Google embraces the notch in Android P, here’s everything else the new version of our favourite OS is bringing

Whatever it is that comes to mind when the letter P is mentioned doesn’t matter any more. Only one P matters going forward: Android P. Android P is upon us.

The first public preview of Android P, announced yesterday, is already available for download and installation on eligible devices i.e. Google’s own Pixel smartphones. The party crowd is small at this point and it doesn’t include any Nexus devices or those that are in the Android One program, understandably so. It’s just the early days. We expect things to change by the time the final release candidate is out.

1. The notch

The most prominent addition coming to Android with Android P is the embracing of a rather odd feature, if we may call it that way, the notch. Honestly, I don’t understand the silly obsession with the notch but since it’s here and it’s not going anywhere any time soon as each Android device maker tries to outdo each other by shrinking bezels as much as they can, it was only a matter of time before tweaks were made to the operating system to properly accomodate it. I mean, whose OCD allows them to unsee Android system notifications that are cut in half simply because there’s a cutout where they would normally show up?

2. The end of the road for HTTP support

No, not that you won’t be able to read sites that haven’t yet, started encrypting the information passed from their servers to your browser tabs. This is a slightly different play though just close to that. This is for the developers. To put it in simple terms, any communication between the apps that users install on their devices and any servers that are supposed to communicate with their devices, will have to be secure i.e. via an encryption… HTTPS.

3. New take on the volume slider

Normally, when you use the volume buttons on your phone to adjust the volume either up or down, the slider shows up near the top of the display area horizontally. That’s not the case in Android P, it turns out. Even though Google did not publicize this in the P preview release notes, those who’ve had a hands-on with Android P are already reporting that there is a new world order. Interesting.

4. Better support for autofill feature introduced in Android Oreo

In Android Oreo, Google finally embraced apps that we had been using for quite some time like Lastpass and other password managers but whose usefulness was quite limited as we had to make do with the quirky workarounds that they deployed just so that they could get things done. In Android P, Google is fine-tuning the experience. This is brilliant because when fully implemented, I will be able to save new passwords to my password manager of choice just like I am able to on desktop.

On desktop, particularly when using the Chrome browser, Google will always offer to save new passwords and, instantly, these passwords become accessible on any Android device logged in with the same account as that on Chrome. If you have no idea what I am talking about, this is one of the functions of Smart Lock, a very useful Android feature. Just like with third-party password managers, Google Smart Lock will also be prompting users to save any new passwords on mobile. Great!

5. Better support for HDR content

HDR stands for High Dynamic Range. Basically, HDR is the expansion of the range of brightness and colour that is displayed, something that older (like the ones we’ve known for most of our lives) video formats are not able to achieve due to limitations (like, for instance, how much blacker can black get?). In short, better contrast, greater brightness levels and a wider colour palette so that content looks “so real” like in real life.

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The standard has been making its way to devices in recent years. Last year marked a head when it came to devices having support for HDR right off the bat. LG’s flagship G6 started it and Samsung ran away with it on the Galaxy S8 and S8+. Since then, it’s become a feature to look out for since for most of us, it is only on smartphones that we will be able to consume HDR content as TV sets that support it are still beyond the reach of many.

With that in mind, it was only a matter of time before the standard was embraced wider by the Android community. Google is making that possible by adding a specific format that makes it easier for content producers to deliver HDR content to users through YouTube, Google Play Movies (which you can’t access if you live in Kenya, anyway) and other sources. The only caveat here is that a user’s device needs to be HDR-capable. That shouldn’t be a problem to anyone grabbing the Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9+.

6. Restrictions on idle apps

Why would an app you’re not using at a given time still want access to your phone’s microphone? Camera? That’s how rogue apps end up spying on unsuspecting users. In Android P, Google is ending all that truancy. Apps that are not in use won’t have access to a device’s camera, microphone(s) and sensors.

7. Enhanced notifications for messaging apps

Android notifications have for years been considered a mess. As a result, it has become common to expect that Google will take its time to address the matter in some form or the other every other time there’s an Android update.

In Android P, Google’s focus is on something it has already had its eyes on for a while: messaging and message apps. Developers will be able to integrate into their apps functionality that allows users to “show conversations, attach photos and stickers, and even suggest smart replies”. It is worth noting that just the other day, Google started testing an interesting new app, Reply, which brings the concept of Smart Replies that we have already seen on Android before through Google’s email apps Gmail and Inbox, to pretty much every other messaging app. We’ll have more details about Reply soon or when it comes out of beta.

8. Security improvements

While Android Marshmallow brought native support for fingerprint sensors to Android, the implementation of the feature for use in apps has been haphazard, at best. Each developer has been left to their own devices and there’s no standard way of knowing whether the app that is requesting access to a fingerprint scanner is actually doing so with good intentions or because it wants to benefit the user. That is changing in Android P.

9. Better location-positioning indoors

“Android P adds platform support for the IEEE 802.11mc WiFi protocol — also known as WiFi Round-Trip-Time (RTT) — to let you take advantage of indoor positioning in your apps.”

What this means is that, on compatible devices and apps, users should be able to get better targeted information (location-based) and, where necessary even offer more accurate turn-by-turn instructions (think large malls or exhibition halls at trade shows).

10. Better support for multiple cameras and third-party camera apps

There’s been a trend in terms of how I use the camera on my smartphones for the last 5 years. While in my earlier days I would use third-party camera apps because of all the refreshing ideas and fancy desirable features they had, I have pretty much been resigned to using the stock camera app on any device I use. This is because many times, the images I am able to capture using it are much better than what I can get by using a third-party camera. Why is this so? Well, Google is to blame, to some extent. The custodian of the platform we love has for long restricted access to certain features. That changes with Android P. So, yeah Camera MX, Open Camera and all the other camera apps that are insanely popular on the Play Store will be having more stuff to play with. Can’t wait to see what they do with access to OIS (optical image stabilization.

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One of the variants of the Huawei P20, when it arrives at the end of the month, will have a triple camera system at the back. Pray, tell, what will all those cameras do? Most times, all the dual-camera setups either on the front or the back that we have seen so far are executed in such a way that only one camera is in use at any given time. Only few, like Huawei (and copied by Xiaomi) have been able to harness the full potential of both lenses in one go. That changes with Android P. Developers are getting the leeway to figure out what more they can do with all those “eyes”.

The “other stuff”

While most of the features detailed on the Android Developers blog are important, I have taken a biased view based on my usage of the Android platform to decide what to prioritize here. Still, there are several other equally important features, most that only developers in the house will be interested to hear about while the rest will just be waiting to draw on the benefits they get as a result of their implementation. Features like:

  • Battery life is getting better in Android P because of improvements to Doze (the feature that determines when idle apps go into sleep mode so as to stop consuming battery) App Standby (checks up the state of an app to determine if a user is using it before proceeding to execute planned tasks that are scheduled for when the app is not in demand) and Background Limits (like Doze but think of it in terms of memory management).
  • A more-optimized Kotlin (Kotlin is a new Android programming language introduced last year).
  • A more efficient ART (Android Runtime).
  • Better support for on-device machine learning. If you were getting tired of all that AI (Artificial Intelligence) empty talk by device makers for marketing purposes then brace yourself for more hype when the real stuff gets going.
  • On the multimedia support front, it’s not just HDR that is getting all the love. There’s also support for a new image format (like JPEG, PNG etc), HEIF, that has been added in Android P.

Now, serious matters aside, let’s get petty (see what I did there?): what do you think Android P will be called?

Have something that you believe I need to have a look at? Hit me up: echenze [at] androidkenya.com