With Google’s release of Android 11—the first version of its mobile OS without a letter or a dessert-based nickname—the company once again wants to improve the privacy story. But it doesn’t end there: The update adds more unified conversation options (think chat bubbles everywhere), screen recording, better smart home controls, nearby sharing, and more 5G support. That last item is well ahead of 5G support from iOS, while Android also distinguishes itself with more form-factor support, such as for dual-screen phones.
Now that we’ve had a chance to weigh in on Apple’s iOS 14, we can compare the two new versions. In short, the Apple update includes a lot more new, enticing features. On the flip side, many of the new iOS features are things that have been available in Android for a while. Examples of these include customizable widgets, minimal call and smart assistant interfaces, and picture-in-picture for video. Here I’ll mostly focus on the new features introduced in Android 11. For details on existing features, see our reviews of previous versions, in particular Android 10. Towards the end, I’ll summarize with a blow-by-blow Android-iOS comparison.
How to Get Android 11
At release, the OS update is only available for a limited number of phone models, including “select Pixel, OnePlus, Xiaomi, Oppo, and Realme phones,” according to Google’s blog post announcing Android 11. It will roll out to more handsets in the coming months. To see if your phone is one of the lucky models, head to Settings > System > System update, and, if it’s currently eligible, you’ll see the new version ready for downloading and installation.
Unlike iOS updates, this lets you use the phone and see notifications even during the download-and-update process. On my test Pixel 4 XL, the process took about five minutes, and the restart was no longer than an ordinary restart—less disruptive than the frequent iOS updates I’ve needed to perform on my iPhone lately.
Unified Messages With Bubbles
Back in 2013, Facebook Messenger introduced Chat Heads, a feature which displays a persistent circle on your phone screen for each conversation until you drag it down to an X. Even though many were not fans of them, Google is now taking the idea and working it into the OS as a whole. Android 11 lets you display these Bubbles for multiple messaging apps, including the built-in SMS app.
Unfortunately, many users have not gotten Bubbles to work, even on recent Pixels (myself included). Google support staff has responded as follows:
We’re currently investigating this issue and we’ll be in touch when we have an update.
I did find the settings for Bubbles (as you can see in the screenshots below). Once you enable them in Settings, you long-press on the chat buddy’s icon and choose Priority. I just wasn’t able to see the actual bubbles, even though I enabled them for a conversation. The situation still hasn’t changed, two weeks after the OS release.
Within a notification there’s another setting for Bubbles with three options: All conversations can bubble, Selected conversations can bubble, and Nothing can bubble. Even with the first option, I didn’t see the bubbles. I was able to use another new setting for message notifications: Priority (the other options are Default and Silent). This setting showed the text box over whatever else I was doing on-screen and keeps a tiny user icon in the top notification bar. At this point, the best I can say is that there are improvements in the message notification interface, but I’m still hoping to get the full bubble experience at some point.
Bubbles aren’t the only news for message notifications: Android 11 now combines notifications from multiple messaging apps. This does work for me, and it’s probably less controversial and more universally deemed as helpful than Bubbles. In the right-side screen above, you can see that SMS and Facebook Messenger notifications appear in the same panel (Nancy is SMS, Brian is Messenger).
Apple also upped its messaging game with iOS 14, especially when it comes to group messaging. The ability to direct posts to individuals in a group text is nothing new for the likes of Slack, but that and the ability to pin conversations and assign them a group image are things Android Messages lacks. For its side, Android Messages does offer useful ways to find pictures and other info within the app, as well as sharing location. Still, it’s hard to beat the full store of messaging apps in iOS. Another iOS exclusive—Memoji—keep getting more personalization options, for another thing Android can’t match.
Another new Android messaging-related feature—but only for Pixel devices—is Smart Reply. Many messaging apps, including Apple Messages, Facebook Messenger and Skype, have a similar capability that predicts appropriate responses like “Thank you,” “What’s up?” or an appropriate emoji. For example, when I texted “Are you still there,” suggestions were “Yes,” “Yeah,” “I’m here,” and “Yep”—just the sort of replies I’d use myself.
Even Google’s promotional site for Android uses the word “Finally” when it comes to a screen recording capability arriving in Android. Apple started offering it two years ago in iOS 11 as a Control Center option, and Samsung Galaxy phones (which account for the lion’s share of Android users) have also had this capability for a while.
