O my! 5 key takeaways from Google's Android O preview

A simple breakdown and some important perspective on what matters the most with Google's first Android O preview.

Google Android O Preview

Surprise! Just when you thought Android news couldn't possibly get any slower (hi, Bixby!), Google came along and dropped an early preview of Android O right in our laps.

Now, I know: You're probably still waiting for last year's Nougat release to arrive on your confounded phone. It's no secret that with the exception of Google's own Pixel and Nexus devices, Android upgrade delivery isn't exactly an urgent affair. It's easy to see why, and the answer is anything but simple.

Still, the world keeps a-turnin' -- and even if most people won't touch it til months after its launch, a new major Android release is on the way.

It's still early days for Android O, as it's known today (no official name or number yet) -- but it's not too soon to start taking notice. Here's what you (you, you) oughta know about the software right now:

1. Android O has the usual set of under-the-hood improvements -- plus a couple marquee features and some interesting smaller flourishes.

With pretty much every new operating system update, you can expect to hear a spiel about how it's gonna make areas like battery life and performance better than ever. Android O is no exception: The first new feature Google's highlighting in O as of now is a new system for background limits that promises to help apps guzzle less power.

Beyond that, O adds support for something called notification channels. It's kind of confusing, but in short, it's a way for you to take greater control of how any individual app is allowed to alert you.

Apps that support the feature will categorize their notifications into a series of channels. For instance, Facebook could theoretically split its notifications into channels like "Messages," "Likes," and "Feed Activity." You could then block or lower the priority of one of those types of notifications without affecting all of the app's notifications, as you would have to do now. I can't imagine this is something most normal people will mess with, but it could be a nice additional level of control for those who want it -- assuming, of course, any significant number of apps actually puts in the effort to support it.

Another marquee addition is the ability to have picture-in-picture video on all devices -- so you could start playing a video in YouTube, for example, and then shrink that video down into a floating window while going about other business. (This feature was actually added into Android with last year's N release but was limited to Android TV devices at the time.) Again, it'll require apps to add support before it'll work in any given instance, but that's kinda the whole point of this developer preview process.

And then there's the smattering of little but potentially quite useful additions -- things like:

  • The ability to snooze notifications and set them to come back at a specific later time (huzzah!)
  • A better way for apps to autofill information throughout your device without requiring weird workarounds as they do now (think LastPass and the likes)
  • An "adaptive icon" system that'll let launchers change the shapes and styles of icons on the fly
  • A newly reorganized (yes, again!) system settings setup -- something we'll presumably see on Google's own Nexus and Pixel phones but probably not in too many other places
  • System-level support for optional iOS-style "notification badges" on home screen icons
  • An expanded and more easily accessible native file manager
  • Some new power-user tricks in the System UI Tuner, like the ability to set your own custom shortcuts in the corners of the lock screen and an intriguing new option for tweaking the main system navigation bar

It's worth noting that any of these things could change or disappear by the time a final Android O release arrives. This early in the process in particular, pretty much everything is in flux and nothing is guaranteed to stay the same.

2. Making Android work better on laptops seems to be a big focus of the O release.

Google's been working on bringing Android and Chrome OS closer together for quite a while now, and a key part of that ongoing "merger" is the ability to run Android apps on Chromebook devices. (Huh -- who woulda thought that'd turn out to be so significant?)

While the apps themselves are already there, however, the actual experience remains somewhat awkward -- because, plain and simple, most Android apps weren't designed to run in a laptop-like environment.

Android O takes steps to fix that. The software introduces a new model for keyboard navigation within apps -- what Google describes as a "more reliable, predictable" setup for the way things like arrow keys and the tab key will work when you're using apps on a keyboard-packing device. In theory, that should help Android apps feel a bit more native to the Chromebook environment instead of feeling like fish out of water.

Android O also allows apps to play nicer with multiple displays -- another scenario that's pretty clearly tailored to the Chrome OS side of the equation. All in all, it's becoming increasingly clear (yet again) that Google's alignment of Chrome OS and Android is more than just a passing fancy.

3. There's almost certainly more to come.

If you're thinking, "Wait, this is it?!" -- well, you aren't alone. But remember: This is just the first developer preview in an ongoing process that'll lead up to the final Android O release. What we're seeing now is almost certainly not the full picture of what the software will ultimately have to offer.

For one, it's entirely possible and quite likely that Google is holding onto some features for either a later preview version or the final O release. And beyond that, you have to consider that with Android in particular, the OS is only part of the story. Equally consequential will be the numerous accompanying changes to standalone Google apps and services that'll support, supplement, and enhance the foundational changes we're seeing at the OS level.

Not least of all in that list is what could be next for Google Assistant. We've heard rumblings that Assistant could be taking a more prominent and system-level role in Android starting with the O release -- and that's something to keep an eye on in the months ahead.

4. Unless you're a developer or a brave enthusiast with a spare device sitting around, this version of Android O probably isn't for you.

Speaking of the whole "we aren't finished yet" factor, the current developer preview version of Android O is just that -- a developer preview. And an extremely early one, at that.

Google is upfront about the fact that this release is intended for developers only and not for consumer use. It's also not recommended for any sort of device that you depend upon for day-to-day use -- and for good reason: The software in its current state is unfinished, rough around the edges, and ridden with bugs. That's not a knock on Google or its Android development team by any stretch of the imagination; it's simply par for the course when you're dealing with an early preview version of something still months away from its actual ship date.

In other words, Android O probably isn't for you -- yet. But that'll change soon.

5. We should see a more stable Android O preview in May and a final release sometime in the third quarter.

The next Android O preview release is scheduled to land sometime in May -- around the same time Google's I/O developers' conference will be taking place (probably no small coincidence there). If past years are any indication, that might be when the software becomes stable enough for Google to push it into its more easily accessible and consumer-targeted beta channel. That's when anyone with a compatible device can try it out easily, without the need for any complicated manual installation.

The current schedule calls for a third preview release to land around June, a fourth preview around July, and a final release sometime between July and September.

So stay tuned, kiddos: This latest round of Android-evolving entertainment is just getting started. (O, yes.)

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