The Android 12 beta is here - well, here for some users, depending on your device, and it’s probably not worth downloading unless you’ve got a Pixel phone. We’ve downloaded it, upgraded our phone, and sidestepped the queues to test out the new Android operating system (OS).
We set up a fresh Google Pixel 4a 5G (i.e., one that wasn’t already full of our apps and data) and downloaded the Android 12 beta, then spent several hours trawling through menus and apps trying to see what’s new. We didn’t need to spend hours, there’s not much here.
In the spirit of our similar iPadOS 14 feature, we’ve categorized what’s new (or changed) into the good, the bad and, this time, into what we’ve already seen done before by other phone makers, particularly Motorola.
Lots of the announced Android 12 features aren’t here (even ones listed in the official beta features list) so this is just a snapshot of the initial beta build - it’s likely the OS will change over time and bring some of these new features.
Android 12 is basically one main feature with loads of small extras, and that big selling point is Material You. This is a way of tailoring the design of the operating system, including the color scheme and shape of apps and menus, to customize it how you want.
Sure, you’re about to read more about Material You in the next section of this article, but for what it’s worth, we managed to create some pretty lovely-looking user interfaces. We successfully ditched the stock Android 12 look while retaining some of its DNA, even when using the pre-installed wallpaper images as a basis.
Check out some of the menus and home pages we designed above to see. The list of fonts and colors is rather limited right now, and all of the colors fit into a broad palette, but hopefully the options will expand with time.
Elsewhere, the security updates brought by Android 12 promise to be good - we use that language because we didn’t find any of these in this beta.
The ‘approximate location’ feature, where you can choose to share your exact or vague location with an app, didn’t appear. App hibernation takes several months to kick in so we definitely didn’t get to try that. And the privacy dashboard isn’t actually new for Android 12, unless the update brings significant changes to the pre-existing version, but we couldn't see any changes here.
We look forward to testing those features in a future beta.
There are a few problems with Material You, and the fact this is a beta build is likely to blame.
Firstly, the range of options - particularly in the fonts and colors department - are rather limited. We’d like to see more colors that don’t fit in Android 12’s default palette, the option for bolder fonts, and maybe the ability to design your own app shapes too.
The main problem, though, is that Material You is supposed to let you design your UI to mirror the wallpaper you use - but you can’t actually see the wallpaper while picking your colors and fonts. You have to go to the end of the customization process before seeing the final product, so a preview option really needs to be added in.
Oh, and at launch there was talk of Android 12 scanning your wallpaper, and picking complementary primary and secondary colors for the color scheme. There’s no such feature present in the beta.
There are other missing features too - the option to shoot photos in AVIF isn’t there, we couldn’t find any way of toggling the Car Key option, and there didn’t seem to be a hidden Android 12 Easter egg either - unless it’s too well hidden for us. As we’ve said, we couldn’t find any of the privacy features either.
So this Android 12 beta doesn’t have many of the features announced on stage at Google IO, and instead feels like a platform for Material You.
We’ve seen this before
People who use lots of Android phones will recognize that Material You isn’t the big user interface revolution Google (and people not familiar with the broad spectrum of Android phones) think it is.
You see, most smartphone makers take Google’s Android and edit it quite a bit for their own phones to build custom user interfaces - Samsung has One UI, Xiaomi has MIUI, Oppo has ColorOS and so on. And loads of the Material You features have been in other handsets for years now.
The most notable similarity is between Material You and My UX on Motorola phones - while Moto devices use stock Android, My UX is a way for you to augment the UI by changing colors, editing the shape of app icons and so on. Sound familiar?
Head on over to the My UX page of Motorola’s website. Compare the images there with our screenshots of Material You above. As you’ll see, the options and layout are startlingly similar.
Motorola phones can’t get all the credit here - lots of phone companies offer loads of ways to customize your UI, with Oppo and Xiaomi being particularly good for it. Material You doesn’t feel like a new Android revolution, but an example of Google catching up with other companies.
That might sound like a criticism of Google, but it’s not - quite the opposite in fact. Clearly the company is receptive to the changes other brands make to stock Android, and doesn’t exhibit any shame in learning from these examples.
Despite customization being the key feature of Android 12, the presentation of this feature in the beta doesn’t exactly inspire us to drop our other Android phones and run to a device that has ‘stock’ Android.
But hopefully, if subsequent betas bring new features and ways to change up the UI further, and Google takes more leaves from other companies’ books, Material You could turn into something great.