The capability is now built into the Android OS. Based on two weeks of testing, it works easily and well. You simply pull down the top shade and tap its icon. (I did have to edit the default icons that appear to get it in there.) You can choose whether you want device, ambient, or no audio or both, and you can optionally show touches with circles. You can’t, however, include your live face using the phone’s camera as a picture-in-picture, as you can with the Samsung Galaxy utility.
Security: App Permissions
Because it’s more open—with fewer restrictions on apps (including support for third-party app stores), numerous hardware options, and web access to messages—Android has a tough time matching the security of Apple iOS. Luckily, version 11 adds a couple of protections from apps that are a bit too greedy at sniffing your personal data. You can now set an app’s permission for access to private info, such as your location “only this time.” You can also set permissions to expire if you don’t use it for a few months.” The setting doesn’t get more specific than that.
Another security protection is that updates only concerned with hardening your phone OS’s security can happen automatically via the Play app store, the same way apps can auto-update. This is more convenient than the way Apple iOS makes you stop what you’re doing and lose access to your phone while security updates take place. iOS 14 does, however, add a couple sensible privacy features—sharing only approximate location for apps you don’t want to know exactly where you are, and Safari’s password checking to see if your account has been involved in a security breach.
Managing Your Smart Home Devices With Android
With the mobile phone being always within reach for most modern people these days, it makes sense for it to double as your smart device control center. Android supports myriad smart devices, from 1Home to ZSmart. Version 11 lets you long press the power button to display tiles for your connected devices. (The same action also displays your Google Pay card for NFC in-store buying.)
Apple has beefed up its home control in iOS 14, with a redesigned home screen and the ability to create Scenes and Automations based on your presence. Android has the former but not the latter. Both have added face recognition for security cameras.
I added my smart home device—the Philips Hue Bridge—in Devices Settings, and I could then turn my lights on and off using Google Assistant, but I didn’t see the new tile on the control screen. Turns out that only devices linked to the Google Home app appear there. I installed that, and then the control screen showed a panel that with the message Device Controls, Loading Recommendations, and then the phone froze.
After a hard restart, Google Home appeared on the control screen, offering to add tiles, but the light bulbs weren’t available until I added them to a Home and then to a Room. You can see in the screenshot that I was finally able to control my lights after long pressing the power button. Apple’s counterpart home control isn’t hard to get to—you can access it on the Control Center without unlocking the phone. Though setup is more confusing, Android’s hardware button to get to the controls is just a smidge more convenient and accessible than iOS’s.
Other New Android Odds and Ends
Android 11 brings more than the headliner features above: New accessibility options such as typing braille without special hardware and reading food labels with Lookout; updated Well Being features including new Bedtime options; Nearby Share (à la Apple AirDrop); resizable picture-in-picture; 5G detection; and Ethernet tethering are among the version’s many smaller updates. Several new features, such as AI-powered text and app suggestions, are relegated to Google’s own Pixel devices, however.
A new media control panel gives easy access to switching, for example, from your true wireless earbuds to the phone’s own speaker. You can also use the control for casting video content to a smart TV. I didn’t have my Pixel paired with headphones, but you can see in the screenshot where you can add such a device. You can easily access the new controls from the pull-down shade’s quick settings. They’re not on by default, however, and I found a lot of inconsistency with some apps and devices appearing and other not.
More Comparisons With Apple iOS
Widgets. Android has for years had a more flexible and customizable interface than iOS. iOS finally has real widgets for home screen customization. In some ways, the Apple versions are more consistent, better designed, and more intelligent. Apple iOS’s Smart Stack widget is brilliant: It changes based on your using history during the day. Ditto for the Siri Suggestion widget, which simply shows a set of app icons based on your usage habits.
Android widgets aren’t as constrained as iOS’s, so there’s less consistency and more chance for a messy jumble on your home screens. Android is also being punished for being a widget pioneer: Because the OS has had widgets longer, they’ve already fallen out of fashion. It’s increasingly rare to find a new app with a widget, and many old widgets no longer work well. True to the stereotype, Apple’s implementation is just more elegant.
Automation. Apple has Siri Shortcuts, while Android has Assistant Routines: Both let you perform multiple actions with one command. But Siri Shortcuts offers a richer ecosystem of possibilities and canned actions.
