For the past several months, Google has offered sneak peeks into upcoming Android features to enthusiasts and developers through developer previews and betas. Now, with the launch of the Pixel 6 series, Google has finally begun rolling out the first stable version of Android 12 with a slew of changes to the Android ecosystem.
Android 12 brings one of the most significant visual upgrades to the Android interface that we have known over the years. Since Google abandoned the tradition of naming Android versions with dessert names, we will be seeing the latest version addressed as “Android 12” formally. Despite this, Google’s VP of Engineering on Android, Dave Burke, tweeted an image that indicates that Android 12 is internally referred to as “Snow Cone.”
A cool background to celebrate the launch of Android Snow Cone!🍧 pic.twitter.com/J726PvPhVv
— Dave Burke (@davey_burke) October 4, 2021
While the visual changes grab most of our attention, Android 12 also brings several useful and interesting features for users. All of those features have been rounded up in this article.
Additionally, the aforementioned developer previews and betas have not been limited to Google’s own Pixel lineup but are also available on a wide range of brands including OnePlus, Samsung, OPPO, Xiaomi, etc. This article also describes improvements that the latest version of Android brings for OEMs and developers.
Earlier this year, Google had also promised to improve the process of installing apps from third-party or alternative app stores such as the Indus App Bazaar on Android 12. The changes, rounded up in a blog by Sameer Samat, Google’s VP of Product Management, include:
- Android 12 will introduce the ability to install apps from alternative app stores without security warnings,
- Users will be able to subsequently update apps from alternative apps stores without security warnings, and
- Google will allow reputed app stores such as Indus App Bazaar to be listed on the Play Store for users to install and use it easily.
These promises have yet to be implemented and we will address them later in the article. First, let’s begin by discussing the changes Android 12 brings for users and OEMs.
Changes for Users
The most promising change in Android 12 is Material YOU, which succeeds Android’s former Material Theme (or Material Design 2.0). Instead of relying on a rigid set of colors for all users, Material YOU allows each user to make the interface on their Android devices “deeply personal.”
The new theming engine derives dominant colors from the wallpaper and applies them to different parts of the user interface (UI). It also shares this data with other apps via an API, and developers can choose to apply these colors to their apps’ UI.
Material YOU is not only present in the Android 12 interface but will also be incorporated in a number of Google apps and online services. Even before the release of Android 12, Google has already added this dynamic colouring option to a large number of its apps including Google Assistant, Chrome, Drive, Duo, Gmail, Gboard, Keep, Lens, Messages, Phone, Photos, Podcasts, YouTube Music, and more.
Besides a diverse range of accent colors, Android 12 also brings redesigns to the notification panel, the lock screen, and a whole range of new and dynamic widgets similar to the ones introduced by Apple in iOS 14.
Automatic wallpaper-based theming
As mentioned above, Android 12’s new theming engine — codenamed “monet” — uses the dominant palettes from the wallpaper to automatically choose colors for the interface. At Google I/O 2021, the company announced Android 12’s theming engine utilizes a clustering mechanism to determine the primary and secondary colors.
Android 12’s theming engine — monet — can be seen as a spiritual successor of the RRO and OMS overlays that have been popular among custom ROM users for many years. Ideally, it uses 12 “Material” colors based on the wallpaper to paint different elements from the UI.
XDA reported the theming engine may be initially limited to Google’s own lineup of Pixel devices and may not be shared with OEMs, limiting its implementation on third-party Android skins. However, the publication also indicated that monet will be open-sourced with the release of Android 12.1 — whenever that arrives.
At Google I/O 2021, we saw a sneak-peek into Android 12’s dynamic widgets. Besides a new rounder design in line with the Android 12’s design language, these dynamic widgets are intended to allow users to interact with them directly from the homepage without needing them to open the app.
These widgets support Android 12’s dynamic theming, and Google Assistant can access contextual and relevant information on these widgets for quicker access, especially when you cannot afford to be distracted by looking at the screen. Meanwhile, Google has also introduced a new widgets API so developers can adapt their widgets with these changes.
Lastly, the new Conversations widget introduced as part of Android 12 allows you to access the latest messages, call history, or other status updates from your favorite contacts.
With Android 12, Google has updated nearly a thousand emojis while including a few new ones in line with Unicode 13.1 released back in April 2021. This is done to make the emojis look more natural, universal, and suited to complement Android 12’s round UI elements.
