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Android 11 review: features by the dozen

The official version of Android 11 is beginning to roll out today. It’s hitting Google’s own Pixel phones, of course, but in a pleasant surprise, there are a few others getting it right away, too. Most important among them are the OnePlus 8 and 8 Pro. It’s a welcome improvement for the pace of Android updates, though the vast majority of Android phones won’t be getting the full OS update for some time.

When (or, sadly, if) the update arrives on your Android phone, what you’ll find is that a few important things that used to get lost in the interface are now easier to find. You’ll also see that Android is still playing catch-up with iOS when it comes to privacy restrictions, but progress is nevertheless being made.

Mostly, though, you’ll get a very familiar interface that does very familiar things. That’s not a complaint, just a recognition that Android 11 is a mature OS, so year-over-year improvements tend to be in the “slow and steady” category.

As I noted in my original preview, Android does so many things now that it can be overwhelming. It’s also the most-used OS on the planet right now, so Google has a lot of responsibility as the steward of the platform. That’s why the majority of Android 11’s updates fall into the “simple but necessary” category: managing complexity.

It wouldn’t be a new version of Android without some sort of a change to the notification shade. Google’s willingness to experiment with notifications is one of the reasons I like Android so much — even though some of those ideas eventually end up being dead ends, some of them become so essential that I’m annoyed when I use a phone without them.

The two major improvements to the notifications you get from chat apps are in the latter category. Google has done two seemingly simple things that make a huge difference in the activity I care most about on my phone: texting friends and family in apps like Android Messages and Facebook Messenger.

The first is just putting notifications from chat apps into their own section at the top of all of your other notifications, called Conversations. Android’s system is smart enough to recognize different chat threads and then prioritize within that section. So you can set one chat thread as a “Priority Conversation,” and it will be more insistent about its notifications.

You can also mute notifications for chat threads. This is particularly useful because it means you can have a very active chat thread that won’t blow up your phone but also won’t get lost entirely — because even though notifications have been muted, that thread is still up there with your other conversations.

Google has done a decent enough job with the defaults on these new kinds of conversation notifications that most people will be able to stick with them. But if you want to tweak things, there’s a surprising amount of depth to this system. You can, for example, now let certain people or apps alert you even if you have Do Not Disturb set to it. You definitely can get lost in all of the settings, but it’s not too onerous if you just adjust them over time as notifications come in.

The second major improvement is called “Bubbles.” It lets you take a conversation and have it float above whatever else is on your screen in a little window. When you minimize it, it becomes a little bubble that hangs out on the side of your screen. It’s pretty much the exact same thing as Chat Heads in Facebook Messenger.

That description may make you recoil, but in practice, there are a lot of things to love about Bubbles. For one thing, Android 11’s Bubble system works across apps: so I can have an active conversation in both Messenger and Messages, and they’re both accessible in the same place by tapping on the bubble.

The other reason I like Bubbles so much is that it fits well with how I actually talk to people in chat apps: in stints while I’m doing other things on my phone. It’s the phone-sized equivalent of having a little chat window in the corner of your laptop screen. When you’re done talking, you can toss the bubble away.

With Android 11, Google is finally expressing an opinion about what should happen when you hold down the power button. Most Android phones have three physical buttons: two for volume and one for power. Given how every Android phone does something different on a long press of the power button, I hope this new system becomes an enforced standard.

It brings up the power options like shutting down and resetting, of course. Emergency lockdown for temporarily disabling biometrics is there, too, but it’s sadly hidden under an extra button press.

Underneath it, though, Google has filled in two new sections. The first is for Google Pay. Payment terminals often fail to just work properly with Android’s NFC system, so having Google Pay there to initiate the payment directly from the phone is convenient.

Underneath that are smart home controls. Google guesses which ones you’ll want there, but you can customize it yourself. If those buttons are for lights, you can also slide your finger across them for dimming.

Google says those three functions sort of hang together thematically as your phone’s connection to the outside, physical world. That seems like a bit of a stretch, but I’m not going to interrogate it because it’s super convenient to have access to those things.

In the short term, my bigger concern is what Android manufacturers are going to do with that long press of the power button. It seems highly unlikely that Samsung will use the Google Home-powered smart home buttons or Google Pay. But will it be willing to drop Bixby from the power button and use Android 11’s Power Menu?

