27 Cool New Features & Changes in Android O
Google just released the first public beta of Android O, and we've already installed it on every eligible device at our disposal, of course. This new version has plenty of changes in store, ranging from revamped looks to under-the-hood improvements, so there's tons of cool new stuff to explore.
We're still not sure about the version number or the official codename, but "Android 8.0 Oreo" sounds like a safe bet at the moment. But while we wait for Google to settle on a dessert and release this version to the public, let's go ahead and take a look at all of the new features and functionality in Android O.
The most obvious visual change is a revamped Settings menu, which features subtle dark gray text on an all-white background. Strangely, the side navigation menu introduced in Android Nougat is gone, but all of the various menus have been reorganized to make the Settings area as simple and straightforward as possible.
Android's built-in file manager isn't the best on the market, but it's nice to have a way to browse files without having to install an additional app. Things are looking up, too, as the Files app in Android O got a bit of a makeover. It still hasn't reached feature parity with apps like Solid Explorer and FX File Manager, but at the very least, it lets you view, delete, and open files.
Believe it or not, Android O might finally fix issues with standby battery drain. Doze Mode helped quite a bit in this regard when it was introduced with Marshmallow, then improved upon with Nougat. But now, Google's tightening the reins on actions that apps can perform in the background.
Background Execution Limits being imposed in Android O will ensure that apps won't run wild with background services or keep listener services (aka "broadcasts") open at all times. Even more helpful, apps can only request location updates "a few times each hour." The location restrictions will apply to all apps, regardless of if they were built for Android O or an older version, so it seems Google is really starting to crack down on rogue battery drainers.
Perhaps my personal favorite Android O feature is the ability to snooze individual notifications. When a message comes through, but you don't have time to deal with it, just swipe to the right, then tap the clock icon to snooze the notification. This will make the message go away for 15 minutes, then come right back when the time is up. You can also change the snooze length right after you've snoozed a notification.
The Pixel and Pixel XL shipped with an exclusive feature that allowed users to expand their notification tray by swiping down on the phone's fingerprint scanner. This feature has since been added to Nexus devices, but Google's taking the fingerprint-swipe gesture to a whole new level in Android O.
Third-party app developers can now use an Accessibility service to monitor the fingerprint scanner for swipes—both vertical and horizontal. This means that, by requesting an extra permission, your favorite apps will get fingerprint gesture functionality. Personally, I can't wait for a browser that lets you scroll webpages by swiping the scanner vertically, or a launcher that lets you flip between home screen pages by swiping horizontally.
Android Marshmallow introduced a hidden menu called the System UI Tuner that let you tweak the appearance of various system icons and menus. Android O has now expanded on the options available here, and perhaps the biggest improvement is that it now allows you to change your on-screen navigation buttons.
If you head to the Navigation Bar menu in System UI Tuner, you'll be able to tweak the layout of your on-screen buttons, and even add a couple extra icons to flank them. Layout options allow you to condense the spacing of the buttons or shift them over to one side, while the "Extra button" option let you add a clipboard button or keyboard switcher to either side of your navigation bar.
Another great addition to the System UI Tuner is a new lock screen shortcuts menu, which does exactly what you'd think: It lets you add custom shortcuts that will show up in the bottom corners of your lock screen. You can pick any installed app to occupy one of these spaces, and there are several handy shortcuts to choose from, such as one that opens your selfie camera directly.
Following in the footsteps of Android Nougat's split-screen mode, Android O will now allow apps to be viewed in Picture-in-Picture mode. This will be a special type of split-screen window that should be particularly useful for watching videos while performing other tasks, though apps will need to be updated to support the new API, and none that we've tested have this feature enabled yet.
The battery menu in Android O has received a makeover, but it's more than just a visual refresh. Common battery-related options such as Adaptive brightness and Battery saver are now near the top of the menu for easy access, and the battery usage graph is a bit easier to read. But the most interesting change here is a set of statistics at the bottom of the main menu, which tell you specifically how much of your battery was used by mobile network scanning and the device's display.
You know how Chrome will auto-fill saved information such as addresses and credit card numbers when it detects a compatible field? Well, a similar feature is coming to Android O, which should save you the hassle of repeatedly entering the same information on a touchscreen keyboard.
This new Autofill Framework will allow apps to create and manage their own lists of auto-fill data, then simply populate it into text fields when appropriate. The user will still have total control over the saved information, though apps will need to be updated before they can use the new feature. Nonetheless, this feature should make password management apps like LastPass even more useful on Android, which is a big plus for security in general.
It's the exact opposite of the dark theme everyone wanted, but Android O is at least making strides on the theme front. A new "Inverted" theme is available when you head to the Display menu in Settings, then tap "Advanced." After enabling the theme, system menus will sport white backgrounds and dark accents. Hopefully, this is just a sign of things to come, because it would be nice to see a few more theme options in a future version.
Using a system called Notification Channels, apps can now create categories for the various notifications they post. As an example, the Gmail app could make separate notification categories for your work and personal accounts, or for your various inbox categories.
Once an app has been updated to use the Notification Channels feature, you'll be able to control the priority and visibility of each type of notification posted by that app. Continuing with the Gmail example, you could mute work email notifications during off hours, or completely hide notifications that originate from a particular inbox category.
