google calls diversity often feels like a mess of different software and hardware versions. That Google is even trying to take more control over Android is, to my mind, can only be a good thing.
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. I've picked out just a few that are the most relevant to the average Android user.
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. That means that a malicious link wouldn't be able to affect the rest of your phone. In Android Oreo, Google makes this the default. 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. Modern browsers like Google Chrome have become very adept at detecting and protecting against potential dangers. Bringing that same protection anywhere a link is clicked is a major win for you and me, on the other side of the screen.
Another tweak is actually in the Google Play store itself. A little shield icon now appears when you download apps that Google has verified as safe. The Google Play store has an iffy reputation, built in part from the sheer volume of (mostly not great) Android apps and the semi-automated process that approves them for sale. But Google has always checked for potential security problems with real humans, and has only gotten better at ferreting out threats to the ecosystem it manages. This little icon just makes some of those efforts more visible. I've reached out to Google to better understand what a developer must do in order to get this certification.
And speaking of apps, Android Oreo does away with the option to allow installation of apps from "unknown sources." This basically means, sideloading or installing apps from anywhere that's not Google Play. But instead of locking down Android devices, as Apple has done for iPhones and iPads, Google now lets you approve or disapprove of sideloaded apps on a case-by-case basis. This gives you more control and, far more importantly, means that there won't be a single setting that can be used to compromise your phone. It's a big win.
Another security feature is a new autofill API, which lets Google or other apps fill in passwords throughout Android. 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, by generating, storing, and recalling unique, complex passwords for every app or service. Password managers can automatically input this information into browsers, but have relied on notification shortcuts and weird floating windows to provide the same service for apps.
That's changed with the autofill API, which recalls the passwords as you need them. Google notes that this feature is rolling out as part of an update to Google Play Services. I found that I could access some autofill options by long-pressing on a login field. By default, you'll have any passwords that you've saved with Google. But users can select an autofill app the same way they select a keyboard. Unfortunately, I must not have any passwords saved with Google, and there are currently no other apps supporting the service. Hopefully, that will change soon, and I can use my personal choice, LastPass.
I'm really excited about this particular feature, because password security is such an easy fix. With an option to replay passwords at the core of Android, these Oreo handsets will have a real leg up on Apple's devices. That said, I really want to see the ability to generate passwords made part of the experience.
In the release notes for Android Oreo, Google makes mention of a built-in VPN system for Wi-Fi connections, but offers few details on what exactly this means. I've reached out to the company to clarify.
What's Not Here
While it's not surprising that Android Oreo is a humble update to a mature operating system, there are still features that seem to be missing. Voice assistants are everywhere, but I didn't find tighter integration with Google Assistant. Google has positioned itself not as a search, advertising, or mobile company, but as a company focused on machine learning, and yet I didn't see a space for that to be leveraged in Oreo. VR has been slow boiling in Google since the company showed that a cardboard box could be a more effective VR platform than an $800 VR headset, and Project Tango has been the best implementation of AR that I have ever seen, but neither is to be found in Oreo.
That's because Google's approach for all of these appears to be focused on the app level. The Google Assistant is more powerful with Oreo, but in the sense that it plays nicer with third-party apps. I think that's the company's plan for the future, especially since a big theme of Google I/O 2017 was encouraging Android app developers to build apps for the Google Assistant.
Machine learning is best put on display in the Google Photos app, which does an amazing job reading photos, even identifying the same person from baby to adulthood. At Google I/O, the company teased Google Lens, an AR information overlay that is meant to do all kinds of things. I had hoped that it would live in Android Oreo, but there's still no sign of it months after the I/O conference.
VR and AR stand apart from the others. That's partly because VR and Project Tango AR both require special hardware, either as a headset or a special sensor stack. Apple, on the other hand, is including ARKit in iOS 11, which quickly and effectively detects flat, horizontal surfaces using only the single onboard camera and internal sensors. I've used the company's demo application, and it works remarkably well.
A week after the unveiling of Android Oreo, Google released ARCore, which also can create AR scenarios using standard smartphone sensors and a single camera. I have tried Google's demo app, and I've so far been disappointed with the lackluster results. It feels a little too "me too," especially since the company has done so well with Tango and its VR effort, Daydream View.
O is For Outstanding
It often strikes me as silly to write reviews of operating systems. A lot of the time it feels like comparing apples to, well, Oreos. And besides, it's not as if you can install a different mobile operating system on your phone or tablet.
This year, however, there are especially useful comparisons to make. Apple is focused on usability and creativity with tablets, while Android is focused on making all mobile devices easier to use, and less annoying to boot, with better controls for notifications. Android continues to walk a line between providing choice and blocking off attackers, while Apple stresses privacy by doing more locally on the device.
Neither Apple nor Google have the "wrong" approach to mobile, but after years of using both platforms the customization and control offered by Android really appeals to me. I used to say that Android was for people who wanted to muck around in the guts of their phone to make it work exactly as they wanted. That might still be true, but Android Oreo shows that it no longer takes an experienced developer to make Android into something that fits for you. Apple's unofficial motto might be "it just works," but Android just works for you.
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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