Android P public beta first-look review


INTRODUCTION

Just in case you missed it, Google held its annual developer's conference earlier this week. It was jam-packed with interesting announcements, most-notably, the announcement of the first public beta of Android P. 


Android P represents a significant leap forward for more than a few reasons, not the leas of which an interesting development, made possible by Project Treble - immediate AOSP beta availability for some third party devices.
Currently, besides Google's own Pixel phones, you can also try Android P on a Sony Xperia XZ2, Xiaomi Mi Mix 2S, Nokia 7 plus, Oppo R15 Pro, Vivo X21, or Essential Phone.
We wanted to take a quick look what Android P feels like so we went ahead and registered a couple of devices for beta access. We enrolled a Pixel 2 XL in the beta (the update arrived OTA), and we downloaded the needed ROM to flash it to the Oppo R15 Pro. In both cases, the process was straightforward enough with the only side note that on the Oppo R15 Pro the Color OS got replaced by the stock Android P.
We spent quite a bit of time playing around with the two phones looking for the new features that Google promised us.

On the following pages, you will find a comprehensive breakdown of some of the new features and changes we found, complete with some initial impressions. But don't miss Angie's video hands-on above too.

NEW FEATURES AND CHANGES ROLLING OUT TODAY

Some of the changes in the Android P public beta are definitely more subtle than others and many are hidden away out of sight or under the hood. We'll kick things off with some of the more obvious changes that users should expect and prepare for. Like, a brand new gesture-based navigation scheme, which is making a debut with Android P.
Gesture navigation
Without getting too much into the ongoing debate about the WebOS/iOS origins of the new way of navigating the UI, we will just say the similarities are clearly there and we'll leave it at that.
Also, we want to stress that the classic navigation style is still available as an option, both in AOSP, as well as for any third-party ROM and UI developers to use at will.

 Basically, what the new control scheme boils down to is a new central navigation oval control, in place of the home button. Tapping on it just does that - take you to the home screen. Long pressing it triggers the Google Assistant, so nothing new so far.
What's gone is the "menu button" or task switcher/recent apps button, as it has come to be known. To replace that you swipe up from the navigation area, or even slightly above it to bring up the revamped recent apps interface.
A second swipe up, or alternatively, one longer/wider swipe to begin with, takes you to the app drawer. While this is also a familiar gesture for current AOSP users, having two distinct actions mapped to the same gesture is where our first beef with Android P lies. Even though it's easy enough to get accustomed to, it's not really a good idea. An observation only furthered by the fact that the relative length/distance of the two swipes was different on the beta we installed on the Oppo R15 Pro, effectively throwing off our muscle memory. Even if that's a fluke, you still need to try out the new navigation for yourself and then make up your mind accordingly.
Another issue we have with Google's implementation is the back button. Yes, even though everything else seems to be done through gestures in the new mode, there is still a back button that pops up and stays on the left side of the navigation bar on every interface, besides the home screen. We understand that implementing a fluent side-swipe gesture, iOS-style, would be really hard with the current state and massive control variety within the Android app ecosystem. Still, it makes the whole gesture effort come off as kind of unfinished or rough around the edges.

