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Android 11: conversations, bubbles, and making sense of complexity

Today, Google is releasing the Android 11 beta for Pixel phones. It features a revamped notification system, a new power menu, and dozens of smaller tweaks. I’ve been using an early version of it provided to me by Google on my Pixel 4 XL for about a week now, and I’m already depending on some of its new features.

Android is a “mature” operating system, which is to say there aren’t a lot of obvious missing features. You might say that mature smartphone operating systems like Android and iOS have the opposite problem: too many features. So Android 11 doesn’t add a lot of new capabilities; instead, it tries to help you handle all of the things your phone already does. The job of a mature operating system is to manage complexity.

Here’s how the Android 11 beta tackles it.

Seemingly every version of Android makes some kind of change to the way notifications are handled. It can be hard to keep up sometimes, but I’m not complaining. I vastly prefer Google’s iterative year-over-year tweaks to notifications on Android to the relative stasis we get on the iPhone.

For Android 11, the major changes are both obvious and subtle. Google’s solution is to abstract away Android’s many different notification options into three big buckets. Think of them as easy presets. They solve 90 percent of the notification management problem, and the last 10 percent can either be something you manually tweak or — more likely — just dismiss when those annoying notifications appear.

The most noticeable change is that Google is adding a new section called “conversations.” Android has had different “types” of notifications for some time, but in Android 11, it’s more clearly delineating them into distinct sections. The idea is to take all of the many options you can set for how notifications appear and simplify them into three big buckets: conversations, alerting notifications, and silent notifications.

Conversations is the newest section dedicated to notifications that come in from chat apps like Android Messages, Facebook Messenger, and others. It sits at the top of your notification shade, right underneath quick settings.

Conversation notifications can play by slightly different rules than other notifications. They’re less likely to get buried in the mix of everything else. In addition to appearing at the top, you can also tap a button to “bubble” them. That pops out the icon for the person you’re talking to into its own floating bubble that you can throw on any edge of the screen. Tap it, and it opens up an overlay window with your chat thread.

It’s “Chat heads” from Facebook Messenger, basically, but now made available to any chat app in Android as an official feature — seven years after Facebook introduced them. Unfortunately, it seems like apps will need to be updated to support bubbles, though Google says it’s a relatively simple thing to do.

If Chat heads aren’t your thing, you have another option to make sure you don’t miss important texts. Long-press a notification in the conversations section, and you can choose between three options: Priority, Alerting, and Silent. Here’s how they break down:

This all sounds like a lot of silly shuffling when you read about it, but actually using this new system makes immediate sense. I feel much more in control of my chats now. Texts from individual family members get through, but texts from the family group chat are shushed without getting lost.

Once upon a time, mobile operating systems tried to solve the problem of multiple chat apps by threading them into a single app — but those chat apps obviously weren’t happy about being aggregated. Android 11’s solution isn’t to try to re-create webOS’s Synergy or Windows Phone’s omnibus contact sheet, but instead just deal with it on the notification level. It’s an elegant solution, given the constraints under which Google is operating. Every Android user has to deal with multiple chat apps, and true integration is never really going to work. But at least their notifications are in one spot.

The Alerting notification and Silent notification sections are largely unchanged, although, again, everything in the notification shade is just a little bigger and more clearly separated. You can still long-press a notification to quickly adjust how (or if) a notification appears. If you dig into notification settings, though, you’ll find a few more options.

Firstly, it’s easier to tweak whether silent notification icons will appear in your status bar or lock screen. You can also dig into notification settings and change any number of nitty-gritty options: which apps can “bubble” conversations, priorities, and even tuck into an individual app’s different types of notifications (called “channels” in Android).

If you’re in the habit of quickly swiping notifications away, you’ve probably run into the problem of swiping something away without actually looking at it. Android 11 has a fix for that, too, an option to find your notification history. If you turn it on, you’ll get a new “History” button at the bottom of the notification shade. Tap it, and all of your recent notifications from the last 24 hours are listed inside your settings app so you can find what you missed.

Finally, if you want, you can also dig into Do Not Disturb settings to get even more granular control over how that mode works. Specifically, you’ll find a bunch of options for which apps or people are allowed to break through DND and alert your phone. I set mine up to allow priority texts to come through.

Most importantly, these new options aren’t baffling. What Google has essentially done here is make a ton of options that only Android obsessives ever bothered with more accessible, grouping a bunch of stuff into presets available under a single long-press.

