Why it matters to you
Android O packs improvements like AI-powered notifications, improved Bluetooth audio, better battery life, and more. Here’s what you can expect.
Android Oreo, anyone? Or maybe Android Oatmeal Cookie?
Whatever Google ends up calling Android O, the Mountain View, California, company is busy prepping the next major version of Android. Just like last year, it’s offering developers the chance to test drive Android O before it launches publicly later this year. Developer Preview 4 is now available for the Nexus 5X, Nexus 6P, Nexus Player, Pixel, Pixel XL, and Pixel C.
Unfortunately, Android O isn’t available as an over-the-air update yet — it has to be installed manually, which isn’t for the faint of heart. But Google spilled the details about Android O at its I/O developer conference in May, and we managed to get Android O up and running on a dusty old Nexus 6P.
Here’s everything you need to know about Android O.
How to install Android O Developer Preview 4
Android O is currently in beta and if you are a developer or an Android hobbyist, you can download and install it on a compatible smartphone, tablet, or set-top box. According to Dave Burke, Google’s vice president of engineering, this is the last Developer Preview to be released before the public version drops — so it is very close to final.
The fourth Developer Preview of Android O ships with “the final system behaviors, the latest bug fixes and optimizations, and the final APIs (API level 26) already available since Developer Preview 3,” Burke said in a blog post. Google is also introducing an updated version of the Android Testing Support Library alongside the release.
You can enroll devices in the Android O beta by heading to the sign-up page. After a few hours, you will get a notification to download and install Developer Preview 4. If you already have a prior version of the Developer Preview installed, you should receive the update shortly.
What’s new in Android O
Revamped notifications and Notification Dots
Android O’s gaining Notification Dots, iOS-like indicators that show a preview of incoming messages, emails, and more. The appear as small dots on an app’s icon, indicating that the app has new content.
The previous version of Android, Android Nougat, added the ability to prioritize certain notifications over others. Android O tweaks that behavior.
Users can snooze alerts and schedule them to reappear at a later time, and developers can change the background color of notifications and cause notifications to dismiss themselves after predefined increments. After dragging a notification to the right-hand side of the notification shade, a clock-shaped icon appears — tapping on it brings up the aforementioned increments.
Not all notifications are compatible. Persistent notifications, or ongoing notifications that can’t be dismissed, can’t be snoozed, either.
Android O also implements “attention-based” notification sorting — in essence, new hierarchies of alerts that Android orders by importance. It’s divided into four major categories: Major Ongoing, People to People, General, and By the Way.
- Major Ongoing notifications, the highest-ranked notifications, are for high-priority tasks like turn-by-turn navigation and music playback controls.
- People-to-People notifications include alerts from messaging apps. They’re ranked more highly than others, and they expand up to to three lines of text — giving you a preview of emails, texts, and other messages.
- By the Way notifications show a single line of text that can be expanded with a tap — like a weather or traffic alert. They don’t appear on the lockscreen.
- General notifications is a catchall for notifications that don’t fit into the other three categories.
The new notifications framework dovetails with another new Android O feature: Channels. They’re custom categories of notifications from specific apps that include a set of behaviors, like vibrating or triggering a ringtone.
Google used an airline app as an example. One of the app’s channel might include flight updates and fare alerts, while another, separate channel might show rewards points reminders.
In Android O, you can swipe to see the name of the channel in the notification pane, and switch off the ones you want. Alternatively, you can hop into a notifications settings screen that shows the app’s name, a shortcut to the app’s storage settings, a toggle that blocks all of the app’s channels, and a list of the app’s channels.
Battery and Vitals
Android Nougat introduced Doze, a battery-saving feature that automatically “hibernated” apps running in the background. With Android O, Google has taken that idea one step further with Vitals and Wise Limits, new features that optimize the operating system’s background tasks.
Vitals speeds up Android’s boot time dramatically — it’s twice as fast as Android Nougat, Google said.
And Wise Limits place strictures on background apps — specifically those that update location of background services. Android O can impose “execution limits” on the latter, which limit system access to certain processes when the app isn’t being used. Location limits, meanwhile, prevent apps that access a device’s location (via GPS or Wi-Fi) from doing so gratuitously.
We’ll have to run Android O through its paces to figure out how dramatically the under-the-hood changes impact battery life.
One new Android O feature combines machine learning (software that self-improves without human intervention) and computer vision (software that extracts and analyzes data from images) into a single labor-saving feature. It’s called Copy Less, and it aims to cut down on the number of times you have to copy text from one app to another.
If you’re having a Facebook Messenger conversation with a friend about where to have dinner and switch to Yelp for recommendations, Copy Less will recognize the context — it’ll “know” that you’re looking for a nearby place to eat, and use that information to save you time. Once you’ve settled on a spot and switched back to the chat interface, Copy Less will suggest relevant replies to your friend’s questions.
It’ll also recognize names and addresses. When you receive a message with a street address, for example, Copy Less will identify the text as an address — if you tap on it, it’ll show its coarse location in Google Maps.
Enhanced Privacy and Security
Android O focuses on privacy.
