Android 12: The Ars Technica Review – Ars Technica

Android 12: The Ars Technica Review

Welcome to Android API level 31, aka Android 12. Google’s latest OS had one of the weirdest rollouts ever. An anticlimactic source code release happened in the beginning of October, but if you wanted to run Android 12 on a device officially, you had to wait until Pixel 6 launch day, when Google also shipped Android 12 out to older Pixel devices.

In a way, this was appropriate for Android 12: a Pixel-centric release for what feels like a Google-centric OS. Android 12 rolls out Material You, a design style that Google says will someday follow you across the company’s ecosystem. It’s a Google-centric design that will probably not please a lot of big brands, but it looks great.

Besides Material You, there are also a million features to cover, like a new file system, a fresher and more upgradable Linux kernel, and notification changes. Let’s dive in.

Material You—Google’s beautiful, next-gen UI

A rainbow of Android colors. The clock and button colors were automatically generated from the wallpaper.
Enlarge / A rainbow of Android colors. The clock and button colors were automatically generated from the wallpaper.

Ron Amadeo

The first thing you’ll notice when you boot up Android 12 is the new design language, which Google calls “Material You.” Google has previously resisted giving version numbers to its Material Design styles, but with some documentation calling this “Material Design 3,” the history is clear. Google introduced the first “Material Design” in Android 5.0, which brought bold colors and white card backgrounds to Android (and to the rest of Google). Google transitioned to Material Design 2 in 2018 with Android 9, and while that brought plenty of color customization for brands, Google went to an all-white theme that was almost completely devoid of color. The lack of color paved the way for a dark mode in 2019’s Android 10, which allowed for an easy change from all white to all dark.

For Android 12, Google is bringing back the color it stripped out. This is the next generation of Material Design, and it’s automatically color-coordinated in a way no other OS has been before. Material You isn’t just a set of design principles; it’s also an algorithm-powered color system (codenamed “Monet”) that looks at your home-screen wallpaper and generates a palette of colors for the buttons, backgrounds, and text of the entire OS. So pick a primarily red wallpaper, and you’ll get shades of red all over Android.

The exact color picks are up to Google’s algorithmic magic, but generally, Android 12 picks a main hue from the wallpaper and pumps out several variations by changing the brightness and saturation. So if you pick a primarily blue wallpaper, by default you’ll get something like a bright blue, a darker, deeply saturated blue, a darker blue-gray, and then a background color—either a nearly “white blue” for light mode backgrounds or a nearly “black blue” for dark mode wallpaper.

The Android 12 Easter Egg gives developers some paint chips to decorate with.
Enlarge / The Android 12 Easter Egg gives developers some paint chips to decorate with.

Ron Amadeo

This year’s Easter Egg for Android 12 illustrates how it works, showing a full sheet of color swatches available to apps for a given wallpaper setup. There are two neutral colors, two accent colors that match your wallpaper, and then one complementary color. All five of these hues are available in the full range of lightnesses.

To avoid contrast issues, Google pulls colors out of your wallpaper and maps them to the CIELAB color space. Instead of something like RGB values for red, green, and blue, CIELAB gives you an “L” for perceptual lightness (from black to white), and then, using positive or negative numbers, the “A” value goes from cyan to magenta and the “B” value goes from blue to yellow. Having a lightness value at the ready will let you compute a contrast ratio in software. So for any two combinations of colors, Google can guarantee they will remain readable—and remain within defined contrast accessibility standards for low-vision users.

The algorithmic color picking sounds a lot like Android 5’s “Palette” API that Google experimented with back in 2014. Palette would extract colors from images and apply them to the UI, and Android 12’s Monet is a ground-up reworking of the same idea. While Palette never lived up to its original promise and wasn’t used much, dynamic colors in Android 12 are being rolled out everywhere. Even in the pre-release phase, it was clear the new system would live up to the hype.

Everything in Android 12 is tinted with your wallpaper colors. You’ll find wallpaper tones in the quick settings, notification panel, settings, app icons, and more. Even many of the neutral-looking dark grays or whites tend to ever so slightly live in the same hue family as the wallpaper color scheme. It’s tough to find examples of pure white or pure black anywhere in the OS, with the one exception being the background of the notification panel (this is for a cool effect we’ll talk about later).

Material You isn’t just for the OS. Apps can plug into the Material You color-changing palettes, too, so even Gmail and the Play Store can be color-coordinated with your wallpaper. Unlike the glacially slow rollout of dark mode across Google’s app ecosystem, a number of Google apps already support Material You. The Calculator, Clock, keyboard, Gmail, Chrome, Play Store, YouTube Music, Google Calendar, Drive, Keep, Files, and more all pick up on the dynamic colors.

Google has the luxury of not caring too much about other branding on Android, and Material You once again falls into Google-centric habits. When Google rolled out Material Design 2 in Android 9, it added considerably more customizability at the behest of other brands. Google said it was reacting to feedback that developers “didn’t always see Material Design as flexible enough” and that “products from different brands looked too similar.” Material You turns over color control to users, though, and I can’t imagine that many big brands, which rely a lot on colors for branding, will be onboard. Would Facebook ever allow a green Facebook app? Would Spotify ever allow a blue Spotify app? I don’t think so. Hopefully smaller apps adopt the feature, though.