The notification shade in Android can sometimes feel like a dumping ground for random functionality, and part of what Android 11 does is try to pull out specific things and give them their own place.

First up: Media controls. Normally, these would show up at the top of your notifications when music or video is playing, but in Android 11, these controls are getting integrated into the Quick Settings area that lives above your notifications.

It shows up in two different ways. First, when it’s collapsed down, it shoves your other quick settings toggles off to the side. Expand it down, and you’ll get full album art, a scrub bar, and whatever else the music app wants to toss up there. You will also get a new button, which lets you choose where your audio is going. It should let you send to your Bluetooth headphones or compatible smart speakers.

What I am seeing on my Google-provided beta build is slightly different than what’s been leaked and previously reported on, so it’s likely that Google is still fine-tuning the interface. Plus, it’s one of the buggier parts of the beta right now.

Another thing Google pulled out of notifications is the interface for screenshots. Now, when you trigger a screenshot, a tiny thumbnail will float down to the lower-left corner. There will be some button attached to it if you want to quickly edit or share the screenshot. There have been reports that there will be a third button for scrolling screenshots, but that’s not on my build.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that both the speaker selection button and (especially) the screenshot interface are lifted right off of the iPhone. Apple previously sued Android manufacturers for making slide-to-unlock mechanisms that were vaguely reminiscent of the original iPhone’s unlock. Now, Android 11’s core gesture navigation and screenshot captures are almost identical to how the iPhone works.

One last thing: last year, Google put true, native screen recording in the Android 10 beta but pulled it for the official release. It’s back this year in the Android 11 beta, and it worked flawlessly in my testing. Hopefully it sticks around this time. It’s been an add-on feature on many Samsung, Huawei, and other phones for years. I’m not sure why Google has found it so difficult to support at an OS level.

Smartphone operating systems operate via different visual metaphors than your desktop or even your tablet. They create different conceptual “zones” that operate by their own rules and — hopefully — have a specific purpose.

There’s the home screen, the lock screen, notification shade, quick settings (or Control Center), and so on. In Android 11, Google is de-facto creating a new “zone” of user interaction with an unfortunately vague name: the “power menu.” You get to it by long-pressing the power button. (In the strange world of smartphones, it’s sometimes called the sleep / wake button.)

It does the things a power menu is expected to do: provide various power and reset options. Sadly, the “lockdown” option that disables biometrics is hidden under a three-dot menu when it should be something you can trigger with just physical buttons as you can on the iPhone.

Google has placed Google Pay cards and boarding passes under those power options. Both the power options and pay options are something we’ve seen before.

The new section is next: Home. It’s where Google is putting buttons for your smart home controls. You can choose which smart home gadgets appear here and also reorder them. With smart lights (which are all I have), you can tap buttons to toggle them on or off, drag on the button to adjust brightness, or long-press to get a bigger UI with more options.

It’s more convenient than Apple’s home controls in Control Center on the iPhone, if only because it’s just one button away instead of a swipe and a long-press.

Android 11’s power menu home controls are powered by the Google Home app. That’s great news because it means that you shouldn’t have to set up your smart home gadgets a second or third time. Google tells me that if smart home companies want to directly support buttons or controls in the power menu without going through the Google Home app, they can.

A word of warning, however: the experience as I’ve described it here only applies to the Pixel. It’s anybody’s guess what Samsung or other manufacturers will do. Samsung has its own payment system, smart home ecosystem, and even its own penchant for remapping a long-press of the power button to Bixby. Google says it’s working with partners to ensure a consistent experience, but we’ll see.

As for why Google made a whole new “zone” instead of just putting smart home controls somewhere else, like the quick settings panel, Google’s idea is that the power menu is sort of the digital equivalent of your keys and your wallet. It’s for controlling things outside your phone, while quick settings is for controlling things on your phone.

Let’s quickly round out the last two UI zones. Android 11 doesn’t do much to the home screen. On the Pixel, you have the option to replace your dock with apps that Android thinks you might want to open next. I’m not a big fan of this, as I want the icons I specifically put there in the dock.

Google calls the multitasking screen the “recents” screen, something I have to look up every time. In Android 11, there are a few new buttons on the bottom. Screenshot grabs a screenshot of the frontmost app (not the whole multitasking screen). Share takes that screenshot and pulls up the share sheet to immediately send it to someone.

