The most exciting thing about a big Android update is getting to try all of the new show-stopping features that’ll change the way you’ll use your phone. Android 12, which is now available on Pixel phones (3 and up), and coming to more devices later this year, is interesting because, well, it doesn’t have a bunch of those.
I’ve been using Android 12 on the Pixel 3 since the first developer preview, and on the Pixel 4A 5G more recently during the latest release candidate. For the most part, it’s still Android. You can easily get by on the new update without using the smattering of new features that Google buried in the settings, though it’s worth seeking out a few of them.
The most obvious change, which is also the biggest incentive for most people to download Android 12, is Google’s new Material You design. The company says it’s the biggest design change in Android’s history. I agree that it’s significant, since it basically makes stock Android look like a really good custom launcher. There’s more color and more fun shapes throughout, and weirdest of all, widgets are officially a thing again.
The core design improvements in Android 12 further smooth over some of the operating system’s edges — quite literally. The animations you’ll see when you power on your device, turn it off, or plug in a charger all look refined and fluid. Notification pop-ups, items in the pull-down quick settings menu, the volume interface, and more have nice, rounded edges, nesting elegantly within the equally rounded corners of the displays on Pixel phones. In some cases, though, the refreshed design comes at the cost of information density. Power users might feel like they’re using a Fisher Price phone, particularly when it comes to how the pull-down menu looks, but others may not mind as much.
I’d say that the fit and finish of Android 12 is more polished than any other version at launch, except for a rather annoying bug with its at-a-glance widget at the top of the homescreen, which wouldn’t display the weather or other important calendar or traffic info during the beta, nor can it be fully turned off. Its menu had toggle switches with no descriptions next to them, and it was an eyesore. If Google fixes this in the final release, we’ll note that in the review.
Google’s goal with Material You is to unify the look of all of its disparate devices, including smart displays, phones, and anything else running Google software that has a screen. But for Android 12, the big visual overhaul is about giving you just a little more flexibility in making your phone feel more like your own. Leading the charge are many of Google’s long-forgotten widgets that have received a glow-up for Android 12. In case you are just now waking up after a five-year slumber, widgets are cool again, and even iOS has them. Having a colorful, sun-shaped clock and the “Your memories’’ widget from Google Photos on my homescreen looks great, and I’m really eager to see if more companies than just Google think it’s worth investing in making or updating widgets. Though I’ll admit, I’m a little scared to hold my breath here. A lot of the widgets, particularly third-party media players, still look like they haven’t gotten attention for years.
But even before we know if there will eventually be a rush of widgets vying for a spot on my homescreen, I think Google missed the obvious opportunity to adapt Apple’s widget stacks feature in iOS. Single-purpose widgets take up a lot of precious space, and with something like widget stacks, which lets you stack two or more widgets on top of each other and scroll through them as needed, it’d be possible to have both a functional homescreen and a good-looking one. Maybe next time.
Android 11 introduced support for custom themes, letting you adjust the font type, app icon shape, and color scheme. Android 12 has pared down the customization to focus just on what color you want to appear on some of the menus, buttons, widgets, and tiles on the quick settings pull-down menu, including the native media player seen within the notifications pane.
You’ll find the “wallpapers & style” option by long-pressing on the homescreen, and from there you can choose a color from a palette that’s automatically generated from your wallpaper. I really love this. Though, if you just want to keep it simple, you can pick from one of four pastels that look different depending on whether you have light or dark mode activated.
Another small but nifty feature in this setting is “Themed Icons,” which attempts to dip all of your app icons in your preferred color for a more consistent look. In practice, many of Google’s apps played nicely with this feature during the beta, but not a single third-party app that I had installed did. Perhaps it’s intentional on Google’s part, opting to let non-Google apps pop with more color on your homescreen. Or maybe it’s that app makers may not want to voluntarily make their app icons less identifiable at a glance.