Two major privacy-focused additions come with Android 12. The first one is a new Privacy Dashboard that shows all the apps that request permissions to use features such as camera, location, and microphone in chronological order. The overview page of the Privacy Dashboard shows the number of times that apps have requested to use your camera, location, and microphone in the last 24 hours.
Besides the Privacy Dashboard, Android 12 also adopts visual indicators to inform users when an app is using its camera, microphone, and location. These indicators were first introduced by Xiaomi in its MIUI Android skin and later by Apple in iOS 14.
Addressing the usability issues arising due to the growing sizes of smartphone displays, Google has added a One-hand mode to facilitate easy usage with a single hand. This feature is identical to “Reachability” on iPhones and shifts the phone’s content down to nearly half of the display for easier access with just one hand.
Taking cues from custom Android skins by OEMs, Google is finally adding support for scrolling screenshots in Android 12. Much like Android skin such as MIUI, OxygenOS, or ColorOS, the feature allows users to take screenshots longer than the screen by simulating an artificial scrolling action, eliminating the need to take separate screenshots and then stitch them together.
Google appears to have realized the expanding potential of smartphone gaming, and that is why it has added an all-new Game Dashboard. Within the Dashboard, you get quick access features such as taking screenshots and screen recording alongside the option to display the current FPS (frames per second) in games.
Considering that OEMs have long supported this feature in their respective Android skins, we may not see it making it to devices other than the Pixel lineup. However, a standardized system could enable better allocation and optimization of resources.
Safety has been among the primary focus areas for Google over the last couple of Android updates and with Android 12, the company is adding some more features to make the feature more reliable. Following the addition of crash detection in Android 11, the updated Personal Safety app in Android 12 will now automatically record a video besides calling emergency services and sharing your whereabouts with your emergency contacts.
Initially, this feature could be expected to be limited to Pixel devices running Android 12 and above. But considering its vitality, the feature could eventually make its way to other devices, even including those running that may not receive the update to Android 12.
Just like on iOS devices, Android 12 will automatically archive apps that you no longer use in order to save space on your smartphone. Users will also be able to put apps into hibernation besides letting the system decide which apps are hibernated. For apps put into hibernation, all the permission will be revoked.
However, unlike iOS, the app data will not be removed. Instead, the feature will only remove “temporary files,” which are most likely to include cached data.
Changes for OEMs
Google’s approach with the distribution of licensed Android versions has ensured timely delivery of the latest updates to OEMs, including those that use heavily customized user interfaces. Google first opened up its Open Beta program for non-Google devices for the first time with Android 9 Pie with a handful of partner OEMs. Since then, the number of manufacturers participating in these trials has only increased, and this year, we witnessed several new entrants.
It is to be noted that since Android 12’s “monet” theming engine is not open source yet, it is highly likely that they do not replicate the visual elements of stock Android 12 intended for the Pixel smartphones.
OEM skins based on Android 12 beta
Here are the OEMs that have released their custom Android skins based on Android 12 beta builds:
Samsung One UI 4 based on Android 12
In September 2021, Samsung announced the changes that it brings to One UI 4.0 while also initiating a beta program for the Galaxy S21 devices. Among these changes, Samsung hails “new and improved customization and privacy capabilities” — admittedly not Material YOU. To make up for this deficiency, Samsung is claiming improved options for themes, icons, wallpapers, notifications, and more.
Additionally, Samsung is also adopting dynamic widgets that offer “deep customization” in terms of appearance and usability. The update also brings Android 12’s privacy indicators as well as a Privacy Dashboard but with visual tweaks to match the One UI design language.
OPPO ColorOS 12 based on Android 12
Ahead of the official Android 12 launch, OPPO unveiled its latest custom Android skin — ColorOS 12 based on Android 12 — in China. The UI remains heavily skinned and visually distinct from stock Android but with the upcoming update, OPPO approaches visual elements such as icons, wallpapers, and system apps with a sense of minimalism. For system apps, especially, there is now increased white space and improved contrast between the background and text to make the UI look cleaner. Aside from looks, ColorOS also gets smoother and refined animations.
Alongside these visual changes, ColorOS 12 gets the privacy indicators from Android 12 and a permissions reminder to notify users when an app uses location, camera, or microphone in the background.
