Android Pie Review: Gesture-Based Navigation

Posted by Matt Birchler
— 3 min read

Android has never been my favorite operating system, as evidenced by my numerous Android reviews, but I always hold out hope that “this is the year” they win me over. I’ll begin this piece by saying that Google has indeed not won me over in 2018 either. Android Pie is a fine update to the most popular consumer operating system in the world, but it’s not anything that I think will convince iOS fans to switch teams. There are some nice changes here, but it’s a very lateral move in my book.

In this multi-part review, I will go over what I think are some of the most notable changes to Android in this update.

The New Gesture-Based Navigation

This is the most notable change in my book, as it changes every interaction with your phone. Android has long had 3 buttons at the bottom of the scree: back, home, and app switcher (in different orders depending on your phone). With Android Pie, this system remains, although you can choose to enable a new gesture-based system that is going to be a very divisive change.

Now, there is only a home button in the middle of the bottom bar, and sometimes a back button. One, this makes s single button take up a lot of space. Two, the back button is so tiny now that it’s hard to see and looks like someone had a typo in their layout settings. His doesn’t look great, but I’d be willing to forgive that if this was a new, better way to navigate the UI. Sadly, it’s not that at all.

The old Android buttons were not perfect, but they were at least functional, and allowed you to move between apps and your home screen pretty quickly. The biggest miss was that it took up too much screen space and the back button was inconsistent. The good parts were that it was fast, easy to understand (besides back sometimes), and had some nice tricks for bouncing around extra fast if you knew what you were doing.

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.

A tap on the home button still takes you home, which is fine, but now a swipe up from the bottom of the screen brings up the app switcher. So far, this is fine. But then you get into how you switch between apps.

To flip quickly to the last app you used, you simply swipe the home button (pill?) to the right and let go. That’ll quickly open the last app. Do the gesture again to get back to the first app.

Bu then you get to the funkiness. If you want to move between apps in your app switcher, you need to slide the pill to the right and hold it there. This will start making the list of apps slide on by very…very…slowly. Slide it even further to the right and they speed up, getting faster than you could ever stop at the one you want. You then can slide the pill back to the left to move back in the list. When you land on the app you want, let go of the pill button and that app comes to the forefront.

This whole process might be okay if the gestures felt natural at all. Sadly, unlike good touch interfaces that make you feel like you are manipulating the content directly, this feels a step removed from the content on screen. You’re moving this digital slider that have no haptic feedback and seems to have the world’s most frustrating acceleration settings configured. I always feel like I’m just a little out of control on this page. When I get what I want, it feels like an accomplishment; I achieve victory over the phone that was intent on making me lose.

This left me mostly swiping up on the home button/pill to bring up the app switcher and then swiped across the middle of the screen to get the app I wanted. I still think the acceleration on this interface is messed up, as it takes way too much effort to move more than one app at a time, but at least I got what I wanted faster. Now of course, because the navigation bar as well as a pseudo-dock is on the app switcher, that meant the apps were further away from my fingers than they needed, so I had to stretch to reach them. On the plus side, you can select text and copy it from the multitasking view, which is something I tested once to test and then never found the need to do again.

This all must sound like complaining. How could I find so much to say about a simple button? Well, if they did it right then I would have very little to say; I’d be able to say they have a new way of getting around and I enjoyed it. But instead, they implemented a system that made me feel like I had less control of my phone, and after about 2.5 months using it every day, I still haven’t gotten used to it.

The best thing I can say about this change is that the old navigation system is still there if you want it, and yes, yes I really want it.