Friday, May 24, 2024

All the New Features Coming to Android Phones, Watches, and TVs This Year

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Google’s second day of its I/O developer conference focuses on updates to its Android ecosystem. The company recently consolidated all of its hardware teams—Pixel devices—with its Android platforms, which include anything and everything powered by Android (plus Chrome OS). Naturally, today’s announcements touch on every part of that ecosystem, from Android 15 to Wear OS 5.

Here are the key new features to know about.

Android’s Top New Features

There’s a mix of new Android features that are exclusive to Android 15—the next version of Google’s mobile operating system—but many of these features will be rolling out to existing devices through Play Store and app updates without the need for an over-the-air OS upgrade. (I’ll indicate which ones are Android 15 exclusive.) My colleague, Simon Hill, has rounded up all the top Android 15 features in this story with details on how to download the beta, but here are a few standouts.

Private Space

Courtesy of Google

Various Android manufacturers have long offered a way to lock and hide certain apps behind biometric authentication, but Google is now building this into Android with a feature called Private Space. This is an Android 15–specific feature because Dave Burke, Google’s VP of engineering on Android, says there were a lot of ways for an app’s information to leak throughout the operating system. The team had to do “surgery in Android 15” to make it work, but this means these apps are now completely hidden and private everywhere in Android.

Private Space is visually separate from your apps in the app drawer. You can even set a password to access the private apps that’s different from the one you use to unlock your phone. Once you add an app to the Private Space, its notifications will be hidden, and it won’t be accessible even if someone went digging in your phone’s settings. You can also wipe your private space immediately.

Theft Detection Lock

Courtesy of Google

This feature is not Android 15 specific and will arrive later this year. Google says it uses “Google AI” to identify when someone steals your phone while you are using it—and yes, it knows the difference between you going for a run with your smartphone and someone swiping it and running, biking, or motoring off with it. Once Android detects a theft, it will make sure the phone is locked down to prevent someone from accessing your apps and private information.

It will even lock once the device goes offline, meaning someone trying to factory reset your phone will need the passcode to reactivate the device, potentially depriving them of the ability to resell the handset. And there’s an added feature called “Remote Lock” which lets you lock the screen of the phone remotely. If you add your phone number, you can call the phone on any other device (like a friend’s phone) and enter a security challenge to authenticate the action.

Speaking of theft protection, Google says later this year, Google Play protect will be able to use on-device artificial intelligence to detect apps that engage in fraud or phishing acts. Play Protect already does this on the cloud, but some malicious bits of software can cloak their activities there. Having this working on-device allows the service to detect how the app uses sensitive permissions and spot suspicious behaviors—without collecting any personal data.

Google Wallet Gets Less Restrictive

Courtesy of Google

Google Wallet doesn’t just handle payments. Right now, you can add loyalty cards, gym memberships, transit cards, concert tickets, and boarding passes, in addition to credit cards. However, an update coming later this year will soon let you create a digital version of passes by simply snapping a photo of it. Upload the image to Google Wallet—think parking passes, library cards, auto insurance cards—and Google will create a digital version for quick access. Now whether these digital versions will be accepted is a different matter.

Google Teases Its Upcoming Mixed Reality Headset

You might not remember this, but Samsung and Google are working on a mixed reality headset with Qualcomm. The partnership was announced last year along with the expectation that it would make its debut later in 2024. Google confirmed to me that it had nothing to share at I/O on the development of the headset, but the company did tease an augmented reality experience with Google Maps that might be something you’d be able to experience on the device when it arrives.

In Google Maps, you’ll soon be able to access AR content when searching specific locations. Tap the “AR Experience” button and bring your phone up to see augmented content appear over the real world. This even works remotely through Street View, so you don’t have to go halfway across the world to try it.

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