It is once again time for Google’s big yearly Android rollout. This year we’re up to “Android 10,” though if we’re counting by API levels (which actually go up one per release) this is the 29th release of Android.
For most of 2019, this new software snack has been in beta under the name “Android Q,” and we’ve seen a whopping six beta releases.
Normally that “Q” would turn into a snack-themed codename with the final release, but this year the “Q” apparently stands for “Quitters”—the codename branding is dead. Android is going on a textual diet and it’s just “Android 10,” with no snacks attached.
Despite the change, Android 10 brings a lot of tasty, frequently user-requested changes to Android. The OS is finally getting a dark mode, the share menu is getting revamped, and gesture navigation has seen huge improvements over the half-baked version introduced in Android 9. Developers have a host of new APIs to play with, including support for upcoming foldable smartphones, floating app “Bubbles,” and a new, more generalized biometrics API. And on top of all that, there’s a host of changes to work around, like considerations for the new gesture navigation system and new app restrictions focused on privacy and security. Even the notification panel is getting a fresh injection of artificial intelligence, and of course there are new emoji.
The under-the-hood work on Android modularity continues, as always, with Android 10. This year “Project Mainline” is the highlighted engineering effort. This initiative creates a new, more powerful file type for system-level code, and it sees several chunks of functionality move out of the difficult-to-update core OS and into the Play Store, where they will get monthly updates. There’s new dual boot functionality, too, which will allow curious users to quickly switch between retail and beta builds of Android.
As has become Ars tradition, we will be covering every single change in excruciating detail. So even if Google is ditching the snack theme, you may want to grab your own snack before diving in to the following 20,000+ words of Android 10 intel.
Table of Contents
Android 10— Android 10
Before we jump into the actual operating system we should probably talk about the name. For years Android versions have launched with snack-based code names alongside the version number. We had Android 1.5 Cupcake 1.6 Donut, 2.0 Eclair, 2.2 Froyo, 2.3 Gingerbread, 3.0 Honeycomb, 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, 4.1 Jelly Bean, 4.4 KitKat, 5.0 Lollipop, 6.0 Marshmallow, 7.0 Nougat, 8.0 Oreo, and Android 9 Pie. The names were a way to add a bit of whimsy to an Android release, with fun speculation and jokes about what the name might be, and an eventual statue unveiling with the release of the OS. The codenames were alphabetical, so this year we were supposed to get a snack that started with “Q.”
With Android 10 the codename system is coming to an end though. Android 10 is just “Android 10” with no extra names. In an August blog post, Google said the codename system was ending because it wasn’t “always understood by everyone in the global community:”
For example, L and R are not distinguishable when spoken in some languages. So when some people heard us say Android Lollipop out loud, it wasn’t intuitively clear that it referred to the version after KitKat. It’s even harder for new Android users, who are unfamiliar with the naming convention, to understand if their phone is running the latest version. We also know that pies are not a dessert in some places, and that marshmallows, while delicious, are not a popular treat in many parts of the world.
In addition to the new name, Android is getting a new wordmark and a tweaked color scheme. While the wordmark is not that exciting, the little Android robot logo (usually called the “Bugdroid”) is now a part of the wordmark, with its head sitting on top of or next to the letters. The bugdroid injects a bit of fun into the logo when animated. In Google’s videos it tends to spring out of the ground, the antennas wiggle, and the eyes blink. One of Google’s images even shows him looking around.
Gesture Navigation—Massive improvements, but not quite done yet
The biggest feature in Android 10 is easily the gesture navigation, which has gotten a major rework in this release. Google started down this path with last year’s Android 9 Pie release, but with Android 10 it now has “fully gestural navigation.”
The Android 9 implementation of gesture navigation was a mess. Google started with Android’s traditional three-button navigation system: Back, Home, and Recent Apps, and then converted a single button—Recent Apps—into a gesture. The functionality of the other two buttons was mostly left alone. This made the navigation bar look really weird, with a Back button, Home button, and then a blank space where Recent Apps used to be. It also made the functionally pretty strange, with a single tap for two of the navigation functions and a gesture for the third.