OnePlus OxygenOS 12 based on Android 12
After existing as an independent brand for nearly seven years, OnePlus recently announced a merger with its parent company OPPO. Following this merger, OnePlus has also confirmed that the OxygenOS 12 will be the last version of its custom Android skin. From the next year, OPPO and OnePlus will together release a “unified operating system” that offers a similar experience on devices from both brands.
For its farewell edition, OnePlus has already released the OxygenOS 12 beta based on Android 12 beta. OnePlus boasts of a “burdenless design” that uses an interplay of light and shadow. Along with this, OxygenOS 12 brings an all-new Shelf, a redesigned OnePlus Notes app, and a customizable dark mode among other improvements.
The second developer preview is already live for the OnePlus 9 series users who wish to experience the UI before the final release.
Realme UI 3.0 based on Android 12
Realme UI, which is forked from ColorOS, also has a running Android 12 beta program. However, it only brings minor changes. Following the launch of Android 12, Realme recently unveiled Realme UI 3.0 based on Android 12 at an event on October 13, and opened up a beta preview for the Realme GT.
Vivo Funtouch OS based on Android 12
Vivo has already begun teasing the next version of its custom skin — Funtouch OS 12 based on Android 12 — on its website. At the moment, the page only talks about improved widgets and better management of RAM and storage. We have yet to learn more about the other changes in the UI.
Xiaomi MIUI 12 based on Android 12
Earlier this year, Xiaomi had also announced MIUI 12.5 based on Android 12 beta for its Mi 11 series of smartphones. Typically, MIUI updates are decoupled from Android updates, and that is why we do not see any major changes to Xiaomi’s UI. But at the same time, it is worth noting that Xiaomi has surpassed its usual timeline of MIUI update. This suggests that the company might release MIUI 13 along with a stable Android 12 update for its devices.
Android 12 for ASUS Zenfone 8, Nokia X20, and others
Alongside custom Android skins, certain brands that offer stock Android UI on their smartphones have also released Android 12 beta previews for users to try. The devices eligible for these beta previews are:
- ASUS ZenFone 8
- Nokia X20
- Tecno Camon 17
- ZTE Axom 30
- TCL 20 Pro 5G
Starting Android 12, many OEMs will enable video recording using HEVC (High-Efficiency Video Compression) format. Also referred to as H.265, this is the newest standard for video encoding, and as its name suggests, it offers higher efficiency and the same video quality as H.264 but takes only half the storage.
Although HEVC is readily available on the most powerful smartphones, the codec is disabled. With Android 12, more smartphones will come with this option enabled by default.
Changes for Developers
Material YOU Theming Support
Google may have reserved its “monet” theming engine to Pixel devices but it is sharing an API with developers. The API will allow app developers to call the Material colour values based on the wallpaper and let them add support for custom theming using those support theming within their apps using these colours.
Additionally, Google has also updated the widgets API to help developers create dynamic widgets. Besides allowing users to interact with them directly from the home screen, these new widgets will also share contextual information with the Google Assistant. This access will help users interact with widgets without touching — or even looking at — the screen.
Better Updates with Alternative App Stores in Android 12
Starting Android 12, your smartphone will no longer ask for your repeated permission to install or update apps from alternative app stores such as Aptoide or Indus App Bazaar. So long as the installer third-party app store meets the requirements laid down by Google and is only used to update itself or a previously installed app, it will not require any action from the user while updating the app.
XDA details this has been implemented with Android 12 but developers will have to ensure their app stores target at least API Level 29, which is for Android 10, and will have to update their app store’s installer file to implement support for this action.
These changes are among the measure to surmount the pressure from Epic Games — the developer of Fortnite — and government bodies asking Google — alongside Apple — to reevaluate the commission they charge for in-app payments. Alongside the option to pay less in commission than what Google charges, the changes could further propel the adoption of alternative app stores.
The diversity among Android devices makes it almost impossible for them to optimize their apps for the entire suite of machines running on Android. To address this, Google announced a parameter termed “performance class” at Google I/O as part of Android 12. The objective of this parameter is to evaluate the performance capabilities of any given Android device so that the app’s experience can be tailored to the device and its maximum potential can be utilized.
The “performance class” parameter tests the abilities of a device on the basis of its processing, video encoding and playback, and camera capabilities. The specifications defined under “performance class” identify Android smartphones or tablets designed for performance. For low-end phones that do not meet these requirements, the app can turn off certain features to reduce the load and improve the rendering of the app.