Android 12 Beta 1 hands-on: Halfway there and not half-bad

Android 12 is set to be one of the biggest updates to the platform in memory — if not on a pure feature basis (though it probably is), then definitely when it comes to the overall look and interface. While I would argue that Android has hardly stagnated as much as iOS in that sense, it has become very familiar. But, as the old saying goes, “familiarity breeds contempt,” and last year, many of our readers were upset to see Android 11 refrain from big visual changes. Well, you got what you asked for, and I hope you like it. For the record, I do.

Material Me, Material You

When we did our first hands-on for Android 12 with Developer Preview 1, most of the big visual changes were either not present yet or still hidden. That’s still actually true right now when it comes to things like the new “Monet” dynamic theming system and several other anticipated visual changes, but I think there’s enough there now to build a real impression of what Android 12 will be like.

“Silky Home” fits right in with the rest of Material You. 

To start, this new Material You look (praise Duarte) feels like an appropriate continuation of the “Silky Home” changes that rolled out before, further building on the “older” Material design we all know and love, but with a Samsung-twist, all while better accommodating the larger displays that have become more common with time. That means bigger padding, bigger UI elements, bigger buttons, bigger headers, and bigger… everything, really.

In my rooting and ROMing Android youth, I used to think increased visual density was ideal. That meant I would crank my DPI down to the lowest tolerable setting, further augmented with things like AOKP’s per-app dip/tablet mode, which allowed you to force certain apps to adopt the very densest layout. In short, I liked to see as much as possible at once. But over the years, my attitude has relaxed [editor’s note: and vision gotten worse]. While I still keep things on the dense side when working in productivity-oriented platforms like my laptop or desktop, I don’t like having to tap tiny 3 px targets on my screen or sorting through massive icon-cluttered menus in the hopes I can recognize a few key pixels. It’s just too messy, and seeing more at once honestly just wasted my time even if it felt like it should be more productive.

Android’s visual identity is leaning in that same direction bit by bit, literally and physically expanding with time. While that might mean scrolling further in some menus and fewer notifications visible at once, it’s all still there, just presented in smaller bites that are easier to parse, and we’ll come to appreciate it on our ever-larger phone displays.

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These days, a 5.9″ screen, massive by older standards, can exist comfortably on an objectively small phone, and the slow — and, in my opinion, guaranteed — rise of foldables with their even bigger screens means information density is going to be a bigger and bigger (or, from another perspective, a smaller and smaller) issue. Well, Android 12 is up to the challenge. Yes, that means your quick settings might only have four toggles in your notification shade and eight toggles per expanded page, but I don’t really think it’s a problem. As the number of icons in there continues to increase, having the bigger text labels attached to them counter-intuitively makes it easier to find what you need, in my experience.

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The same goes for notifications. Yes, there’s more padding as part of the bubbly, rounder look. In an earlier time, I’d have cried “Fisher-Price!” at the overly friendly appearance, but I’ve found that it actually makes it easier for my notification workflow. Personally, I treat everything in that shade as a sort of to-do list, leaving items present that I need to deal with later and dismissing things as they’re addressed, and it’s easier to go through items one at a time when you aren’t facing down that whole list at once, and I can still see more than enough at a glance.

One thing I haven’t decided on yet, though, is the new sparkly or glittery ripple animation you’ll see when tapping UI elements. I’m not intrinsically opposed to the animation, but it does feel weirdly low-res to me and stretched-out in some cases. It looks to be a set or pre-recorded animation rather than something dynamic, and I think it misses the mark a little as a result. Keep the fun sparkle, Google, but make it better.

Android 12’s new lockscreen.

I also like the new lock screen and always-on display. The new, bigger clock is easier to see at a glance and just looks more modern. In some cases, it even shows more notifications and notification content than the old system did since it lets notifications take up more vertical space, even with the extra padding. However, the new transparency for notifications on the lockscreen in Beta 1 can make them a little difficult to read if your wallpaper is very busy. I should point out that Google’s Material You animations and screenshots from the I/O announcement don’t have that same transparency, so this could be addressed in a future update.

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Expanded volume menus for Samsung’s OneUI, OnePlus’s Oxygen OS, and Android 12 Beta 1. 

I’m also glad that Google didn’t break things that already worked well, like the multitasking UI. However, the new volume panel (which is expected to be tweaked) could use a mute toggle, the three-dot menu to open the expanded controls are impossible to see on busy backgrounds, and the expanded menu itself doesn’t fit with the new design at all. I’d rather Google just copy OnePlus’s (better) approach here, or at least meet in the middle with something like Samsung’s.

In hindsight, Samsung’s “one-handed” software design in OneUI seems to have been prophetic — not just because it’s the biggest manufacturer and everyone will follow what they do, but because this more padded UI style that it arguably kicked off has percolated out to most of the still-relevant Android manufacturers. In some cases, like OnePlus, I don’t think the switch was quite as cohesive or as well thought out, but it’s a clear trend, and Google is among the last to the party.