With the Pixel, Google introduced the concept of rounded home screen icons. This, combined with Android's usual freeform icons and Samsung's squircle style, means that there's now some serious fragmentation with app icons. To accommodate everybody, developers would have to include circle, square, squircle, and freeform icons in each of their apps, and that's probably asking too much.
Enter Adaptive Icons. With this new feature in Android O, developers can create a single, unified app icon, and the system will do the rest. When an app offers an Adaptive Icon, Android O will automatically crop and align it according to the system settings. From a user standpoint, this means that once apps get updated with Adaptive Icons, all of your home screen icons will be of matching shapes.
Bluetooth has always been criticized for its lower audio quality when compared to a set of wired headphones. But as Apple told us back in September, we're now living in a wireless world, so something needs to give. Thankfully, Google has added a handful of high-quality Bluetooth codecs to Android O, including Sony's LDAC, which should greatly improve audio quality with compatible Bluetooth devices.
One more thing to add on this front: Sony's one of the few manufacturers that actually contribute to Android's code base, so they deserve some props. In addition to the new codec, they've donated the framework that powers Android's hidden theme engine, among other contributions.
Now that Android apps can run on Chromebooks, it's become apparent that keyboards and touchscreen-optimized apps don't play nice together. To solve this, Google has made Android O more reliable and predictable when using arrow keys or the Tab button to navigate interfaces. This feature may sound like it's strictly for Chromebooks, but if you use an Android-based TV box or pair a Bluetooth keyboard with your phone or tablet, it'll certainly be a welcome change.
One to file under the "refinement" category: The Pixel launcher will now let you swipe up from almost anywhere on your home screen to open the app drawer. So you'll no longer have to initiate the swipe from the dock at the bottom of the screen, and once you do open the app drawer, you'll notice another subtle change—the navigation buttons at the bottom of your screen are now black, which makes them easier to see on top of the white app drawer.
For pro-style photo editing, it's of utmost importance that what you're seeing on your screen is exactly how the final image will look. The trouble is, some modern Android phones support a wide color gamut, but Android apps have not had this capability. So now, Android O will allow apps to use wide color gamut profiles such as AdobeRGB or Pro Photo RGB on supported devices, which means that what you see in your favorite photo editor is what you'll see on other high-end displays.
A new feature in Android O called Wi-Fi Aware has some promising functionality. Without needing to be on the same Wi-Fi network, devices running the new Android version will be able to discover one another, then create a private network between them that can allow the devices to share data amongst themselves.
Aside from the framework being included in Android O and an API being made available to developers, there isn't much real-world use for Wi-Fi Aware just yet. From the sound of it, though, it could be used for purposes like speeding up Android Beam file transfers, or implementing a type of Apple AirPlay-like functionality with media sharing.
I'm not personally a fan of this one, as Android has a robust notification system already. But former iOS users will be happy to know that Android O now has support for "Unread" badges on home screen icons. Your launcher will have to support the new feature, but it can be enabled or disabled on a per-app basis from within the "Apps & Notifications" menu in Settings.
To sideload apps on previous Android versions, all you had to do was enable "Unknown Sources" in Settings, then just open an APK. With Android O, this setting is entirely gone, and now, you'll need to trust individual apps before you can install APKs they've downloaded.
In other words, when you download an APK through the Chrome browser, you'll be prompted to review your "External Sources" settings. From here, just pick Chrome from the list, then make sure the "Trust apps from this source" option is enabled. Once you've done that, you'll be able to sideload the APK you downloaded with Chrome, and the same applies when using other apps, like the Amazon App Store.
Previously, you could use the SystemUI Tuner menu to add a small overlay to your battery indicator that depicted the current percentage. This option is still present in a way, but now, you can only opt to display the percentage next to the battery indicator in your status bar.
This is just a minor tweak, but when you pull down your notification shade to access your Quick Settings tiles, you'll now see a set of connectivity and battery indicators at the top of the screen, next to the Settings gear. Tapping these icons does nothing, but it's nice that the information is there.
Pixel and Nexus users will notice a new addition to the screen that appears when first booting the phone. There's now a "Powered by Android" badge at the bottom of the screen—nice touch!
Package Installer has received a makeover in Android O, featuring a slightly refined look and an actual progress bar, which replaces the indefinite app install bar that Android has used for far too long. There's also a new Cancel button at the bottom-right, which allows you to stop an installation as long as the progress isn't too close to the end of the bar.
The text selection menu in Android O has also been updated. It now includes intelligent actions that can vary depending on the type of text you've selected. Select a URL, and Android O will suggest opening it in Chrome. Select a phone number, and the Dialer app will appear. An address, and Maps will pop-in, and so on.
Taking another step towards increased security, Google has added a sticky notification to alert you whenever an application is running an overlay in Android O. The screen overlay permission was added in Android Nougat, so apps had to ask permission to draw over other apps. In Android O, not only will the permission be required, but you'll also be alerted with a notification that doesn't go away until the overlay has.
Most of the above-listed changes have been around since the first developer preview build of Android O. But one major change in the new beta release is a set of revamped emojis. Google has finally ditched the blob-shaped smilies in favor of more traditional rounded ones, and most emojis now have a gradient applied to them.
We'll keep digging into Android O to see what else we can find, but it's already obvious that Google has put a ton of work into this release. Let us know if you find anything interesting, and give us some feedback on your favorite Android O features in the comment section below.
Screenshots by Dallas Thomas and Kevin M./Gadget Hacks