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Google Android 9 Pie: The 5 Best New Features

Google has just released the final version of its Android P software, which was first previewed at the company’s annual developer conference back in May. This also means that we’re finally learning what P stands for, after months of online debate. Popsicle? Pudding? Pumpkin pie? In keeping with Google‘s dessert-themed naming convention for its mobile OS, the new software is simply named Pie—although, as many will be quick to point out, not all pies are dessert pies.

Android Pie rolls out today to Google’s own Pixel phones. As for when the update will hit other Android phones, that’s a giant question mark as always.

Hold the half-baked jokes, because all in all, Android 9 Pie (its full name) appears to be pretty … sweet. It’s a significant update from the previous OS, Android Oreo. In many ways, the rollout of Android Pie is just a formality; the most recent beta release, Android P Beta 4, was really close to the final build. But if you haven’t been using the beta software (which you likely have not, as it’s intended for developers) and this is your first run-in with Android P-is-for-Pie, then you’re going to welcome the OS’s new navigation system, screen-time controls, battery optimization, and privacy tweaks.

Android Pie rolls out today to Google’s own Pixel phones. As for when the update will hit other Android phones, that’s a giant question mark as always. Google says devices that were a part of the developer preview program—those from Sony, Xiaomi, Oppo, OnePlus, Essential, and more—along with some Android One phones, will get the new software in the fall. Others will get the new OS sometime “this year.” Whenever Android Pie shows up on your phone, here are five new things to look for.

What a Lovely Gesture

In the new Android Pie, the familiar lineup of three navigation icons at the bottom of the phone has been replaced by a single pill-shaped icon in the bottom center of the screen. Long-press this digital button and Google Assistant pops up. Swipe up from it and it will bring you to the latest app you were using. From here you can scroll horizontally through all of your open apps. You can also swipe horizontally on the new icon itself to swipe through open apps. Swipe up from the icon again and it will bring you to your app drawer. Tap on it and it will bring you home.

One element of this users might find jarring: The permanent back button is gone, although it appears to the left of the pill-shaped icon once you jump into apps.

It’s all very reminiscent of the gesture-based navigation on the iPhone X, which doesn’t have a home button and forced Apple—and its users—to rethink phone navigation. While it takes some getting used to, this new feature-based navigation system does make the Android interface feel more fluid. If you hate it, though, you’re not stuck with it: You can go into settings and revert to the old button layout.

AI, But for Battery Life

Battery life optimization has been a big focus of Google’s past few OS updates, starting with Android 6.0 Marshmallow (with the introduction of Doze) all the way up to Android 8.0 Oreo (“Wise Limits”). Unfortunately, there were a fair number of complaints about severe battery drain with Oreo, particularly with Samsung phones. But Google has made continual improvements, and Android Pie has a new feature called “Adaptive Battery.” It applies machine learning to the problem of our ever-draining power cells.

Google says it collaborated with Alphabet’s DeepMind team in London to build this feature. It’s supposed to prioritize your favorite apps and put more limitations on the phone’s resources for the apps you use less frequently. Eventually, the tech is supposed to predict the apps you’re going to use over the next few hours, as well as the ones you’re not going to use, and then limit the battery for those unlikely-to-be-used apps. As with anything AI-related, results sometimes won’t show until the system has had the chance to “learn” your habits; since I’ve only been using the final version of Android 9 Pie for a couple of days, I don’t think I’ve experienced the benefits of this yet. But it’s something to keep an eye on.

If you’re concerned about privacy, and the idea of DeepMind having access to your smartphone activity creeps you out just a little bit, Google says that all of the machine learning is happening on the device itself and not in the cloud. Notably, it’s the first DeepMind technology to be applied on-device, and not in the cloud. (Similarly, Google’s tiny facial-recognition camera, Clips, uses on-device AI.)

I’ll Have a Small Slice

Usually when you search for an app on Android, the app icon itself comes up, as well as any other relevant results on the device or on the web. With Android Pie, Google is going to show you information that’s embedded within apps, offering you interactive app functionality from directly within search results. At a high level, Google says, it’s the company’s new approach to “remote content.”

One oft-used example is how photos show up in system searches. If you use your phone to search for a destination, like “Hawaii,” you won’t just get results for Hawaii’s time zone or Hawaii-bound flights. You will also see results from Google Photos from your Hawaiian vacation. It’s also good for navigation shortcuts; if you search for “data,” you’ll get all the web results you’d expect for “data,” but you’ll also have quick access to the mobile data tab within your phone’s settings. Google is fond of using Lyft as an example: Search results for “Lyft” will include estimates for times and fares for rides to work and home. This is similar in some ways to Siri Shortcuts on iOS, but instead of assigning a custom phrase to an app action, it’s just searching for that app and having the potential action pop up.

On Background

The idea that Facebook could be listening to our conversations through smartphone microphones is one of the most persistent, and still unproven, conspiracy theories on the web. Android Pie will make that theory even more dubious. The software update “restricts access to mic, camera, and all SensorManager sensors from apps that are idle,” the company said around the time that the new OS was first announced. This means that once the app switches to “background” status—you’re no longer using it—that app will lose access to your phone’s mic, and if an app tries to access your camera, an error message is generated. Given how invasive app permissions can feel, this is a welcome update.

Android Pie includes other new privacy features. Google has created a separate permissions category, called Call_Log, that requires developers to ask explicit permission to access users’ call logs, rather than lumping it all into a single “Phone” permissions group. And devs also now have to ask for permission before running a Wi-Fi scan (which allows an app to gather your location data). Android Pie also blocks HTTP connections by default and requests that apps use HTTPS connections instead. This is consistent with the recent switch to HTTPS made by Chrome on the desktop.

Give Me a Break

New tools are coming to Android to help you curb your phone use—or at least get a clearer picture of it.

Google

Google’s new “digital well-being” software is the only part of the Android Pie OS that will still be in beta for a while longer. This latest software release includes a sign-up flow where people can now enroll in the well-being beta, but again, these features will officially launch in the fall. Also: It will only work on Pixel phones to start.

So what’s digital well-being? If you missed the announcement on this back at I/O, it’s Google’s initiative around limiting the amount of time you spend mindlessly scrolling on your phone. It may seem counterintuitive for a company that makes a smartphone operating system (and smartphone hardware) to encourage people to put their handsets down, but it’s all part of a larger (yet unproven) trend; Apple and Facebook have also launched efforts that mirror some of the tenets of the Time Well Spent movement.

On Android Pie, this means you can go into settings and see a dashboard that tells you how much time you’ve been on your phone today, and what apps and services are the biggest time-suckers. You’ll know how many times you’ve unlocked your phone each day and how many notifications you’ve received. (For example, as of Sunday afternoon I had only unlocked my tester Pixel 2 XL phone 12 times, which I was feeling … oddly proud of?) You can set timers on apps and establish parameters for when you’d like the phone to switch to a gray-scale screen, or drop into Do Not Disturb mode.


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