Android Nougat is so 2016. Like it or not, a new delectable dessert is in town: Oreo. It’s the name given by Google to the latest version of its Android mobile operating system. Android 8.0 Oreo follows Android 7.1.2 Nougat, and it continues Google’s tradition of alphabetically naming its version updates after desserts. It’s the second version of Android to use a brand name. The last was Android KitKat in 2013.
Android 8.0, like its predecessor, has more under-the-hood changes than visible overhauls. There are plenty of new features (see our Android Oreo roundup here), but they’re all relatively minor. Still, these new additions and improvements show us how much more mature Android is now, and they make version 8.0 an update you don’t want to miss.
As a note, we have been testing Android Oreo on a Google Pixel. While all the features will be similar across other Android 8.0 devices, there may be different color themes and reorganized layouts. For example, Google has changed the Pixel’s notification drawer to a white color, while the bluish-gray color remains on Nexus devices.
More useful notifications
Let’s start with one of the most visible changes to the operating system. The notification drawer, which you access by swiping down from the home screen, now shows the date on the bottom, and the Settings gear icon has also moved to the same lower pane. Expand the notification drawer and you’ll notice the display brightness slider is now at the top, with the Quick Settings tiles below. At the very bottom are the Quick Settings edit icon, user icon, and access to the Settings app. This is a minor, but welcome change that makes it easier to access these tools without needing to stretch your finger all the way to the very top of the screen.
General notifications like weather or commute times from the Google app now take up less space (though they can expand). Notifications themselves are more useful, due to three new features. First, and a personal favorite, you can schedule notifications. Gently swipe the notification left or right until you see a gear and a clock icon. Tap the clock and it will present you with options to have the notification resurface in 15 minutes, 30 minutes, 2 hours, or 1 hour (default). For inbox zero folks like me, this is a godsend as it means not having to swipe away important notifications, while still clearing my notification tray.
Notification Badges, or Dots, mimic iOS’ unread badge counters, and as the name suggests you’ll only see dots appear above an app or app folder with new notifications. These dots use the color from the app, so they aren’t distracting and don’t look out of place. Tapping and pressing the icon of an app with a dot can show you the notification as a pop-up, not unlike Apple’s 3D Touch. Here, you can also find app shortcuts, which were introduced in Android 7.1.1. They let you access specific functions in an app, and the look has been slightly redesigned in Android 8.0.
But perhaps the biggest change to notifications in the latest flavor of Android is through Notification Channels, or categories. This new feature brings more control over what notifications you see. Press and hold a notification, and you can see a toggle to block all notifications from an app. Tap All Categories and you’ll see all the different channels you can get notifications from via an app. For example, in the Twitter app’s notification settings, you can toggle notifications on or off for Direct Messages, Emergency Alerts, Followers and Contacts, and Recommendations from Twitter. It allows you to choose which type of notifications you want to get alerts from in an app. This feature can be incredibly handy (power users will love it), but you may not even use it much at first, particularly because it’s not immediately clear or well-explained how it works within the OS.
One of our favorite features in Android 7.0 Nougat is notification bundling, where multiple notifications from the same app are grouped and expandable. It’s exciting to see Google further improving notifications, and providing more tools for the user to control them in Android 8.0.
The Settings menu in Android 8.0 is one of the largest visual overhauls in the update, mainly in how it’s now so much shorter than before. Google has grouped a lot of settings that once stayed separate, and while it will take some time to get used to or find a setting, we think these new groupings are for the better. You’ll also notice several new design changes across the Settings menu, with less dividers and better use of white space.
There’s no slide out menu for navigation anymore, just 13 Settings categories. At the top, you’ll see a blue-colored drop down for ongoing functions, such as if your Do not disturb or Night Light is on. Some notifications are now minimized into an Advanced tab in specific categories. While I like the idea, sometimes it means an additional tap to get to basic settings, such as assigning your default notification sound — there’s nothing advanced about that.
Overall, the Settings menu is well-designed and looks more professional than ever before. I’ve had trouble finding specific settings via the search icon, but it has been incredibly easy to find them now in version 8.0.
