MOUNTAIN VIEW, CALIF.—With Google I/O winding down, we finally have a spare second to look at the newest release of Android P. The second developer preview moves the OS into “beta,” and it’s not just for Pixel devices, as it also runs on a host of third-party flagship phones, thanks to Project Treble.
Recent Apps, system navigation, and the settings have seen major upgrades; other than that, it looks a lot like Preview 1.
Recent Apps—Bigger, horizontal, and copy/pastable
Android P brings big changes to Recent Apps, which scrolls horizontally now instead of vertically. Thumbnails are a lot bigger, and below the horizontal row of thumbnails is a search bar and a row of suggested app icons.
Thumbnails used to get a title bar with an app icon in Android O. In P, they don’t have any title bars are all, and instead have an icon overlaid on the top edge. The larger thumbnails bring the added bonus of being able to easily read text in a thumbnail. If you want to quickly reference something, the bigger, high-quality thumbnails are nice. Not only can you read the thumbnails though, you can also interact with them. You can long press on any text to bring up the usual text selection controls, and you can also long press on a picture in Google Photos and copy it. I hope the plan is to make it super easy to copy and paste text from one thumbnail to another, but right now pasting into an input box doesn’t really work. Long pressing on the input box in Gmail actually selects the placeholder label text (things like “Subject” and “to” in Gmail) and there is never an option to “paste.” It’s a developer’s preview and things are broken.
A lot of the things you can long press on and “select” in a Recent Apps thumbnail are truly strange. If you screenshot some text, you can . You can also select random UI elements like app icons.
There are a few regressions in this design. The “dismiss all” button is gone, so for the OCD-types out there, there’s no way to easily remove all the thumbnails. There’s also no way to easily trigger split-screen mode. You used to be able to long press on the Recent Apps button—that doesn’t work now—or you could drag a thumbnail to the top or bottom of the screen—and that doesn’t work, either. What you can do is long press on the thumbnail nail, at which point a menu will pop up and you can pick “split screen.” Right now activating split screen is a huge hassle, and the feature feels like an afterthought with the new design.
One interesting part of the new Recent Apps is that it is no longer part of system UI. The code for Recent Apps now lives in the Pixel Launcher on DP2. Keep in mind most of the launcher code isn’t in the Pixel launcher, but is instead in the Google App. Before the Pixel launcher was only a small stub application that was enabled the Google apps’ launcher functionality, but now the Pixel launcher is actually gaining functional code.
Recent Apps living in the Pixel launcher app means the interface could now be updated through the Play Store. I doubt it could be changed through a third-party launcher (it probably needs system-level permissions), but it is a bit more flexible.
Google came clean about its new design language at Google I/O, called the “Google Material Theme,” but it doesn’t seem like it was applied to this screen. If everything in Google Material has rounded corners, and the display has rounded corners, shouldn’t the recent app thumbnails have rounded corners?
Gesture controls are a hot mess
Remember this is a developer preview, so things are not finished, and sure enough the current state of gesture controls need a lot of work. By default, Android P has the normal system UI bar, but if you go to settings ⇒ system ⇒ gestures ⇒ “swipe up from home button,” you can enable the new gesture system. Internally, the new gesture buttons and new Recent Apps interface are referred to as “Quick Step.”
Turn on gesture controls, and the Recent Apps buttons will disappear, back will occasionally disappear, and you’ll get an elongated home button. Tapping on the button will, as usual, go home, while long pressing will open the Google Assistant. Swiping halfway up the screen will open Recent Apps, and swiping all the way up the screen will open the app drawer. Swiping up the screen halfway twice will open Recent Apps on the first swipe and the app drawer on the second swipe. Swiping to the right on the home button will open Recent Apps and launch the previous app. Swiping and holding will make the home button act like a scroll bar, and you can rapidly flip through Recent Apps thumbnails.
Are you confused yet? There are way too many functions, and it is very easy to accidentally activate one function when you meant to activate another. Using the gestures never feels particularly fast, and things like opening the app drawer, which now requires two short swipes or a very long swipe, is significantly slower than the old style of just swiping up on the home screen.
The back button doesn’t have a gesture, but the functionality of the back button changes when you enable gesture navigation. It disappears when it can’t be used, which pretty much only happens on the home screen. The rest of the time, the back button appears and works like normal. The current build of Android P shows the old back button design, which is just an outline. It doesn’t match the solid white Pixel home button and looks out of place. Plus, the back button, home button, and blank space where Recent Apps used be all combine for a lopsided bottom bar that just looks ugly and unfinished. I can’t see any way the current design makes it through the Preview process.
Gesture controls also offer no benefit to the UI because the system bar still exist at the bottom of the screen, and still takes up just as much space as usual. When gesture controls are finished, you have to imagine that the system bar will go away and apps will go all the way to the bottom of the screen. Right now the only thing gesture controls does is remove buttons; it doesn’t save any screen space at all.