Classic navigation - Android P hands-on review Navigation style selector - Android P hands-on review New gesture controls - Android P hands-on review New gesture controls - Android P hands-on review New gesture controls - Android P hands-on review 
Classic navigation • Navigation style selector • New gesture controls
As the very least, Google could have included a left swipe back gesture on the navigation bar itself. Especially since there is a right swipe gesture, which either scrolls through the recent apps, or, when done quickly, toggles between the last two active ones.
Restyled recent apps interface
The Recent app's interface has a slightly tweaked UI. It's nothing really major. The horizontal layout is practically the same. There is still no button to swipe away all apps. That has to be done one by one.
Near the bottom, a Predicted apps row tries to guess what your next task will be and arrange itself accordingly. Google claims that thanks to machine learning, the prediction has increased by 60% for this custom UI component, which premiered with Android Oreo and also has a dedicated space within the app drawer.
Improved text selection interface
One odd little feature in the Recent app's interface is the ability to select text within the app windows, without making them active. No other UI interaction can be done here, though.
Recent apps interface - Android P hands-on review Text selection - Android P hands-on review 
Recent apps interface • Text selection
Speaking of the text selection tool, it now houses more options be default and is no longer in all caps. Plus, Android P also brings about a better spot zoom effect, while selecting text.
Quick toggles and notification shade
The Vanilla Android quick toggles have gotten a new coat of paint as well. These are visually better defined now. Plus, some have subtle added functionality, like the Night light switch, that has a little text label, indicated when it is due to turn on.
Quick toggles - Android P hands-on review Notifications - Android P hands-on review Notifications - Android P hands-on review 
Quick toggles • Notifications
But, oddly enough, there are some missing features here as well, compared to previous AOSP Oreo builds. Most notably, the expandable small options menu, traditionally appended to certain toggles, like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth is gone. Hopefully, that's a quirk of the current beta build, since, with this arrangement, there is no way to quickly switch between Wi-Fi access points or Bluetooth devices from here. Thankfully, long pressing these toggles still takes you straight to the relevant settings menu.
On a more positive note, the Wi-Fi settings menu now has the option to mark an access point as a metered connection. Great for those cases when we're tethering to a device with a data cap.
There's another notable downgrade as well. Do not disturb mode is now a simple toggle. Gone are the old "Total silence," "Alarms only," and "Priority only" modes. We do appreciate Google's attempt to simplify things a bit, but that just seems like taking features away from the user.
New DND settings - Android P hands-on review New DND settings - Android P hands-on review 
New DND settings
Speaking of which, we find Google's decision to "simplify" the location mode settings equally, if not more troubling. The traditional "Battery saver" mode is gone in this public beta Android P build. You only have the equivalent of High accuracy, GPS-only, and Location off. The Battery-saving mode is gone.
New location settings - Android P hands-on review New location settings - Android P hands-on review 
New location settings
Battery saver was great. It was the only way to let your device and its app have some sense of location, based on network cells and Wi-Fi (actually pretty accurate in dense cities), all the while, keeping the battery-hungry GPS radio off. This move might have something to do with a set of newly-imposed restriction towards background apps in Android P, which we'll touch upon later. Regardless, we really hope that Battery Saver isn't gone for good or at least that the Location mode will serve as more of a hybrid mode and not have the GPS always on.
As far as changes to notifications go, there are a few. For one, everything seems to be a bit rounder now, if that makes any sense. It appears to be the new general direction Google is taking its signature Material design. It can be seen in other UI elements as well, like the search bar within the settings menu.
App notifications - Android P hands-on review App notifications - Android P hands-on review 
App notifications
Also, Google has made it easier to get rid of some persistent notifications, like the dreaded "App is running in background". The OS promises to be more in-tune with your preferences towards nagging interruptions in general. In Android, if you swipe away a particular notification type enough times, a helpful prompt will pop up, asking if you wish to mute the particular notification channel.
