Hands-On with the Android O Developer Preview

Posted on March 29, 2017 by Paul Thurrott in Android with 4 Comments

Hands-On with the Android O Developer Preview

I wiped my Pixel XL so I can test the first developer preview of Android O, the next version of Google’s flagship mobile OS. What I see so far is a nice set of refinements in a variety of areas, but nothing I’d describe as major new functionality.

Of course, it’s early yet. So early, that Google has artificially made the process of using Android O, even on supported handsets, fairly difficult. I didn’t really describe this process Monday in Testing the Android O Developer Preview, but you basically need to flash, or completely wipe, the device using obscure command line applications from Windows.

The first time you do such a thing is daunting. Hell, it’s daunting regardless of which time it is, and I’ve undergone this process with many phones over the years. But it’s always worked—knock on wood—and this time was no different.

(One side-note for anyone interested in trying this: If your phone is already enrolled in the Android Beta and you install Android O, you will get prompts to install Android 7.x beta releases. You should not do so, and I assume these prompts will not appear in subsequent Android O previews.)

My testing of Android O, especially at this point, will be somewhat superficial in that it will focus on end-user features and changes. This is, I think, understandable.

For starters, some new Android O features—its ability to limit background tasks, for example, which is aimed at improved performance and battery life—won’t be all that obvious in the limited testing I’ll be doing. And other features, like notification channels, aren’t really implemented in any apps yet.

And of course much of Google’s documentation around this first preview is aimed at developers. And while I did spend a ton of time last year learning Android app development, I still don’t have enough experience with the platform to really understand how low-level changes will impact app and system behavior. So I’ll be looking at this from a higher level.

Here are a few of the things I’m seeing in this first preview.

Pixel launcher. The Pixel launcher is one of the many ways in which Pixel phones are different from stock Android handsets, so it’s not clear whether this change is Pixel-specific or not. But where the Pixel previously featured a weird Google search widget in the upper-left of the home screen, it’s returned to a stock Google search bar in this preview. (Update: For me, it has. Apparently, Google is testing this UI with some users only. So it’s not clear yet what this will look like in the final version of Android O.)

Settings. This is perhaps the most obvious visual change: Settings looks like it’s been redesigned yet again, with new top-level categories—Network & Internet, Connected devices, and so on—and a pleasant light color scheme.

More settings. Within Settings, some of the interfaces have changed pretty dramatically too. For example, Battery and Storage settings have been completely redesigned. (And should look familiar to any Windows 10 user.)

Notification shade. The notification shade, which displays when you swipe down from the top of the screen, features more status notification icons at the top (including battery percentage) and some revised quick tile icons on the bottom (like that LTE icon).

Small visual changes. The navigation bar seems to change color more frequently now, most likely in a bid to make it more visible via contrast. For example, when you display All Apps (which has a white background), the navigation bar buttons change from light to dark.

Files. Android long lacked a built-in file manager application, so device makers and third-parties have typically filled that role. In Android M, Google finally created a standalone Files app, but it’s never been available in the All Apps list. Until now: Files is available, finally, as a standalone app.

Navigation bar customization. This one is pretty well hidden, but you can now customize the Android navigation bar—which features Back, Home, and Recents buttons—with different layouts and permanent additional buttons. To do so, you need to enable the System UI Tuner—just press and hold on the Settings icon in the notification shade until the phone vibrates—and then find it in Settings > System. It looks like some of this functionality is to enable a one-handed mode, like we see on iPhone. (If you’ve ever added another virtual keyboard to Android, you may have seen a keyboard switcher appear as a new button on the right of this navigation bar.)

That’s about all I’ve seen, but then I haven’t spent too much time with it yet. (And I stupidly forgot to bring the Pixel with me to New York City yesterday, which was my intent.) Given the performance and reliability issues I’ve had with the phone recently, the wipe has had a nice impact: As you would expect of any clean install, especially given the few apps I’ve installed so far, the phone is running well now again.

More soon.


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