Buggy for a beta

I’ve run into way more issues with these Android 12 previews and betas than I expected and more than I saw last year with Android 11’s early releases. Many people have asked me if the betas are worth the risk for an early glimpse, and while last year I’d have said yes, when it comes to Android 12, I think it’s still worth waiting.

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Gmail had no splash screen at launch before (left), but now (center and right) it has an automatic one. (Images from DP3 but it’s the same in Beta 1).

Don’t get me wrong, Android 12 feels fast and fluid pretty generally — in fact, I’d say it’s a little snappier than Android 11 was for me. However, that could just be subtle differences in animations rather than any real difference in performance, and things like the new bouncy overscroll animation and automatic app splash screens likely add to that. But fluid doesn’t mean bug-free.

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Bouncy bouncy bouncy.

For one, sometimes those new app splash screens are kind of buggy. If an app has its own, you’ll sometimes see both before the app launches. It’s fast and hard to catch (and probably dependent on how developers built their apps), but it feels pretty weird when it happens. There’s also no indicator right now for your ringer mode. In prior Android releases, you’d get a nice visible icon up in the status bar if you were set to silent or vibrate, but that’s gone in Beta 1. So if you toggle your phone to silent for a meeting right now, you have no visual indicator that you might be missing calls or messages later if you forget to change it back.

Some of the new UI changes also seem to be tuned a little oddly when it comes to touch input. I particularly ran into issues with side-to-side actions like using the new brightness slider and scrolling between quick settings pages, as if Android was trying harder to lock me into vertical motion instead, and it was annoying to deal with. The button to collapse the keyboard also randomly disappeared even as the keyboard was still open for a text-entry field.

Google also took away our ability to measure screen-on time since your last charge in Beta 1, so I can’t tell you what my battery life is like in this latest release except to say that anecdotally it was “fine” on my Pixel 5.

Probably most frustratingly, I ran into issues reconnecting to mobile data if I happened to lose it somewhere with bad signal — it just wouldn’t try to reconnect for way too long afterward without manually toggling mobile data or placing a call. Do that, and it connects right back to full bars just fine. And sometimes sound in calls would come from the bottom speaker rather than the earpiece.

Should you try Android 12 Beta 1 today? No, not yet

On top of that, you have the usual new-version-of-Android software issues with third-party apps that are unavoidable with each release. I’ve run into issues with apps seemingly freezing or failing to accept touch input, as well as apps randomly cutting off content or getting stuck with partial views between two different sections after certain animations, though switching back and forth in the multitasking menu usually fixes that sort of thing. A handful of apps I rely on for work also show weird blank views randomly, like Basecamp, and you’ll probably see a few apps crash randomly.

Most of the time (in recent memory), when we reach this I/O-adjacent “Beta” stage of builds, I think things are good enough for armchair Android enthusiasts to give it a try, but this is a little less stable than I expected or hoped for this stage. In short: Should you try Android 12 Beta 1 today? No, not yet

Halfway there

In my original hands-on, I said that it was too soon to tell what Android 12 would be, even if it was clear from the outset that it would be big. Even now, many of the features that we know are coming — like the new privacy dashboard, the quick settings relocation for smart home controls and Google Pay, and the “Monet” dynamic theming — aren’t present yet, and they won’t be until future releases. Still, we’re about halfway through the expected release timeline, and we’ve at least seen these things in action now, so I think we can start to form a real opinion about the direction Google’s platform is heading.

For one, although Material You is very clearly Googly in appearance, It’s a serious departure from the “stock” look Google was previously known for (though I’d argue the Pixel experience has been almost a skin of its own for years). The thing is that a lot of Pixel fans liked the previous look, and this new UI has some strong Samsung vibes that certain fans of the prior design will likely reject. I think it’s an improvement, but not everyone will.

Second, the change in information density will probably be rejected by the Android-as-Android enthusiast camp. In most cases, Android 12’s system UI will show you less at a time than Android 11 did. And as Material You trickles down from the Android 12 system design to app design, that’s going to spread. I’d argue that with growing screen sizes, we’re really no worse off. Compare what you could see on the average 2017-era phone with this design and we’ve basically just traded bezels for UI padding. Still, it is the sort of thing some folks will be riled up about.

Android 12 lockscreen vs Android 11

Lastly, there’s a certain Apple-like vibe to some of the changes, like the new power button Assistant trigger (which I hate on other phones that already do that), the very clearly iOS-inspired widget stack, and the recently-spotted update indicator test. Of course, Apple’s also taking software features from Google and Android these days and convergent design is sometimes unavoidable when there’s a clear-cut best way of doing something. Still, there is a tiny (and probably irrational) worry in the back of my mind that Android may ultimately become a little too iPhone-like as each of these small steps adds up.

There’s still plenty left to see and judge in Android 12 as more of the planned features appear, and I expect I’ll write at least one more hands-on before it’s rolling out widely to the company’s Pixels this summer/fall. If you can’t tell, I like the direction things are headed in, and Material You looks good so far. As always, though, I reserve final judgment for when it ships — and, hopefully, a few of my complaints can be addressed by then, too.

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