Android 10 is an operating system update that, like all Android updates, will not matter to most people for at least a year — more likely two or three. Compared to how quickly and broadly iOS updates hit iPhones across the world, that is a glacial pace. Some years, it grates. Some years, you can make your peace with it. But every year, it’s the same. That’s just how the Android ecosystem works.
This year, like last year, I’m leading my review of Android by repeating the bare facts about these update rates because it’s so much more relevant to most people than the actual features of the OS. It’s possible that things will be slightly better this year — Google is hinting at it pretty strongly — but for now, the only people who can reliably get Android updates in a timely manner are Pixel owners.
Those Pixel owners will find that Android 10 offers a few splashy features, a few important privacy protections, and a surprising amount of confusion. It’s an update that throws a lot of features at the wall to see what sticks. Some of it is really nice and some of it is long overdue, but this is not an OS with a clear vision of what’s next for Android. It’s an OS designed to fix what’s broken with it today.
Fixing what’s broken is great, which makes the fact that so few people will get the update until next year (or the year after) even more annoying.
Note: This review is based on the final public beta of Android 10, which Google says is functionally identical to the shipping version. In 24 hours of testing, we haven’t found any major differences, but we will update this review if we note anything significantly different.
The thing that every Android 10 user will notice first is the thing that has garnered the most attention over the course of the betas for Android Q (the codename for Android 10). That’s the new gesture navigation system, of course. It’s been contentious in part because all change is, in part because it breaks the way many Android apps work, and in part because it’s a little confusing.
Although some of the gestures changed over the course of the betas, the core navigation didn’t change much from the original concept, shown here.
The new gesture system — which is optional — replaces all the buttons at the bottom with a single white bar, just like the iPhone. Also like the iPhone, you can swipe up to go home, swipe in a kind of a hook move to get into an overview screen, and swipe straight across to quickly switch between apps. Unlike iOS, Android uses an app drawer. To access that, you swipe up from the bottom when on the home screen.
Those gestures miss the most important (and, surprisingly enough, the most-used) button on Android: back. Google’s solution is to make the entire left and right sides of the screen dedicated to going back when you swipe in from the edge.
Lastly, Google Assistant also has a new gesture: swiping in diagonally from either of the bottom corners. On the home screen, two little curved lines sometimes appear to remind you that extra gesture exists.
- Swipe from the bottom: go home or go to the overview screen
- Swipe up from the bottom on the home screen: open the app drawer
- Swipe across the bottom: switch apps
- Swipe from either side: go back
- Swipe diagonally up from the bottom corners: Google Assistant
- Swipe down from the top: open Quick Settings and notifications
This all seems very complicated because it is very complicated. It’s a lot to keep in your head. But after you use Android 10 for a few minutes, it all feels intuitive and fluid. The animations aren’t quite as nice as they are on an iPhone, but not so much that it’s ever truly bothered me.
“Back” is used more than “Home,” so Google dedicated both sides of the screen to the back gesture
All that is well and good, but in the Android world, it’s caused quite a stir. I think a lot of that is just resistance to change and unhappiness that the change is to make Android work more like the iPhone (as opposed to the gesture systems cooked up by the likes of Samsung and OnePlus, which work but are much less discoverable).
But the real stir happened because of the way many — if not most — Android apps are designed. Before Android 10, you could swipe in from the left edge to open an app drawer where important stuff is often scurried away. In Android 10, that swipe now takes you back. Google has tried to appease the drawer swipers (who, it contends, represent a tiny minority of users) with a weird tap-and-hold thing that is incredibly inconsistent, leading to yet more complaints.
I explained all this in detail before, and now that I’ve lived with the newest gesture system for a couple of weeks, here’s where I’ve landed: I like it. I am annoyed by not being able to swipe in drawers, but I mostly agree with the trade-offs Google made. Going back is now literally a broad gesture: just swipe on the side of the phone. Making the most common action on an Android phone easy and consistent is more important than app drawers.
Although the option to go back to buttons exists if you want it, I haven’t. Even if you’re dubious, I recommend turning them on and using them for a few weeks. You might find that you prefer them to the buttons. I do.
I do, however, hope app makers adjust their apps to this new back gesture world quickly. I also think that Google is going to futz around with these gestures again once Android 11 rolls around, so I’m not going to get too attached to them.
Offering a dark mode (Google calls it a “theme,” though there aren’t other theming options besides light and dark) is quite the trend this year. Google jumped on it, and guess what? More screens have dark backgrounds now. A lot more work goes into making an elegant dark mode than most people realize, and Android’s designers have done a good enough job for me not to notice their work.
Unfortunately, Google’s app designers haven’t prioritized making their apps support dark theming. Too many of them don’t switch over to the Dark Theme right now, though Google says they’re working on it.
I don’t have a religion when it comes to dark mode versus light mode, but I do like having the option. It’s strange that you can’t set it to turn on automatically at sunset, though, like you can with Night Light and the dark themes on Samsung devices and soon the iPhone with iOS 13.
Focus Mode and Notifications
Starting today, Google is offering beta access to a new feature called Focus Mode, which is sort of a weird hybrid between the App Timers you get in Digital Wellbeing and Do Not Disturb.
Focus Mode lets you blacklist a set of apps that you find distracting. Then, when you toggle Focus Mode, those apps get grayed out and are shut down in the background. They won’t send you notifications, and when you try to launch them, you’ll get a pop-up that gently suggests, “Hey, didn’t you say you wanted to focus right now?”
