Android 8.1 Developer Preview hands-on: Everything new in Google’s latest

Reviews

Update: Our hunch about the Pixel Visual Core not working was right. Google’s updated developer documents now say we’ll get “an early version of Pixel Visual Core starting in Developer Preview 2, planned for November 2017.”

Google gave us 64 days to get used to Android 8.0 Oreo being the latest version of Android. While only one third-party phone has upgraded to the latest version, Google is already dropping a developer preview for the next version of Android on the world. Two days ago it released the Android 8.1 Developer Preview, and after a solid day of trying to flash it, totally bricking a Pixel 2, and later having Google pull the update files because they didn’t work, we’re here to report what Android 8.1 is actually like.

Like most of the .1 releases these days, it’s full of some minor, but important, updates that probably just weren’t ready in time for Android 8.0.

Pixel 2 features get back ported

  • The Pixel 2 launcher has the search bar at the bottom. There’s also the new “At a glance” widget up top.

  • The search bar on both the home screen and the app drawer has changed to a white Google bar with rounded ends.

  • The color scheme is dependent on the wallpaper. Here’s the default light theme.

  • But switch to a dark wallpaper, and you’ll get a black theme.

  • The many faces of the Google Bar. This happens automatically, depending on the wallpaper.

  • The clock icon shows the current time now! It’s not quite as cool as iOS’ clock icon, which has a moving second hand, but it’s a start.

  • The Pixel 2 and 2 XL both get more spacing on the left and right of the status bar to accommodate the Pixel 2 XL’s rounded corners.

  • The Google Assistant on the Pixel 2 switches fonts from Roboto to Product Sans, the same font as the Google logo. The Assistant also keeps a running history now.

  • The new power menu, which pops up when you hold down the power button.

  • Settings gets a search bar at the top.

  • The Pixel 2 now shows the last few opened apps in the “Apps & Notifications” screen.

  • For some reason the do-not-disturb settings lost their icons.

  • The menu that pops up when you long-press on an icon has changed. It’s now a single block.

When I reviewed the Pixel 2’s software, I said I expected many of the features to eventually be back ported to AOSP (Android Open Source Project). The 8.1 AOSP code drop hasn’t happened yet, but we’re already seeing the Pixel 2 launch features make it out to a wider selection of phones. Above you can see a gallery from the Pixel 2 review, but here anything labeled “Pixel 2” is now open to more phones running Android 8.1.

Pixel 2 changes coming to the Pixel 1 include:

  • A new Pixel home screen with the “At a glance” widget and bottom search bar.
  • A new clock icon with moving hands.
  • Use of the “Product Sans” font in the Assistant, update screen, and setup.

While the Pixel 1 and Nexuses get:

  • “Dark” and “light” themes that automatically kick in based on your wallpaper.
  • A new Settings design with a top search bar.
  • A new power menu.

Non-Pixel 2 devices won’t get the Pixel 2’s new wallpapers, but those are easy to acquire. Google Lens arrived on the Pixel 1 (but not the Nexuses) a few days ago.

System UI changes

  • Turn on the display, and you’ll get the “active” system buttons at full whiteness. After about two seconds, they’ll dim to the darker “idle” bar.

  • The navigation bar turns white in the settings now.

  • Android 8.1 has a Bluetooth battery readout in the quick settings now. (Don’t worry about any other differences, since this is a Pixel versus a Nexus phone.)

  • The quick settings Bluetooth panel gets a battery readout, too.

  • Android 8.1 adds transparency to the quick settings.

  • The status bar and quick settings icons are a bit more rounded now.

  • Let’s play spot the differences! There’s a new “Android System” icon, and the background notification now uses a clearer “App is using battery” message.

  • This effect is really subtle, but Android will now grab a color from your wallpaper and use it to tint some overlays.

The Pixel 2 XL’s LG-made OLED display does not offer the highest image quality out there. The  2 XL’s panel is plagued with issues like a grainy display and burn-in/image retention. One Android 8.1 change seems designed to mitigate the burn-in a bit: the white navigation buttons now dim after the phone is idle for a few seconds. When you first turn the screen on, the buttons will be at full brightness, but after about two seconds, they’ll switch from white to a dimmer, gray color. The buttons will only brighten up again if you touch the navigation buttons. They will stay dim while scrolling, opening apps, and doing virtually anything else, meaning during the vast majority of usage time, the navigation buttons are now dim. Another new system bar change: it now turns white in the settings. This might also help with burn-in.

