Google Android 10 Review | PCMag
In Android 10 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 quite reinvent itself as a privacy-first OS with the release of Android 10. It’s more a privacy revision than a revolution; nevertheless, that’s an improvement. The mature, customizable, and feature-rich system stands alongside Apple iOS 13 as a PCMag mobile OS Editors’ Choice.
Just as Windows 10 gets between-release feature updates, Android benefits from new features between major versions. Just this month, a new Nearby Share feature arrived on the platform (only seven years after AirDrop appeared in iOS and two years after Windows’s similarly named Nearby Sharing). Since Android 10’s initial release, we’ve seen new features for earthquake warnings, contact tracing, and improving sleep.
How to Get Android 10
Android 10 is available but rolling out slowly and only to certain devices. Eventually, you’ll receive a software update on your phone. That is, if your device is supported at all.
Google always rolls out Android updates for its Pixel smartphones 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 Android One program, like most recent Nokia phones, are guaranteed two years of updates.
Google has worked to increase the range of devices that receive updates, but the enormous number of different models and manufacturers make it a daunting task. The resulting Android fragmentation means that only 8.2 percent of phones are now running Android 10, which launched on September 3, 2019, according to Google’s own numbers in Android Studio. (The company stopped posting the distribution numbers on the web this past April, so you have to install the massive IDE to get them now.) That makes Android 10 the sixth most popular version of the OS. Combining its usage with the previous version 9 only gets you to 39.5 percent market penetration. Apple’s phone OS adoption shows a far different picture: 81 percent of iPhones are running the latest iOS 13, and when you add iOS 12, over 94 percent of iPhones are running the two latest versions.
This plethora of versions is daunting for customers. If you’re not careful, you could buy a brand-new phone that ends up running an older operating system.
If your handset is supported, it’s fairly simple to download and install Android 10.
Security and Privacy Are the Future
When reviewing iOS and Android, we find it useful to make comparisons between the two. Not because one is better than the other, but rather to see how two well-financed tech titans tackle the same problems. This is especially true for Android 10 and iOS 13, both of which tout dark modes and privacy improvements as their flagship features.
The fundamentals of Android are still here in Android 10. 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 also diverge.
Apple is unequivocal in its stance. It doesn’t track you. It doesn’t share your data (well, except with Goldman Sachs if you have an Apple Card). Since Apple relies 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 make money. You can also argue that turning security and privacy into an expensive commodity, instead of a right, isn’t fantastic either.
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 less annoying than a random ad. This means, however, that Google can’t fully embrace privacy the way Apple does because much of what Google does for you requires at least some data from you.
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 10 also has more privacy features than any previous 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 10, 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 Android 10, are improving security overall. Our Max Eddy has written about these in depth elsewhere, but here are the highlights of Android 10’s security and privacy features.
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 us 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 which features and services on your device. It’s extremely useful. One major disappointment is that Google appears to have removed the option to “hide sensitive content” on your lock screen notifications, replacing this middle-road option with a binary all or nothing. This is probably better for privacy—who decides what is “sensitive,” after all?—but sometimes a less-than-perfect option is good enough.
Unfortunately, Google buries the fun stuff in the Privacy > Advanced section. Google Location History lets you prevent or allow the search ad company to record where you go. The Activity Controls covers your, well, activity on the web or in apps. You can toggle this off and then hit Pause twice on pages that explain at length why doing so is a bad idea—there’s no simple “off” choice. 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.
Google Android Q PreviewUsers 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 we 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 10 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 10 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 10 randomizing MAC addresses, making it harder for apps and observers to track you. Google also says that all devices launching with Android 10 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 experience, more akin to Apple’s Messages app. 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. One good option is to use the truly encrypted Signal messaging app.
Some new, nondigital ways Google wants to protect you arrived in a couple out-of-band updates: earthquake alerts, contact tracing, and Android Emergency Location Service (ELS). The earthquake notifications only pertain to the west coast of the US now, warning users immediately after an earthquake has started (it’s not earthquake prediction), using data from ShakeAlert.
The contact tracing technology is an unlikely collaboration with Apple, which added it to iOS, so as to cover the major mobile OSes. Of course, this only works with government and user buy-in, and Google says that governments in 16 countries and that 20 US states have “explored” the capability. For it to work, the program needs universal adoption: Without that, a COVID-19 positive person who disabled it can merrily infect others. Based on negative comments from readers on Facebook about the PCMag article on the technology linked above, it’s a good bet there won’t be universal buy-in, prolonging the US’s COVID-19 woes.
OK, Google: Show Me Machine Learning
Machine Learning, particularly in the form of the Google Assistant, has become an increasingly prominent part of the Android experience over the last few years. A new emphasis from Google in Android 10 is machine learning that’s performed on the device, without having to send your data back to Google’s cloud. If that sounds familiar, that’s because it’s a talking point Apple has used for years. 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.
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. As is often the case with features like this, we’re left wondering if we’re doing something wrong. That in itself is a problem: people should know what tools are available and how to get to them. Nevertheless, we were able to compose and send an email and turn on the phone’s flashlight feature by voice. But we still had trouble accessing settings through Assistant: When we gave the command “open camera settings,” we were offered a YouTube video.
We’re 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 or as a button in the Google Assistant popup. It’s still remarkable, but it seems like Google isn’t sure how to best use it.
