Android 10 Review: A Small But Helpful Update


It might not have a sugary name anymore, but Android 10 is a delight.

Highs

  • Dark theme
  • Granular notifications, more screen time management
  • Faster security updates
  • More transparency surrounding security and location data
  • Helpful on-device machine learning

Lows

  • Navigation controls could use further refinement
  • Will be slow to come to your phone

“It looks the same.”

That’s what a friend said after I told her to update her Pixel phone to Android 10. My girlfriend couldn’t tell the difference either, apart from her vehement reluctance to use the new dark theme (after I told her about it). There aren’t a ton of immediately noticeable changes in Google’s latest Android version. The visible changes are surface-level but appreciated (by me, at least). The subtle ones will prove to be more beneficial to the next-generation of smartphones coming in 2020, from foldables to 5G devices.

In the meantime, here’s what it’s like to use Android 10, which brings features like Dark Theme, new navigation gestures, and key improvements to privacy and security. Keep in mind the software isn’t exactly the same on all Android phones; I’ve been using the final version on the Pixel 3 XL and Pixel 3a for about a month.

New navigation gestures

Navigation has been a bit of a mess on Android for the past year or two as every manufacturer wants their own take, but that’s confusing for most people. Thankfully in Android 10, it’s all being standardized across the board with new navigation gestures from Google, though the traditional three-button system is still an option. The OnePlus 7T has the new navigation system enabled by default, for example, instead of the proprietary gesture system OnePlus has been using for the past year.

Android 10 Assistant Navigation
Android 10 Google Assistant navigation. Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

I’ve been using the new gesture system ever since the early betas and it was initially janky, but the final result is leagues better. Google has mimicked what Apple has done but added in its own twists to varying degrees of success. That means copying the elongated bar at the bottom of the screen, though to differentiate the bar isn’t as long or thick on the Pixel.

Here’s the full gesture suite:

  • Swipe up from the home screen to open the app drawer.
  • Swipe up from the bar at the bottom when in an app to go home.
  • Swipe up and hold to open the Recent apps menu.
  • Swipe right or left on the bar at the bottom to switch between the previous app.
  • Swipe diagonally in from one of the bottom two corners to launch Google Assistant.
  • Swipe in from the left or right edge to go back.

That’s an overwhelming amount of gestures, but after using it for some time, I got used to it quite quickly. The persistent back button is officially gone, but the replacement is an improvement because it doesn’t matter which side of the phone you choose; it’s a win for lefties and righties. Overall, the animations don’t feel quite as fluid as Apple’s gestures on iOS, but they’ve come a long way since the first beta.

The gesture to launch Assistant feels a bit awkward, so I’ve largely been using the Pixel 3’s squeeze to launch Assistant feature (or just saying, “Hey, Google).

Android 10 menu peek
Android 10 menu peek. Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

But the worst part of the new gestures is accessing the slide-out menu in apps that have one. I’m talking about apps like Gmail or Google Play that have a “hamburger menu” at the top left that opens up a sidebar. Because swiping in from the left edge now goes back, you can no longer slide the menu out; you need to tap on the icon. Worse yet, Google has created an alternative approach that lets you tap and hold a finger on the left edge of the phone until the slide-out menu “peeks,” and then you can swipe right to pull it out completely. It never consistently works and it’s far from intuitive.

Hopefully, we’ll see some refinements here as the year goes on (or in Android 11). Even with the quirks, would I switch back to the traditional navigation system? No. I’ve gotten too used to the gestures and frankly, I like them.

Turn out the lights

Perhaps the best part of Android 10 is Dark Theme, a toggle in the Display settings that converts the interface — from the Settings menu, the notification and app drawers, folders, the Google Search bar, and more — into a dark color that won’t singe your eyes when viewing the screen at night. It’s an option I’ve wanted for years as Google’s apps became increasingly white, and it’s nice to see it’s finally here.

Certain parts of the operating system turn OLED black, meaning if the phone has an OLED screen, the pixels are turned off, allowing for stunningly dark blacks that help color and text pop, but it also helps conserve battery life. I’ve noticed my Pixel 3 XL lasts just a hair longer than before using Android 10, but it could well be a placebo.