While the image burn-in seems particularly bad on some Pixel 2 XL screens, every OLED screen experiences burn-in after some time. Android’s mostly stationary navigation bar is a prime candidate for burn-in, so it’s good to see a change. This is not the first Android 8.x change to address burn-in issues. The always-on time display that was introduced in Android 8.0 actually vertically creeps across the display over time. You can’t see it by watching, but move the time forward a few hours and you’ll see the time jump to a new location.

The Pixel 2 introduced battery percentages for Bluetooth devices to Android. The problem was the percentage was buried in the Bluetooth settings. With 8.1, you can now see Bluetooth battery levels in the quick settings. It’s still not in the one spot I would like it though: the status bar.

One change that I immediately found to be annoying is the new semi-transparent quick settings panel. Text under the panel now bleeds through the panel and is just distracting.

Google introduced a “WallpaperColors” API, which allows live wallpaper apps to send color information to the system UI. For now, Google seems to be using this in a few tint overlays on the Pixel Launcher home screen. For instance if you have a primarily red wallpaper and open the power menu or notification panel, normally the background would be darkened with a gray tint, but now it will be darkened with a slightly red tint. It’s very subtle and weirdly only works when the background app is the Pixel Launcher home screen.

The new Easter egg

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Every new version of Android gets a silly new Easter egg, usually accessible by opening the “About Phone” page in the settings and mashing on the Android version. In the Android O Developer Preview, this would show a sunny “O” logo and then switch to a horrifying Android-Octopus hybrid monster, which was actually a demo for Android’s new physics-based animation library. Google’s tentacled nightmare-fuel is sticking around, but the sunny O logo is getting the boot in favor of an actual Oreo cookie with an Android on the front. I think this is the first time the Developer Preview Easter Egg has been switched out.

The Pixel Visual Core is active? Or maybe not?

The “Pixel Visual Core Service” icon.

The Pixel 2 has a whole extra SoC on board called the “Pixel Visual Core.” This is a Google-designed co-processor that is supposed to accelerate various machine-learning functions and image processing. It wasn’t enabled with the launch of the Pixel 2, but in its announcement blog post, Google said it would “enable Pixel Visual Core as a developer option in the developer preview of Android Oreo 8.1 (MR1).”

So we’re here at the launch of the Android 8.1 developer preview, and Google says the Pixel Visual Core is live. Google’s blog post says this:

If your app uses the Camera2 API and you have a Pixel 2 device, you can try an early version of Pixel Visual Core, Google’s first custom-designed co-processor for image processing and machine learning on consumer products. To begin testing HDR+ through Pixel Visual Core, just enable the new developer option “Camera HAL HDR+” (and make sure that CONTROL_ENABLE_ZSL is “true”).

I don’t think this is accurate, though. There is no “Camera HAL HDR+” option in my Pixel 2 XL developer options, and the new app that seems like it should be responsible for this is an empty placeholder. The Pixel 2 with 8.1 also isn’t any faster at processing HDR photos than the Pixel 2 with Android 8.0. I reached out to Google asking why there’s no developer option on my device and asked if the Pixel Visual Core is actually active. I’ll report back if I get an update.

Update: Google got back to me confirmed that the Pixel Visual Core does not in fact work in Preview 1. The updated developer documents now say we’ll get “an early version of Pixel Visual Core starting in Developer Preview 2, planned for November 2017.”

About that placeholder app. We learned from previous digging into the Pixel Visual Core that the chip iscodenamed “Easel.”With Android 8.1, the Pixel 2 has a new APK (an Android app file) called “EaselServicePrebuilt.” Internally this app is called the “Pixel Visual Core Service,” and it has an icon of a mountain image with a circuit board behind it. While the icon is cute, the “service” designation means this is something that will hang around in the background and is not an app you will ever tap on. For now, though, this APK is onlyan icon, with absolutely no code that would make it do anything interesting. The “Prebuilt” apps are often just there to be updated via the Play Store once the phone gets up and running, so I think eventually we’ll see a Pixel Visual Core Service app atthis link.

