- Project Treble could solve Android update waits
- Good general performance
- Upgraded wireless audio
- The best features are slow-burners
- Picture in picture is limited, not that useful
- Notification snoozing
- aptX HD and LDAC support
- Notification dots
- Simplified settings
What is Android 8.0 Oreo?
Android Oreo is the eighth version of Google’s smartphone OS, released in August 2017. Following a quick five-minute play with the operating system on an updated handset, you could be forgiven for thinking that nothing has changed. The focus of this update is more to do with adding low-key features and tweaking functionality added in Android 7.0 Nougat, such as the notifications system.
So is it worth changing your phone just to experience it right away? Probably not. However, it does have some neat features worth looking forward to.
I’ve been using the Google Pixel to see what a true vanilla Android 8.0 Oreo device offers.
Design and UI changes
Expecting a radical new look for Android with version 8.0 Oreo? Then you’re going to be disappointed; it looks just like version 7.0.
For a Google Pixel this means the drag-up apps menu remains, but with a white background; your apps look as though they’re sitting on a sheet of paper. You can now flick up anywhere on the screen to summon the apps menu, but this applies only to a handful of 8.0 phones.
Any major effort put into changing how Android 8.0 Oreo looks on the surface would be wasted anyway. Samsung, Sony, Huawei, HTC and most other phone makers still use their own interfaces on top of Android.
One of the aesthetic features discussed in the beta versions of Android 8.0 was the ability to alter the shape of icons: circles, squares, rounded-off squares. These are called adaptive icons, and they’re here to sort out the shape-filled mess of most app menus.
Of course, the Pixel and Pixel XL already display round icons. And in the version of Android 8.0 on my Pixel, there isn’t actually an option to change the shape of the icons.
Unless Google suddenly decided that adaptive icons weren’t ready for prime time (not all beta features make it into the final release), I’d bet the company is simply giving developers the opportunity to update their icons to suit these new options. This functionality is missing from the Sony Xperia XZ1 (also running 8.0) that I’m currently using as well as the Pixel.
Notification dots have made the cut, and change how your phone looks a little. Once you start using your Android 8.0 phone, you’ll notice that little coloured dots appear above app icons. These tell you there’s a new notification relating to the app.
Long-press this app icon and these notifications will pop up next to the quick-access shortcuts added to Android in version 7.0. For those still using an older version of Android, these shortcuts let you zip straight to a popular part of an app. I’m yet to see anyone actually use this feature, but at least notification dots will prod us into actually exploring the long-press gesture.
It also acts as an alternative to using the notification bar, something I’ve found myself using less frequently when a phone offers lockscreen notification previews.
Android 8.0 also redesigns the notification bar somewhat. It’s whiter than ever, and if you start flicking around you’ll notice a few new features.
Notifications can be ‘snoozed’ like an alarm clock for a certain amount of time, from 15 minutes to two hours. I honestly can’t imagine using it when silencing the phone is simply quicker, but it might prove handy if you just need to stop WhatsApp bleating in order to get some work done.
It’s by no means an obvious feature to access, however. To get to it you have to slowly drag a notification right, which then brings up the snooze icon.
Next to this snooze function you’ll see a Settings icon. Tap this and you can choose the category of notifications that get through. Google has made these mandatory for new apps and app updates.
For example, the Google Play app has a whopping six different categories of notification, from security and maintenance messages to account alerts and new updates.
Can I imagine many normal people using this feature? Absolutely not. But for the real Android enthusiast it’s a way to tame the notifications of poorly designed or exploitative apps you just can’t uninstall for one reason or another.
One of the other lead features of Android 8.0 is picture-in-picture. This lets you open up a small video screen that floats above other apps.
Samsung actually offered this feature five years ago in the Samsung Galaxy S3, before quietly retiring it in recent generations as part of its move to makes its phones classier and less complicated.
Frankly, in Android 8.0 it’s as pointless as it was in old third-party Android UIs – unless you have a specific need to take notes from a video. And then it suddenly becomes a godsend.
Right now the feature works with VLC and YouTube, but since you need a $10-a-month Red subscription to use it with YouTube, the feature suddenly becomes 95% less useful. Thanks, YouTube.
VLC’s application of the feature is also a little faulty at the moment; the screen often just disappearing if you fiddle with it too much.
That it took Google this long to add the PiP feature is odd, too. It arrives just in time to watch the Android tablet market dwindle to the withered kernel it’s been developing into for years. Tablets can make better use of PiP than phones. I can’t even imagine using this feature in a giant phone such as the Galaxy Note 8. My take is that Google thinks it’s important because Apple added it to the iPad in iOS 9.
Caveat: if you’re a student who watches video lectures, this feature could still prove useful.
Redesigned music controls
If you’re not getting the message yet, I’m not all that excited about everything Android 8.0 has to offer. Some of the surface froth is enjoyable, though.
For example, Google has altered how music sources appear in the dropdown menu. Play Spotify on an Android 7.0 phone and you’ll see the usual track controls, the name of the tune you’re playing, and a little thumbnail of the album cover.
