Google has unexpectedly released its latest major update to Android — foregoing the usual ceremonious unveiling — to all versions of its own Pixel phone. Users of the Pixel or Pixel 2 (or their respective XL versions), can download it now to get new features including AI-optimised battery life, apps that predict what you want to do next, new security and privacy measures, a new optional gesture-based navigation system and more.
As ever, the update will roll out to other Android devices as their respective manufacturers make it available.
The release not only breaks with tradition by launching so suddenly, it also has a much simpler name than previous versions: Android 9 Pie (not 9.0, as the style has been previously).
Though major iterations are always nicknamed after sweet treats, this is the least specific one since 1.6 Donut. Previous versions have included 8.0 Oreo, 7.0 Nougat, 6.0 Marshmallow, 5.0 Lolllipop, 4.4 KitKat, 4.1 Jelly Bean and 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich.
Aside from a system-wide visual redesign, the biggest change in Pie is an optional one: a new gesture system that removes the traditional trio of Android navigation buttons.
The new system features just one pill-shaped Home button that you can swipe across, pull up and down or hold to move between your home screens, the Overview screen (which has been overhauled), your app drawer or the Assistant. It's a bit like the setup seen on Apple's iPhone X, except it keeps the functionality of Android's system-level Back button.
AI and machine learning plays a larger role in this version Android than ever before, with several features adapting to your use over time.
Adaptive Battery, for example, learns the apps that are important to you and keeps other apps from using too much juice, allowing the phone to last longer. Meanwhile Adaptive Brightness learns how bright you like your screen at different times and in different conditions.
Similarly, "app actions" learns specific tasks you like to do at certain times or under certain conditions, and suggests them to you. This could be anything from calling a favourite contact to listening to a certain Spotify playlist. Later this year Google will roll out a feature called "slices", which will put specific tasks from apps directly into search results, so a search for Maps could suggest navigating from your current location to your home, instead of you having to go to the app and type that all in.
Elsewhere the quick settings, volume and screenshot controls have all been redesigned to make a bit more sense, and new privacy controls — like one that ensures apps can't use your microphone or camera in the background — are baked in.
At Google I/O, where Android P was initially unveiled, the company detailed a suite of "digital wellness" features aimed to curb smartphone addiction and help people stop using their devices compulsively. These include a dashboard that shows time spent in each app, controls to let you set time limits on your use, and a bed time feature that turns on Do Not Disturb and removes all colour from the display when you're supposed to be resting. These features are not quite ready, but Android 9 Pie users can get them now by opting in to a beta version.
Google says that certain phones are expected to get the Android P update in the coming months, including some Sony, Nokia, OnePlus, Xiaomi and Oppo models. These are the same phones that were compatible with the original Android P beta, made possible by Google Treble.
The company is also "working with a number of other partners to launch or upgrade devices to Android 9 this year", but it's clear some Android users will be waiting longer.
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