Starting with Android P, notification will be getting progressively more interactive as well. For instance, developers now have access to a new "MessagingStyle" notification option that lets IM apps include things like inline photos, stickers, and suggestions for smart replies, right in the notification.
And another thing, the Notifications menu in settings now has a "Recently sent" section. It gives you a list of the last few apps that sent out notifications, as well as a quick toggle to silence them, as per your taste.
More colourful settings menu with a few new options
Speaking of the settings menu, it has a dash of color added to it in Android P. The main page now was category icons in all colors of the rainbow, definitely making them easier to visually tell apart. It really reminds us of Samsung's TouchWiz UI or the Asus ZenUI, from back in the Holo design language days and we kind of like it. The change is only skin-deep, with all the inner menus still spelled out in black and grey.
Main settings page - Android P hands-on review 
Main settings page
As long as we are on the subject of settings, Google has finally included a separate vibration toggle for calls.
Vibration settings - Android P hands-on review Vibration settings - Android P hands-on review 
Vibration settings
And the USB mode selector is more powerful than ever, allowing you to independently choose which data transfer mode you want, if any and whether or not you would like to charge your battery.
New USB settings menu - Android P hands-on review 
New USB settings menu
Smart Adaptive brightness
Brightness controls are changed-up a bit in Android P as well. Visually, the slider follows the new Material design tweaks and is now rounded all around.
Brightness slider - Android P hands-on review Adaptive brightness - Android P hands-on review 
Brightness slider • Adaptive brightness
More importantly, however, the Adaptive brightness feature now comes with automatic level adjustment and tuning, based on environmental conditions (mostly light) and your current activities. It's a feature we've seen within the Android realm in the past and apparently one deemed handy enough to be adopted by AOSP. Neat!
New volume controls and audio switcher
Just like the brightness slider, the volume control has a fresh new look. Again, you probably guessed it - rounded corners on a white background. However, the changes extend way further than that. For one, instead of popping up near the top of the UI, horizontally, the slider now appears on the right-hand side, vertically.
It sits right next to the physical volume, making one-handed operation a lot easier. In fact, just trying the new layout made us realize how bad the traditional approach has always been. It's unclear whether the position of the widget will eventually stick to the volume rockers on other devices as well. It doesn't do so on the Oppo R15 Pro, we flashed at the office, nor are there any manual position adjustment options. However, that might change in future builds, especially ones tailored by manufacturers.
New volume controls - Android P hands-on review New volume controls - Android P hands-on review 
New volume controls - Android P hands-on review New volume controls - Android P hands-on review 
New volume controls
Another interesting addition is the Audio Switcher. Currently, the option seems to be kind of buggy, even requiring some tinkering in a hidden developer menu to enable, but we did manage to get it working long enough to see it in action. It is basically the audio mixer, as seen on a Windows PC, allowing you to independently adjust the volume of different devices. Also, the little arrows are used to select active output devices.
This could potentially work well with another hidden ability, we stumbled upon in the developer menus - a maximum simultaneous Bluetooth device connection cap. It goes all the way up to 5, whereas Oreo is only capable of maintaining two audio channels - one for media and one for calls. You can easily have simultaneous cast with Android P, although it's definitely going to depend on the capabilities of the device's Bluetooth radio.
New power menu
The power menu has the same vertical, rounded layout, like the volume slider. Plus, a new screenshot button at the bottom.
Power menu - Android P hands-on review 
Power menu
Adaptive Battery
An AI-infused battery manager is an interesting concept, for sure. To be precise, the actual magic happens thanks to advanced machine learning models, executed on the phone itself. The idea is simple enough - treat apps differently, based on the frequency of use and the likelihood of the user, triggering a certain feature. Then, allocate various resources, like CPU and memory accordingly.