Android 8.0 actually colour-co-ordinates the app’s dropdown entry to match the colours of the album cover. Play the Cars 3 soundtrack and you get red text on a black background. Napalm Death’s Punishment in Capitals gets you peach text on a red background: very Napalm Death.
It’s design confection, but does make your music controls stand out in the notification bar better than before. I quite like this bit.
The best parts of Android 8.0 are those that sit below the surface – and top of the list is Autofill. This is like a much more diverse take on Smart Lock, which can be used in some apps to auto-complete passwords. Autofill will be a great for filling in your name and address in new apps.
There’s some intelligence to it, since the feature looks at what’s on-screen to determine the field that’s needed. You just might want to be careful about the details you enable Autofill to handle – unless your phone security capabilities are solid. Use a PIN or password.
sRGB and beyond
Android is finally offering proper colour gamut calibration for apps. Its absence is the reason that phones with OLED screens look oversaturated – unless they have a manufacturer-made mode that alters the colour performance system-wide, that is.
Now, however, you should be able to use – for example – the full whack of the Samsung Galaxy Note 8’s OLED screen colour palette in the menu system without it leaving photos looking more saturated than they are in a photo editor. It should also make HDR-capable screens more useful.
Until now, Android simply worked to the sRGB colour gamut standard, meaning that (unlike iOS) it didn’t properly recognise the abilities of top OLED (and certain LCD) displays. Samsung’s OLED panels can deliver the more taxing DCI-P3 and Adobe RGB colour standards, something Samsung has added with its own custom software. However, this change will let apps change calibration on-the-fly, rather than relying on you heading into Settings and changing the profile.
Android 8.0 is the first version of Google’s mobile OS to support Bluetooth 5.0, which increases the range and bandwidth of wireless transmission. Of course, right now this offers no advantage beyond future-proofing, because most wireless gear still uses Bluetooth 4.x.
However, I’ve noticed one neat change when using Bluetooth headphones with Android 8.0. When you hook up a pair and tap the Settings cog icon in the menu, you can tick a box that alters whether a pair uses aptX or SBC, the standard Bluetooth codec.
It’s more reassuring than useful, but at least you now know your phone is making use of your headphones’ features, rather than just hoping it is.
There’s more good news for owners of high-end Sony wireless headphones since Android 8.0 now supports LDAC. This is a proprietary Sony wireless codec that offers ‘close to Hi-Res’ quality sound over Bluetooth; aptX HD is supported, too. It’s Qualcomm’s take on a high-quality Bluetooth standard.
Better wireless audio support will either be exciting or barely interesting, depending on how you use your phone. Project Treble is a change that will take some time to judge, though.
Treble is a very low-level change to Android that disconnects Android from a manufacturer interface operating on top. The aim is to make the Android update process more like that of iOS, where new software can be delivered as Google releases it. At present, months (and months) of QA are usually required to make the two halves of a phone’s software work together. It’s the root of Android fragmentation.
New Android 8.0 phones will be Treble-compliant; phones that receive an update to 8.0 may or may not be. This could well become the most important part of Android 8.0 if it means new phones benefit from “instant” Android updates in the future.
Worth only brief mention is the redesign of the Settings menu. Like the notifications bar, Google has made it whiter, and changed the way in which it’s organised.
There’s now less on the front page and options are filed away into Advanced sections that can be expanded.
It’s no mystery. Google has simply pared down what you initially see in order to make Settings menus less intimidating.
Performance and realiability
It’s unusual for a big software update to be free of any issues – but so far, I haven’t experienced any with Android 8.0. It seems quick, reliable and as stable as any major Android update I’ve used.
There are currently two main issues reported by other Android 8.0 users. The first affects Bluetooth, messing up connectivity with certain wireless audio devices and in-car interfaces. I’ve experienced no issue connecting to the Plantronics headphones I’ve been using to check out Android 8.0’s new audio features, however. If you use Bluetooth daily then you may want to investigate before running the update.
There are also complaints of rogue mobile data use when connected to Wi-Fi. I’d advise keeping an eye on data consumption in Settings > Network & Internet > Data Usage, particularly if, like most, you don’t have an unlimited data contract.
Android 8.0 Oreo – Should you care?
My feelings about the Android 8.0 Oreo update are somewhat mixed. Some of the most visible parts of the new OS aren’t particularly useful. Picture-in-picture was around a lifetime ago, disappeared, and now returns in much the same form we remember. Shrugs all around.
However, some of the additions behind the scenes have more impact. System-wide Autofill is worthwhile, as is wide gamut calibration and support for advanced wireless audio codecs.
So while Android 8.0 Oreo doesn’t offer the instant “ooh” factor of Android 7.0’s notifications, the Pixel UI or Android 5.0’s material design, it’s certainly an improvement. And it actually works.
A mostly subtle, mostly stable new version of the operating system that could offer a solution to Android’s OS update delays.