Android 10 Dark Theme
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

More importantly, the new Dark Theme looks beautiful. It can even force apps that have a dark theme to turn it on, and while this works with select Google apps, it’s not consistent. It will be a while before the option for a dark theme will become the norm for most third-party apps, but I’ll be eagerly waiting.

I noticed a few bugs with Dark Theme during the initial Android 10 rollout. For example, the Google Search app kept giving me autocomplete suggestions in a dark grey color on a dark grey background, making it almost impossible to read. These have since been fixed. I do think it’s a missed opportunity to not have a scheduling system for people that only want Dark Theme turned on at night; right now, it’s an all-or-nothing toggle whereas you can schedule it on Apple’s iOS 13.

Dark Theme won’t be for everyone though. When I excitedly showed my girlfriend the new mode on her Pixel, she shrugged it off and said she doesn’t like it. Go figure.

Android 10 Theme Picker
Android 10 Theme Picker. Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Another feature that Google should have brought to the forefront is the new accent color options that add a bit of personalized flair in the Settings menu and the quick settings drawer. It lets you change the default accent color on the Pixel phones from blue to seven other options from Cinnamon to Purple. These kinds of theme pickers are available in Android versions from other manufacturers like OnePlus’ OxygenOS, so it’s nice to see Google baking it in.

Except, the feature is still hidden away in Developer options. I’m not quite sure why Google couldn’t move it to the Display settings menu to make it more visible for the average person, but it likely has something to do with rumors suggesting the upcoming Pixel 4 will have a robust theming settings for increased personalization.

Even better notifications, smarter replies

Android continues to have the best notification system. You can respond inline without having to enter an app, they’re easy to swipe away, you can perform actions without needing to swipe or press on the notification itself, and you can further customize exactly what notifications you want coming through on a per-app basis. You can even snooze notifications for later (though this is disabled by default in Android 10, head to Settings > Apps and notifications > Notifications > Advanced > Allow notification snoozing).

android 10 alert or silent notifications
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

It can perhaps be a little too complicated, requiring some setup on your part to get it all running the way you want, but it can be worthwhile. One step in making customizing notifications more simple is a new distinction in making each one an “Alerting” notification or a “Silent” one. The former will vibrate your phone or play a notification tone, whereas the latter will show up in your notification drawer but won’t alert you in any other way. It’s easy to set a notification as Alerting or Silent — just slide it slightly to the left or right until you see a gear icon. Tap it, and you can choose between the two options, or turn notifications for the app off completely.

Silent notifications have a hub below notifications that are set to Alerting, which always show up at the top of the notification drawer. I’m a big fan of this new system, as it lets me scan my most important alerts first, and ignore the ones I set to Silent (or check them later).

Speaking of notifications, Smart Reply has gotten smarter in Android 10. It’s where you get contextual responses popping up in a notification, allowing you to respond to someone without having to type anything; it uses on-device machine learning to understand the context and offer up choices. It now works on many popular messaging apps, and it can even suggest actions based on what someone sends you.

Android 10 Smart Reply
Android 10 Smart Reply. Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

For example, if a friend sends an address, a Smart Reply action might be to open the address up in Google Maps. If someone sends a YouTube link, you can open the link up in YouTube straight from the notification itself without needing to enter the messaging app. It doesn’t show up all the time, but it genuinely does save me a bit of time when it works.

Focus mode, and faster sharing

Ever get tired of all the buzzing, especially when you want to get some work done? Well, if you don’t want to opt for the blanket do-not-disturb mode, there’s now a new feature called Focus Mode. It lets you customize which apps you want to silence.

Best of all, it’s available as a quick settings tile, so you can turn it on without hunting through menus. It has become my go-to tool for when I need to bang out some words in silence, but I can still have important alerts come through. Google isn’t the only manufacturer introducing tools to help people tune out — OnePlus debuted a Zen Mode earlier this year on the OnePlus 7 Pro, which locks the phone up so you can’t use it (you can still get calls, access the camera, and make emergency calls). It’s excellent, and I’m all for giving people options.