It seems like a natural extension of the whole Predicted apps concept, Google has been tinkering with for some time now. As for actual benefits, more real-world testing is required. As a side note, the Battery Saver is more flexible than ever and can be set to trigger automatically from anywhere between 5% and 75% battery level.
Battery saver - Android P hands-on review Battery saver - Android P hands-on review Per-app battery usage - Android P hands-on review 
Battery saver • Battery saver • Per-app battery usage
Oddly enough, however, despite all these battery improvements, Android P seems to be missing the tried and true per-app battery usage breakdown, within the battery menu. You can still find the number within the app info interface.

ANDROID P IMPROVEMENTS UNDER THE HOOD

Naturally, many of the Android P improvements are working silently, hidden away behind the scenes. Developers have a lot to look forward to, in particular, with many new exciting native Android API's to leverage in their apps.

In no particular order, here are the most important baked-in developer changes we found in the beta ROM:

  • New API for display cut-out support, complete with simulations in developer options
  • A number of new APIs are added to the autofill framework, as well as some bugfixes. Specifically, there will be improvements to dataset filtering, input sanitization, and compatibility mode.
  • Expanding the 8.1 Oreo neural network API with a bunch of new tools ("Pad, BatchToSpaceND, SpaceToBatchND, Transpose, Strided Slice, Mean, Div, Sub, and Squeeze."). Pixel 2 devices will also have support for Qualcomm's Hexagon HVX driver for hardware ML acceleration.
  • HEIF and HDR VP9 Profile 2 native support, for both content playback and capture.
  • The native camera API can now access two or more stream simultaneously. There are also new parameters for speedier access to the camera stream, native display flash, and OIS implementations.
  • Background applications can no longer access the camera, microphone or device sensors. This might explain the absence of a Battery saver location mode since most apps should be restricted from over-using the GPS. The documentation is still a bit fuzzy on the restrictions.
  • Support for IEEE 802.11mc, which allows measuring the distance to Wi-FI access points and exact indoor navigation
  • General ART virtual machine improvements for faster app start-ups and less system memory usage (up-to-11% reduction on how often DEX files get rewritten across "popular apps")
  • Koplin apps also get a performance boost
  • The Developer options menu now has a hidden list of 'feature flags,' just like Google Chrome
  • Bug reports can be accessed in the files app
  • Apps built for Android 4.1 and lower may not work on Android P. More details should be shared soon.

Announced features, coming soon

Naturally, Google I/O 2018 also saw demos and showcases for many Android P features that are still not available in the early public beta ROM but are already on the roll-out map.
App Actions
Google has been pushing deep in-app data linking for quite some time now and constantly improving the API's in the process. If you're not familiar with the concept, it basically boils down to categorizing and properly describing some or all of your apps data, so that Android can access it on a system level and present it to the user in relevant searches and scenarios.
That's the most basic shape of deep linking. There is a lot more that can be achieved when apps are designed modularly, in a matter that exposes more and more of their inner functionality to the OS as well. App Actions builds upon the deep-linking concept and sprinkles in some machine learning prediction magic to bring-up contextually relevant suggestions.

One example is a row of predicted actions, that will sit below the Predicted Apps row in the app drawer. Once your phone learns your daily routine well enough, it should be able to populate it with relevant one-tap actions, like opening and reading a news briefing or weather forecast in the morning or checking the travel information and starting a navigation to your home at the end of the workday. Flight schedules and various calendar event could be naturally baked in there as well, coming from Google's own apps or third-party ones.
Slices
Slices is yet another evolution of the deep-linking model. It takes things to a whole new level, promising developers a way to implement segments of their app interfaces and activities so that Android OS can bring them up seamlessly when the need arises.

That potentially means that you won't even have to open your navigation app of choice when you use the Assistant to look up a point of interest. Instead, the assistant can seamlessly bring the interface up and layer it on top of its UI.
Android Wellness package, Dashboard, App Timer and Wind Down
Google devoted more than a fair bit of attention to the Android user at this year's I/O. The so called "Wellness" package aims to assist the user in a more personal way, providing some potentially useful usage statistics and helping to alleviate distractions and mitigate some adverse effects of smartphone usage. Unfortunately, as of writing this hands-on, none of these features are publicly available in the beta yet.
The Android Dashboard is a personal, centralized statistical hub. It reports back usage numbers, like minutes spent on apps, notification counts and even screen unlocks to the user. While this might sound like a frightening amount of telemetric data that internet giant plans on gathering up, if you go to myactivity.google.com, you might be surprised to find, most of it is already there already. Our data is at the core of Google's business, there is no way around this.

If you manage to make peace with that fact, the potential benefits of actually having all that neatly organized in a centralized location could have numerous potential uses. Google itself is implementing one with App Timer.
It is basically a self-imposed parental control, where you set time limitations on a per-app basis to limit distractions. Once your daily quota is up, Android will grey-out the app in question and nag you if you try to open it anyway.
Then there is Wind Down - a system that promises to help users end the day in a more relaxed manner. On the surface, it seems to automatically trigger Do Not Disturb mode and convert the interface to grayscale, it an effort to gently nudge you to go to sleep. There might be more to it as well, but we can't really know until Google makes it publicly available.

