Android is not my favorite mobile operating system. You know that, I know that, but that doesn’t mean I don’t spend a lot of time with Android and have feelings about it (both good and bad). If you don’t believe me, check out my Oreo review from 2017 or my shorter Pie review from 2018. In general I’d say I’m happy with the direction Android is headed, but none of their changes are enough to swing someone like from from the iOS camp. How did Google do this year? Read on to find out.
It may be hard to believe, but we are just one year past Google trying to reinvent navigation, but it was indeed only Android Pie where they tried a two-button system that was less than ideal. I said in my review at the time:
I’m sad to report that this change leaves both of the problems there were before (confusing back and too much space) and doesn’t improve on any of the things that were already good.
I stand by that today. The change made no actions easier and everything else harder. Android 10’s gestures are far better than before, but they are still not up to the standard set by iOS. Here’s the best way I can sum it up:
By completely stealing iOS’s gestures, Android has made navigating home and between apps easier and more intuitive than ever before, but the new back gesture piggybacks on the old back button’s behavior is is just as confusing as ever.
It’s hard to explain this experience in writing, so I won’t dive into it here (there are plenty of videos showing this off) but I would say it’s like they replicated the macro part of iOS’s back gesture, but they weren’t able to address any of the micro elements that make it so intuitive. I’ve gotten used to it over the summer, but it’s not great yet.
The home and multitasking gestures are pretty great though and I’m totally into them.
I’m all in favor of dark modes, and many third party manufacturers have been shipping their own dark modes for a while now, but it really matters for the platform owner to do their own. For example, my Galaxy S10e has a dark mode, and all Samsung apps use it, but nothing else on the phone does. With a standard way to do dark modes, I expect more apps to implement this in a predictable way.
The mode itself is well done, as Google has done the same with Apple and used a pure black theme, not the “dark gray” version some people (like me) prefer, but that’s fine, and it does look very good.
The one thing that raises an eyebrow for me is that many Google apps do not seem to care about dark mode. Google Assistant, which is built into the phone, is still bright as the sun, as is Google Home, the Google Play Store, and YouTube do not care at all what mode you’re in. Presumably these apps will be updated in due time, but it feels far less complete than something like iOS 13 where basically every single Apple app is converted (and certainly every built in app is).
Surely Google will keep updating their apps to integrate dark mode, but it would have been nice (and pretty expected IMO) for this to be there at release. It's also unclear how long it will take for third parties to adopt this mode. I'd like to assume quickly, but if using Android for many years has taught me anything it's that new features get added all the time that devs simply have little interest in supporting. Fingers crossed on this one.
The share sheet in Android 10 got a big update this year and I think has become more usable, but still not as good as what I’m used to in iOS. One change I like is that you now get a preview of the thing you’re sharing in the share sheet, which I find quite helpful in keeping track of what you’re moving around.
I also like that the list of apps is less shuffled than in years past. I used to feel like I got a new arrangement of share options every time I tried to share something in Android, but that’s better this year as you get a row of “people” to share to, a row of “likely actions” and then an alphabetical list of other apps. Additionally, if you’re sharing some form of text, like a link or paragraph, you see the option to copy that right at the top, which is very often exactly what I want to do.
I still think that the “people” sharing options are terrible and never show me useful things, and in fact mostly show me Slack channels I rarely post to1, and I also wish I could manually sort these options so that the sheet always has the things I do most at the top.
But despite my gripes here, I think this is the best Android sharing has ever been and I hope it continues to get better.
The one straight up omission is Android Beam, which was Android’s super slow, but at least convenient way to share flies between tow Android devices. You tapped your phones together and whatever you were sharing would send over Bluetooth. This was okay for links and text, but images or god forbid movies took forever! Google talked about a new method of sharing back at I/O this summer, but while Android Beam is gone, this new direct sharing method is nowhere to be found in this first stable release of 10. I hope it comes soon because Android could really use a real AirDrop competitor.
Privacy and Security
One area I can not fault Google on is their new privacy and security features. There’s quite a bit here, and while some of it is causing consternation amongst the Android faithful, I think these are all good changes overall.
First up, and the thing you’ll likely notice first is the fact that apps now have to ask permission to access your location. I know, right!? Now when an app, including those you already have installed, tries to use your location, the system will prompt you to either let the app use location all the time, just when you’re using it, or block it entirely. It’s crazy Android has not had this before, but I’m happy it has it now.
