Today at Google I/O 2021, we were presented with a new beta build of the next major version of Android. While the final, consumer-ready release isn’t expected until later this year, Android 12 is already shaping up to be one of the most significant updates to the platform in years.
Google is focusing on two main pillars with Android 12: personalization and privacy. The former is something Google’s version of Android has never adopted as a headline feature. And with Apple’s major focus on app tracking transparency in iOS 14.5, it’s more important than ever that Google shows users it’s listening and cares about people’s privacy.
There’s a lot to talk about, so let’s get to it.
Design changes and new features
This is one of the most significant updates to Android since Material Design was first introduced. There will be major visual changes, privacy and security updates, a new theming engine, and much more.
Customization and theming
Android 12 will look entirely different from previous Android versions; it’s more modern and personal than ever. There’s a reason for that: Google developed a new theming engine for Android that extracts colors from your device’s wallpaper and applies them to various parts of the OS, such as your lock screen, quick settings panel, settings menu, widgets, and more.
The system identifies both primary and complementary colors of the wallpaper to apply to the software. And if you aren’t a fan of a particular color scheme, you can customize it.
Unfortunately, the first Android 12 beta does not have the new theming engine. That’ll be added in a release as we near closer to the final release this Fall. It’s coming, but we have to be patient. Dang! You can check out what it will look like in the video above.
In the first Android 12 beta, you get the same customization options you’d normally find on Android 11. You can choose from a number of pre-determined accent colors in the Styles & Wallpapers settings menu. Nothing is applied from your current wallpaper, though. Android 12 will also introduce all-new widgets and a new home screen layout, but again, those aren’t available yet. Those are also shown off in the video above.
The new customization options are all part of Google’s reboot of Material Design, called Material You. You can read more about that here.
Revamped quick settings and notification shade
The quick settings panel has always been one of the most functional tools on Android. This is where you access your brightness slider, various device settings, and even your media control notifications following the launch of Android 11.
Now it’s time for another major change.
The quick settings panel still exists, but it looks entirely different. Gone are the small circular icons and thin brightness slider. Each icon is a long, rectangular button containing the individual settings icon, description, and status.
The layout has changed significantly, too. Android 11 showed six quick settings icons with the first pulldown of the shade, then an expanded view of those six icons in three columns. Android 12 only shows four quick settings on the first pulldown, then two columns of four icons (totaling eight) on the second. It’s a small functional change, but I don’t see any issues with it so far.
Above the quick settings icons, the brightness slider is now much thicker than before. You can’t miss it. Below the icons are three new buttons for system controls: edit, settings, and power. Well, there will be three icons. In the first beta, you only get edit and settings buttons.
The media control notifications are still on the bottom but are more rounded than before. Functionality is the same as it was in Android 11. Now, though, Android 12 shows a small icon for changing your media output device. In Android 11, this was a much larger icon with the name of the media output device, which took up more space.
Google will add Google Pay cards and smart home controls in the quick settings menu, meaning Android 11’s dedicated power control menu will be sunsetted with this release.
New lock screen and always-on display
Android’s lock screen and always-on displays have also gone unchanged over the years, but that’s changing with Android 12.
In previous versions, you’d only see a static digital clock with the date and weather underneath. Notifications would show up below that, while the battery percentage was found at the very bottom of the screen.
Android 12 introduces a new clock that takes up a big part of the display when you have no notifications. It’s easy to see from a distance, and the bigger clock should signal you that there are no new notifications to check. When a notification comes in, it appears in its normal spot (in the center of the screen), but the clock, date, and weather info minimizes and moves to the top-left of the screen. I love the way it looks.
I also like Android 12’s redesigned PIN pad. It almost takes up the entire display and no longer shows your wallpaper in the background. I find it to be clearer than before.
There are lots of new, little animations throughout Android 12, but my favorite is on the lock screen. If you wake the screen by pressing your phone’s power button, the display will light up, starting at the power button. If you put your screen to sleep with the power button, the display will fade into the power button. It’s a nice touch.
Quick to call the Google Assistant
Google’s first four Pixel phones had a feature called Active Edge, which allowed you to squeeze the phone’s sides to activate the Google Assistant. The Pixel 5 line does not have that feature, but Android 12 introduces an arguably better way to perform the action.
You can now long-press the power button to access the Assistant. At least in the first Android 12 beta, you need to manually enable it by heading to Settings>System>Gestures>Power menu. This enables the functionality, but it completely removes the ability to turn your phone off with the power button. Again, that will be addressed with a later release.
