With the move to edge-to-edge displays in modern devices, Google has rethought Android system navigation yet again. Most people think of this as gesture navigation, but Google simply refers to it as a new system navigation model.
And it’s really just the latest step in a long evolution of this system. In the beginning, of course, Android handsets and tablet supported physical, front-facing buttons for Back, Home, and Recent Apps. But that changed, over time, to virtual on-screen buttons that could be reconfigured by the device maker (as Samsung does) or by the user.
Virtual buttons can also be hidden on-the-fly, which lets users and the apps they use take advantage of all of the on-screen real estate. This system is powerful, but it can be confusing to users. And combined with the move to edge-to-edge displays, Google felt it was time to push forward with a new navigation model based on gestures.
“The new design makes Android’s multitasking [features] more approachable and easier to understand,” Google’s Dave Burke said during his part of the Google I/O 2018 keynote back in May.
Many compare this system to the gesture-based navigation system that Apple first added to the iPhone X in 2017 and is now expanding elsewhere via iOS 12. But that’s overly-simplistic. And may, in fact, be incorrect: Google has been working on this system navigation model since before the iPhone X and has publicly stated it was doing so in order to reduce the number of on-screen system navigation buttons and, thus, complexity.
So, unlike Apple, Google is not removing the Android home button. Or, for that matter, the Back button, which many still feel is a major advantage of Android over iOS. What it is removing is the Overview (or Recent Apps) button. Which too many users find confusing.
“Android has those three buttons at the bottom: Home, Back and something else,” Burke told CNET back in May. “And it’s, it’s a little too much, a little too complicated … iPhone was coming from a different place, they were removing their Home button. We are coming from a place where we really like our Home button.”
In any event, Android 9 Pie’s new system navigation succeeds for the same reason that Apple’s new system does: For anyone who has used a multi-touch device in recent years—e.g. “everyone”—it is a natural progression. Is, in some way, even intuitive. And it works particularly well for those that wish to use today’s taller, thinner handsets with one hand.
But this is Android, so the new system is also optional, at least for now; this admittedly adds a bit of complexity. And it is only available on those Android 9 Pie handsets, like those in the Pixel family and based on Android One, that use the stock Google launcher. (Some Android handset makers, like OnePlus, create their own unique gesture navigation systems, adding to the confusion.)
If you do have a compatible device, you enable the new navigation model by navigating to Settings > System > Gestures. Then, enable the option “Swipe up on the Home button.” Voila, the three on-screen navigation buttons disappear, and they are replaced with the new two-button system.
Aside from the removal of the third (Overview) button, there is another obvious visual change: Both of the remaining buttons are smaller and more subtle. The Home button, in particular, is quite different, and more of a pill shape than a circle.
Navigate around your handset a bit and you’ll notice another change: The Back button disappears when it’s not needed anymore. For example, if you press the Home button to return to the Launcher, the Back button is gone. The result is a more refined, cleaner look.
“The design recognizes the trend towards smaller swing bezels and places an emphasis on gestures over multiple buttons on the edge of the screen,” Mr. Burke said at I/O.
As for the navigation gestures, they are, if not obvious, easily discovered.
First, Home and Back work as they did before: You press Home to return to the first Home screen. You press Back to go back. And, as before, Back changes to a “Down” button when you’re using the keyboard. (Again, Back only appears when it makes sense for it to appear.)
To access the new Overview screen—which includes thumbnails of your most recently-used apps, a Google Search bar, and icons for your five most-frequently-used apps—simply swipe up from the bottom of the display.
(As before, you can manually close an app in Overview by swiping it off the screen, in this case to the top.)
To access All Apps, continue swiping up: Overview will transition to the new version of this interface, which includes the same five most-frequently-used apps and two App Actions tiles above the list of installed apps.
That overloaded gesture works from anywhere, so you can access Overview and All Apps from the Home screen or while using any app.
Android 9 Pie also supports a new quick scrub feature that lets you access, in turn, each of your most recently-used apps without having to first manually open Overview. To access the previous app from any display, perform a quick swipe to the right on the Home button. (You can repeat this to toggle between the two most recent apps, which works really well.)
You can also move through the app Back stack by continuing to swipe right on the Home button. This can be done by long-holding or by using quick gestures to move app-by-app. (And if you overshoot an app in the list of thumbnails, you can swipe in the opposite direction, of course.)
I’ve been using the gesture-based system navigation functionality in Android 9 Pie since it was first introduced in the beta, and I will never go back to the old way. I do wish that Google would add a way to optionally hide the on-screen navigation button, as Samsung, OnePlus, and other Android handset makers do. But then maybe that’s part of the progression, and something we’ll see in Android Q next year.