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Android Pie review: Everything that's new in Google’s latest OS

There's no single show-stopping feature, but Pie makes Android slicker and more user-friendly than ever before

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Officially the latest release of Google's smartphone OS is called Android 9, but in keeping with the company's habit of naming releases alphabetically after sweet treats, most of us know it as Android Pie.

Like all such confections, Pie has a shelf life: the as-yet-unnamed Android Q is due for release in August 2019 for Pixel phones. However, it will probably take a few months for other manufacturers to update their handsets, and older models might miss out on it entirely. The upshot is, for the foreseeable future, Pie is where it's at.

Android Pie review: How to get it

Smartphone manufacturers like to customise Android with their own front-ends, so it can be difficult to tell at first glance exactly what version of Android is running on a particular phone. You can check in the Settings menu, in a submenu entitled About phone (or something similar) - if your Android version number shows as 9, that means you're running Pie. The standard interface elements might not look like they do on a Pixel phone, which runs unmodified, "stock" Android, but the underlying features should all be present and correct.

If you don't have Pie, it's worth checking for an update. Major Android OS updates are normally distributed as over-the-air downloads, and you should get automatically notified when yours is ready - but a web search will tell you for sure whether Pie is available for your handset, and what your upgrade options are.

Android Pie review: New homescreen and navigation gestures

Let’s get the anti-climax out of the way: there’s no single killer feature in Android Pie. The underlying capabilities of the platform are the same as in the previous release (Android 8, known to its friends as Oreo), and it runs all the same apps.

Even so, if you're running stock Android on a Pixel or other phone, you’ll start to notice changes as soon as you open the home screen. For one thing, the clock has moved from the right to the left of the status bar. This requires a bit of eye retraining at first, and it doesn’t seem any more logical than the old location, but I dare say there’s a good reason for it.

You’ll also spot a change at the bottom of the screen. The square Overview button is gone, replaced by a new multitasking gesture built into the Home button. To switch to the last-used app you now simply drag the Home icon to the right edge of the screen - and if the app that pops up isn’t the one you wanted? Just keep your finger held down to cycle through your other open apps.

To reflect its new lateral function, the Home icon itself has changed from a circle to a horizontal lozenge shape. This is a little misleading, though, as you can also swipe it upwards to open a parade of tappable app thumbnails.

In honesty, if you frequently hop back and forth between apps then we find the new gestures slightly more fiddly than the old way of doing things. I got the hang of it after a day or two, though - and if you really don’t like the gestures then you can flip a switch in the Settings to bring back the old Overview button.

Android Pie review: Clearing up annoyances

Android has its strengths, but it's also developed some irritating quirks over the years. If you're using Oreo (or an earlier release), you'll know how annoying it is when you want to turn the volume down before launching YouTube or some other noisy app - but the volume buttons default to changing your ringer volume instead.

Android Pie fixes this: the volume buttons now always change app volume by default, with a separate bell icon which you can tap to silence the ringer or activate vibrate-only mode. 

Another annoyance that's been cleared up is wayward screen rotation. Older releases of Android would sometimes get confused and rotate the screen unwantedly when the phone was lying flat on a desk or sofa; in Android Pie, you can still set the screen to rotate automatically if you wish, but you can alternatively have a discreet rotation icon appear in the corner of the screen when the phone thinks it’s been reoriented. You can tap it to rotate the display, or ignore it to remain as you were.

Then there’s the fiddly business of dragging the cursor around with a fat finger when editing text. Android Pie improves matters here too, with a new magnifier that automatically opens above the text selection tool. Instantly it becomes far easier to see and make accurate selections.

One enhancement that I particularly appreciated while putting together this review is a streamlined screenshot workflow. In previous releases of Android, sharing screenies was a clunky multi-step process. Now you can simply squeeze the Power button for a moment, tap the new “Screenshot” button, then tap again to share, edit or delete the image. The Google Assistant also gains a new “Share screenshot” link, for those you prefer to take that route.

Finally, there’s a clever upgrade to Android’s adaptive brightness feature. In the past, I’ve often noticed that the software doesn’t always get its adjustments quite right, so you end up having to tweak the brightness by hand when you move between bright and dark locations. Android Pie automatically learns from your tweaks, so after you’ve corrected it once or twice it should get much better at setting more appropriate levels.

Because of the way smartphone manufacturers all love to tailor and tweak their interfaces, some of these features might look different, or not work in quite the same way, on third-party handsets. One way or another, though, everyone should find Pie a bit neater and more intuitive than earlier Android versions.

Android Pie review: Battery improvements

One of the biggest smartphone annoyances is when your battery runs out before the end of the day. Android Pie seeks to rescue you from that frustration, by putting apps to sleep when they're not in use (more aggressively than previous releases), and limiting resource usage for apps running in the background.

Pie also introduces a clever new feature called adaptive battery, which uses machine learning to keep track of when you actually use your apps. If there's an app that's continuously munching through your battery but which you only use (say) in the evenings, Android will automatically put it to sleep during the daytime, and wake it up when it thinks you're going to need it. Cunningly, it can also predict which apps you're likely to use in the near future based on your current activity. Using this information, it dynamically shuffles apps between different priority levels, restricting how much CPU power each one can use and determining how frequently each one can run background tasks and trigger events.

The only catch with adaptive battery is that when an app is running in a low-priority mode, its notifications might get delayed - not ideal for messaging apps or live sports updates. For this reason, you can choose to set certain apps never to be suspended, and indeed set certain apps to be permanently restricted in how much data and CPU power they consume in the background.

It's impossible to make any promises about how much extra battery life all of this will give you, not least because it will depend entirely on how you use your phone. I haven't personally noticed any improvements to everyday battery life since upgrading to Pie - but I also haven't experienced a single instance of mysteriously plummeting battery syndrome, which may well be the real benefit of the feature.

Android Pie reviews: Digital wellbeing

The last major innovation in Android Pie is "Digital Wellbeing" - a new app that lets you keep track of your phone usage. The main page shows you how long you've spent using your various apps today, with stats revealing how many times you've unlocked your phone and how many notifications you've received. The Dashboard page breaks the numbers down historically, so you can track your usage over the past week.

If all this makes you fear that you're using your phone too much or too compulsively, you can set a "wind down" schedule that gently reminds you when it's time to go to bed by turning the screen to greyscale. There are also shortcuts here too to manage your notification settings and set a Do Not Disturb schedule that mutes interruptions between certain times. An additional new feature in Pie lets you put the phone instantly into Do Not Disturb mode by placing it face-down on a flat surface.

Unfortunately, Digital Wellbeing is currently only available on Pixel phones, plus the few handsets that are part of the Google-approved Android One programme. You can install it on other handsets by downloading the APK from an unofficial source, though, or use a third-party alternative such as Stay Focused.

Android Pie review: Verdict

The new features in Android Pie may not sound life-changing, but in smartly clearing up some gripes and pain points, Google has managed to make the whole experience feel smoother and more effortless. If you have a compatible phone, the addition of Digital Wellbeing is potentially valuable too; at the very least, its statistics can be thought-provoking.

For me, the one duff aspect of Pie is the new gesture-based app-switcher, as there seems to be no instinctive logic to it. Still, since this is Android, you're perfectly free to revert to the old controls, or install a totally different launcher - I'm using Nova Launcher - and make it work however you like.

Indeed, perhaps the best way to describe Android Pie is by saying that when I tried going back to Oreo for a few days, it immediately felt clunky and outdated by comparison. If Pie is available for your phone, there's really no reason not to upgrade right away: it's the slickest and most user-friendly version of Android yet.

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