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 isgreat, 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.
- Dark Theme
- Notifications are easier to manage
- Much easier to control privacy permissions
- Gestures don’t let you slide open app drawers
- Overlapping Digital Wellbeing features
- Android updates still take too long to arrive on most phones
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.
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
- Swipeacrossthe 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 useAndroid 10 for a few minutes, it all feels intuitive and fluid. The animations aren’tquiteas nice as they are on an iPhone, but not so much that it’s ever truly bothered me.
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 onallnotifications — 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
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:
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’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.)