Before I get to some of the other improvements that I’m glad to have in Android 12, I need to mention that I haven’t gotten over Google’s omission of the power menu, one of Android 11’s most well-executed ideas. By holding the power button, it used to let you easily access your Google Pay wallet, smart home gadgets, and power settings, all from one screen. Now, holding the power button will trigger the Google Assistant. You’ll find smart home device toggles and Google Pay relocated to the bottom right and left corners of the lock screen, mimicking the respective locations of the flashlight and camera buttons on iPhones. Alternatively, you can find them in the quick settings pull-down, if that’s easier.
You may not lament the power menu’s disappearance, but I think the big issue is that Google keeps changing how you access these increasingly vital functions. It’d just be great if Google could try to improve on its ideas without completely ditching them after one iteration of Android. It still lets people choose whether they want to experience Android with or without gestures, so why not also let them choose where they want to access mobile payments and smart home device controls?
Outside of that, there are several tweaks that are additive to the Android experience, even if Apple or other Android OEMs beat Google to the punch. Regardless, it’s great that Google finally added scrolling screenshots to the Pixel’s feature set. This lets you take screen grabs that span further down the page. Android 12 also debuts indicators that appear at the top of your phone when the camera or microphone are in use, just like the feature that appeared in iOS 14. There are even new quick setting tiles you can add to quickly be able to turn off the camera and / or microphone on the system level. Those tiles are going to get a lot of use from people, I expect.
Also, when an app asks for your location, you can now specify in most cases whether you want to give the app approximate or precise location info, like in iOS. This year’s Android update also brings a one-handed mode that’s identical to Apple’s. Once it’s active within the gestures menu, just swipe your finger down on the bottom edge of the display to pull things within reach.
Android 12’s new Privacy Dashboard is worth checking out, too, since it keeps tabs on how often your apps are pinging for your location, requesting to access your call logs, or are tapping into your camera and microphone. Even if this isn’t something that you plan on monitoring often, it’s great that Google built more transparency than ever into the OS, showing what kind of access your apps have.
If that didn’t seem to you like an overwhelming amount of features, you’re right. As my colleague Chaim Gartenberg mentioned in this year’s iOS 15 review, these big updates are becoming smaller and subtler. After more than a decade of polish, these operating systems are no longer in need of vast reworkings every calendar year.
More features will come, though. Google will probably follow up with a few “feature drops’’ in 2022. And, if they’re anything like previous ones, they’ll make owning a Pixel phone feel like an even more rewarding experience. Looking forward, there are rumors that Android 12.1 might bring more changes, particularly, multitasking improvements for foldable phones, a sector that Google itself may be joining soon.
In reviewing a new Android update, I thought about how these changes and features will impact all Android phones. But the thing is, right now Android 12 is really only good news for Pixel users, and it might be that way for a while.
Android 12 is now available for Pixel phones. But it’s a big question mark when other devices promised to get the software, including phones from Samsung, OnePlus, Oppo, Realme, Tecno, Vivo, and Xiaomi will actually get it. We’ll update this review once Google shares specifics on the models that will receive Android 12.
Each of those phones use their own custom Android wrapper with its own design ID. So, while many of Android 12’s new features should make the jump, it’s possible that Google’s big Material You design push may not appear, at least with the same amount of customization that you’d find on Pixel, on every other phone that gets the update.
Samsung is a big manufacturer missing from the list of devices getting Android 12 at launch. Though, it has already committed to bringing the software to its Galaxy S21 lineup from earlier this year in the form of its OneUI 4 update. A hands-on with the beta software published by XDA Developers shows that Samsung’s take on Android 12 doesn’t seem to have the same pizzazz as Google’s treatment on Pixel phones.
Android 12 isn’t an update that’s trying to change how you use your phone — not that it needed to be. Instead of just tacking on dozens of new features, Google just wanted to shake things up in the design department for the sake of it. It’s an upheaval of some of Android’s smallest details. It amounts to a more customizable experience, which in turn lets your phone look and feel more unique. If that gets you excited, you probably won’t regret installing. But I wouldn’t buy a Pixel just to experience Android 12. And if you can’t get the update today, I wouldn’t fret too much until more features are added.
Photography by Cameron Faulkner / The Verge