Android 11 puts some serious (and subtle) polish on the platform


Android 11 beta has been out for a while and it offers a number of new features and improvements. Jack Wallen offers up his take on why this might be the best yet for users.

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Image: Jack Wallen

Recently a pair of events occurred, almost simultaneously, that had me using the beta version of Android 11 as my daily driver. 

I decided to join the Android 11 beta program with my previous phone, a Google Pixel 3. It was still a good phone and I’d need to be testing some of the new features for the upcoming platform. The same day I did that, I was coming in from the record store with a large package between my arm and body. I grabbed the package to place it on my desk, when the corner of the paper bag caught my Google Pixel 4, sending it to the floor.

As luck would have it, the phone screen crash landed on a corner of the wooden mat I have on at my desk. Needless to say, the display shattered in a bajillion tiny fragments, rendering the phone practically unusable. 

So, I contacted Google, requested a repair RMA, and shipped the Pixel 4 off to get the screen replaced. 

That left me with my Pixel 3. Instead of doing a factory reset, I opted to leave the beta version of Android 11, which would give me plenty of time to experience what the next iteration of the platform had to offer.

I’m here to tell you–I’m impressed.

What Android 11 brings to the table is a subtle evolution of everything that made Android 10 so good. I’m not going to go through a feature-by-feature listing of everything new to Android 11. Instead, I want to talk about what makes Android 11 so good for end users and why you’ll want this new release as soon as it’s available.

SEE: IT pro’s guide to the evolution and impact of 5G technology (TechRepublic download)

It’s all about the polish

If I’m being completely honest, Android 10 has been my absolute favorite release of the platform to date. It does nearly everything right. From battery life, to ease of navigation, to simplicity of sharing and everything in between.

After using Android 10 for quite some time, I was hard-pressed to think of anything that could have improved the experience. However, after using Android 11, the Google developers have shown their skills at evolving the platform.

For instance, take the notification shade–instead of the notification shade being one constant list of alerts, everything is broken down into categories (Figure A). There’s:

  • Conversations for things like Facebook Messenger and SMS messages

  • Alerting notifications for apps and events

  • Silent notifications for things like Google News

Figure A

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The new Android 11 notification categories.

What’s really nice about this new categorization system is that it allows you to clear a single category, instead of clearing either single notifications or clearing all. So, if you get a lot of notifications from apps, but don’t want to have to go through and clear them individually, tap the X associated with the Alerting Notifications category. 

Screenshots and power

The developers have stripped out the screenshot tool from the power button menu. No longer can you take a screenshot by holding down the power button. Instead, you must access the open app list by swiping up from the home button. Once you reveal your open apps, you’ll see the Screenshot button at the bottom of the display (Figure B).

Figure B

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The new Screenshot feature for Android 11 is pretty slick.

The one caveat to the new Screenshot feature is that it prevents you from taking screenshots of certain elements (such as the Screenshot feature itself or the notification shade).

App suggestions 

I’ll preface this by saying I much prefer a clean home screen. I’m okay with a single row of app launcher folders at the bottom of my display, but not much more. However, if you don’t mind a few more launchers at the ready, Android 11 is bringing app suggestions to the home screen. This feature will keep an updated row of your most used apps available for quick launch. 

This feature can be enabled/disabled by long-pressing the home screen and tapping Home Settings. In the resulting window, tap Suggestions and then tap the On/Off slider to either enable or disable Suggestions On Home Screen (Figure C).

Figure C

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Enable or disable the app suggestions feature for the home screen.

Once you enable the feature, it’ll take some time for the suggested apps to show up, as the AI has to learn what you use the most. 

Personally, I disabled the feature almost immediately. Why? The same app suggestions appear at the top of the app drawer, so it seems a bit redundant.

Bubbles

To anyone that has followed Android over the years, the Bubbles feature, which mimics the Facebook Messenger Chat Heads feature, has been teased for some time. It’s here and it’s pretty sweet.

Instead of having every possible message arrive as a Bubble, Android 11 allows you to not only enable Bubbles on a per-app basis. Some of the apps (such as Messages and Gmail) allow you to enable Bubbles on a per-conversation basis.

For example, take the default Android SMS client. With this app you can define if all conversation, no conversations, or selected conversations can be placed in a Bubble (Figure D).

Figure D

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Defining what can Bubble in Android 11.

Of course, this feature isn’t complete yet. When you opt to go the selected conversations route, you aren’t able to yet select which conversations are placed in a Bubble. I’m guessing this option will be coming soon. Until then, keep your fingers crossed the developers leave this feature in.

Improved display

Android 11 has brought an improved display for devices that support variable refresh rates. This clearly applies to the Google Pixel 4, but the Pixel 3 doesn’t include a variable refresh rate. However, after upgrading to the Android 11 beta, I noticed an improved display on the Pixel 3. In fact, the improved display on the Pixel 3 now rivals that of my Pixel 4. 

I cannot find any reference to an Android 11 feature that has directly improved the display for devices that do not support variable refresh rates, but my eyes do not deceive me–the display is considerably improved from Android 10.  

These are just some of the obvious improvements Android 11 has made over 10–improvements that will immediately impact users. Once the final release of Android 11 is out (and I have my Pixel 4 back), I would imagine the next iteration of Google’s mobile platform will be the best yet, by a long (but subtle) shot.

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