Android 10 Focus Mode
Android 10 Focus Mode. Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Focus Mode is an addition to Google’s Digital Wellbeing platform, which helps you monitor and curb your screen time if that’s what you want. Another new addition is the ability to set limits on websites (instead of just apps), but this is only available with the developer version of the Chrome browser, which you can download through the Play Store. It’s not as useful for me, as I often don’t spend much time in Chrome (I usually use the app version of whatever I’m looking at), but hey, that’s just me.

Google has also added the option to manage parental controls from its Family Link service through the Digital Wellbeing dashboard, though you’ll still need to install the app to make it all work.

Speaking of my digital wellbeing, here’s an improvement everyone will be happy with: the old sharing system on Android. It used to take ages to load and I’d often tap on the wrong app because of some delayed animation, leaving me frustrated. That’s all fixed. It’s significantly faster and problem-free, and it looks great, too.

Location and Privacy hubs

It seems a bit ridiculous that there was no Location or Privacy hub menu in the main Settings app until now. Take a gander in the Privacy hub, and you’ll likely be shocked as I was to see exactly what permissions each app could access before on my phone. The fact is, this information is available in previous versions of Android, but being in one place makes it far simpler to find and manage. The first thing I did was go into the permission manager and choose exactly what app could access the sensors and services on my phone, giving me a little peace of mind.

I’m even happier with improvements to location-tracking requests. One of the most consistent pop-ups I’ve seen using Android 10 is those from apps requesting my location data. Google now offers up three options: Allow all the time, Allow only while using the app, or Deny. These options are finally catching up to what iOS users have enjoyed on their iPhones, and I’m happy to keep seeing these pop-ups, as it gives me granular control over deciding what an app can use and when.

Android 10 Permissions
Android 10 permissions. Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

There are a ton of other improvements to privacy in Android 10. Scoped storage, for example, only gives apps a “filtered view into external storage,” so they can save data you might need to access onto your device without you needing to allow it access to storage. Another change is a limit to apps launching activities while in the background.

One of the most important additions is support for Google Play system updates, internally called Project Mainline. Many Android phones already get monthly security updates, but with Google Play system updates, these patches can be rolled out even faster, just like a regular app update. That means a more secure phone, and who doesn’t want that?

5G, foldables, and a whole lot more

Android 10 includes better support for foldable phones, which Google worked on with Samsung during the development of the Galaxy Fold, as well as support for 5G, enabling apps to utilize the faster speeds seen on the next-gen network.

There’s a great deal more, like how you can quickly share your Wi-Fi password with someone else via a QR code (still not as elegant as on iOS), Android Auto is baked into the OS, so you don’t need to install the app, and there are more gender-inclusive emoji.

With respect to Google Play system updates, the highlights of Android 10 aren’t particularly groundbreaking.

Live Caption is a notable addition, one that we’ll need to wait to try out as it’s not available just yet. It automatically captions any type of media playing on your phone; if you suddenly see a video in your Instagram feed, Live Caption will start transcribing what’s being said as a caption. This is all done on-device, so you don’t need to be connected to the internet for it to work.

Another helpful change adds an emergency icon accessible from the lock screen by pressing and holding the power button; it now delivers enhanced location data to emergency services. If you want to check out the full list of enhancements, visit the Android developer blog for the laundry list.

Wrap-up and availability

Android 10 is available now on Google’s Pixel phones, as well as on select OnePlus phones and the Essential Phone. You can check our guide to see when your phone will get the update. You can head to Settings > System > System update > Check for update to see if you can install the update (the settings menu might be a little different on your phone), and remember to back up your data as a precaution.

With respect to Google Play system updates, the highlights of Android 10 aren’t particularly groundbreaking. They’re all changes I’m happy to see but the surface-level improvements are relatively minor. We’ll start seeing more of the benefits of support for 5G and foldable phones in 2020 as more devices land on the market.

The biggest downside is how long Android 10 will take to get on your phone. Manufacturers and carriers are often slow to issue updates, but Android’s fragmentation problem has gotten better, with Google saying Android Pie was adopted 2.5 times faster than Android Oreo, and more phones than ever before were included in the Android Q beta. Still, Google has a long way to go if it wants to catch up to Apple’s iOS adoption rate, but here’s to hoping it continues to improve.

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