In Android 10, codenamed Q, Google puts its focus squarely on privacy and security, with a few other new features like a stylish Dark Theme. Privacy is a tall order for Google, given how the company makes money, and Android doesn’t reinvent itself as a privacy-first OS with the release of Q. It’s more a privacy revision than a revolution, but that’s still an improvement. The as-yet-unnamed mobile operating system is currently available as a public beta, so PCMag is withholding judgment until the final software is available, later this summer.
How to Get Android Q
Android Q is available, but only as a beta and only for Pixel phones. If you want to give it a spin, I highly recommend backing up your phone first. Google knows what it’s doing and is unlikely to release software that would really mess up your phone, even as a beta, but it can’t hurt to be careful. PCMag has an excellent step-by-step guide to installing the Android Q Beta. I’ll summarize below.
When you’re ready to take the plunge, head over to g.co/androidbeta. You’ll have to log in with your preferred Google account to get started. Once you do, the page walks you through what the program is and how it works. The gist is that when you enroll a device in the beta program, you receive beta software updates over the air, just like regular software updates.
Scroll down the page and you eventually see a list of your eligible devices. If you don’t see anything here, you either don’t have a Pixel phone or aren’t logged in on the phone with the same Google account you used to log in to the beta page. If you do see a device on the list, and you’ve backed up the device, click the Enroll button. Note that if you want to stop receiving beta updates, you’ll press the same button which will now say Opt Out.
Eventually, you’ll receive a software update on your phone. This might take a while. In my case, it was nearly a week. Once it arrives, install it as usual and you’re ready to go.
If you don’t have a Pixel phone, you won’t be able to experience Android Q until its release. Even then, your device still may not be supported. Google always rolls out support for its Pixel devices first. After that, it’s largely up to your phone’s manufacturer, and possibly your wireless carrier, to decide when or if you’ll receive Android Q. Devices in the AndroidOne program, like the Nokia 6.1, are guaranteed two years of updates.
Google has worked to close the gap on which devices receive updates, but the enormous number of different devices and manufacturers make it a daunting task. Google’s own stats, taken from May 2019, show that only 10.4 percent of Android devices are running Android 9 Pie, with double that figure running Android 8 Oreo. By this count, 70 percent of Android devices are at least two years behind on updates.
This plethora of versions is also daunting for customers. If you’re not careful, you could buy a brand-new phone that ends up running a much older operating system.
Security and Privacy Are the Future
When reviewing iOS and Android, I find it useful to make comparisons between the two. Not because one is better than the other (I’m beyond that argument, get on my level) but rather to see how two well-financed tech titans tackle the same problems. This is especially true for Android Q and iOS 13, both of which tout dark modes and privacy improvements as their flagship features.
The fundamentals of Android are still here in Q. The apps live in a hidden drawer, and you’re free to use your home screen as you see fit, in contrast to Apple’s rigid grid design. Android continues to offer enormous flexibility, sometimes at the cost of consistency. Apple, meanwhile, is dogmatically consistent, but occasionally loses clarity in the process. A great example is how each OS lets you connect to Wi-Fi networks. There are several different ways to connect to a Wi-Fi network with Android and really only one way on iOS, but Apple expects you to drill through multiple menus while Google puts a shortcut right in the notification tray.
In most ways, the choice between iOS and Android is mostly down to aesthetics or some other personal choice. You might choose iOS because of its high-polish excellence—and it is undeniably excellent—or you might choose Android because you loathe the app grid on iPhones. In their most recent releases, both Apple and Google tackle the issues of privacy, and here they diverge.
Apple is unequivocal in its stance. It doesn’t track you. It doesn’t share your data. Since Apple relied on high-end hardware to pay the bills, and not cashing in on the data monetization bonanza that has defined the last decade, it doesn’t have to answer to advertisers. At least, that’s the claim. Apple also runs an enormous app store, populated by software that relies on things like ad networks to pay the bills. You can also argue that turning security and privacy into a commodity, instead of a right, isn’t fantastic.
