Android 9 Pie

In depth: 13 things to know about Android P gesture navigation

After using Google's Android P beta for a day, one thing is clear: There's much more to the software's new gesture navigation system than meets the eye.

Android P Gesture Navigation
jarmoluk, modified by IDG Comm

Android 9 Pie

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Android P's first official beta is overflowing with features and flourishes, but the software's most transformative change is something more foundational than flashy. I'm talking, of course, about Android P's new gesture navigation system — a totally revamped interface for getting around your phone.

I've been getting to know Android P's new gesture navigation system since the beta went live Tuesday morning — and let me tell you: This thing really does shake up the way you think about Android. Few things are as pivotal to the user experience as how you open and move between apps and processes, and this change has more of an effect on the "feel" of the operating system than any other in recent memory.

What's more, there's a lot going on with this new interface — far more than you'd think upon initial glance. Here are the most interesting, baffling, and maddening things that have jumped out at me so far.

1. Android P's gesture navigation isn't actually present by default (for now)

When you start using the new Android P beta, the first thing you notice about the new gesture navigation system is...well, that it isn't there. After upgrading a phone to the current beta release, the regular ol' Android navigation keys show up right where you expect 'em — nothing out of the ordinary. Surprise!

The new nav system comes into play only when you head into your phone's system settings — under System and then "Gestures," on the Pixel — and open up and enable the option for "Swipe up on Home button."

Android P Gesture Navigation: Settings JR

It's easy to imagine the new system becoming the default for Android eventually — and maybe even becoming the sole option, at some point — but for now, it shows up only if you go out of your way to find and enable it.

2. The new Overview interface can't be escaped

Even if you decide not to use gesture nav, the Overview interface — for viewing and moving between your recently used apps — takes on a whole new look with Android P. It has large cards that scroll horizontally, with a search bar and a set of contextually selected suggested app shortcuts beneath them.

And yes — that's quite a bit going on here, even just on the surface:

Android P Gesture Navigation: Overview JR

Swiping up on any app's card dismisses it, while swiping down or tapping on it opens the respective app.

3. The Back button lives on in a limited way

Android P gesture nav gives you just one pill-shaped Home button when you're on your home screen — but when you open up an app or even your app drawer, the trusty ol' Back button comes back into place.

Android P Gesture Navigation: Back Button JR

Speaking of which:

4. Android P's gesture nav doesn't actually save any screen space

You'd think part of the point of a gesture-based navigation system would be freeing up space used by the traditional Android nav buttons — but with the current Android P beta implementation, at least, that isn't actually the case.

The pill-shaped Home button and the Back button alongside it live in the same bottom-of-screen bar as before — though as with earlier versions of Android, they do still disappear when you're in an "immersive" activity, like a full-screen video, and then reappear only when you swipe at the edge of the screen.

According to Google Engineering VP Dave Burke, the system is about "mak[ing] multitasking more approachable and easier to understand" — so it could be that freeing up screen space wasn't actually a primary goal of this setup. Or it could be that this is just a first step intended to get everyone used to the idea, slowly, before making things even more minimal. We shall see.

5. The new gesture nav bar is indeed lopsided — but there seems to be a reason

The fact that the new Android P gesture nav system has a centered Home button and also sometimes a left-justified Back button but yet no right-justified Overview button leaves us with an oddly lopsided series of icons. It's kind of jarring, from a visual perspective:

Android P Gesture Navigation: Button Alignment JR

But there appears to be a reason for the madness: The area at the right of the screen is reserved for swiping. And that brings us to our next item:

6. Android P's gesture nav is all about the swipes

Here's where the actual gesture part of this system comes into play: You can swipe up once on the Home key to get to the overview screen, where your recently used apps and processes are displayed. You can swipe up twice on it or do a long-swipe to get to your full app drawer, even if you aren't on your home screen.

And then, as I alluded to a moment ago, you can swipe right on the Home button to scroll through your recently used apps and jump directly to any item in the list.

Android - Direct Share JR

All of that is definitely gonna take a while to get used to — and I hate to think what the adjustment would be like for the less technologically inclined among us (hi, Mom!).

After a day, I'm slowly but surely starting to get the hang of it — but truthfully, it doesn't feel even remotely natural to me yet, nor does it feel like a more intuitive or easy-to-understand system than the simple on-screen icons of yore. If we're being fully honest, it strikes me as being a bit clunky and awkward as of now. But it's far too early to reach any firm conclusions.

(Update: The gesture nav system got some significant improvements with Android P's second beta release, which landed about a month after this story was written. See my follow-up story for details: "3 huge ways Android's gesture navigation just got better")

7. "Flick right on Home" is the new "double-tap on Overview"

Shortcut-seekers, take note: The new Android P navigation system does have a replacement for the fantastic fast-switching feature in previous Android versions. Well, kind of.

