It seems like Google has nothing to do nowadays but work on new features for Android. The company’s frequent release cycle for the updates isn’t very consistent, but it’s certainly a nice way to surprise users who might assume they have to wait for major updates like Android 12 before they get anything new.
In a blog post, the company announced six new features that are rolling out to Android users now. What’s cool is all of the features Google has released recently don’t stick to a particular brand of phone. You could have a Pixel, a Samsung Galaxy, a OnePlus – whatever – and you’ll get the updates.
One of the most longed-for and anticipated features is end-to-end encryption for text messages, which is now rolling out for everyone who uses RCS through the Messages app. Before, the feature was technically in beta, but it’s now been rolled out to everyone. Notably, you can only use it for one-on-one conversations, so you’ll still need to find a way to protect your group chats.
The Messages app is also getting updated with the ability to star a message to keep track of it in your thread. This feature, Google says, will more broadly roll out over the coming weeks.
If you live in an area where earthquakes are the norm, Android’s Earthquake Alerts System should come in handy. Google says the feature is rolling out to more territories now and can send you alerts seconds before an earthquake hits. There are more details on how the feature works here, but it basically uses your phone’s accelerometers to detect seismic waves that could be from a coming earthquake. It’s a pretty neat feature, although it’s still not available in the US. Right now, it’s available in New Zealand, Greece, Turkey, the Philippines, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. I’m sure it’ll eventually reach the States so stay tuned.
Gboard is also getting updated, this time with contextual emoji sticker suggestions based on what you’re typing. The stickers are made through the Emoji Kitchen which lets you combine different emojis into a sharable sticker. Interestingly, this feature appears to bring back the infamous “blob” emojis from years past, so perhaps Google is prepping to bring back this iconic yet polarizing design in the future.
There are also more commands for “Hey Google” to perform certain actions within third-party apps. Google uses “Hey Google, pay my Capital One bill” as an example of this. Speaking of voice commands, Voice Access is also getting improved with attention awareness so it only works when you’re looking at the screen. It’s also easier to input passwords with simpler hot phrases like “dollar sign” or “capital P a s s w o r d.”
Finally, Android Auto is getting upgraded with more customization options. According to Google, you can now personalize your launcher screen from your phone and manually enable dark mode. The interface also gets updated navigation controls for sifting through your apps.
You can also access more apps for parking, navigation, and EV charging with Android Auto, in addition to sending and receiving messages from third-party apps like WhatsApp.
All of these features should reach everyone running at least Android 6.0, which is a pretty low bar to clear nowadays. Combined, it’s a hefty new feature set, and it further indicates Google is laser-focused on improving the Android experience not just for its own Pixel users but for everyone.
In the news…
We only have to wait until June 24th for Microsoft to unveil Windows 11, but leakers will do what they do best, and this time their work came for the new OS. An early build of Windows 11 leaked online, and a ton of people installed it and have been trying out the OS. Turns out, it still feels like Windows (surprise, surprise) but with a fresh coat of paint. There’s a new centered Start menu, updated iconography everywhere, and a ton of really good-looking wallpapers. Windows Central has a great article on everything there is to know at the moment, so go there if you want more details.
For the record, I have downloaded the necessary files to install Windows 11 on my laptop and I am extremely tempted to do so. I await further direction from the Twitter Lords.
There’s another COVID-19 test available for purchase, this time from Amazon directly. The company’s own test, retailing for $39.99 through amazondx.com, requires you to do the same thing people have been doing with COVID tests since the beginning: swab your nose and have your sample sent to a lab. Amazon says each sample is sent to a “centralized lab” and is approved by the FDA. You’ll even be able to drop it off at a UPS store for easy shipping. It seems like a straightforward process, one that will hopefully lead to more in-home test kits being made available for other viruses like the flu.
Apple’s podcast subscriptions in its Podcasts app are finally, finally available. There are lots of different podcast providers offering subscriptions to their shows, including some that are simply ad-free versions of existing shows. Channels for podcasts (a.k.a. homepages for podcasts) are also now available. I’m not sure what took Apple this long to get these features ready, but at least they’re here now.
Apple TV Plus is also in the news for a cut down on trial time. On Apple’s TV Plus website, the company confirms new free trials for people who buy Apple devices will be limited to three months instead of a year. Is this necessarily a bad thing? No, since year-long free trials are extremely rare anyway. Still, it’s nine months less time you get to decide if you like Apple TV Plus, so you better binge-watch all the Morning Show and For All Mankind you can.
OnePlus has yet another Nord phone to talk about: the Nord N200 5G. It’s coming to the US on June 25th with a 6.49-inch 90Hz 1080p display, a Snapdragon 480 processor, 4GB of RAM, 64GB of storage, a 5,000mAh battery with 18W fast charging, a main 13MP camera, and a 16MP selfie camera. These are all very minimal specs for a budget phone nowadays, but it at least seems like it’ll be half-decent for the $239 you’ll need to spend to get your hands on it.
Remember that crazy Project Hazel face mask I gave a CES 2021 award to? Well, Razer is finally ready to start selling it. The company says the consumer version of the mask (which will now come with anti-fogging inside as well as lighting) will be available through limited drops that will begin early in the fourth quarter of 2021. There’s no price just yet, but I expect it to cost a pretty penny for something this futuristic-looking.
I don’t usually talk about Ikea, but when I do, it’s about a picture frame it turned into a speaker thanks to a partnership with Sonos. The frame, which retails for $199, disguises a speaker driver behind a piece of art that notably can’t be customized. There are physical buttons to control playback, AirPlay 2 is supported, and you can pair multiple frames together for simpler cable management to your sound system. The Verge has been covering the device since it leaked, so go check out their article for more details. It’s a pretty cool accessory for your home.
Level Home, a smart home company, has announced what it claims to be the smallest smart lock ever made. Called the Level Lock, the device starts at $249 and looks like any ordinary door lock. On the inside, you get compatibility with Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s HomeKit, and even Ring. You can also send digital keys to the lock and share them with family and friends. From the looks of it, it might be one of the most discrete ways to have a smart door.
Zens has announced a new portable power bank that lets you charge two devices at once wirelessly. Called the ZEPPO3M, the bank has a 4,000mAh battery that can recharge your iPhone wirelessly via MagSafe. Then, while the power bank is on your phone, you can place another device on top of the charger such as a pair of earbuds. It’s a pretty cool idea, although I’d imagine charging speeds will be pretty slow. It’s priced at $69.99 if you wanna pick one up.