Google, on the other hand, has built itself around customizing experiences based on the data it has gathered. The restaurants it recommends in Maps and the ads you see across the web are, in large part, built from the information it has gathered by keeping tabs on you. Google has maintained that this makes its products better and more meaningful. A targeted ad, the logic says, is better than an annoying random ad. Given all that, Google can’t fully embrace privacy the way Apple does because everything from Google needs our data.
Android is an excellent operating system. While it’s never quite as slick as iOS, it has retained a utilitarian simplicity that Apple seems to have lost (looking at you, Apple’s horrible fake lock screen notification thingy). Android Q also has more privacy features than I can ever recall seeing in an Android release. But by making the conversation about privacy, Google has set itself up to fail because it can only offer half-measures where Apple offers total assurance.
How Google Will Protect You
When introducing Android Q, Google said that the new OS includes over 50 privacy and security updates. Some, like turning Android devices into hardware authenticators and continued protection against malicious apps is happening across most Android devices, not just Q, but are improving security overall. I’ve written about these in depth elsewhere, and will run through the highlights of Android Q’s security and privacy features here.
The most visible privacy improvement is the new Privacy settings menu. Most of the options here have been around for a while in one form or another, but some have been refreshed and the reorganization makes me hopeful that more people will actually look at them.
There are several interesting options to explore. The topmost one, Permissions Manager, is the best way I’ve seen to break down which apps can access what on your device. It’s very useful.
Unfortunately, Google buried the really fun stuff in the Advanced section. Location History lets you prevent or allow Google to record where you go. The Activity Controls covers your, well, activity on the web or in apps. You can toggle this off, and if you tap through to your account screen on the web you can opt to have your activity information automatically deleted every 18 months, three months, or when you delete it manually.
One more section of the Privacy settings is worth a look: Ads. Here you see a toggle that lets you opt out of ad personalization. This will, in theory, greatly limit what information apps can get about you, in order to personalize the ads you see. You can also reset your advertising ID, which Google is also requiring app developers to use instead of other, more permanent identifiers like IMEI and MAC addresses. Note that these settings won’t prevent you from seeing ads, it will just make it harder for app developers’ to compile information about what you do on your phone. There are, of course, many other ways for companies to monetize you.
Users will also see a new option when an app asks for permission to access your location. Instead of a binary yes or no, you can also choose to only allow the app to access your location when the app is in use. That’s great, since some apps can be quite aggressive with tracking your location, even when you haven’t opened the app. That’s bad for privacy, but it’s also bad for your battery.
Apple also introduced a third option for location permissions in iOS 13. Instead of only allowing location access when the app is in use, as Android does, iOS 13 will re-prompt you to give permission each time you open the app. This is convenient for an app you don’t plan on using again—like one you download for an event—but I found it to be annoying in practice. Google’s approach isn’t as good for privacy, but it’s far less likely to annoy someone into granting more permissions than they might be comfortable with. Apple does go further, however, by providing reports of information usage on the apps you have granted access to your location. Android Q counters with a new Settings menu specifically to control access to location information, as well as background Wi-Fi and Bluetooth scanning that can be used to approximate your location.
Perhaps the biggest and best improvements to security in Android Q aren’t visible to the user. Google has compartmentalized the OS in such a way that it can apply security updates over the air, silently, and to more devices. Called Project Mainline, this tackles a problem that has dogged Android for years: that security updates are unevenly applied and not always available depending on your device. This new approach means more people will be running the latest—and safest—versions. Interestingly, Google is using the same mechanism it uses for updating apps to push these updates as well.
Other invisible changes include Android Q randomizing MAC addresses, making it harder for apps and observers to track you. Google also says that all devices launching with Android Q will be encrypting all user data, even if the phone only has modest processing power or lacks dedicated crypto hardware.
One place you won’t see encryption is in the Messages app. Google is pushing hard for the RCS messaging standard, which allows for a rich iMessages-like experience. It’s an opportunity for Google to clean up its messaging mess; but Apple’s Messages app is encrypted end-to-end, and RCS is not.