Voice Assistant. Google Assistant has been more capable than Siri for a while, though Apple is on the case. I still find that Siri misinterprets what I want more than Cortana, Alexa, or Assistant, but not to the extent it used to.
Maps and Other built-in Apps. Google Maps is still ahead of Apple Maps, though the latter recently got bike directions and city guides. Gmail is also hard to beat (though I prefer Outlook Mobile), as is Chrome, Android’s default browser. One big difference is that you can run any of the Google apps on iOS as well.
Apple’s App Clips may be more successful than Google’s Instant Apps; my test of one was impressive, though adoption by the app developers is key—in general, they want you to install the whole app rather than using a piece of its functionality.
Privacy. Both OSes have made efforts towards greater privacy protection in recent updates. Google now lets you limit the time an app can access your location including one-time permissions. Apple’s approximate location sharing is an innovation, as is its surface of more privacy info on apps in the App Store. In general, it’s harder for Google to make a privacy case, considering the company’s main profit model is based on profiling users for ad targeting.
Hardware Ecosystem. The interactivity between macOS, iOS, Apple Watch, and Apple TV is hard to beat. Apple lets you see texts and answer calls from multiple form factors seamlessly. Android is starting to talk with Chrome OS more closely, and Microsoft has spent a good deal of effort to make Android similarly integrate with Windows 10—you can do texting, calls, see photos from your phone on your PC, and soon you’ll be able to run multiple apps from the phone on the bigger screen. Google Messages also has the advantage of working on the web, something inexplicably not possible with iMessage. We’ve already been through the smart home connections, where parity prevails.
Accessibility. Both OSes go deep with accessibility features. Both can read the screen aloud, control special devices, and make the screen more readable for low vision. Both have some Braille support. Apple has gone deeper with built-in features of late, adding things like audible image description, reading text in images, and visible sound descriptions all using AI technology. One iOS feature that gained prominence is the Back Tap feature, which lets you run a Shortcut when you tap the back of your iPhone.
Payments.Google Pay has a big advantage over Apple Pay: It works on all major platforms, including that of its rival. If you want to pay a friend $10 for your part of the pizza in Apple Pay, that friend must own an Apple device. Apple does offer some appealing benefits with its new credit card, Apple Card, but it’s no problem using rewards in Google Pay. Both let you pay in stores via NFC.
For a more detailed head-to-head comparison, you can read Android vs. iOS: Which Mobile OS Is Best?
What’s Coming in Android 12?
Very little is known about Google’s next major Android update, but recently a Google engineer let it slip that the operating system’s Android Runtime (ART) would become a Mainline module in Android 12. What that means is that this basic component that translates app code to native instructions will be updatable through the Play Store without the carriers’ blessing and will be more consistent among different vendors’ phones. For a deeper dive, read ExtremeTech’s Android 12 Could Include Major App Compatibility Improvements.
Does Android Turn It Up to 11?
Though Android 11 is a much less intensive update than Apple iOS 14, it brings many welcome new features to the mobile table. We’re still waiting on full functionality of its Chat Bubbles, but other new messaging features, as well as screen recording, home controls, media controls, and new privacy settings work well. To be honest, much of what’s new in iOS 14 was already present in Android, so it’s not like Google has to match iOS features. Screen recording and Nearby Share are notable exceptions to this rule.
The issue is how elegantly, consistently the features are implemented, with Apple usually on the winning side of that contest. Perhaps even bigger is that If you have any iPhone from the past five years, you can take advantage of the new iOS features, while fewer than 10 percent of Android phones can. If you want the latest technology first—such as 5G—Android is for you. If you can wait for a more polished version of new features, head to iOS. In all, Android 11 is a worthy upgrade—as long as your phone model supports it. It’s still a PCMag Editors’ Choice, sharing that distinction with the also-impressive iOS 14.
Most current Android phones won’t get it
Some complexity and inconsistency remain, compared with iOS
Less synergy with desktop and wearable ecosystem than iOS
The Bottom Line
Android 11 isn’t a sea change for the leading mobile OS, but the update does bring several welcome conveniences—as long as your device can run it.
This article originally appeared on https://www.pcmag.com/reviews/google-android-11