review

Android Pie Review: The First AI Slice

The phone industry has come a long way in just the past year. Screens have gotten taller, bezels are being molded into notches, companies have begun bundling ways in their services to allow users to be more conscious of how much they stare at a screen, smarter features powered by machine learning are becoming more mainstream, and more.

So how is the leading mobile operating system adapting to this flurry of changes?

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The answer to that lies in Google’s latest Android Pie update which, in addition to ditching the .0 (8.0 vs. 9), brings a legion of features offering a glimpse of its parent’s vision and where the decade-old OS is headed to.

Android Puts on its Thinking Cap

A major part of that overhaul includes figuring out what you want and when you want it. Google has revamped several essential Android features with a dash of machine learning and introduced newer ones to reduce the number of times you swipe and tap every day. The Android Pie is, what we would consider the most prime representation of what Google does best so far — software.

It starts with two of Android Pie’s biggest highlights, Action, and Slices.

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Actions, to put it simply, are actions to a specific app installed on your phone. It can be a playlist on Google Play Music or a WhatsApp chat. For now, two appear at the top of the default launcher’s app drawer based on which ones you use the most. You can tap them to jump into the activity quickly.

Slices, on the other hand, are a bit more powerful because of which probably they’re still not available and will arrive sometime later. They’re essentially dynamic widgets from an app displaying real-time information. Instead of the app drawer, Slices will be surfaced when you search for a function from the Google search bar. Say if you look up Lyft and have logged in the app, you will be able to preview what’s the fare and how long will it take you to reach your favorite locations.

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Slices and Actions also show how vastly polarizing Google and Apple’s approaches are. While the latter offers the ability for you to configure such shortcuts, the former wants to make the decisions for you. Of course, that’s mainly because of the fact that Google is, first and foremost, a software company and has harvested enough data to predict those suggestions accurately.

This proclivity can be found in other sections of Android now too. The Pixel Launcher’s app drawer displays a row of frequently used apps you will probably need at a specific time on the top of the drawer. If there’s a notification you’re dismissing far too often, it will ask whether you’d like to mute that channel forever.

Moreover, alerts from compatible apps like Android Messages will have smart replies eliminating the need for you to type in some obvious occasions manually. A button will pop up on the navigation bar whenever the auto-rotation is locked, and you turn your phone in the landscape position. So, for instance, if you’ve disabled auto-rotation and you try to watch a video, you can simply tap the new button instead of enabling pulling down the notification shade and turning on auto-rotation.

There are two other critical features Google has redesigned to adapt to you. Battery and Brightness.

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Adaptive battery ensures the apps, which you don’t launch often, are not siphoning up your phone’s resources by being active in the background. Adaptive Brightness learns your habits and how do you manually tweak the brightness throughout the day.

As you would expect from Google, the majority of these features are wise enough and prove useful in real life. The battery on my first-generation Google Pixel has not deteriorated since I updated which essentially means that Adaptive Battery is doing its job well. Usually, over time, batteries tend to wear out significantly, and you end up with just a couple of hours of juice on a single charge after a year or two. That has yet to happen with two-year-old Google Pixel.

Other features like Actions, suggested apps too are generally quite spot on. The only aspect which didn’t turn out as Google claimed was Adaptive Brightness. It’s been two weeks, and I’m still adjusting the brightness manually a lot.

Welcome, Screens with Weird Aspect Ratios

With Android Pie, Google is also paving the path for tall screens. To accommodate those, the company is doing away with what has lived on Android for ages — the three iconic navigation buttons. Instead, Google is replacing them with a new gesture-based system. However, unlike Apple which has entirely killed the home button, Google is starting slow.

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The first thing you will notice with the new navigation bar is that there’s no overview button. To view the recent apps, you will have to swipe on the home key, swiping again will pull up the app drawer, and tapping it once will take you to the home screen like before. The back button is not always visible either. But it’s still there and pops up whenever there’s a need for it like inside apps. But my favorite bit of the new system is that you can slide your finger across on the home button to quickly switch between apps. It is extremely handy and something every other phone maker should adopt.

While the addition of gestures is certainly in the right direction, Google still has a lot of work to do here. For starters, Android still has a persistent black bar at the bottom rendering half of the point of switching to gestures pointless. On top of that, they’re not that well executed. There’s a steep learning curve, and everything just doesn’t feel as fluid as it should be. It’s definitely better than the first build, but there’s room for improvement here.