OK, Google: Show Me Machine Learning
Machine Learning, particularly in the form of the Google Assistant, has become a bigger and bigger part of the Android experience over the last few years. A new emphasis from Google in Android Q is machine learning that’s performed on the device, without having to send your data back to Google’s cloud. This might sound familiar, because it’s a talking point Apple has used for a few years, too. Google maintains that doing more on the phone itself leads to better, faster results, and keeps more of your data on your device.
At Google I/O, the company showed off captions being added to a video in real-time, while the device was in airplane mode, no less. Google says that this, and other offline commands—like opening apps and turning the flashlight on and off—are coming soon, but they’re not in the Android Q beta.
Smart Reply, a next-level of predictive text, is now available in all apps across the device, and doesn’t need to send data off your phone in order to function. However, in testing, this feature didn’t work in the Twitter app, or elsewhere.
Other new Assistant tricks—such as controlling apps with only your voice through a series of steps—have been announced, but don’t seem to be in place as of yet.
I am disappointed that Lens, Google’s AR Swiss Army knife tool that can translate text, identify objects, and all sorts of other machine learning magic, is still tucked into an overflow menu of the Camera app. It’s still remarkable, but Google won’t put it center stage.
One of the most surprising movements I’ve seen in the last decade is the rabid calls for and rapid adoption of dark modes in operating systems. It’s certainly not a bad thing, I’m just puzzled about where this need came from. Perhaps consumers were finally getting bored of the same old same old when it came to interface design—but I digress.
When you toggle on Dark Theme in Android Q, your whole system goes dark. The Settings Menu, your notification screen, the volume menu—everything. Smartly, Google doesn’t use just one color for Dark Theme. Notifications and the Notification Tray are a deep, true black. Other elements, like the Discovery panel, have a warmer gray tone to them. Pulling in the Notification Tray also dims the screen background nicely, helping it to stand out. That said, I have seen some instances where true-black notifications were invisible against a system app that was also in true-black. Hopefully, Google will add some more variations for better visibility.
I have no idea if Dark Theme will help you save on battery life. I leave that to PCMag’s crack team of investigators in the consumer electronics division. However, the Dark Theme does look really cool, and it is a welcome change of pace from the extremely bright white screens we’ve all been staring at continuously for the past decade.
Aside from Dark Theme, stock Android Q has changed very little. The system font has been tweaked and menus have a cleaner, sparer look, but nothing very flashy. One notable change is the share sheets, which have been smartly redesigned and, more importantly, load much, much faster in Android Q than before.
And there are, of course, more emoji. Google Android Q supports Emoji 12.0, which, critically, introduces a banjo emoji at long last.
Gestures, Gestures Everywhere
In the previous version of Android, Google showed off a new gesture interface that (almost) completely did away with the familiar Triangle, Circle, and Square controls that have been comfortably nestled at the bottom of the screen (and sometimes on dedicated hardware keys) since time immemorial. I liked the direction Google was heading with its gesture interface, in Android Oreo, and there are even more options in Android Q.
You now have three options for getting around your phone. The first, three-button navigation, has the familiar trio of shapes for back, home screen, and the app switcher. Two-button navigation is what was available in Oreo, and what I have been using on my Nokia 6.1 for a while. This puts a pill-shaped button at the bottom of the screen and shows a back arrow where contextually necessary. A half-swipe up reveals the app switcher and suggested apps, a full swipe up opens the app tray. It’s come to feel natural to me, though it was weirdly buggy and sluggish in the beta. Google has, thankfully, removed the weird tap-and-pull interaction with the pill button to shoot through your running apps—an experience I’ve never liked and never use.
Fully gestural navigation is radically different. This replaces the thick pill button with a thin line at the bottom of the screen. Tapping the line doesn’t do anything. Grabbing it swiping up quickly tosses the app you’re using away in a move very reminiscent of recent iOS versions. Pull up slowly from the bottom and you begin to open the app drawer. Close to halfway, the app manager peeks out from the left side of the screen with a haptic buzz. Let go and you’ll be in the app manager, keep pulling and you’re in the app drawer.
