More than meets the eye

Android 11 was released earlier this month, following the usual handful of public beta releases….

Android 11 was released earlier this month, following the usual handful of public beta releases. Even though the release might seem iterative and unimportant on the surface, there are dozens of high-level changes across the operating system. Just like every update before it, Android 11 makes your smartphone easier to use and more powerful, even if only slightly so.

We covered many of Android 11’s changes as they happened, but now that the release is out and the dust has started to settle, it’s time to check out Android 11 as a whole. The exact experience will vary across devices, but Android 11 is definitely an upgrade you should look forward to, assuming your phone or tablet will ever get it.

Design, interface, new features

It has been a very long time since Android received a visual overhaul, and that’s fine by me. I miss the vibrant colors from the early Material days, but the design of stock Android still balances simplicity and functionality in a way that I rarely see on other operating systems (or Android skins). Just like with the last few releases, there’s nothing in Android 11 that will force you to relearn how to use your phone.

Notifications

The most important interface change in Android 11 is in the notification tray. Media controls have been moved from the notifications to the Quick Settings panel, which has a few advantages. Clearing all your notifications will no longer remove the controls, and if you have multiple apps playing music or video, the control box just becomes scrollable instead of filling up your screen.

New music controls

Before I switched to Android 11 for an extended period, I thought I would hate constantly-pinned media controls, especially since there’s no easy way to individually clear them. However, it ended up being one of my favorite improvements, as I could quickly resume my podcasts or Spotify playlists without opening the apps. If you still don’t like the feature, there’s an option to hide controls once the media session is ended (usually when you close the content or the source application).

The design of the media controls could still use some work, though. I’m not sure why there’s a border line above the controls when the section has its own border, though that probably won’t apply to most skinned versions of Android 11. It would also be nice if the padding around the controls could be removed, allowing more room for the media info and seek bar — with the extra padding and inline album art, I could rarely see the full title of whatever was playing.

As nice as the updated media controls are, there is one definite regression: the Quick Settings bar now only shows two rows of three icons, instead of three rows on Android 10. This isn’t a massive problem for me personally, since I don’t use more than a handful of tiles in the first place, but it does seem like an odd design decision. This appears to be something that most Android skins are already changing — the One UI 3.0 beta on Samsung phones has the same number of tiles as on Android 10/One UI 2.0, as do early builds of OxygenOS 11.

Android 10 organized all notifications into two categories, ‘Alerting’ and ‘Silent,’ but Android 11 is switching things up again. ‘Alerting’ is now just ‘Notifications,’ and there’s a new ‘Conversations’ category displayed at the top. The new section is for direct messages, but apps have to be updated to tell Android which alerts are conversations. I expect this will be incredibly handy in six months when enough apps are updated, but for now, it’s not useful enough.

Conversations section (Source: @Android)

There is one major catch to this feature — it won’t be on all phones running Android 11. Mishaal Rahman of XDA Developers pointed out on Twitter that displaying conversations as its own section isn’t a requirement to pass Google certification, so if phone manufacturers want to organize alerts differently, they can. Samsung’s phones will have the Conversations section, and Google’s own Pixel phones have it, but other companies might go in different directions.

Bubbles (Source: Google)

Conversations can also optionally be displayed as Bubbles, a feature that was slated for release in Android 10 but was delayed until this year’s update. Bubbles are floating buttons that open a conversation when tapped, and minimize it when tapped again. This allows you to quickly respond to messages without exiting your current app. This isn’t a new idea by any stretch of the imagination — some Android skins have similar functionality, and apps like Facebook Messenger have used their own implementations for years — but it’s now easier than ever for apps to use Bubbles.

The other key interface change in Android 11 is the power menu. Holding down the power button used to just display power options. Google started expanding its scope with Android 10, and now it’s a full-fledged control panel with smart home devices and a digital wallet.

To be honest, I’m not a fan of the new power menu. The Google Pay wallet is marginally useful, but only if you frequently switch cards or want quicker access to loyalty cards. The smart home controls are handy, but I’m not sure why they couldn’t be added as a new section in Quick Settings. Stock Android now has two completely independent places for easy access to settings, which seems like it could be confusing. It’s also not immediately obvious how to add or remove smart home items — unlike the edit icon in the Quick Settings, configuration for the smart home controls is hidden under the overflow menu.

New power menu

The new power menu is also another Android 11 feature that is completely optional, so it remains to be seen how many phones will actually get it. Samsung is not using the updated power menu in its Android 11 beta, but OnePlus has implemented it in the OxygenOS 11 beta.

