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The big picture: There are several under-the-hood feature updates and changes arriving as part of Android 12, but the main highlight of this iteration is the new "Material You" design system, which Google calls the "biggest design change in Android's history." This visual revamp comes with a facelifted notification shade, redesigned widgets, bigger, rounder buttons, more subtle animations, and a robust theming system that picks and applies colors from a user's wallpaper across system elements like buttons, sliders, lock screen, and widgets. The first beta of Android 12 is out now for Pixel users (Pixel 3 and later), while the final version - also coming to Pixels first - is expected to arrive later this fall.
At its virtual I/O keynote, Google gave us a glimpse of what’s coming next to Android. Although version 12 and its “Material You” visual overhaul is a few months away (or perhaps years in the case of non-Pixel devices), Google is also looking to implement this design language across its entire ecosystem of products, including ChromeOS, smart devices, watches, tablets, and the web.
Design: Adaptive UI, revamped widgets, fluid animations
An evolution of Material Design, Google's official new "Material You" design language debuting on Android 12 aims to make phones more personalizable. User customization has always been Android's forte, and this iteration goes deeper visually by letting users apply a custom color palette across the entire OS. This is done by extracting dominant and complementary colors from the phone's wallpaper and then applying them to system elements like the lock screen, notification shade, widgets, volume controls, buttons, and more. It's essentially a full-blown version of Google's existing implementation for notification banners that are colored dynamically based on related app content.
The playful redesign is also visible in the updated notification shade and quick settings panel. Elements in these sections get even more rounded corners (similar to Samsung's OneUI), while quick setting toggles (or bubbles as they now look) take up more space for better accessibility.
Widgets have been tweaked as well and now move around with added inertia. They also adjust their background color to suitably match the current wallpaper. For Android 12, Google showcased its Weather and Clock widget for a taster. Additionally, buttons, sliders and fonts will adjust their thickness for better contrast and visibility.
Plenty of new animations have also been added for a more fluid user experience. Dismissing notifications on the lock screen makes the clock bigger, and elements in the notification shade and quick settings panel dynamically adjust shape and size. Overscrolling a page now causes stretching, bouncing, and flinging of visual elements.
The changes may raise fears about slowing system performance, but Google says that under-the-hood improvements have resulted in core services using up to 22% percent less CPU time, and usage of big, power-hungry cores by the system server has been reduced by up to 15%. While the optimizations sound good on paper and will likely reflect on Pixel phones with stock Android, it remains to be seen how (and if) custom OEM skins will benefit from these improvements.
Features: Privacy Dashboard, Android Private Compute Core, Apps and accessibility improvements
In terms of features, Android 12 comes with a new privacy dashboard that's mainly focused on location, camera, and mic usage and permissions. Tapping further reveals a detailed timeline of which apps used a particular permission in the last 24 hours.
Similar to iOS' green/orange dot implementation on the status bar, Android will now show a green indicator on the top right to inform users when an app is using the phone's camera or mic. Two new toggles for these sensors have been added in the quick settings panel to enable/disable system-wide access instantly.
A new approximate location feature has also been introduced to limit what data is being shared. Apps like weather can be set to use approximate location, while ride-hailing or food delivery apps can be set to use precise location.
Another privacy protection feature is what Google calls Android Private Compute Core. This sandboxed part of the system enables audio and language processing features like Live Caption and Smart Reply to be performed locally on the device for better privacy. Google notes that the protections for the Private Computer Core are open source, inspectible and verifiable by the security community.
Additionally, two more privacy-focused measures have been included in Android 12. The first feature is called Quick Delete, which lets users instantly erase the last 15 minutes of their Google Search history with a single tap from the Google Account menu.
The second is Locked Folder for Google Photos. As the name implies, this folder can be used to store sensitive images and can be protected with a password, pin or fingerprint. Photos inside a Locked Folder will also not show in other places on the Photos app. Other feature improvements to the app include smarter photo grids, cinematic moments and more granular control over Memories.
Several accessibility features will also arrive with Android 12. These include a new built-in remote for Android TVs and Chromecast with Google TV, car unlocking with NFC (limited phones and cars initially), better ChromeOS integration with Wi-Fi Direct photo sharing, and better support for third-party app stores.
Google Maps is getting a new routing system as well to help users avoid heavily trafficked roads and will show relevant points of interest based on their time of day (breakfast spots in the morning, dining options in the evening). The app is also getting detailed street maps for over 50 cities by the end of this year with more accurate data for road width, sidewalks, crosswalks and urban trails, and will also show if an area is wheelchair/stroller friendly.