There are a few more tricks in this view as well. Grab the line and slide left or right to move between apps immediately, skipping the app manager view. Swipe from the middle of the left or right sides of the screen and you’ll move back a page, taking the place of the triangle back button. Swipe up from the lower corners and you’ll open the Google Assistant.
This final option is my least favorite, but is by far the most capable and most interesting option. It’s the one being touted as the future for Android. Since high-end phones have screens that run from top to bottom, a thinner, less intrusive control based around gestures makes sense. Apple came to the same conclusion when it released the iPhone X and its ilk. It’s not that this doesn’t work, but it feels imprecise to me—on Apple and Android phones. I’m never quite sure if I am doing the gesture just right, and I feel like I have to move slowly and respond to what happens on the screen. Perhaps I am overthinking this and should simply surrender to muscle memory.
One final thought on gestures: the thin-line approach makes sense for big-screen phones, but flagship smartphone sales have, well, flagged. The bezel-heavy Pixel 3a, however, seems to be doing quite well. One wonders if massive screens at high prices aren’t actually the future of smartphones.
Future Proofed for a Different Timeline
When Google first announced Android Q, the company highlighted support for so-called “foldables.” These are mobile devices with foldable screens, and Android Q can seamlessly transition between the smaller and larger screens included on them.
Here’s the problem: that was before people actually got their hands on the Samsung Galaxy Fold and found it too flimsy to use, let alone justify its $2,000 price tag. Samsung pulled the Fold, but promises a redesigned device will ship sometime soon. As of writing, this futuristic feature a bit of a flop.
Similar to folding phone support, Google touted Android Q’s native support for 5G. This is, without question, an enormously important technology for the future—but heavy emphasis on future. While all the major US cellular carriers have launched 5G networks, coverage is paltry so even if your device supports 5G you probably aren’t near to the actual network. Our resident telephony expert Sascha Segan explains who should be looking to purchase a 5G phone right now:
So who should buy 5G devices now? Mobile businesses who are within existing millimeter-wave coverage and want fast internet access should get 5G hotspots. Folks developing the 5G-based apps and solutions that will hit mainstream use in 2020 or 2021 should be jumping on board now as well. Everyone else, well, just follow the race as it develops.
Part of the trouble with reviewing Android is that the border between the mobile OS and Google’s galaxy of services is very permeable. For instance,
Q for Quits?
Every year, the Android nerds of the world engage in some mildly excited speculation about the name of the new OS. Google has been using desserts for years now, and has even dabbled in some brand crossover events with Android Kit-Kat and Oreo.
The letter “Q” poses a challenge for the folks at Google. The only sweetly flavored thing I can think of that starts with Q is “quince,” but somehow I don’t think that will make the cut. My colleague Ben Moore suggests “quinoa” as an option, but calling quinoa a dessert is a bit of a stretch. Q could also be an opportunity for Google to call it q for quits on the naming convention. We should expect to learn the full name of the OS when it gets its official debut later this year.
One Powerful Bot
With Android Q, Google tries to reconcile itself with a push for more privacy from consumers, with mostly positive results. Android Q isn’t a total reinvention, but it puts privacy forward in a way Google never has before. If you’re already an Android user, these will be most welcome, but by making privacy the focus of Q, Google sets an expectation at odds with its own business model. In some ways, it can only improve but never actually succeed.
Android has, for quite a long time, been an excellent mobile operating system. It has been criticized for lacking the polish and panache of iOS, but the distinction is increasingly one of personality. In the realm of privacy, however, Apple comes out ahead. As a company, it has resisted the movement toward surveillance capitalism, and now that’s turning out to be a good investment. While Google can’t match Apple’s promises, it makes its own: high-quality services (many of which Apple lacks), for free, from a name you (might) trust. If that’s enough for you, then that’s enough, but it’s not perfectly private.
PCMag does not give ratings to beta software, so we’re withholding judgment on both Android and iOS until their respective releases. If history is any guide, the tenth version of Android is sure to perform well, as it is already a mature and highly refined mobile operating system with an enormous user base and a vast array of supported devices.