Picture-in-picture mode, Autofill, and Smart Text Selection
We have a few favorite new features, and especially like Autofill. Think of the Google Chrome browser’s autofill option, where it stores your login information or address, and allows you to easily add it into forms. Android now has the same feature. Every time you log into a new app, or add your address or credentials, Google will ask if you want it to remember the information. If you allow it, the next time you try to log in, it will automatically fill out the form. It’s far easier than remembering and typing out your username and password, and it’s a welcome addition into Android.
Picture-in-picture mode feels like a feature that should have been around for a while, and technically apps like Skype have utilized this function before. Essentially, it lets you continue watching a YouTube video or a video call when you exit the app. The video now acts like a floating pop-up over the home screen or other app you’re using, allowing you to multitask. Tapping on the pop-up allows you to either expand it again, or use some playback controls.
Like Autofill, Smart Text Selection is also one of those features you won’t appreciate until you use it. We’ve all had to copy an address or phone number from one app, and then open the corresponding app such as Google Maps or your phone dialer to paste it in. Now with Smart Text Selection, when you highlight a phone number, for example, you’ll get the option to jump into the dialer app immediately. The same is true for when you highlight an address — you can jump into Google Maps and the address will already be inputted. This feature will become even more robust as third-party developers add support for it.
Checking the Vitals
Android phones are already in more than a billion people’s hands, but Google is still tinkering with the operating system’s fundamentals in Android Oreo. Vitals is a new initiative to focus on security, system stability, boot time, and battery life.
On our Google Pixel, we’ve seen the boot time go from around a minute to about 15 seconds. We haven’t seen any issues with system stability or apps crashing, so perhaps it’s the operating system at work — we can’t be sure.
To keep your battery life safe, there are now Wise Limits on “how frequently background apps can retrieve the user’s current location,” and for your phone’s security there’s Google Play Protect. It’s a culmination of security features that have already been implemented. If you head over to Settings > Security & Location > Google Play Protect, Google will tell you when it last checked your app and device for “harmful behavior.” Find My Device is available here, and it’s essentially a rebranded Android Device Manager that lets you remotely lock and erase your phone if it’s lost.
Even installing apps from outside the Play Store is now a little more secure. You need to toggle which apps are allowed to download apps from “Unknown Sources.”
One of Android’s biggest flaws is fragmentation. It’s the fact that despite Android 7.0 Nougat’s release in August 2016, the version is only installed on 13.5 percent of Android devices. iOS 10, on the other hand, is installed on 86 percent of devices. It’s because Apple makes its hardware and software, and it can issue updates when it wants. When Google rolls out an update, chipmakers, manufacturers, and carriers all need to test it out to make sure nothing breaks, and this process can take months, if not more.
Project Treble attempts to mitigate the issue by separating the Android code to make it easier for chipmakers like Qualcomm to find and make sure the software works with its processors. While this makes things easier for chipmakers, it’s still up to manufacturers and carriers to move fast to issue the update timely. We won’t really be able to see how this plays out until next year because this whole project only works on devices that ship with Android Oreo.
There are plenty of other minute features we haven’t talked much about, such as support for higher quality audio codecs, support for a wider color gamut, and improved support for physical keyboards. There are Pixel-specific improvements as well, such as how double-tapping in the camera viewfinder now zooms in, and there’s now a video icon to swap to recording mode. The adaptive icons on your home screen can now be changed to different styles — from circles and squares to rounded squares, squircles, and teardrop-shaped apps.
A dunk-able update
All in all, Android Oreo doesn’t have one big flashy feature. It’s a minor update, but it’s still important in offering a cohesive plan on monitoring your devices ‘Vitals,’ while also introducing features than make the operating system feel more mature and robust than it ever has been. As always, it’s probably good to wait a few days when the update is available to make sure there are no major bugs reported, but after that, install away. Pixel and Nexus devices will get Android Oreo first, followed by devices from other manufacturers later this year or next year (whenever your manufacturer decides to issue the update).