Android 11: the coolest new features

Google has dropped the first public beta of Android 11 for testing on Pixel phones. The beta came a week later than Google originally anticipated, having scheduled an Android beta launch show that got cancelled in response to George Floyd’s death. This week’s news was much more subtle with an embargoed press release method.

In a blog post, Google details a good chunk of all the new features inside Android 11. Obviously, websites like 9to5Google, Android Authority, and Android Police will be digging into every feature inside the OS. I’m here to tell you what features really stand out and what Google will be telling people when they start advertising Android 11 later this year.

Messaging (kinda)

At the top of the blog post is Google’s plea to users that with Android 11, they’re still trying to fix the messaging situation on Android. No, they aren’t introducing a new messaging app or standard. They’re trying to make communicating with your friends a little easier.

Notifications in Android 11 are getting divvied up into three sections: Conversations, Alert notifications, and Silent notifications. Alerts are just normal notifications and silent notifications are those annoying notifications that, for instance, tell you an app is using your location in the background. Conversations (as self-explanatory as it is) group notifications from messaging apps together so that you can find them easier. Nice.

Another nice feature: your friend’s faces. In Android 11, up in the status bar, you’ll see the photos assigned to your contacts so that you know when someone you know has messaged you. And when you’re in the middle of a conversation but still wanna scroll through Twitter, Android 11 introduces Bubbles. It’s essentially a rip-off of Facebook Messenger’s chat bubbles in which you see a floating icon on your screen that, when tapped, presents a chat field. The feature will work with any messaging app on Android, and developers will be able to customize the experience for theire own specific apps.

Notification management (with history)

As in any good Android release, Android 11 does even more stuff with notifications. There are new options to control what type of notification you get from apps [Primary (a.k.a. high alert), Alert, or Silent], some notifications get tweaked UIs, and Do Not Disturb gets upgraded with new options to handle important notifications. Oh, and there’s a notification history in the settings app in case you swipe something important way.

Smart home controls in the power menu

Google loves a smart home, and Android 11’s new power menu is perfect evidence of that. When you long press the power button on a Pixel, you’re greeted by three things: power controls, Google Pay cards, and smart home controls powered by the Home app. You can turn on or off smart lights, control your TV, and much more.

It’s kind of weird that after all of this time, Google is just now adding features to the power menu. Historically, holding down the power button on your phone is designed to only control the state of your device. Even though it looks kind of crowded now, I’m happy to see this amount of functionality in the menu. It’s kind of cool.

Home screen, screenshots, media controls, and multitasking

This is where you’ll find all of the fun features in Android 11. With every major new Android update, I’ve seen time and time again enthusiasts flock to these areas to see if there’s anything new, and there is. Here’s a bullet point list.

  • The Home screen can now display app suggestions in the dock instead of apps you physically place there.
  • There are new icon shapes in the customization settings in the Pixel Launcher.
  • Screenshots now float down to the bottom left-hand corner when you take them, just like an iPhone. You also get various customization tools.
  • Media controls now live in the quick settings section of the notification pane instead of being a notification themselves. You have to enable the feature in developer settings, but it’s cool nonetheless.
  • The multitasking screen (a.k.a. “Recents” as Google calls it) gets bigger cards and three buttons: Screenshot, Select, and Share. Screenshot is self explanatory, Select shows you the text you can copy from recent apps, and Share lets you share a screenshot of the app in front of you.

Native screen recording (it’s back!)

This feature was present in early Android 10 betas but slipped through the cracks before the upgrade was released to the public. Google has since added screen recording to this initial Android 11 beta, but who’s to say how long it’ll last. Hopefully, it actually ships this time.

Performance improvements

Believe it or not, Google is advertising performance improvements with Android 11. I’ve actually noticed a slight improvement in terms of smoothness on my Pixel 4 XL despite this being a beta. I’ll have more to say on this when Android 11 actually starts shipping.

Privacy controls

Of course, no Android upgrade is complete without more privacy controls. Google has added new ways to control when apps can access the most sensitive aspects of your phone (e.g. location, camera, microphone). You can choose to give them permission once, only while the app is open, or not at all. You actually have to dig into the settings app to turn on things like location access permanently. Android 11 should, for that reason, be considerably more secure.

How to install

Those are the features I’m paying attention to with Android 11. I have it installed on my Pixel 4 XL and I’ll be watching it over the summer. Even though I did it, I don’t recommend installing the beta on your main phone since it has some bugs here and there. It’s actually surprisingly stable for an Android beta, but betas are betas.

That being said, if you do wanna give the next major release of Android a go, you can sign up for the Android Beta Program here. Note that you’ll need a Pixel 2 or newer to install the beta. Other devices from third-party OEMs will be added to the list of supported phones in the future. I’ll let you know when that happens.