Google Play Protect, a new security management platform, is making its debut with Android O. Every app that’s installed from Google Play or a third-party app store is continuously scanned for malware and viruses. And the Security menu in the Settings screen now shows a list of apps that’ve been scanned recently, and how long each scan took.
It also includes Find My Device, a new feature that’ll let you pinpoint, ring, lock down, or wipe your smartphone or Android Wear smartwatch.
In Android O, permissions are less abusable by harmful apps. Ransomware apps can no longer obscure the phone’s lock screen or status bay, for example, and cannot use the admin permission to prevent deletion or to change your password.
Android O also packs rollback protection — supported devices won’t boot older, potentially compromised operating systems.
Developers can’t use Android ID, the unique software identifier that fingerprints individual devices, to track users any longer. Instead, Google’s offering its advertising APIs as a safer, more transparent alternative.
High-quality Bluetooth audio
Wireless Bluetooth headphones, earbuds, and speakers are all the rage these days, so it’s not all that surprising that Android O brings major improvements to wireless audio.
New Bluetooth audio codecs promise to make music crisper, clearer, and richer than on Android versions of the past.
Android O supports Sony’s LDAC wireless codec, which promises big audio performance gains. It lets phones transfer roughly three times the amount of data (990kbps) over the same Bluetooth connection as the average smartphone, which is more than twice as fast as Spotify’s requirement for Hi-Fi streaming (320kbps).
LDAC has been around a while — Sony introduced it at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show, built it into its high-end Walkman music players, Xperia smartphones, and MDR-1000X headphones. But Android O will mark the first time it’s available on non-Sony devices.
Unfortunately, not everyone will be able to take advantage. LDAC requires that both the sending device (a smartphone) and receiving device (a pair of headphones) support it — if you don’t have a pair of cans with LDAC, you’re out of luck.
AptX, another low-latency Bluetooth streaming format, is also in tow. It’s hardware-dependent, but an increasing number of flagships — including those running Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon processors — support it.
Adaptive icons, picture-in-picture mode, and UI tweaks
Android O is relatively light on UI tweaks and changes, but there are a few notable ones in tow. The status bar is cleaned up. In Android O, new icons indicating your phone’s Wi-Fi and mobile connectivity status sit next to the battery icon. The Settings menu has been overhauled — compared to Nougat, there are roughly half the number of top-level menu options thanks to aggressive consolidation. And Google has done away with the slide-out menu.
Android O gives you full control over the navigation bar’s appearance and behavior. You’re free to change the layout of the buttons, or add an extra right and left button, and a new Compact mode squishes them closer together.
A second welcome addition to the System UI Tuner is lockscreen shortcuts, which allow you to add shortcuts to your phone’s lockscreen. You can add a dedicated button for Chrome tabs, or a shortcut to the settings menu — the sky’s the limit, really.
Adaptive Icons let developers adjust the look and shape of app icons depending on what home screen theme users select. If a user swaps Android’s default theme to a custom pack they downloaded from the Google Play Store, for example, app icons that take advantage of Adaptive Icons will automatically switch to match the styling and color scheme of said theme.
There’s growing evidence that Android O will introduce support for themes. In the display settings, there’s a section for “Device theme” and two options: Inverted and Pixel. The former, as you might expect, swaps the color palette of every Android settings menu — white icons become gray, and grey backgrounds become white.
Android O packs a picture-in-picture mode for videos, too, and support for launching activities on a secondary (or even tertiary) display and a pop-up window for third-party apps.
An optional “wide-gamut color” promises to make apps more vibrant and colorful than ever on high-contrast screens — including 16 bit PNG, ICC profiles in JPEG/PNG/WebP.
It’s incumbent on developers to support Adaptive Icons, home screen badges, picture-in-picture mode, and wide-color gamuts. It seems we’ll have to wait for them to do their part.
Android TV is gaining a new home launcher and support for the Google Assistant with Android O.
The interface has been substantially streamlined. Up top are the apps you’ve installed, as well as recommended content from Google Play. Now, apps scroll vertically, in rows. Some categories are displayed by default, like Apps, and others are generated by apps installed on the device.
A new Watch Next feature — similar to Continue Watching Recommendations for the Fire TV — displays the next episode in a series of TV episodes, and provides shortcuts to shows you’ve started watching but haven’t finished. And a new search box in the top-left corner of the screen provides quick access to the Google Assistant.
Android O is also packed with miscellaneous goodies aimed at addressing longstanding annoyances.
It’s easier to add custom ringtones, alarm sounds, and notification sounds in Android O. And good news if you’re a frequent Skype user: Android O’s “telecom framework” will let you swap out your phone’s default dialer for a third-party VoIP alternative.
A new Networking Aware Networking feature will allow Android devices to communicate directly with each other over Wi-Fi, even if the network isn’t connected to Wi-Fi, GPS, or cellular data. And there’s a low-power connection mode that allows for sharing small bits of data like sensor readings, location, and more.
New keyboard shortcuts including “arrow and tab button navigation” will make using physical keys a little less painful.
And Android O’s autofill API will make it easier for password, address, and user name managers to register themselves as the system’s official autofill app. When a user encounters a password field, they’ll be able to paste a stored password from a list.