Android 11 has reached its “beta” milestone, and while we’ll still probably see a few tweaks over the coming months, the general concepts and big-feature changes in the next Android release are just about set in stone. But while the common refrain is that Android 11 is a more minor (or even boring) update to Google’s Android platform, the longer I use it, I’m not sure that’s fair to say.
It’s not flashy — you’ve got to look deeper
With Android 11, Google’s just not going for flashy visual changes, as we’ve seen in prior releases. The company’s design language has reached a point of maturity, and now all it takes is a bit of polish each year to keep things fresh. At first glance, you’d be hard-pressed to tell Android 11 from 10, but things are changing.
By our count, there are almost 100 new individual features in Android 11, and we think we’re pretty conservative with that number. Google likes to highlight Android 11’s improvements as being in three general categories: People, Controls, and Privacy. But I think this topical division obscures Android 11’s more fundamental themes. As I see it, the biggest changes in Android 11 can be distilled and combined further into two main groups: The same Privacy enhancements the company championed before, and time-saving improvements meant to help better manage your limited attention among ever-growing distractions.
Privacy changes are generally self-evident and universally for the better — even if some of them might be painful. You can peruse our full list of privacy and security-related features in Android 11, but the biggest changes are things like one-time permissions, automatic revoking of app permissions for unused apps, and isolated app storage. I know it’s hard for some folks to get excited about user privacy, and changes like Scoped Storage are going to cause some of their own problems even as they solve others, but Android 11’s improvements are an important win for customers. Still, the allure of slightly safer bits isn’t Android 11’s biggest draw, in my mind.
“There’s never enough time”
As a working adult who has entered his thirties, I’ve finally understood the refrain I always heard from older folks as a kid: “There’s never enough time.” Throughout my teens and into my twenties, even if I was working or busy, I could always manage to squeeze in whatever extracurriculars or entertainment I wanted to. But these days, almost every minute I have is spoken for. I’m this close to having to block off minute chunks of time on my calendar to label them “relax.” And frustratingly, sometimes it’s my phone that’s consuming more than its fair share of that precious time, with constant notifications that aren’t all as important as they’d like me to believe.
Anyone that’s ever used a Samsung phone knows what notification hell feels like. Between third-party apps that all consider it their god-given right to advertise with a twice-daily alert, first-party apps encouraging you to spend more money on companion products, and your actual notifications, it’s a near-constant stream of anxiety-inducing, pocket-vibrating alerts. And there’s no way to tell which are important in a purely chronological feed outside parsing the whole damn thing. Android supports different notification priorities, but almost no apps use them well, and unless you spend a bunch of time micromanaging every little alert type you get, it’s not really enough.
Android 11 makes things much easier to parse at a glance with changes like the new “Conversation” notification group which puts direct communications right at the top of your feed, the new notification history for way easier after-the-fact notification management, and even the new Bubbles that can keep important conversations essentially always visible. Surfacing important communications above all the rest of the notification spam saves me tons of time throughout the day.
But even outside notification management, many of Android 11’s other headlining changes are also about saving you time in their own smaller ways. The new “hotseat” suggested apps for the Pixel Launcher are there to keep you from wasting time digging through the app drawer. The new better-integrated media controls are that much faster to access. Apps can be pinned to the share menu again, so you don’t have to scroll through an endless list looking for the options you use the most. The revamped power menu controls mean you’ll never have to argue with the Google Assistant or dig through the impenetrable Home app to turn on the lights or adjust the thermostat. Even relatively minor tweaks like the more headphone-friendly airplane mode and privacy changes like repeatedly denying permissions blocking further requests make it clear that Android 11 is all about quality of life and time-saving improvements, saving you precious moments, occasional taps, and slight frustration.
I would hold off for one or two more releases before trying it on your phone
Smartphones and Android have reached a level of maturity where there’s no point in reinventing the wheel every few releases. There’s still a place for innovation, but most of the good ways of doing our current workflows on a 4-7″ screen have been determined. Now it’s about making those workflows faster, better, and easier, so your smartphone can work for you instead of just distract you.
That said, I do have one last parting remark for any readers interested in trying it: Android 11 Beta 1 is among the buggier Android betas I’ve used. Though Google abandoned the distinction between Developer Previews and Beta Program releases last year, usually by the time we get to this “Beta 1” stage, things are relatively stable, but Android 11 has been a noteworthy exception. Unless you’re feeling particularly intrepid, I would hold off for one or two more releases before trying it on your phone.
Android 11 won’t bring you piles of flashy new features, but it makes several changes to fix one of the biggest problems we all suffer, whether we’re aware of it or not: Lack of time. It probably won’t change the way you use your phone, but it will change the way your phone uses you.