That’s all well and good — and compared to Do Not Disturb, it’s potentially more useful because it’s not a blanket ban on all notifications — but if you are trying to alter your relationship to your phone through Android’s tools, you now have to adjust a wild number of vectors to do that:
- Do Not Disturb
- Focus Mode
- App Timers in Digital Wellbeing
- Notification priority settings
- Channels within notifications (for apps that offer different settings for different types)
- Parental Controls
There are too many modes
It is quite a lot, but as with the new gesture system, you can make sense of it all by interacting with your phone relatively naturally. Parental controls are linked directly from the Digital Wellbeing settings, for example, and Focus Mode runs you through a little tutorial to explain what’s happening.
Notifications still have that little gear that lets you directly change settings right when they appear. But instead of the complicated priority settings from before, there’s simply a button to either kill them or move them to a “silent” section. If you want more granular notification controls, you can go find them.
Overall, Google’s solution to smartphone overload is to offer users as much information and as many tools as possible, which is overwhelming in its own right. This is another area of Android 10 that I suspect is going to be revisited next year — at least, I hope it is — because right now, it puts way too much of the burden on the user to understand all of these different frameworks.
Speaking of notifications, Google has built in more intelligence on the smart reply buttons that pop up on them. It’s more likely to show you relevant app buttons like Google Maps instead of one-word replies. As with Google’s earlier AI efforts in Android (Slices and Actions), it’s neat when it appears, but it’s not something you can reliably expect will appear with every notification.
Permissions, privacy, and updates
The most important updates in Android 10 are new limitations on what apps can do and what information they can access. Google has posted a list of the major changes here, and it’s quite long. Reading over it, however, nothing seems especially restrictive. If anything, it’s shocking just how much apps were allowed to do in the background before now.
Among the most important changes, certainly the most visible, are new settings for location permissions for apps. For the first time, users will be able to choose a new option that only allows their location to be read when the app is in use. Before, it was all or nothing on Android, while the iPhone allowed this type of permission. And like iOS 13, Android 10 will periodically provide notifications to remind you that an app has been accessing your location in the background.
There are other important privacy features. I won’t get into all of them, but here are a few:
The improved privacy features might be the most important thing in Android 10
- Apps won’t be able to access unchangeable device identifiers, which should make it harder for them to track you.
- Apps aren’t allowed to silently start and run in the background anymore; they have to pop a notification to say they’re running.
- Camera access is more limited.
- Access to Wi-Fi information is also more restricted. And since Wi-Fi could potentially reveal your location, apps will also need location permission to see information about your network.
- Right now, Android works a little more like your desktop computer where apps can access the entire hard disk. Android 10 introduces “scoped storage,” which only gives apps a filtered view outside their own silo, just like the iPhone. Unfortunately, scoped storage is only an option in Android 10. It won’t become a requirement until next year.
Another big change in Android 10 is called “Project Mainline,” and it allows Google to push key security updates directly through the Google Play Store. This isn’t the dream of timely major OS updates being pushed out without having to wait for manufacturers and carriers, but it’s at least a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, Project Mainline will only be available on phones that ship with Android 10 by default, not on those that upgrade to it.
Last but not least, Google has adjusted its settings menus so that all of your privacy settings are more easily located in one place (called “Privacy,” naturally). Looking over it, it seems like a prime opportunity for Google to replicate the dashboard interface it’s already using for Digital Wellbeing. It’s convenient to have everything in one place, but a better visualization of what my apps are doing would be better.
I do like that this section has shortcuts to the various Google dashboards for your Google account settings. Hopefully, those will stick around on non-Pixel phones, and Google will require manufacturers to provide similar privacy links in their phones.
Android 10 home screen with some icons grayed out in Focus Mode.
Android 10’s flashiest feature is also, unfortunately, not available at launch: Live Caption. When I tried it earlier this year, I was impressed with how quickly and accurately it created closed captioning for any audio or video on the phone (even with the volume set to zero). It could be a major feature for users who are deaf or hard of hearing, but it won’t arrive until later this year, and it will be available only on Pixel phones to start.
That last sentence is a real metaphor for Android: “It won’t arrive when you want it to, and Pixel users will get it first.” That’s how Android updates work now, and at this point, it’s clear that Google either likes it that way, or it doesn’t have the will to make more radical changes to the ecosystem to fix the problem. (For those of us who have been watching Google waffle on a message strategy, it’s a familiar conundrum.)
More mile marker than milestone
The privacy updates in Android 10 are important enough that I’m more frustrated than usual that this update will take forever to reach the Android phones that most people actually buy. Many of the user-facing features, however, are less consequential than in previous years. Gestures and the Dark Theme are nice, but they don’t fundamentally change the nature of the OS or give it new capabilities.
One of the things I like most about Android is how willing Google is to try new ideas. It can be wearying to have notification behaviors shift every year, but the way they work in Android 10 is so convenient, simple, and intuitive that it makes all that experimentation feel worth it.
But with Android 10, more features than usual seem like user experiments instead of user experiences. No software is ever really “finished” (at least not until it becomes abandonware), but Android is starting to feel like it’s in permanent beta — not because it’s buggy, but because it’s always tentative. There’s always a sense that it’s not yet in its final form. The new gestures may get rejected by users and manufacturers. The new confusing differences between Focus Mode, Do Not Disturb, and App Timers show that Google doesn’t know what the right answer is yet.
That means Android 10 is not a milestone; it’s a mile marker. It has made real progress and is heading in the right direction, but the landscape looks the same.
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This article originally appeared on https://www.theverge.com/2019/9/4/20848251/android-10-review-dark-theme-focus-mode-gestures