What’s New in Android O

Google unveiled a preview of the latest version of Android. Codenamed O, the next iteration of Google’s mobile operating system is coming this summer, but you can get your hands on the beta right now.

Just like with Android N, Google is offering a formal beta program for Android O. Device support for this build is much smaller than it was for the N preview, however, with only a handful of units being eligible:
  • Nexus 6P
  • Nexus 5X
  • Google Pixel
  • Google Pixel XL
  • Nexus Player
  • Pixel C
If you have any of those devices, you can jump in on the beta here. A word of caution, however: I do not recommend using this if it’s your only phone. This is very much a beta and not meant for daily use.

Here are the best features you’ll see when it arrives.

Fluid Experiences

Google is bringing a new set of features to Android O that it calls “Fluid Experiences”. It includes Picture in Picture, Notification Dots, Autofill, and Smart Text Selection. Here’s a brief look at each one.

Picture in Picture Puts One App Above Another

In Android Nougat (7.x), we got the ability to run two apps on the screen at once with Multi-window. While a super useful feature in its own right, it’s not always best solution. So with O, Google is bringing Picture in Picture mode to the small screen. This will let users open an app in the foreground, while keeping something like a YouTube video running in a smaller window on top. The early implementation looks really solid so far.

Notification Dots Let You Know What Apps Have Notifications

If you’ve ever used something like Nova Launcher that has built-in notification “badges,” then you already know what Notification Dots are all about. Basically, this a quick way to see pending notifications (aside from using the notification bar, of course) on home screen icons. Unfortunately, they are exactly what the name suggests: dots. Not numbers or anything of the sort. It’s also unclear if these will work in the app drawer as well.

One cool thing about Notification Dots is the long-press action. With the long-press features introduced with Pixel Launcher, you are able to do more with home screen icons, and Notification Dots takes this a step further by allowing you to actually see the notification by long-pressing the icon. It’s rad.

Autofill Passwords in Apps

Chrome has had autofill features for a long time—be it passwords or form data. Now that feature is coming to Android apps as well. For example, if Chrome has your Twitter or Facebook login credentials saved, the app will autofill and login on your Android phone. This is a feature that’s way overdue, and I’m so glad to see it coming front and center in Android O.

Smart Text Selection Gives You Context-Aware Shortcuts

How many times has someone sent you a text with certain information—like an address, for example—and you had to copy and paste it into Google Maps? I’d like to think that happens to most people pretty regularly (or at least some form of the copy/paste/search analogy). Smart Text Selection is a new feature that will streamline that process by automatically selecting relevant text.

For example, if someone sends you an address, you can double tap the street name and it will automatically select the entire address. Or if it’s a business name, it will highlight the entire thing if you just select one word. It looks pretty brilliant.

To make this feature even more useful, Smart Text Selection will also offer quick actions in the suggests bar, so if you select a phone number, it will offer the dialer. An address will suggest maps. And so on.

Vitals: Speed, Security, and Battery Life

With each major release over the last two or so years, Google has put a lot of focus on Android optimization overall. Making the OS more efficient in both terms of performance and battery life has been a front-and-center effort, and Android O is no different.

With this release, Google is bringing a new set of optimizations it collectively refers to as “Vitals.” While slightly ambiguous at the keynote itself, we know that this will maximize security with Google Play Protect, optimize boot times and app performance, and intelligently limit background activity for apps to save battery life.

At this point, there isn’t a whole lot to say about the speed and battery life, but Google released some more info about Google Play Protect, their new security initiative in the Google Play store.

Google Play Protect

Part of the “Vitals” program mentioned earlier, Google Play Protect is Google’s newest initiative to ensure all apps found in the Play Store are safe, secure, and compliant with the company’s guidelines.

When an app enters Google Play in the first place, it has to undergo a security screening to make sure it’s in compliance with security standards. The thing is, once an app is in the Play Store, it doesn’t have to undergo this security screening again—if an app is updated it can easily slip something under the hood that may be a questionable integrity.

In order to combat this, Google is implementing Play Protect, which uses machine learning to scan billions of apps daily to make sure best security practices are in place. In other words, this will cut back on Android “malware” and other questionable applications that may squeak their way into the Play Store.
Android Device Manager, which has now been renamed to “Find My Device” is also part of Play Protect.

You can use this service to secure and locate your lost or stolen Android device.

Visual Positioning Service: Augmented Reality That’s Useful

Google has been pushing VR (Virtual Reality) and AR (Augmented Reality) fairly heavily over the past couple of years, and its newly announced Visual Positioning Service is using AR to help you find your way around indoors—like GPS for the inside of places. It’s awesome.

In the demo Google provided during the I/O keynote, they used Lowe’s as an example—these stores are rather big, so finding one particular item can be a huge pain. VPS used the phone’s camera to pinpoint exact items and compare them with a database of Lowe’s store layouts to provide exact directions to the item they were looking for. It was kind of surreal.

At the time, however, this feature will only work on Tango-enabled phones—of which there are only two at the moment. There is a third hitting the scene later this year in the ASUS ZenFone AR, but hopefully we’ll start to see more Tango-equipped handsets hitting the scene so this killer technology can actually get used by more than a handful of people.

Android Go: Optimized for Low-Cost Phones

A couple of years ago, Google announced project called Android One to bring low-cost smartphones to impoverished countries across the globe. Today, it announced Android Go, which at first blush appears to basically be a US version of the program.

Android Go’s purpose is to optimize all version of the operating system for low-cost hardware, starting with Android O. Essentially, from this point forward, every version of Android will have a “Go” edition that is optimized to work on anywhere from 512MB to 1GB of RAM, as well as lower-end processors and limited storage situations.

The company is also releasing lite versions of the entire Google suite for Go devices, and it will specifically curate the Play Store on these devices to highlight apps that are optimized for use on low-power phones. It will also bring data usage front and center, since many low-income users are on pay-as-you-go data plans. Data Saver in Chrome will be enabled by default, the Data Usage section of Settings will be accessible directly from the Quick Settings panel. Users will even be able to “top up” their data directly from this screen on compatible carriers. That’s neat.

In other words: Go is an initiative to make low-end Android devices perform much, much better than they currently do so low-income families can still have access to the technology they deserve. It warms my heart to see companies like Google making a push to better the lives of the little guys.

Google Lens: Like Google Goggles, But for the Future

This is honestly one of the coolest things Google announced at I/O, and while not technically part of Android O, it’s definitely worth talking about here. Basically, Lens is a new smart feature that uses your phone’s camera to understand what you’re looking at.

It can do things like read signs in other languages and provide translations, identify plants and flowers, read Wi-Fi names and passwords off of routers and automatically connect, or even add calendar events by snapping a picture of an event billboard. And that’s just the stuff Google showed it doing on the I/O main stage—I’m absolutely certain that is a feature that will do so much more once it gets into users’ hands.

Once it start to roll out, Lens will be available in both Assistant and Photos, but we could possibly see it start to integrate into other apps as well. At this time, Google made no indication that Lens would be available as a standalone app. There was a lot of information to come out of Google I/O’s keynote today, covering everything from Android to Google Assistant, Photos, and a lot more.

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