Google kicked off its annual Google I/O conference on Tuesday with its usual keynote, and with that came reveals, updates and release plans for many of Google’s biggest software and hardware products. This included new features for Google Search, Google Photos and Google Maps But without question, the star of this year’s show was Android 12, which received its biggest visual redesign since the company introduced its Material Design UI in 2014.
Google usually unveils the newest version of Android at I/O every year, but it has been overshadowed by its other services, such as Google Assistant, in recent times. But that’s not the case in 2021. With the Android 12 update, Google is not only looking to make the OS that powers many of the best smartphones more functional, but also more attractive (and fun) to look at.
Everything new about the Android 12 update is built around a new design initiative from Google called Material You. Building on the Material Design UX concepts that Google laid out seven years ago, Material You isn’t a radical shift philosophically. Rather, Material You feels like it’s delivering on many of the loftiest promises that were floated when Material Design was first revealed.
This means that Android 12 is promising a more fluid experience, not only in how reliable the OS is on a technical level, but also in how you interact with it. There are bigger buttons, sliders and touch points. Thanks to an injection of color and unconventional shapes, the OS is all-around brighter, livelier and more expressive than ever before. And with the use of animations throughout the OS that react to your swipes and taps, Google wants to add that extra layer of polish to everything so that Android really feels more natural and intuitive to use.
While there are a countless number of features that will make their way into Android 12 and onto your Android smartphone, there are four exciting improvements that are worth focusing on the most.
Android 12 Won’t Be So Aggressively Minimal
You might notice that in every screenshot and video of Android 12 you see, there’s color injected everywhere. For nearly a decade, mobile software has been governed by a severe implementation of minimalism as designers worked to establish best practices for digital UI and UX. And while icons, buttons and chat bubbles might have bright colors, the rest of the OS is often dominated by white, black and every shade in between.
Those of us old enough to remember having to use Windows Mobile understand that this trend was a good thing on aggregate, but the side effect of pushing towards electronic zen is that it left our digital interfaces — websites, apps and menus — all looking and feeling kind of the same. It’s not unfair to say that designers got a little overzealous.
With Material You, Google hopes to not only give app designers and developers more tools to make their Android-based products more expressive, but also include things in Android 12 itself that can automatically tailor itself to you and your content.
The most obvious of these new features will be the fact that Android 12 can analyze the wallpaper or background image you’re using on your device, and generate a custom color scheme that it can implement across the entire OS. This means that your lock screen, notification screen, settings menus (and any app that wants to design around this algorithm) will feature colors unique to you. But if you aren’t impressed with all of Android’s design choices, you can always adjust and tweak the color scheme to your liking.
Furthermore, Android 12 will allow for the use of unconventional shapes in the UI, providing an immediate dose of playfulness into its look. This means that instead of a white screen full of boxes, circles, and thin straight lines, the shape of your user avatar on a profile page might take the form of an amoeba, or the scrubber bar on your media player could be a squiggle.
But that’s not to say that the Android 12 update is a maximal mess. While things like buttons and sliders are taking up more of the screen than ever before, the design of this OS is still orderly and easy to comprehend. The only difference is that it feels stylish in a way that has been lacking up til now.
Big Phones Will Be Easier to Use One-Handed
Despite the fact that smaller phones like the iPhone Mini 12 are more ideal when it comes to ergonomics, it has become clear that everyone loves their six- and seven-inch phones and they’re not going anywhere. In response to this, Google has tweaked the navigation experience of Android 12 to be better suited for one-handed use on a large screen.
The biggest issue with using a big phone with one hand is that it’s tough to reach the top of the screen with your thumb. So in Android 12, Google moved the search bar back down to the bottom of the screen (where it had been in previous iterations of Android).
Furthermore, more of the interactive elements in menus are now focused towards the bottom of the screen so that they can be easily reached without having to awkwardly contort your thumb. You’ll see this highlighted most prominently in the notifications menu, which not only cascades towards the bottom on the screen in layers, but is full of big buttons that are easy to tap.
While this seems minor, it should represent a huge quality of life improvement that will make not just big phones, but all touchscreen devices more enjoyable to use.
Big Updates to User Privacy
Privacy and protection of user data has been a huge concern in recent years, and with good reason. Along with the myriad hacks, glitches and data breaches that have exposed sensitive personal information, things can go very wrong even when users are consenting to their data being collected. This has led to things like Facebook’s election manipulation disaster in 2016.
At the same time, many of the most powerful features powering Google’s apps and services are powered by machine learning and AI, which in turn needs your personal data in order to learn the most optimal way to function.
And with the introduction of Android 12, Google is finally implementing some fundamental measures, in the form of Android Private Compute Core that should hopefully ensure your private data stays private. What APCC does is create a space where Android’s AI algorithms can collect and process things such as usage statistics and voice recordings without letting any other app or service gain access to it.
And while this might not assuage all your fears that your phone is a glorified surveillance device, it should mean that fewer eyes are peeking in your digital windows.
But beyond APCC, Android 12 is not only creating settings menus that make it easier to manage and control the amount of digital privacy you have, but it’s also making it easier to access those settings throughout the OS while providing more noticeable indicators when your camera or mic is collecting data.
While none of us should ever use our smartphones under the full belief that our data is 100% secure and our privacy is intact, the addition of features such as these are a welcome step forward.
When Will Android 12 Be Available?
The first device that will receive the Android 12 update with the full Material You experience is the Google Pixel phones in the fall.
But if you don’t want to wait, you can download the beta version of Android 12 now if you own a compatible Android phone. And while Android betas are normally pretty reliable (I’ve installed a few of them over the years), there are sometimes important apps that won’t work, and other unexpected glitches that pop up, so proceed at your own risk.
So Will This Be the Best Android Update Yet?
Probably. But it’s rare when a major OS refresh is outright worse than its predecessor, so interpret that however you want.
But it does seem like this could finally be the version of Android that really makes the platform feel coherent. On paper, Android has always had features and ideas that should have placed it well ahead of Apple’s iOS software that powers the iPhone. But the pieces of the puzzle have never fit together perfectly, and as a result, Android can be awkward and disjointed to use at times.
Sure, pretty colors and slick animations can’t fix everything, but the changes to things like the notifications screens make it clear that Google is doing more than just tweaking aesthetics. That said, many of the big design ideas shown off today, like the color schemes and animations, are things that were promised with Material Design in 2014, so it’s also possible that Google’s ambition could get the better of it yet again.
But all in all, this is a significant holistic update to Android, and if Google can pull all of its powerful services and features together into one seamless experience, it could be the start of something big for many of the best Android phones.