Compared to iOS 14 or 15, Android 12 is primarily a cosmetic update. Its design and interface feel fresh and dynamic but it won’t change the way we use Android on our smartphones on a regular basis. In short, everything we love and love about Android (like the app drawer and widgets) are still out there, just now everything looks different. There are also some new features that many of us have been waiting for. So, let’s take a look at what’s new.
I received the Android 12 update on my Google Pixel 4a, which is (sadly) the most recently launched Pixel smartphone you can officially buy in India. Since this is a Pixel, the software update was available shortly after the Pixel 6 launch. It measures around 1.69GB in size, which isn’t huge even for a mid-range smartphone.
After installing the update, my attention immediately turned to the lock screen. In the upper-left corner is a big, bold digital clock and a fancy animation, even when you press the unlock/power button to wake the device or put it to sleep. Notifications now appear in a more compact format that resembles a card. However, this card-like layout means that unless you expand a piece of information, there’s even less text to read.
Once unlocked, so is the home screen, which has received a major chunk of this UI overhaul. A long press lets you access the Wallpapers & Styles menu and the new Widgets menu.
The Wallpapers & Styles menu is where you can access Android 12’s new theme engine. You can either go with basic colors or let the system generate a color palette and theme based on the colors of your wallpaper. There’s also a toggle for themed icons, which will change the appearance of system app icons (Phone, Contacts, Play Store, Photos, etc.) to match the wallpaper and theme.
The Widgets menu is where you’ll find all of your Android widgets, including new customizations from Google’s services (Keep, Calendar, etc.), a new conversation widget that lets you pin an active or recent conversation, and Common Android widgets from third-party apps. The Conversations widget is a cool way to bring a conversation from a particular app to the home screen, and it’ll keep updating every time a new message arrives. I tried this with WhatsApp and Slack, and they worked surprisingly well. Tapping on the widget will open the relevant app and take you to the conversation, but you cannot chat within the widget itself.
While the way incoming notifications are displayed has mostly remained the same, the layout of the quick settings toggle has changed significantly. Some might call this an epic waste of space, but the newer and larger buttons are easier to tap, and it all feels good considering the content you’re designed for.
One feature that many people have been asking for, and have finally made it to Android, is the notification history. The button for this appears at the very bottom of the notification tray, and tapping on it opens a separate section that neatly categorizes all your notifications under Recent Dismissed and Last 24 Hours (which is basically Clubs all information received on the device by any app). The catch here is that History will only show you the compact notifications you see in the tray, and tapping on any of them won’t take you to the particular event or message in the app that generated it, but will only open the app’s notifications menu. .
The search bar inside the app drawer has become quite powerful. You can search not only apps, but also people and conversations within apps. Tapping on a message result takes you directly to the chat window in that particular app. The results of these searches depend entirely on how many conversations you’ve had with your contacts recently.
Tapping on Privacy in Settings will now show all privacy related controls in one place. There’s a privacy dashboard that lets you take a quick look through detailed records to see which apps are accessing your camera, microphone, location, and more in the last 24 hours. You can revoke camera access, microphone access, and more for each app with a single tap by simply swiping up on a toggle. Opening the Camera or Recorder app will now display a theme-matching icon (followed by a dot) in the upper right corner of the display to let you know if the camera or microphone is being used.
There is a new Game Dashboard which has some gaming-related features. When enabled, it basically displays a floating widget that lets you take screenshots, record gameplay, toggle DND, and monitor FPS while playing the game. There is also an option to live stream your gameplay to your YouTube account.
Android 11’s power button menu is no longer there, along with access to connected IoT devices and payment options. Long pressing the Power/Unlock button now opens a pop-up with Emergency, Lockdown, Power off and Restart buttons.
I quickly annoyed the fact that the Settings shortcut in the notification shade is now only accessible after an additional swipe (expanded toggle view). If you access it frequently, you’ll need to have a Settings icon on your Home screen. The Settings app appears a bit different, with menu items now varying according to the content you design, but it remains mostly the same in terms of functionality.
I also noticed some bugs within a few hours of using Android 12. For one, the theming engine requires a full phone restart to take effect across all of Google’s apps (like Photos, Calendar and more), as some apps may get stuck on the old theme by then. The same goes for some home screen widgets that don’t refresh after changing to a new theme.
Software performance isn’t noticeably faster on the Pixel 4a than on Android 11. Battery life is a concern after a major software update, and so far I’m a little surprised that it feels better than ever. So, Android 12 (at least on the Pixel 4a) appears to be a stable update.
It remains to be seen whether the interface changes that are apparent on Pixel devices will be on smartphones made by other manufacturers such as Samsung, Oppo and Xiaomi, all of which emphasize the benefits of their own custom UI. At the moment, the Monet theme engine is reserved entirely for Pixel devices, but this may change with future versions of Android 12 as reported. XDA.
The same goes for privacy features, which I expect other Android makers to include, such as Digital Wellbeing now found on all Android smartphones. Also, I’m not even sure how many third-party app developers will update their existing widgets (many of which haven’t been updated for years). New Content You-themed widgets are currently only available from Google-branded apps.
There’s a lot to like about Android 12 and reason enough to upgrade to it, provided you have a Pixel device. Those who are using Android-powered smartphones from other manufacturers will have to wait and see when Android 12 arrives and what it will look like when merged with their respective custom skins. For now, Oppo’s ColorOS 12, Realme’s Realme UI 3.0, Samsung’s OneUI 4.0 and OnePlus’ OxygenOS all showcase their custom implementations of Android 12, and none of them look anything like the Pixel experience. It also needs to be noted that these are beta versions, so there is room for change until the final version is available.
For now, Android 12 is only available on Pixel smartphones, from the Pixel 3 to the new Pixel 6 Pro. For Android users in India, the update is limited to the Pixel 3, Pixel 3XL, Pixel 3a, Pixel 3a XL and Pixel 4a (Review), which was launched in India last year, for now. There is no confirmation on when it will arrive on devices made by other smartphone makers.