Google’s new Neural Networks API can use the Pixel Visual Core for hardware acceleration, but there’s also a CPU fallback. So just because the API works doesn’t mean Google’s SoC is running the code.

There are a few other hints at future features in Android 8.1, too. The Google Camera app has some references to future Google Lens integration, which is Google’s (currently beta) image search service. The Google Camera app has new text strings like “Tap the Lens button to search what you see,” “Try Google Lens on QR Codes,” and “Try Google Lens on Text.”

Google Camera integration sounds like it would be a big upgrade over the existing beta Google Lens integration on the Pixel 2, which is only in Google Photos. Google Photos makes searching with an image a slow, many tap process: you have to open the camera app, take a picture, open the picture, and then tap the “Google Lens” button. Being able to open the camera app and immediately have Google run a visual search would be a lot faster, though you wouldn’t want this to be the default mode. The “QR code” reference also sounds exciting, since it would be the first time Android would have a stock QR code reader.

Come to think of it, the Pixel 2 exclusive Google Lens Beta in Google Photos doesn’t work on my version of the 8.1 Developer Preview. There’s no button on the Pixel 2.

 

SMS Connect with a Chromebook

  • The Android settings for SMS Connect.

  • The Chrome OS settings for SMS Connect.

There’s a new APK called “SMSConnectPrebuilt,” and while it won’t have a homescreen icon, you can launch it through an activity browser and get a setup screen for “SMS Connect.” This is a feature that allows you to “Read and reply to text messages on your Chromebook.”

There’s a Chromebook component to this, too. If you type “chrome://flags” into the address bar, you can turn on “Enable Multidevice features.” Restart the OS and you’ll have a new option in the settings called “SMS connect.” After doing the setup on both devices… it didn’t work.

None of this is ready yet. More than anything, it seems like a bunch of placeholder functionality. I would love for either the phone or the laptop to indicate that they actually knowabout the other device. Something like “You’ll get SMS messages on your Chromebook Pixel 2” or “This Chromebook is synced to your Pixel 2 XL” would be nice. Right now it just seems like I’m being lied to, and neither the phone nor the laptop instructed me to do any kind of setup on the other device. Again since I’m flipping development flags and launching hidden activities, this is to be expected.

On the Android side of things, just by looking at the design, I think these screens will eventually be part of the initial phone setup. The screen looks like a perfect match for the existing setup process with a white screen, blue buttons, and a circular image motif. It also uses Google’s Product Sans font, which is only used in initial setup, in the Google Assistant, and on the system update page. I think in the future Google will detect if a Chromebook is synced to your account, and if so, slip this set of screens into the setup flow.

SMS Connect requires the “com.google.android.feature.PIXEL_EXPERIENCE” feature, so I’m pretty sure this will be a Pixel exclusive.

Small stuff

  • There’s a new notification chime that only happens when a notification arrives during a phone call. It’s a quieter noise that I presume is meant to be less disruptive.
  • Typically Google Play Services ships on devices as “PrebuiltGMSCore.apk,” but in the Pixel 2, with Android 8.1, Play Services gets a slight rename to “PrebuiltGMSCorePix”—meaning a Pixel-specific version of Google Play Services. There’s nothing really different, though.
  • I’ll go out on a limb and say that while Voice over LTE (VoLTE) on AT&T did not work on the Pixel 2 on Android 8.0, it should now work on 8.1. In the vendor image, I see an MBN configuration file has moved from “…/ATT/Non_VoLTE” to “…/ATT/VoLTE.”
  • Managing time zones worldwide is a programming nightmare, and to help deal with this, there are now two small apps: a “TimeZoneUpdater.apk” and a “TimeZoneDataPrebuilt.apk,” which identifies itself as “Google Time Zone Data.” If a time zone rule changes somewhere, this should be able to correct your phone without needing a full system update.

That’s about it for this release. There’s only one more beta version of the 8.1 Developer Preview coming out, which should arrive some time next month.

Correction: I originally said “zero” phones had upgraded to Android 8.0, but Sony actually snuck out an Xperia XZ Premium Oreo update on October 23!

This article originally appeared on https://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2017/10/android-8-1-developer-preview-hands-on-everything-new-in-googles-latest-update/

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