You can also go to the Settings app and review what apps have access to your location and change their settings on the fly. This will all sound very familiar to iOS users, but it’s an objective good to have them in Android now.
Additionally, you can now control access to your health and activity data, which again will sound like old news to some, but is a good update for Android.
On the security front, Google is doing stuff like preventing apps from kicking off processes when they are not in the foreground. This will be a problem for some apps, but Google has added some official APIs for apps like Skype that need to be able to take phone calls and bring up an “incoming call” interface. Fewer hacks and more official integrations is good for users overall and I’m happy to see Google making these changes, even if they upset some diehards.
Announced at I/O, Currently Missing
Right after I/O this year I mentioned that I thought the thing they showed off that would not ship this year was the super-quick Google Assistant phone navigation, and that proved to be correct. This amazing demo of someone doing things on their phone with just their voice and using natural language to tell it what to do is not in Android 10 right now. But that wasn’t all that was missing from this initial release. According to Google, we can expect this to release with the Pixel 4, likely coming out next month.
Honestly, this isn’t too bad considering how many I/O features don’t quite make it to the initial launch of the new version of Android in the summer.
All the Small Things
And now we’re on to the small things. I’m definitely going to skip over some things, but these are the things I noticed and made a noticeable difference in my use of the phone this summer.
Night Sight is now a top-level mode in the camera app. Instead of diving into the “more” tab, you can now access this mode just like you would portrait mode on the iPhone.
Your estimated battery life remaining will now show when you pull down the notification shade. It gives you the specific time it expects your battery to last until based on your current usage. I found this to be accurate enough for me to make an educated decision on how desperately I need to charge up.
Speaking of battery, if you turn on batter saver mode, you’ll automatically also switch into dark mode (to save that teeny tiny amount of battery from black pixels). Your phone will also turn itself back to normal mode when it hits 90% battery life so you can turn on low power mode at night, plug in your phone when you go to sleep, and then not have to remember to turn it off when you wake up to a full charge.
Snoozing notifications is dead. Well, kinda. You can turn on this feature in settings, but it’s hidden pretty well and likely is on its way to being wiped out. Interesting how snoozing emails is all the rage and in basically every mainstream app these days, but snoozing notification never caught on.
Notifications 2: You can now hold down on a notification to change that app’s notification permissions quickly.
Notifications 3: You can tell notifications to deliver “quietly” which means they will show in your notifications tray, but won’t buzz you. Again, for iOS users, this is the equivalent of “deliver quietly.” What’s nice here is that these notifications will show at the bottom of your notifications tray, which I think makes a whole heck of a lot of sense.
Since there is no home button anymore, you need to trigger Google Assistant a new way this year. Pixel owners can still squeeze their phones, but everyone else has to swipe up and in from the bottom right or left of the screen. It’s a little weird, but is really just a variation of the lock screen gestures many Android phones have already. I don’t love these, but they totally work fine.
Focus mode lets you decide that apps you want to disable at certain times. This is similar to iOS’s downtime feature, but this mode lets you toggle it on and off more at will than the shcheduled time that iOS allows.
Finally, Live Transcribe is here and enables those with issues hearing to quickly enable this mode and see a real time transcription of whatever is going around them.
Writing this review made me realize that iOS and Android are more in lock step with each other than I think they ever have been before. Things like dark mode are getting added to iOS and Android literally like 2 weeks apart and each of their digital wellness features are growing up at about the same time and pace. Meanwhile, lots of the new and welcome updates to Android 10 had this iOS user going “finally!” more than a few times. Updates around security, privacy, and gestures all made this iOS fan like Android more, all the while feeling very familiar. This is neither good nor bad, but inevitable. These platforms are getting quite mature and there is only so much low hanging fruit to be had.
All this is to say that I think Android 10 is a fine update to a platform I like well enough, but do not personally prefer. I think the new gestures are going to rub some people the wrong way and they will continue to use the three button option for as long as Google keeps it around. I also think the changes around security and privacy will upset peoples’ workflows who rely on certain apps to things, but I think these are wins for the platform and will hopefully prevent bad actors from doing things they aren’t supposed to do.
The Essential Phone and Xiaomi’s Redmi K20 Pro got updated to Android 10 today and the OnePlus 7 Pro got a new beta, so hopefully We’ll keep seeing more phones get this sooner rather than later2. It almost goes without saying, but this is the best version of Android to date and while I don’t think it will convert anyone who prefers the other horse in this race, I think it will make most Android fans happy.