In my limited time with the software, I’ve already found the feature to be useful. I miss Active Edge on my Pixel 5, so having quick access to the Assistant is a welcome feature for me. However, I might be alone here; not many people liked when Samsung did the same thing with Bixby years ago. That was Bixby, though, not Google Assistant, which is approximately 1,000% more helpful than Samsung’s assistant.
Privacy Dashboard and improved permissions
It seems Google adds new privacy features to each major version of Android, and this year is no different. While they aren’t yet live in the first Android 12 beta, each of these features will be live in the consumer release later this year.
My colleague Adamya covered all the privacy features here, which you should check out if you want all the details.
Android 12 is getting a new Privacy Dashboard section in its settings menu. It shows you how apps access each one of your permissions throughout the day. If you want to see which apps are using your location, for instance, the Privacy Dashboard will show you a complete timeline as to which apps accessed your location and at what time. From there, you can revoke access to a specific app if you don’t like what you see. It doesn’t have app limitations, either — first- and third-party applications will be tracked by the Privacy Dashboard.
Google is getting even more serious about privacy in Android 12, but is it enough?
Next, Google is giving more control to users who don’t want their camera or microphone used at all times. In Android 12, you’ll see a little green pill on the top-right of your screen whenever an app accesses your camera or microphone. If you see the pill show up and want to revoke access, you can now do so by shutting off access to your camera or microphone in the quick settings menu.
There are two new tiles — one for the camera, another for the mic — that completely shut off access to those sensors. Apps will only be able to access them again once those toggles are switched back on.
Another small but useful change: if you don’t want an app to access your precise location, there will be a new “approximate location” permission in Android 12. This will give an app a large area where you might be, but it won’t reveal your exact pinpoint location.
Even with all the privacy improvements in Android 12, the company is still remaining quiet about transparency regarding the way apps track your personal information. Apple recently rolled out its App Tracking Transparency feature in iOS. While controversial, it essentially allows users to turn off app tracking for specific apps, meaning you’ll get fewer targeted ads as a result. Google didn’t mention it at I/O, though it told The Verge that it’d have more to share at a later date.
Android Authority recently ran a poll, asking readers if they want Google to implement something like this on Android. Without giving all the details away, yeah, you could say Android users want more transparency on how apps track their information.
The other stuff
If you can believe it, even more features are coming to Android 12.
- Android TV remote in Android 12: If you often lose your TV remote, this one’s for you. In Android 12, your phone will be able to control your Android TV device. You’ll be able to navigate around the interface and type with your phone.
- Use your phone as a digital car key: This year, you’ll be able to unlock your car with just your Android phone using your phone’s NFC or UWB technology. This will roll out to select Pixel and Samsung phones this Fall. Read more here.
- Phone Hub on Chromebooks: Later this year, you’ll be able to check the status of your phone from your Chromebook. You’ll be able to respond to Chat messages and open recently accessed Chrome tabs on your phone, right on your computer.
And those are just the new features announced today! We’re not even including all the rumored features like scrolling screenshot support, or the revamped notifications, the new settings menu, or the new one-handed mode we learned about in the first few developer previews. Read more about all the new and rumored features in Android 12 here.
Should you install Android 12?
All Android developer previews and betas should be installed at your own risk. These builds are not ready for personal use and may contain serious bugs that could stop you from performing important functions with your phone. We advise against installing the first Android 12 beta on your primary smartphone. It’s much safer to install the Android 12 beta on a secondary device or one you don’t need to rely on.
With that said, the first beta is traditionally more stable than the developer previews that came before it. I’ve experienced very few bugs and stability issues throughout my time with the software. However, just because I’ve not run into any issues, that doesn’t mean you won’t. If you still wish to proceed, follow these instructions to install Android 12 on your Pixel.
Our take on Android 12 so far
It’s always difficult to come to conclusions before things are finalized, but that’s not really the case with the first Android 12 beta. I really like what I see so far.
I think Matias Duarte, Google’s Design team, and its software and hardware teams are working more cohesively than ever. The theming features, lock screen, and quick settings are in-your-face, but even the subtle animations that Google plastered all around the OS show the company is thinking about the little things. It’s a joy to use, even if all the features aren’t there yet, and I can’t wait until the next beta launches.
Android needed a visual refresh, and I don’t think anyone expected it to come on this strongly. Now, if only Google could get its act together with app tracking privacy, we’d have even more to gush about.