The other gripe I have with the new navigation method is that it’s deeply integrated with the default launcher. Therefore, on third-party launchers, the transition feels even jankier. Plus, the row of your most used apps is not available in the multitasking view. But there is a fix coming. Google is expected to soon introduce a way for developers to make the experience similar to the Pixel Launcher on their apps.

Android Pie also offers native support for those tiny pieces of bezels found on nearly every new phone these days. That means two things — you won’t be able to view more than four notification icons on the status bar and phone makers will now have an easier time adjusting their own skins. That is, of course, if they decide to bundle Android Pie in the first place which probably won’t happen for months.

Decluttering the Old Android

The multitasking view itself is one of the biggest user-facing changes with Android Pie. Instead of stacking applications vertically, it now has a horizontally laid out view of your recent apps. Moreover, these views are interactive which allows you to select text from them right from the recents menu which is perhaps one of the handiest little additions to Android Pie.

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The rest of the frontend updates are largely minor. Continuing its tradition, Google has redesigned the settings page again with new colorful icons, the quick settings panel too has sustained a bunch of tweaks, a dark theme (sort of) has been added, and more.

Another goal Google seems to have set with Android Pie is to just get rid off the clutter and make it essentially easier for new users (especially those coming from iOS) to switch. For instance, you can no longer expand the quick settings, the default volume setting is set to media, the Do Not Disturb mode isn’t a personalization galore, and more. It actually began with Android Oreo when Google ushered a new white aesthetic into several core elements. It’s just friendlier and practical for everyone, not just for people who already familiar with Android’s nooks and crannies.

Control for Those who Lack Self-Control

Another theme which has remained common in the past year is awareness towards one’s digital wellbeing. And Android 9 is no different.

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The update brings a set of new tools through which you can monitor your smartphone use and take actions accordingly. Android now allows you to set time limits on apps and define a period called “Wind Down” during which you won’t receive any notifications, and the screen will go monochrome. While Apple has brought similar features with iOS 12, the good thing about Google’s implementation is that it’s not easy to avoid or temporarily disable these restrictions.

That might not sound like a positive user experience but trust me, in this case, it is. For example, say you’ve set a limit of fifteen minutes for Instagram, and it expires while you’re scrolling. On iOS, you can simply press a button available on the warning and postpone it. On the contrary, Android has no such button. Instead, if you want to put these on hold, you will have to go inside the settings and expand the time period. There’s no way to postpone or temporarily disable them.

For a person like me who finds it difficult to stare away from his phone, Digital Wellbeing features on Android Pie have been excellent. I’m using my phone nearly an hour less by imposing strict restrictions and by having a clear insight into my habits, it’s way easier now to realize how worse the situation is. Moreover, since Android Pie is optimized for notches, you can only have four notification icons in the status bar and not a gazillion pressing down on your anxiety.

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Apart from these hefty additions, Android Pie is loaded with other minor features you’ll find helpful every day. These include custom volume settings for individual Bluetooth headsets, a new hardware shortcut for enabling vibrate mode, a text magnifier tool, and more. There’s also a new security feature which prevents third-party applications from accessing your phone’s mic, camera, and other sensors in the background.

You must be wondering how I got this far without even mentioning app crashes or bugs. That’s because there aren’t any. In my time with Android Pie, I didn’t face any issues or slowdowns on my Google Pixel. Even when I was on early developer builds, performance was never a problem.

The more important aspect of Android Pie, however, is that it’s not available just for Google’s own phones on launch. Thanks to the company’s Treble project, a handful of other manufacturers like Essential, OnePlus, HMD Global, Vivo were able to release Android Pie betas way before they would normally do. While only one of these has publicly rolled it out, it’s nice to see Android finally making progress towards curbing its fragmentation ecosystem. Although it’s worrying that the most popular Android phone makers, Samsung and Huawei are not part of this.

A Promising First Slice of AI

Android Pie sets the benchmark for the next generation of predictive operating systems which will adapt to the user and foresee actions. However, this is merely the beginning. Android 9 hardly scratches the surface with its set of new changes. By offering just a couple of minor suggestions throughout the OS, it’s clear Google isn’t ready to go all in yet. Over the next years, we’ll have even more artificially intelligent features powering Android.

While doing that, Google is now also highly aware of how approachable Android is since the company has its own line of phones and wants to ensure migrating users don’t get overwhelmed. In addition, Android Pie is the first update to be running on phones from other manufacturers as well. The update essentially represents a new chapter for the operating system. It’s smarter, cleaner, a bit less fragmented, and more thoughtfully designed. All that’s missing is a proper Easter egg, right?