Android users have been waiting years for an answer to Apple’s AirDrop feature, which lets you send media, links, pictures, or documents wirelessly to nearby devices without even the need for an internet connection. Nearby Share is finally here! The feature uses Bluetooth, Bluetooth Low Energy, WebRTC or peer-to-peer Wi-Fi to identify other nearby Androids capable of receiving content from you. You can hide your phone from this capability if you prefer, and you don’t need to exchange contact info with the sharer. As with AirDrop or Nearby Sharing, the recipient has the option not to accept what’s being sent. Google plans to make Nearby Share available in Chrome OS in the coming months, as well.
Over the last few years dark modes have become a cause célèbre in every operating system you can think of. It’s certainly not a bad thing, we’re 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?
Perhaps people feel less eyestrain with dark screens, though this is a separate feature from night modes, which save your eyes from sleep-degrading blue light during the evening. Not to go off on a bedtime tangent, but a recent Android update now also lets you make your phone stop distracting you after your set bedtime. Bedtime mode, which you can set in Digital Wellbeing settings, turns off notifications and decolorizes the screen—based on the Bedtime schedule you’ve set in the Clock app. You can also play soothing sounds at bedtime from Calm, Spotify, or another music app, and monitor your sleep quality using the phone’s motion detector. By contrast, Apple iOS’s Bedtime settings in the Clock app only (optionally) enable Do Not Disturb during the hours specified and sets an alarm for the morning wakeup.
Back to the new darkness: When you toggle on Dark Theme in Android 10, 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, we have seen some instances where true-black notifications were invisible against a system app that was also in true black. A little chromatic variety would help here.
It’s unclear whether Dark Theme will help you save on battery life. Google is certainly positioning it that way, and turning on Battery Saver notably activates Dark Mode. PCMag’s crack team of investigators in the consumer electronics division will have to sort this one out. 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 10 has changed very little visually. The system font has been tweaked and menus have a cleaner, sparer look, but nothing new and flashy. Menus and notifications seem a little curvier than before. One notable change is the share sheets, which have been smartly redesigned and, more importantly, load much, much faster in Android 10 than before.
And there are, of course, more emoji. Google Android 10 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. Now they’re really gone (depending on your phone and options).
But there are other 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 started in Oreo. This puts a pill-shaped button at the bottom of the screen and shows a back arrow where contextually necessary. A full swipe up opens the app tray. Google has, thankfully, removed the weird tap-and-pull interaction with the pill button to shoot through your running apps.
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 and swiping up quickly tosses the app you’re using away and takes you to the home screen, 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 switcher peeks out from the left side of the screen. Let go and you’ll be in the app switcher, 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 switcher view. Swipe in from the middle of the left or right edge of the screen and you’ll move back or forward 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 our least favorite but is also the most capable and most interesting option by far. It’s the one being touted as the future for Android. Since high-end phones have screens that run nearly edge-to-edge, 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 sometimes feels imprecise—on Apple and Android phones.
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, has sold well, while its followup, the 4a, has been delayed because of the Covid-19 pandemic. We have to wonder whether massive screens at high prices are actually the future of smartphones.
Future-Proofed for a Different Timeline
When Google first announced Android 10, the company highlighted support for so-called “foldables.” These are mobile devices with foldable screens, and Android 10 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. According to PCMag’s mobile analyst Sascha Segan, “several foldable phones are on the market right now, from Samsung, Motorola and LG, but none have become successes because, so far, they tend to be costly and either fragile or clunky.” Similar to folding phones is Microsoft’s upcoming Surface Duo, and Android phone with two screens and special functionality to accommodate them.
As with folding phone support, Google also touted Android 10’s native support for 5G. In Android 10, devices can identify 5G connections correctly, and will lead to better 5G connections. This is, without question, an enormously important technology for the near 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. Segan tells us that the technology in Android 10 is great, but that it might be a while before 5G matters to consumers.
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” was up for this year’s release and would have posed a challenge for the folks at Google. The only sweetly flavored thing we can think of that starts with Q is “quince,” but we never thought it would make the cut. It turns out that in at least this one case, we were right: Google has taken Q the opportunity to call it Q for quits on the naming convention. Expect numbers for future releases.
Turning It Up to 11
As with many recent OS updates, the next major version of the OS, Android 11, isn’t loaded with sexy new features for end users, but will be more of an evolutionary update. Android 11 was delayed thanks to overwhelming world events, but we can expect improved 5G support, new conversation options with people-oriented notifications and more chat bubbles, screen-aware voice control, better media and device controls (easier audio output options, for example).
Privacy sees several more new options, including one-time permission to use things like the camera or mic; and permissions reset for apps unused for a long time. Google is making sure updates happen on more devices, including updates for privacy, security, and consistency. If you have a Google Pixel 2, 3, 3a, or 4, you can install the Android 11 beta by enrolling in the Android Beta Program. The final release is planned to hit in the third quarter of 2020. Oh, and fear not: the new OS version will add still more new emoji, from the version 13 set.
One Powerful Bot
In Android 10, Google tries to reconcile itself with consumers’ desire for more privacy—with mostly positive results. Android 10 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 Android 10, Google sets an expectation at odds with its own business model. In some ways, it can only improve on privacy but never fully 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 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.
The tenth version of Android is a mature and highly refined mobile operating system with an enormous user base and a vast array of supported devices. Android 10 continues to iterate on all that, adding new gestures, a Dark Mode, and 5G support, to name a few. It’s an Editors’ Choice winner, alongside iOS 13.
The Bottom Line
The latest version of Google’s Android mobile operating system brings a batch of security and privacy improvements, 5G support, gestures, and a new Dark Theme.
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