Material You also isn’t just for Android. The new design was introduced at Google I/O by Google’s VP of Design, Matias Duarte, and while Duarte started at Android, he’s now in charge of Google’s overarching “Design” division. At I/O, Duarte said Material You is coming to Pixel devices and “all your favorite Google Apps” first. Eventually, he says the design will roll out across “the web, Chrome OS, Wearables, smart displays, and all of Google’s products.”

It could take years, but eventually, this design should be all over Google. Duarte says that someday, the color choices you make with your phone wallpaper “can travel with your account, across every app and every device.” So, in this perfect future universe, imagine changing your phone wallpaper to something blue and seeing your Google smart display, web apps, and smartwatch switch over to blue, too. Wild.

When you pick a new wallpaper, you’ll have a color option applied, and the wallpaper settings will close. You aren’t limited to this first color option, though. If you go back into wallpaper settings, you’ll be able to pick from four color palette options and a (surprisingly limited) collection of “basic” colors. The default color options seem to go with a matching color, but the extra color settings will usually offer some striking complementary colors, which look really good.

It is extremely fun to flip through wallpapers and see what color combinations Android comes up with. I just wish it was easier. The above process is super clunky: you open the wallpaper settings, pick a wallpaper, the wallpaper settings close, you open the wallpaper settings again, and then you can pick a color. It would be nice if we could do this all in one trip to the wallpaper settings. It would also be nice if there was more of a preview of what the color options will be for each wallpaper. This color changing comes with some lengthy load times, too, and people with automatic wallpaper switchers have found that you can actually crash a game if it switches in the background.

Another Material You option is “themed icons” for the home screen. This will swap out the normal, multi-colored Android icons for monochrome ones that match the rest of your theme. Currently, this setting is labeled “Beta” on Pixel devices.

The themed icons are kind of weird. First, they remove easy user recognition by color. This isn’t a huge deal, as Google has been working toward this vision since it started pushing indistinguishable rainbow icons. Compared to the obnoxious multi-colored Google icons with no individuality, turning off all the color is like turning down the noise, and I like it.

A much weirder component of this change is that the home-screen icons are monochrome, but the app drawer icons are not. So you have two sets of icons to remember and recognize, and it would make way more sense if all the icons, everywhere—in the app drawer and on various app settings screens—all matched.

The third issue is the usual Android issue: not many apps support these themed icons, so while all the Google ones look nice next to each other, if you add many third-party icons, you’ll get a messy mix of colored and monochrome icons.

The feature feels like an incredible shout-out to the modding community over at sites like XDA, though. Android modders have been doing themed icons for years, with icon packs on third-party launchers. Google is completely reinventing the wheel here, but it’s funny that we’re back to the consistency goals that the modding community has been chasing down for over a decade. If there’s anything to learn from the modding community, it’s that voluntary consistency will never work! If individual developers all followed the rules, we wouldn’t need icon packs in the first place. You’ve got to let users force this on all apps if you actually want it to happen.

The other interesting home-screen color effect has to do with widgets, which don’t use the accent color (and therefore won’t match your icons) but instead dynamically color themselves based on the wallpaper directly behind them. You can actually move widgets around the screen and see them change color.

The most amazing thing about Material You is that it somehow, always, 100 percent of the time, works. The color combinations look great and never have a contrast issue. I have maliciously tried to break this by feeding the system crazy wallpapers like fully transparent PNGs, rainbow wallpapers, or wallpapers that aim to cause a contrast issue, and Material You always worked. The only time I’ve seen even a hint of a system issue is when I eyedropped an accent color from a previous screenshot and set that color as my wallpaper. Android 12 responded by dimming the wallpaper slightly so that everything was still readable. The worst thing you can say about any color combination is that it’s boring, but you can always jump into the wallpaper settings again and pick a more vibrant color combination.

The color system in Android 12 works unbelievably well. It’s so much fun to change to a new wallpaper and see what color options will pop up, and I think it’s going to be one of Android’s most popular, easily marketed features. I think it will also lead to more demand for apps that can automatically change your wallpaper so you can get a fresh phone look every day.

The power animation fades in and out from the physical power button.

The power animation fades in and out from the physical power button.

Ron Amadeo

The idea of a system that automatically themes itself based on your wallpaper, at least to the degree that Android 12 does, sounds like a pipe dream that might be pitched by a designer only concerned about the limited world of their mockups. One can imagine the skepticism: “There would be so many edge cases! What if the color combinations look ugly or have contrast issues? It will never work!” Plus, imagine being a designer and then told you have to be ok with elements being any color. It sounds terrifying. It’s an incredible accomplishment to have the guts to design something like Material You’s dynamic color system, to actually make it work, and to ship it out to millions (and someday billions) of people. Now that Google has blazed the trail for dynamic color, this is something I expect most other OS vendors will copy over the next few years.

For journalist and developer types who are regularly producing “example” Android materials, Material You also puts us in an interesting predicament: nothing in Android 12 really has a canonical color. Usually, I strive to take uncustomized “neutral” screenshots of the defaults, but that’s really not possible here. The colors in this article have to be based on whatever wallpaper I have at the time, but unless two users have the same wallpaper, no two versions of Android 12 will look the same.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *