The Android Q beta is now live, and after playing “spot the differences,” we’re here to report our findings. For this first preview release, Android Q is mostly a lot of small tweaks for users and new APIs for developers.
A lot of things are half-implemented, inconsistent, or broken, but this is just a beta. Hopefully everything will get fixed in the future, but we’ll still point out problems in this release. Compared to the leaked builds of Android Q that came out before this release, there are actually fewer features here in some cases. Google is holding out on us.
First up, let’s talk about that logo. That “Q” looks funny doesn’t it? That’s because it’s also a “10”—the circle of the Q is a zero and the tail is a one. The previous version of Android was “Android 9 Pie,” so the final version of Q will be “Android 10 Q-something.”
The notification panel
One of my favorite features in Android Q is a new battery indicator that appears in the notification panel. Like normal, there’s a battery percentage in the status bar, but when you pull down the notification panel, it will now change to a battery-time-remaining indicator that will say things like “1 day, 3 hr left” or “until 8:00PM,” meaning that if your normal usage continues, the phone will die at that time. It’s just an estimate, and sure, it will change if my usage drastically changes, but it’s much more useful than a percentage. More battery information is always a plus.
A major change to the functionality of the notification panel has to do with the dismissal of notifications. In Android 9 Pie, you could swipe in either direction and the notification would go away, while a careful “half swipe” would reveal buttons for snoozing and a notification settings gear. In Android Q, only swiping from left to right will dismiss a notification. Swiping from right to left will only move the notification halfway across, and the snooze and settings button will pop up.
For someone adjusting to Android Q, this new swiping behavior can be very difficult to learn. I have been swiping away dozens of notifications every day for several years, and in the previous nine versions of Android, either direction would dismiss a notification. This is deeply ingrained in my muscle memory, and to now only be able to swipe to the left to dismiss is a dramatic change.
Do a non-dismissing swipe from right to left and you’ll see that the two options buttons have changed. It’s still snooze and notification controls, but the notification control is now a bell icon instead of a gear. Tap on it and you’ll now see three settings instead of two: besides controls to block a notification or keep showing it, you can now show it silently. In the past, you’ve been able to set up silent notifications if you dig through the settings, but now you have quick access to it.
Android 9 Pie introduced Material Design 2 and the Google Material Theme for Pixel phones and Google apps. Besides the white on white on white design style, many interfaces introduced a font switch from Roboto to Google Sans, the same font used in Google’s logo. This was often done as a half-measure in Android 9 Pie. The notification panel, for instance, used Google Sans for the action buttons and Roboto for the message text. In Android Q, this Google Sans has become the only font in several interfaces. Notification panels are now almost all Google Sans, and the settings switched over, too. There are still a few instances of Roboto that will hopefully be cleaned up in future betas.
When a notification does come in, and if it makes a noise, Android will identify it with a small bell icon that appears next to the app name. If you have a big list of notifications and are wondering why your phone beeped, this is a nice indicator.
A few times while using Android Q, I had smart action buttons pop up in my message notifications. Several times I was sent a URL, and the URL was pulled out of the message and put in an action button above the usual “Reply” button. This would let me load a link right from my notification panel without having to open my messaging app first. The buttons even did things like show Chrome for a regular Web link or jump into the Twitter app for a tweet. Judging by the design, I think they were “App Actions” buttons, which would let buttons deep link into an app. Today you see them on the Google Assistant.
Confusingly, though, this feature worked for only about an hour when I started using Q, and then it never worked again. I haven’t seen anyone else talking about the pop-ups and can’t replicate the functionality anymore. Hopefully this is a real feature because it was very convenient to just jump into a link right from the notification panel.
First of all, Android Q now automatically masks screenshots with the shape of your display. This means if your device has rounded display corners, your screenshots now have rounded corners with black pixels in the dead space. If your phone has a notch, you will now be sharing your phone’s shameful, shameful notch design with the world whenever you take a screenshot. It looks horrible and I’m a bit embarrassed every time I show a Pixel 3 XL screenshot to someone. Google saves screenshots as PNGs, so I think it would look a lot nicer to save the display mask as transparent instead of black.
In the Wi-Fi settings, there’s a new QR code option next to the “Add Network” button. You can generate these yourself online, or you can tap on a saved Wi-Fi network and hit “Share,” which will pop up a QR code you can show to others.
There are new “Privacy” and “Location” sections in the settings, but they are mostly full of old options for now. In a leaked Android Q build from a few months ago, there was a new “Privacy Dashboard” that let you attack your permission distributions with charts and graphs. That didn’t make it into this first public beta, but I would imagine Google is going to put more work into this screen eventually.
New in Android Q is a “Settings Panel” that apps can pop up. Apps aren’t allowed to change a lot of system settings, so they often have to ask the user to change things for them so they can work. Rather than asking users to hunt through the full settings app, there are now simplified settings panels for the Internet, NFC, and volume. Seeing this is kind of tough right now, since no apps call them.
App info has been redesigned, as have a lot of other settings pages. Previous versions of Android made a distinction between removable apps in the data partition and permanent apps that were burned into the system partition. Data partition apps, which are usually downloaded from the Play Store, can be “uninstalled” and completely removed. System apps can’t be removed since they are on the read-only system partition, but you could “Disable” them in previous versions of Android, which didn’t remove the app but did stop it from running. Under the hood, Android Q still works this way, but it looks like “Disable” has been rebranded “Uninstall.”
Saying you can “uninstall” everything is simpler for novice users, but it’s also misleading about what is actually happening—the code for system apps is not actually being removed. To make things even stranger, the “Uninstall” button changes to “Install” on these system apps, and you can “Install” them again right from the app info page.
If you enable Developer Options and scroll all the way down to the bottom, there are new “Theme” options. You can pick an accent color and replace a lot of system blue with black, purple, or green. You can also change from the default Google Sans/Roboto mix to a mix of serif fonts. You can change the shape of adaptive icons, but you’ve been able to do that from the launcher at various times.
Google’s flirtation with a dark mode on Android continues in Android Q. While various settings and tweaks show progress toward a system-wide dark mode and some OS-independent Google apps have started to adopt a dark mode, Google didn’t come out and say that dark mode was an Android Q feature. It’s strange.
Android 9 Pie would automatically enable a half-implemented dark mode if you set a dark wallpaper, but that feature seems to be gone in Android Q. Instead, turning on battery saver will enable a dark mode. The dark mode is more comprehensive than it was in Android 9; it now colors the settings, notifications, and lots of pop-up windows. In terms of the core OS, it seems pretty much complete, and you can no longer wander into an OS screen and get blasted with whiteness. It’s also a lot darker than it was in Android 9, usually opting for pure black instead of dark gray.
Tying the dark mode to the battery saver is not a great option for people who just want to cut down on screen brightness. Battery saver affects background app processing and a bunch of other things that should not be tied to a preferred color scheme. Plus the ever-present question with these beta dark mode features is “will it actually ship?” Numerous times now, Google has enabled some kind of dark mode in beta only to disable it when the final version ships. Fingers crossed for this release.
Permissions and privacy are a work in progress
Google is talking a lot about privacy improvements to Android Q, but much of the actual implementation doesn’t seem to be included yet. A big feature we saw in the leaks that didn’t make it into this build is a real-time notification showing when apps are using sensitive permissions. In the early leaks, a location icon would pop up in the status bar, and you could tap on it to see which apps were using your location. It looked very handy, and hopefully it will make it into a future build. There was also a privacy dashboard in the leaked build that hasn’t made it into the OS yet. With “Privacy” as a top-level settings option, it seems that Google has big plans for the section in the future.
Privacy controls get a new pop-up with an extra new option. As usual, you can block or deny a permission, but for some things, you can now only allow them when the apps are in the foreground. This means that something like Facebook or Google Maps can’t just start pinging your location from the background.
Speaking of background restrictions, apps will no longer be able to launch activities from the background—in other words, apps won’t be able to jump into the foreground by themselves. For now, this still happens in this first build of Android Q, but a message pops up warning that it will be shut off in the future. This will mostly affect clock apps and phone apps, along with malware. An easy way to see this message right now is to pull up the Google Assistant with “OK Google” or by long-pressing the home button. Google has some work to do!
Storage access has more granular controls; you can now grant access to just “photos” or “music” rather than the entire internal storage. Google has reworked some of the specially privileged default apps into a feature called “Roles.” Mostly everything works the same way it did before. You can set a default SMS app that gets the special privilege of receiving incoming messages or set a default browser that gets the special privilege of opening links system-wide. Besides a default phone app and home app, the new roles are a default music player, which gets access to the entire music directory, and a default photo app, which automatically gets access to your photos.
For now, there is a “Default apps” screen with a link to “Roles” at the bottom that links to… a second “Default apps” screen. Roles and default apps are the same thing, and these screens clearly need to be merged.
The new Share menu
Android’s share menu has been pretty awful for a long time. When you pull up the share menu to, say, send a photo to a messaging app, Android pings every single app on your device to populate the list of apps that would like to receive a photo. It does this at the same time that it’s presenting the UI to the user, so as it loads up icons and queries potentially hundreds of apps, the list jumps all over the place. Naturally, this makes it very hard to tap on something at first. In Android Q, things are better, but not perfect.
As part of Android Q, developers can publish “Sharing Shortcuts” for the list, which will all be compiled ahead of time. Even though no one is actually doing this yet, the app icons in the share list now appear instantly, which is a big improvement. Still, not everything appears right away—the share menu still queries a random app for specific contacts, and these contacts take several seconds to load. At the top of the share menu, there is often a big “copy link” section, and the contacts load between this section and the app icons, pushing the copy link upward when it loads.
I feel like this is a pretty basic UI concept to have to reiterate, but since Android Q still isn’t following it: the UI shouldn’t move around when a user is trying to tap on things.
We have a long road to go
Google published an official release timeline for Android Q, so we know this is the first beta release of a planned six-beta release. The final version of Android 10 (it’s definitely going to be called “Android 10″—just look at the logo) releases sometime in Q3.
I would imagine there is still a lot more for us to see. If this release is anything like last year’s, Google will save many of the big features for the beta that gets released during Google I/O. We’re also only getting a look at the OS side of Android; as usual, there’s still a whole suite of Google apps and special Pixel features that will probably be released alongside the final release.