Finally, in the middle is a button called “Select.” It highlights selectable elements on the frontmost app so you can easily copy something without going all the way into the app. I think it’s mainly there because Google wants you to know it’s possible to do that in the first place. I find all three buttons pointless; it’s not that hard to just jump into the app. If there was a place where I’d rather have those suggested apps Google wants me to put in the home screen dock, it’s here on the recents screen.

Google is continuing its long trend of locking down what apps are allowed to do in the background in Android 11. My favorite new feature is permission reset, which automatically resets all permissions from apps you haven’t opened in some time.

Android 11 also follows a trend Apple started last year: one-time permission. Now, when an app asks for location information, the only three options that get buttons are “while using the app,” “only this time,” and “deny.” The one-time use option is new and much-appreciated. If an app wants to get permanent background permission, it has to deep-link you into its location permissions inside Android’s settings. Google seems to be discouraging that kind of use.

Lastly, if you tap “deny” on that permission box twice, Android 11 will prevent the app from asking you for your permission again.

Android has a long list of accessibility features, and Android 11 has an update to one of them that I initially didn’t give enough credit to. Google says that Android 11 now has “an on-device visual cortex that understands screen content and context, and generates labels and access points for accessibility commands.” What that means is that if you’re controlling the phone with your voice, you can speak more naturally by just saying what’s on screen instead of having to identify a number on a grid.

One thing I left out of my Android 11 beta hands on was the improved Voice Access, which now understand screen context and content. That was a mistake – it’s actually incredible.

You don’t have to use a grid or button numbers, you can just say what’s on the screen. Watch: pic.twitter.com/wXidxZGVjt

Google’s keyboard, Gboard, is getting some updates, too. Google says the feature that lets you mix and match emoji to make custom stickers will have 5,000 different combinations now. More interestingly, Gboard is going to pick up auto-fill capabilities. Google says that it’s based on federated learning models, and no data from your auto-fill will be shared with Google. I’ll be interested to see if it’s a fiasco trying to fill out a form in Chrome because it’s possible that Chrome, Android, and Gboard will all be competing to put something in there automatically. (Google says it’s not going to be a problem.)

There are dozens of other little bits and bobs. Google’s Project Mainline, the service that lets it update key system components over the air without waiting for carriers or manufacturers, is getting 12 more modules. Dark mode is getting better scheduling options. Pixel phones will have more weird icon shapes available for theming. Picture-in-picture videos can be resized (but good luck dragging your finger on the tiny corner on the first try). You can “pin” apps to the share sheet rather than rely on Android’s algorithms. Airplane mode won’t turn off Bluetooth if you are connected to headphones. The list goes on.

On that list, my favorite thing should be tethering over USB-Ethernet. Windows users don’t have to worry about this, but there’s no way to natively use USB to tether a Mac to an Android phone. I’ve been installing a custom driver on Macs for years now. But now that Android can just provide Ethernet-based networking over USB, it should work with pretty much anything you can plug it in to. It should, but unfortunately, it requires that you plug in a USB adapter with an Ethernet plug on it. And unless your computer has an Ethernet jack, you’ll need another dongle on the other end.

If you just look at a bullet list of features, a lot of Android 11 seems like it’s mostly rearranging features and adding new little tweaks. Like I said, Android is a mature operating system, so there aren’t really massive gaps that need to be filled. Android 11 is about making the stuff you actually want to do a little bit easier to find.

Those little decisions of what goes where and why are the subtle things that ultimately make a phone feel either intuitive or confusing. There’s still some confusing stuff here — the settings app is turning into a mess — but overall, I can see where Google is trying to go. Android is complex, and rather than try to simplify it directly, it’s adding simpler layers on top of that complexity.

I’ll hold off on judging whether I think Google got there until I can review the final release of Android 11 this fall. This is still a beta, after all, and it’s just rough enough that I don’t recommend you install it on your main device. Things may change a bit between now and the official release; Google plans to release two more betas before this is finalized.

When I do review it, it’ll be on a Google Pixel. That’s because the Pixel is still the only Android phone guaranteed to get updated right away. The entire Android ecosystem has made more progress than I expected in speeding up updates for other phones, but it’s still not where it ought to be. So while I’m reserving judgment on whether Android 11 makes sense, I can say that knowing whether or when your Android phone will get it is still confusing.

Photography by Dieter Bohn / The Verge

The Verge on YouTube

Update: This article was updated at 4:10PM ET on June 10th to include more information on Voice Access.

This Article was first published on theverge.com

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