Double-tapping the Overview key has long been a delightfully useful (if vexingly difficult to discover) Android shortcut. In past versions of Android, doing that snaps between your two most recently used apps or processes, much like Alt-Tab in Windows.

With the Overview key absent in this new nav system, I wondered if that trusty old fast-switching shortcut would also be gone. The answer is both yes and no: Flicking quickly to the right on the new Home button in this updated setup accomplishes basically the same thing — but, as of this current beta, it's noticeably less snappy and consistent.

Android - Direct Share JR

Even if you opt to stick with the traditional three-button nav system in Android P, double-tapping Overview is no longer as zippy as it used to be, thanks to a superfluous new animation that loads the Overview interface and then slides the incoming app in from the left every time.

Let's remember, though: This is just the first beta release of Android P. With any luck, things will get better.

8. With the Overview key gone, split-screen mode and app pinning have totally new processes

In addition to its handy double-tap function, the traditional Android Overview key held the keys to activating two advanced Android features: split-screen mode, in which you can view two apps on-screen at the same time, and app pinning, which lets you lock one specific app to your screen and then require a PIN or password to get to anything else.

With the Overview key out of the mix, both features have found new homes within the updated Overview interface (the thing you now get to by swiping up once on the Home key).

To start split-screen mode in Android P, you press and hold the icon at the top of an app's card in the Overview interface, then select "Split screen" that a menu that appears. That sends the app into a window at the top of your screen, at which point you select the second app you want and tap it to add it into the mix.

Android P Gesture Navigation: Split-screen JR

When you're ready to exit split-screen mode, best I can tell, you slide the black divider bar between the two apps all the way down — and that makes the first app go full-screen and the second app go bye-bye.

App pinning, meanwhile, is now an option in that same Overview-based long-press menu.

Android P Gesture Navigation: App Pinning JR

All in all, I can't help but think about a trend I've been noticing for a while now: For all the talk about simplifying the interface and making things more user-friendly, Android sure does seem to be sliding back into old habits when it comes to adding in layers upon layers of hidden functions and difficult-to-discover commands. Is any of this really simple or intuitive?

And on a related note:

9. Long-pressing the Home button still pulls up Google Assistant

This new Android Home button truly is multifunctional: You can press it, long-press it, swipe it up, long-swipe it up, double-swipe it up, swipe it to the right, flick it to the right, or just shout at it loudly and hope something happens. (No luck here with that last one yet, but I'll keep trying.)

Whew. Got all that?

10. Android P's gesture nav system doesn't play nicely with third-party launchers (as of now)

A core part of Android's new gesture nav system is the ability to get to your app drawer from anywhere on your phone — but as of now, at least, that function appears to be limited to a phone's default system launcher.

I've tested this with both Action Launcher and Nova Launcher in place, and with either one set as the system home app, the long-swipe/double-swipe-up on Home gesture doesn't work. Performing it just pulls up the Overview screen, same as doing a short-swipe/single-swipe. That remains true whether you do the gesture from your home screen or while using an app.

No one seems to know yet whether this is an inherent limitation of the system — that the app drawer part of Android P's gesture nav is limited only to the device's default launcher — or if it's simply something that'll require proper support to be implemented within the third-party launchers before it'll function properly. I've reached out to Google and will update here if/when I get any clarification.

11. The new Android P gesture nav system may or may not make its way to all Android devices

In describing Android P's various interface changes, Google Engineering VP Dave Burke made a point to note that the updated visuals would appear "on any device that adopts Google's version of the UI, such as Google Pixel and Android One devices."

Now, Burke didn't specifically say that his caveat applied to the gesture nav system — but gesture nav was the very first element he talked about after making that disclaimer:

If you ask me, that seems like a pretty clear indication that this could end up being a "Google experience"-only element. As with most things Android-P-related right now, though, it's early days — and only time will tell for sure.

12. Google says it didn't actually copy the gesture system from the iPhone X

I think most reasonable people would look at this new system and see a parallel between it and what Apple did with the iPhone X. According to Burke, though, any similarities are at least in part coincidence.

Burke tells The Verge that Google has been "experimenting with this for a long time" and that it "kind of predates" the iPhone X. So, take that for what you will. There's certainly plenty of give and take in all directions in the mobile market these days, and — as we saw recently with the Essential Phone and then Apple's magical and revolutionary notch after it — two companies working on similar concepts at the same time does occasionally happen.

Regardless of the inspiration, it's looking increasingly likely that gestures are going to be a part of our collective mobile future, no matter what platform we choose.

13. Google really needs to rethink its design for the gesture nav system's activation screen

Um, right. Look closely at the title area, at the top of this screen:

Android P Gesture Navigation: Home Butt JR

I'm all for brevity, but I don't know: That might be just a little too cheeky.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

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