Emoji

It wouldn’t be a new mobile operating system release without new emoji. Android 11 has 117 new emoji, all from the Unicode Emoji 13.0 set. Some of the new options include Smiling Face with Tear, Disguised Face, Pinched Fingers, Ninja, anatomically-correct Heart and Lungs, Bubble Tea, and Piñata.

New emoji on Android 11 (Source: Emojipedia)

Android 10 introduced many new gender-neutral emoji and new variations of previously gender-specific emoji (e.g., 🕺 Man Dancing was added after 💃 Woman Dancing), and Android 11 is continuing that trend. There’s both Man in Tuxedo and Woman in Tuxedo, a new generic People Hugging, both Woman Feeding Baby and Man Feeding Baby (plus a gender-neutral Person Feeding Baby), and so on. We’re also finally seeing some transgender representation four years after the regular pride flag was added in 2016, as both the Transgender Flag and Transgender Symbol are available.

Some of the redesigned emoji on Android 11 (Source: Emojipedia)

In addition to the new emoji, Google has also re-drawn most of the emoji already present — symbols have added shading, outlines on people have been modified, and so on. The adorable 🐢 Turtle that was replaced in Android Oreo makes a triumphant return on Android 11, 🐧 Penguin is more realistically-shaped, ❤️ Red Heart no longer has a gradient, and so on. If you’re interested in reading about every single change, check out this Emojipedia blog post.

Other stuff

Android 11 also has a few features that have been commonplace on manufacturer skins for a while, but now they’ll be available on all devices. One example is the new screen recorder, which not only removes the need to install an app, but also has the option of capturing system audio. Internal audio is not accessible to third-party recording apps at all, so I’m definitely happy to see the new recorder in stock Android.

The new screen recorder can be accessed by tapping the ‘Screen Record’ tile in the Quick Settings — if you don’t see it on your device, press the edit button in the Quick Settings and drag the tile out of the hidden options. Once you have it, just tap it to start a recording. Recordings can be stopped by tapping the red notification.

The feature is still a bit simplistic, since you don’t get options for video format/resolution or adding overlays (like your front camera). The finished video files are also much larger than what you would get from other screen recorders. An 11-second capture from my Pixel 3a with no audio ended up being 34MB, because the video bitrate was set to 25 Mbps. I appreciate the crystal-clear quality, but I’m not sure why it’s needed, or why it’s not configurable — the screen recorder on my Galaxy S20 saves video at half the bitrate, and it still looks great.

Android 11 also has a pile of smaller improvements that would take thousands of words to cover, so I’ll mention a few of the most important here. Airplane Mode no longer shuts off Bluetooth when you’re using Bluetooth audio, the audio output selector has been redesigned and works better with Chromecast targets, devices launching with Android 11 are required to support seamless updates, you can see all your recent notifications from the Settings app, pinning apps to the share sheet has returned, and you can finally set automatic schedules for the dark theme.

From left to right: Notification history, pinning apps to the share sheet, new audio menu

Aside from the changes to notifications and the power button menu, there aren’t any significant updates to how Android looks and feels. Google hasn’t taken a sledgehammer to system navigation, like it did with Android 10 and Pie, and I don’t have to re-learn where everything is in the Settings app. This isn’t the case for all devices — Samsung and OnePlus will introduce new versions of their skins alongside the Android 11 update, for example — but people using stock-like Android won’t be thrown through a loop after their phone is updated.

Security and APIs

Since most of the visible parts of Android (the home screen, most system apps, etc.) can be updated outside of system upgrades, the past few Android OS releases have primarily focused on changes to security and APIs. Android 11 continues this trend with several important changes for apps and new developer APIs.

Permissions

You can now grant some permissions to apps temporarily, instead of the apps retaining access until they are uninstalled or have their permissions revoked manually in the Settings. The new option is available for the location, microphone, and camera permissions, allowing the app to use the permission only until it is closed. Apple introduced a similar ability last year, with the release of iOS 13.

Android 11 has another useful feature to keep apps from retaining permissions for longer than necessary. If an app hasn’t been used for a few months, and it has been updated to target Android 11, the system will automatically revoke sensitive permissions like location, phone access, and others that would normally show a pop-up on first install. If you haven’t opened an app in three months, it probably doesn’t need to keep checking your location, so I’m a fan of this change. It can also be forced on any application (not just ones targeting Android 11) through the Settings app, or you can disable it completely from the same screen.

Android 11 also cuts back on applications repeatedly asking for denied permissions. If you press ‘Deny’ on a prompt twice, the app will no longer be able to ask for the permission again. Android 10 already had a ‘Don’t ask again’ option that would accomplish the same thing, but now it’s automatic for apps that keep pestering you.

