Last week Google officially released their latest version of Android: version 9.0, Pie. The name follows the pattern of Google naming their versions of Android after desserts in alphabetical order (starting with Cupcake and continuing recently with Nougat, Oreo and now Pie). This follows on from a months long beta programme available on certain handsets.
I type this review on an Essential PH-1, which was graced with the Pie update on day 1 along with the Pixels. Below are some of my takes on the new update.
The biggest change with Pie is the new gesture based navigation in favour of the three buttons (home, back and recent apps (formally menu, if you remember that far back!)) that have been a staple of Android since the very beginning.
Instead of the home button, there’s now a “home bar” at the bottom of the screen. One tap of the bar takes you home. A half swipe up brings you to your recent apps, arranged in a horizontal list – not the easiest for swiping through in my opinion. Below this list is your docked apps that you also see at the bottom of your home screen.
When I originally heard about this being the process for getting to recent apps, I was concerned about giving up the super simple way that Android currently adopts to switch to the last used app (double tapping the recent apps button). Thankfully, the new system is just as easy – quick swipe of the home bar to the right sends you to your last used app – simple!
Taking this action a bit further and holding the bar lets you drag it right and left and scroll through your open apps instead of flicking through the horizontal list mentioned earlier.
From the recent apps screen, another swipe up of the home bar takes you to your app drawer. You can technically get to the app drawer from the home screen directly by doing one long swipe, but it needs to be really deliberate and finish almost near the top of your screen. It doesn’t work well at all in my opinion and needs a rethink. Perhaps an option for a quick swipe up anywhere on the homescreen.
The back button now appears when required instead of being present all the time. It’s also much smaller than before. It seems most of the UI elements have gone that way.
Long pressing on the home bar still acts as it did before and brings up the Google Assistant, which can read anything on your screen and provide contextual search results depending on what it identifies.
All in all, and I hate to draw the endless comparison, but the gesture system is quite similar to the iPhone X gesture system. This may mean that potential deserters of the Apple world might not feel like they have entered an alien world by picking up an Android handset.
As popular as the notch is with screens, AI has been thrown around a lot this year as the next big thing to improve software – a perfect example being Huawei going all-in with AI on it’s camera tech this year, even printing it on the back of the Honor 10.
In Pie, Google hopes to be able to predict how you use your phone to better allow Android to optimise the phone to be more helpful, powerful and work better.
One example is how Pie uses AI to optimise the battery life of your handset. This is done by trying to predict what apps you are most likely to use at certain times of the day, and restricting battery usage on those apps that you are very unlikely to use at that point in time. One example of this might be the phone knowing that I don’t usually have the time to check my news apps whilst at work, thus the phone will know not to bother updating articles in the background until I’m more likely to be looking at them.
Another example of the UI at work is putting the apps that you are more likely to want to open in the app drawer at the top of the list, to save you scrolling to find the app. These may seem like small and inconsequential improvements, but they all add up to a more personable user experience and should make the software more of a pleasure to use.
I’ve not seen too much of these AI enhancements in use if I’m honest for two fold reasons: firstly I believe some of them are Pixel exclusive, and secondly as I’ve not been using the PH-1 as my main phone, my usage probably hasn’t been enough for Pie to pick up my habits. I did leave the phone on standby for a good few days with the smallest battery drain I’ve ever come across mind you, though not sure how much is attributable to AI in this instance!
There are various other tweaks to the UI that is common to any Android update. A lot more of the UI elements feel more polished and more rounded.
The main settings screen has had a colourful overhaul, with each main section getting its own fun little icon. More often than usual there are suggestions at the top of the settings screen. Within the settings sub-screens more of the less used options have been moved to within an “advanced settings” section at the bottom of each list.
The quick settings panel has also gone more rounded with circular settings icons. The volume key now also brings up a small volume slider next to the volume buttons on the phone instead of a banner across the top of the screen. Similarly holding the power button only brings up a small menu at the side of the screen, which along with turning the power off or restarting also lets you take a screenshot.
Google has also optimised the status bar for the all-dominating notch (seemingly featuring on every phone in 2018 except Samsung’s). The clock has been moved to the left side, and the number of notifications that can be lined up now maxes out at 4 before you get small dots in the place of icons alerting you to more notifications than the 4 you can see. This will be handy on phones with wide notches but for the Essential (with the smallest notch out there), this isn’t as much of a problem and would be good to be able to customise.
Another neat improvement appears when having auto-rotation disabled (something I do if reading in bed lying on my side). If doing this, for example, and i want to then view something in landscape, I can do this by clicking a new rotate button that appears in the navigation bar at the bottom of the phone. Clever, and saves any faffing with messing with the auto-rotate setting.
More to come
There are a few features that will eventually be baked into Pie (wayhay!) that will arrive later on in the year.
First up is the Digital Wellbeing feature. Currently, this is available to try out in beta on Pixel devices, so unfortunately I couldn’t try it out myself! A similar feature arrives with iOS 12 this summer called Screen Time.
This piece of software allows you to see a dashboard of how you use your phone. It will show you how many times you have unlocked the phone in a day, how long you’ve used certain apps and allows you to set limits on using apps for more than a set amount of time. It also includes a feature called Wind Down that sets your phone to Do Not Disturb and turns your phone to monochrome colours at the end of the day to help you prepare for sleep.
Another big feature to debut later in the year is called Slices. This essentially works by taking tasks or functions from within apps and “slicing” them into other parts of the app. An example of such a feature is searching within the phone for “get a taxi” and a button appearing to order a taxi from the Uber app.
Version 9.0 of the world’s most popular operating system feels good overall to me, with a solid changelog and some very intriguing features. As with all Android upgrades though, I hope that manufacturers make the effort to upgrade as many of their handsets as possible, though great strides have already been made with this iteration thanks to Essential receiving the update on day 1 and a good number of handsets that were in the Preview getting it in the autumn,
The new gesture system feels fresh, though I believe can be improved on further (especially for getting into the app drawer). Really though, it’s just a different way of navigating the phone, and doesn’t necessarily provide me any advantages to how I’ve been able to navigate Android up until now.
In my opinion, the AI enhancements are the real stars of the show in this update, with some very promising abilities of the software coming to the forefront that may provide some genuinely useful enhancements the likes of which we haven’t seen up until now.