I’ve been using Android 10 since its first beta release back in March. And while most focus on the new Dark theme, there’s more to it than that.
For starters, let’s discuss that name: Where previous Android versions arrived with silly, dessert-inspired names like Android 9 Pie and Android 8 Oreo, Android 10 is just Android 10. I’d like to believe that Google finally grew up a little bit, but that has nothing to do with it: Instead, the firm acknowledged that its naming scheme simply didn’t make sense in many languages. Whatever the reason, we are at least done with that silliness and the need to suffer through constant snack jokes in poorly written reviews.
Under the covers, Android 10 continues Google’s years-long efforts to further modularize the operating system, work that reminds me of what Microsoft did with Windows starting in the early 2000s. Regardless, the results are clear: Project Treble allowed Google to bypass blocks from hardware makers and wireless carriers and deliver more system-level updates and version upgrades to users. And new to Android 10, Project Mainline–now called Google Play System Updates—furthers this effort by creating a new APEX file format for system files (as opposed to most apps, which are delivered as APK files in the Play Store).
Android 10 also provides formal support for folding smartphones like the Galaxy Fold, optional “scoped storage” for apps, and a new kind of encryption for devices that are too slow to use Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) effectively. More noticeably, Android 10 introduces an obvious, and iOS-like, feature by which you can now configure apps to only access your location information while you’re using the app. The Privacy settings area has been nicely updated as well.
But it is, of course, the user experience changes that most people are interested in. And in using and researching Android 10 for the past few months, a few of these changes really do stand out.
The first, of course, is the new Dark theme, which many misname as Dark Mode. It works in tandem with other display features like Night Light and adaptive brightness to tone down the overly-bright light that your smartphone emits and can supposedly even help with battery life. Sure, some apps offer a Light/Dark theme toggle of their own. But with this formal support in the OS, compatible apps can now switch themes automatically with the system. It’s a big deal (as it is in Windows 10 and, soon, in iOS 13 too.)
But there is a temporary downside to the Dark theme, too: For this system to truly work, all the apps you use need to support it too. And right now, most of Google’s own apps—Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Play Music, you name it—don’t even support Dark theme yet. I assume this will happen quickly.
The next big user experience change is Android 10’s new approach to gesture navigation. This is Google’s second try at it, and this time around they’ve pretty much just copied what Apple is doing with newer iPhones. Which is fine.
Honestly, I was OK with Android 9’s gesture-based navigation, but the criticism that it didn’t save on-screen real estate was fair: Instead of three virtual buttons on the bottom of the screen, Android 9’s gesture navigation provided two, a Back arrow and a “pill” Home button. But in Android 10, the system is now “fully” gestural. Meaning that it doesn’t basically display any UI at all and thus doesn’t take up any on-screen real estate.
The new Gesture navigation scheme provides three basic gestures: Swipe up from the bottom of the screen to go to Home, swipe from either side of the screen to go Back, and swipe up from the bottom of the screen and then hold to display the Recents screen. Additionally, you can swipe horizontally on the very bottom of the screen to quickly switch between apps; as with iOS, you’ll see a thin horizontal line there indicating where you can swipe. And you can swipe in from a screen corner to display Google Assistant.
I find this all to be very intuitive and easy to use. Thanks, Apple!
Google has also updated the Share pane in Android 10, with the goal of making it much faster. As anyone who uses this interface can tell you, Share was curiously slow in previous Android versions. And now it’s … well, it’s less slow. I wouldn’t describe this issue as completely fixed. But it is faster.
How much faster is hard to describe, in part because I don’t have otherwise identical handsets side-by-side running Android 9 and 10. But on the Google Pixel 3a XL, choosing Share causes the screen to go gray, followed by the slow-enough-to-watch-it-draw appearance of the actual Share pane, followed by the equally slow appearance of icons representing the people and apps with which you might want to share. The pane itself is smaller than before, which probably helps the performance since there’s less to draw. And there’s a nice, prominent “Copy” button so you can copy the shareable item to the clipboard more easily (previously, it was in the grid of icons).
Long story short, it’s an improvement. But more work needs to be done here: It’s like the Xbox One Dashboard, in that it’s not clear why the damn thing is still so slow. Here’s an obvious idea, Google: Let users configure the Share pane so that they can remove those apps/icons they never use. Surely, that would make it work faster.
Google also made minor changes to the notification shade that appears when you drag down from the top of the screen. As you may recall, the firm made major changes to this interface a few versions back. And it’s been iterating ever since. For Android 10, we get just small tweaks: There’s a new Silent notifications section that’s separate from Priority notifications, a battery life estimate (“1 day, 4 hr” mine says as I write this), and a scrubber control on media notifications so that you can swipe to move forward or back in the currently-playing content.
That’s all the important stuff. The Android 10 website lists a few features I’d not noticed, like Live Captioning, Sound Amplifier, and Family Link, plus a few others, like Focus mode, that are pretty basic and obvious. But the big bucket improvements are Dark theme and gesture navigation. And of the two, only Dark theme is truly transformational.
Overall, Android 10 is a very typical Android upgrade in that there are a few major new features and numerous smaller changes throughout the system. Whether this qualifies as a major release or not is up to debate, but I will argue here that the Dark theme alone makes Android 10 both desirable and a major milestone. And that will be even truer when all of the apps I use are upgraded to support it.