Scoped Storage

Android 11 also comes with one of the most controversial changes to Android in recent memory: Scoped Storage. The feature was first introduced in Android 10 as a way to limit apps from accessing every single file on your phone, but after many developers told Google they wouldn’t be able to rewrite their apps in time for Android 10’s release, it didn’t become mandatory until Android 11. Scoped Storage has become a touchy subject among Android enthusiasts (and some developers), so it’s probably a good idea to explain exactly what it is, why Google has been working on it, and why I think it’s a good thing for pretty much everyone.

Before Scoped Storage, Android apps have had two options of accessing external files — they can open up the system file picker and let the user select a file or folder, or ask for permission to read and/or modify your phone’s entire (user-accessible) file system. When you think about it, there are very few applications that have a legitimate reason to see all your files at once, which is why many software platforms are now trending towards isolating file access. The new Native File System API in Chrome only allows web apps to access specific folders, Windows 10X is expected to run classic applications in containers, Flatpak and Snap packages on Linux prevents general file access by default, and so on.

Scoped Storage is a halfway point between “lock down everything” and “let apps do whatever they want.”

Scoped Storage is a halfway point between “lock down everything” and “let apps do whatever they want.” It gives each app its own folder that it can access freely, which can’t be viewed by other apps. This means malicious apps can’t look closely at data from other applications, and it’s easier to clean up files from uninstalled apps. There are also several ‘media collections’ that apps share access to, which sometimes don’t require any permissions at all. For example, Chrome can save files to your Downloads folder without requesting the Storage permission.

Scoped Storage is only a requirement for applications targeting Android 11, not all applications running on Android 11. That means apps relying on old methods of file access won’t instantly break when your phone gets updated to the new OS, and updates to existing apps won’t be required to use Scoped Storage until roughly a year from now. For context, Android 10 was released a year ago, and Google isn’t requiring app updates to target Android 10 until November of this year. The delay in enforcement means the privacy and security benefits of Scoped Storage won’t start to become widespread for at least a year, but it’s a start.

Contrary to what you might believe reading some comment sections, Scoped Storage is not the end of Android, nor is it so restrictive that it will prevent most apps from functioning as they do now. Google is also working on a process for granting exceptions to file managers and other types of applications that can’t function in a sandboxed environment. There are absolutely some valid criticisms of Scoped Storage, like how it slows down file access speeds (not enough to be noticeable to most people, but still), and how it requires significant rewrites for some third-party apps, but I think it’s one of the most important changes to Android in years.

The previously-mentioned Bubbles feature is primarily intended to speed up the death of SYSTEM_ALERT_WINDOW, which is how all applications currently display floating elements or overlays on the screen. Google has already made clear that it will kill the overlay permission in a future Android release, since it’s commonly used by malware to take over control of the device. Starting with Android 11, when an app asks for the permission, you’re now taken to the full list of apps instead of just to the app’s specific page. Google says this is intended to “protect users by making the permission grant more intentional.”


Left: Android 10 on Galaxy S20; Right: Android 11

Google started cracking down on access to hardware identifiers with Android 10, since they can be used to track users in ways that can’t be easily prevented — you can reset your Google advertising ID with a few taps, but you can’t reset your phone’s IMEI. Android 11 continues this effort by restricting access to SIM card ICCIDs.

Conclusion

It’s been a long time since Android updates were exciting. The last major OS redesign was six years ago, and Android 11 is the first release since Pie that doesn’t (attempt to) revamp system navigation. There are very few changes on the surface, but as I said in an editorial, so much of the operating system is updated through the Play Store or OEM skins that Android versions are more important to developers than they are to you and I.

That said, there are more than a few changes in Android 11 that I’m anxiously waiting for on my Galaxy S20. The media controls are great for quickly resuming a track or podcast from anywhere on my phone, Bubbles look much better than the custom-built floating elements that many of my favorite apps use, and the greater control over permissions is long overdue. Also, once Scoped Storage becomes mandatory, I won’t have to wonder if some app on my phone is scanning all my local files without my knowledge.

Device manufacturers are allowed to skip some of the most important changes in Android 11.

My main criticism is that device manufacturers are allowed to skip some of the most important changes in Android 11, and still pass Google’s certification tests. The new ‘Conversations’ section in the notification tray, the updated power button menu, wireless ADB, and electronic ID support are all optional. Even though I’m not personally a fan of the power menu changes, it’s strange that features Google has repeatedly advertised as part of Android 11 won’t actually be present on many phones and tablets running Android 11.

Ultimately, while developers might not like Android 11 for all the rewrites it will require, it’s a great update for the billions of people using it on their phones, tablets, and other devices.