Android 9’s gesture navigation also didn’t offer the user any benefits. The main sales pitch of gesture navigation on the iPhone X and many third-party Android manufacturer skins is that it saves screen real estate. When every navigation command is a swipe gesture, you don’t need a big space for navigation buttons anymore. On Android, that means reclaiming around 7% of your screen real estate from the three button bar, while on an iPhone, it means removing the hardware home button on the front bezel and adding a much bigger display.
The Android 9 implementation didn’t save any screen real estate. It was a strange, awkward half-step toward gesture navigation, but it was also optional. So for most phones, it was easy to just forget about. Unless, of course, you bought the Pixel 3, in which case it the new navigation was mandatory and a big negative for the device.
The “fully gestural” navigation in Android 10 is a huge improvement and solves most of the major problems we had with the Android 9 implementation. Best of all, after the mess that was mandatory gestures on the Pixel 3, Google actually committed to ecosystem rules that will keep the old three-button navigation bar around for all devices, because it meets some accessibility needs.
So what’s actually new in the new gesture system? The first big improvement is that everything is a gesture now. Some kind of swipe movement can trigger Home, Back, Recent Apps, the Google Assistant, and a few other extras. The second big improvement is that this version of gesture navigation finally saves screen space. In correctly-configured apps, the system bar becomes completely transparent, replaced only with a thin horizontal bar to indicate the gesture area, just like an iPhone X. “Works more like iOS” is a concise way to describe the way the new gesture navigation works, and that’s great, since that’s what everyone has been asking for since Google started all of this with Android Pie.
Now, meet the new gestures:
That’s a lot to remember, but the “big three” of “Back,” “Home,” and “Recent Apps” are easy enough to figure out if you’re a seasoned gesture-navigation user. Just like on iOS, I think users completely new to gesture navigation will need a while to become accustomed to gesture navigation. But these three are easy to remember and quickly become second nature.
The animation and physicality of some of these gestures is great. If you’re in an app and you swipe up from the bottom to trigger Home or Recent Apps, the app zooms out a bit and follows your finger. From here, you get a seamless transition to either screen: if you’re triggering “Home” and the app has a home screen icon, the app will shrink down and disappear into its home-screen icon. If you’re headed to Recent Apps, the app thumbnail will seamlessly shrink into its place in the app thumbnail carousel.
These gestures are, again, just like iOS. But that doesn’t stop them from being wonderful to use, as if you’re physically moving app thumbnails around with the gestures. Opening Recent Apps really does feel like you’re grabbing the app and pushing it up into its spot in the Recent Apps thumbnail carousel. My favorite touch is that you can undo this gesture by just doing it in reserve. Drag a Recent Apps thumbnail down and it will expand, filling the screen, exiting Recent apps, and returning to the app.
Recent Apps doesn’t work as well from the home screen, where it conflicts with the opening of the app drawer. Both start with a swipe up, so if you do a “swipe up and hold” on the home screen for Recent Apps, the app drawer begins to rise up. Then it realizes you want Recent Apps, so it slides down, and then Recent Apps slides in from the side of the screen. If all this sounds busy and messy, it totally is! Older versions of Android had an app-drawer button that didn’t require a swipe up. Going back to that seems like it would be much nicer, as doing so would remove the conflict with Recent apps.
The quick-switch gesture is excellent. Swiping left and right on the gesture bar will let you smoothly slide through the Recent Apps carousel from a full-screen view and, again, feels like you’re physically pushing app windows around. This looks and feels great, with silky smooth animations as the apps slide to the side. I feel like this is one of those UI interactions with a “high fidget factor”—I’ve caught myself just sliding through apps a few times, for no reason, just because it’s fun.
The Google Assistant gesture—swipe in from the bottom corner—is one of the less-obvious gestures of the bunch. But Android offers continual reminders when you unlock the phone. For a second or two after unlocking, L-shaped corner indicators appear saying “Hey, you can do something here!” and hopefully after some brief experimentation, users will stumble onto the right gesture.
Once you do figure out the Google Assistant gesture, the animation attached to it looks great. The L-shaped gesture indicators turn into segmented Google logo colors (red, yellow, blue, and green) and grow along the bottom edge of the display. When they connect in the middle, the Google Assistant opens with the usual white pop-up card. It’s fun. Previously, you could open the Google Assistant by long-pressing the home button. With that button’s removal, it’s reassuring that there is a new gesture to take its place.