Google has strictly enforced certain UI paradigms in Android — they all have docks, notification shades, etc. I think we’re getting close to needing to do the same with those three physical buttons.

Android has long allowed music and podcast apps to place custom, themed controls into notifications. It’s super convenient, but some apps have abused the privilege by leaving their controls in your notifications long after you’ve used them. Google’s own YouTube is a terrible offender in this regard because it puts in controls you can’t swipe away at all; you have to know to expand the notification and tap an X.

The result is that you can end up with a stack of media controls cluttering up your notifications. Android 11 solves this by pulling out media controls and putting them into the Quick Setting area that sits above them. More to the point, it puts those controls into cards you swipe through horizontally.

With Android 11, Google is following Apple’s lead by changing how apps can access data from certain sensors. For location, microphone, and camera access, Android 11 will give you the choice to only grant permission while the app is in use or give the app a one-time permission.

In fact, if you want to give an app permission to access your location in the background, you have to head into that app’s info page within settings. It’s an extra step designed to make you think twice.

After you upgrade to Android 11, apps are going to have to ask your preferences again the first time they try to ping one of those sensors. That will serve as an effective reset on what the apps can do.

Google is going a little further with permissions resetting, too. If you’ve granted an app access to that sensor but haven’t opened it in quite some time, Android will silently reset that app’s permissions back to having no access to any of your sensors.

So those are the most noticeable features in Android 11, but there are many more I’m not covering here. Screenshots look and act a lot more like they do on the iPhone now, and Android finally can do screen recording without recourse to a third-party app. Google is radically improving voice controls, which is a huge win for accessibility. Android will now also give better information on a phone’s 5G status and make it easier for enterprise users to have a personal space on their work phones.

Google’s also building in more support for strange displays. Android will do a better job of avoiding accidental taps on those wraparound “waterfall” displays, for example. And it will also become aware of hinges — specifically what angle they’re set at.

Standardizing how hinges work is important for the many folding and dual-screen devices that I expect will hit the market in the coming months and years. Unfortunately, it doesn’t go quite far enough.

Right now, I’m in the process of reviewing both the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2 and the Microsoft Surface Duo. I’ve also spent some time with the Z Flip and LG’s dual-screen case system with its Velvet smartphone. Every single one of these devices has a different approach to helping users with multitasking. Some have overlays, some try to mimic the iPad in small ways, and some try to remake Android into a true multiwindow system.

Many of these ideas are great, but they’re also divergent. Google hasn’t expressed a strong opinion about how Android ought to handle these weird new form factors, and I worry that it might already be too late to prevent another season of Android fragmentation.

Every time I review a new version of Android, I end with some sort of finger-wag about how Google needs to get better at forcing the entire Android ecosystem to provide timely updates. I still need to do that, but first, a small round of applause. Google’s announcement post for Android 11 ends with news that’s pretty huge in the context of Android’s terrible track record on updates: “Android 11 will begin rolling out today on select Pixel, OnePlus, Xiaomi, OPPO and realme phones, with more partners launching and upgrading devices over the coming months.”

The phones getting updates aren’t just minor ones, either. OnePlus says it will release an Android 11 update for the OnePlus 8 and 8 Pro at the same time that Pixel phones are getting that. That is a very big deal, and hopefully it will put pressure on competitors like Samsung to try to catch up. Plus, it’s getting more common for Android manufacturers to commit to three generations of updates, which is a big deal given how people are upgrading less often.

Android isn’t just an OS; it’s an entire ecosystem. And within that ecosystem, there are lots of big forces pushing various pendulums around. Fragmentation may be increasing, Microsoft is a frenemy to Google’s ecosystem of services, update cadences are improving, the pressure to finally figure out a good tablet solution is getting real again, regulators are concerned about Google’s power, and yet updates are increasingly coming directly from Google itself via its Play ecosystem. And who knows how the current political fight between the US and China will affect Android’s future.

Amid all that, Android 11 isn’t so much a product that I can recommend or not; it’s just another one of those forces in the ecosystem — albeit a powerful, foundational force. For the most part, I think it shows that Google is pushing in the right directions. But the company still could do a better job of pushing those OS updates out to all phones.

Photography by Dieter Bohn / The Verge

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This Article was first published on theverge.com

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