CLOUD SERVICE UPDATES, AVAILABLE TO MOST

Just for the sake of thoroughness, here are some new Google features that mostly live and operate in the cloud and are thus likely to see a quicker and more widespread release within the Android ecosystem. Regardless of Android P availability, that is.
Again, in no particular order:
The Google Assistant now has 6 new voices
These are based on advanced voice models, made possible thanks to Wavenet technology. Google is working hard on expanding its voice roster with more local variations and accents in the future with the ultimate goal of eventually reaching all languages and dialects. In the meantime, users can look forward to some famous celebrity sound vibes popping-up here and there on the Google Assistant.
Google Assistant voices - Android P hands-on review 
Google Assistant voices
A better, AI-assisted Google news stream
Google is working to make its news stream even more intuitive and relevant to you. This includes efforts to categorize various news sources and social media content, using natural language recognition and machine learning, into relevant news stream for a given topic.
Google Assistant news stream - Android P hands-on review Google Assistant news stream - Android P hands-on review Google Assistant news stream - Android P hands-on review Google Assistant news stream - Android P hands-on review 
Google Assistant news stream
A new Newscast format also made a debut on stage at the I/O event. It will be exclusively available on the Assistant and offer a rich-media preview of certain news articles and topics, including videos and animations in a thumbnail-like from, baked right into the news stream.
Better lens OCR and integration into assistant
The Google Lens platform is more accurate and quicker than ever in picking up objects and recognizing text. It is achieved through a combination of on-device machine learning models and cloud computing power. It now has a permanent home within the Google Assistant UI.
Google Lens - Android P hands-on review Google Lens - Android P hands-on review Google Lens - Android P hands-on review Google Lens - Android P hands-on review 
Google Lens
Google showcased some impressive OCR prowess on stage, including live test selections and instant relevant Google searches.
There is also an exciting new Style Match feature, that can help users find visually and stylistically similar items to an object, just by snapping its picture.
The end-goal is a fluent, real-time interface, where all the needed info is seamlessly fetched and overlaid on the live Google Lens camera viewfinder.
Suggested actions in Google Photos
Yet another machine learning feature, with ties to the while Predicted apps and actions concept. By analyzing your photo collection, Google will soon be able to bring up helpful suggestions, based on every photo. Some impressive examples were demoed on stage, including brightening dark photos, automatically punching out backgrounds, for a portrait effect and even colorizing snaps of old black and white stills.
Google Photos suggested actions - Android P hands-on review Google Photos suggested actions - Android P hands-on review Google Photos suggested actions - Android P hands-on review Google Photos suggested actions - Android P hands-on review 
Google Photos suggested actions
AR navigation in Google maps, a visual positioning system, Your Match Score
Big changes are brewing in Google Maps navigation too, including an AR mode, that can seamlessly overlay directions on top of the camera, including signs and info for points of interest. Positional accuracy could also see major improvements thanks to a new visual positioning system (VPS) that orients itself based on landmarks and distinct architectural features and infrastructural layout patterns. This could allow maps to better understand exactly which direction you are looking in and precisely what you are seeing.
Google Maps AR - Android P hands-on review Google Maps AR - Android P hands-on review 
Google Maps AR
That, in term, can be used for better navigation and better POI suggestions. Google is also rolling out something it calls "Your Match Score". It's an automatically generated rating for places of interest on the map, based on a combination of the user rating, reviews and all the data Google has on the cloud, cross-referenced with your won personal preferences.
Autocomplete in Gmail
Just like GBoard, Gmail will soon be able to intelligently suggest phrases, while you type your emails in the web client. That includes things like automatic address recognition and handling. Smart compose is rolling out to all Gmail users this month.
A new food pick-up and delivery experience is coming to the Assistant
An even more interactive way to deal with restaurants.

A simultaneous AOSP beta release across multiple non-Google devices is nothing short of a historical event. With project Treble picking up speed, we feel we could actually be on the cusp of an Android revolution. Quick access to Vanilla ROMs and consequent updates on different devices seems like an almost attainable dream now. Perhaps even a world where mixing and matching entire UI skins and feature sets could become reality.
What are your thoughts on Android P and the general direction Google is heading with its mobile OS? Are you excited about the future and what feature are you most eager to see on your next device?

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