Review: Taking a bite of Android Oreo
Android Oreo, version 8.0 of Google's mobile operating system, is rolling out now to Pixel and Nexus devices, with other devices to follow suit in the months ahead. Having spent a week with the finished software, and time with the beta before that, here's our take on the new software.
By now, seasoned Android users will be used to minor steps forward rather than major ones, particularly as Google takes the opposite approach to Apple and updates all of its flagship apps – like Gmail and YouTube – separately to the Android OS.
A battery tweak here, a security addition there... Android updates are no longer the transformative upgrades they once were. It's not since Android 5.0 Lollipop that we've had a serious visual refresh of the software, for instance, when Material Design first appeared, all clean lines and card shapes.
A lot of the improvements ushered in with Android 8.0 Oreo are ones that work behind the scenes, making sure your phone is better protected from security threats, faster at starting up, and easier to update for you and whichever company manufactured your phone – all great improvements, but you might not notice them immediately.
So what exactly is new from the user experience side? Most notably, notifications get a significant refresh, and it's something you're going to notice and find useful right away once you've got Oreo installed. For the first time, notifications can be snoozed until a later time with a swipe – file it in the "why did no-one think of this before?" folder.
Everyone has their own habits and uses their phones differently of course, but we found ourselves playing with this one a lot, snoozing alerts that we didn't want to deal with right away but that we didn't want to forget about (family WhatsApp threads, we're looking at you).
Notifications can now be sorted into channels, too, which essentially means they can be graded in terms of importance, and in terms of the sounds and visual effects associated with them. For example, a new SMS might generate a beep and a flash of the screen, while a Facebook wall post just prompts a new icon in the top tray and nothing else.
Within that, different types of notifications in the same app can be graded differently as well, so a text from one contact might generate a buzz, while a text from another stays silent.
Unlike the snooze option, this requires activation on the developer side, and the developer sets the channels or categories of notification you can choose from. It's not as immediately useful as snoozing, but it promises to eventually become an invaluable part of managing the flood of notifications that we all get on a daily basis.
In practice you're probably not going to spend time grading SMS notifications from all your contacts – we certainly didn't – but it could help you silence Instagram likes while still getting audible alerts for new Instagram comments, for example. We say "for example," because not many apps have been updated to take advantage of the feature so far.
We are fans of the improved ambient display mode, which makes incoming notifications much bigger when your screen is locked – it's therefore much easier to see an alert when your phone is propped up across the room or sat on your desk somewhere. It may sound like a small improvement but it's one of the main reasons we're grateful to have Oreo installed.
Notifications are given different priorities on screen, too. Google knows that people-to-people alerts (like messages from your kids) are more important than weather updates, and will tailor the notification drawer accordingly. Again, a small change, but a big difference.
The other notable new user-facing features that Oreo brings haven't had much of an impact on our day-to-day phone use so far: support for a picture-in-picture mode from any app, quick shortcuts when you long-press on an app, and improved smart selection for text. All nice tweaks, for sure, but not ones that we really noticed or made much use of after Android Oreo was installed.
As is often the case with a new Android launch, the Settings pages get a refresh too. They're more streamlined and simple to understand, again, though we still think there's room for improvement. The UI here and across Oreo is lighter, which is definitely a welcome change, while persistent notifications (such as the player from Spotify) get a nicer-looking, more colorful bar.
Finally, battery life has again been improved, with more restrictions placed on what apps can do when they're not actually running. In the week or so we've had Oreo installed, battery life does seem to have improved overall, though as we've been using an older Nexus 6P we perhaps shouldn't be expecting miracles. There are no new user-facing options for tweaking battery life, but you should notice a difference.
Given the lack of major, life-changing new features you might get the impression that Oreo is a disappointment, but far from it. It's the best Android yet. It's slick, it's stable, and it's speedy. All those little under-the-hood tweaks Google has made in Android 8.0 and the versions preceding it add up to an OS that's hard to find fault with.
Other background upgrades Oreo brings include improved security, better boot-up times, and easier system updates, though these will have the biggest impacts on newer phones released with Android 8.0 already installed, so we can't really comment on them. Rest assured though that Android continues to make steps forward in all of these areas.
We can comment on the experience of using Android Oreo for more than a week, and can report that it's stable, intuitive, and more user-friendly than ever. Reading the Oreo feature list you might not be desperate for the update to roll around to your Samsung or HTC phone, but you'll find yourself very satisfied when it does.
Product page: Android Oreo