Yesterday, we got our very first glimpse at the latest version of Android, but if someone handed a Pixel running it to you right now, you'd be forgiven for confusing it with Android 11. Beneath that lightly altered exterior, with its developer-facing changes, notification tweaks, and subtly adjusted colors, a whole lot more is waiting to happen. And with the unfinished nature of those hidden changes, it's way too early to tell precisely what kind of an impact Android 12 will have — but it will be big.

Hidden and incomplete

I've been using Android 12 DP1 on my Pixel 5 for the last couple of days, and as we've been looking for more hidden details beyond what has already been dug up, it's been hard to form any real opinion. I even hesitate to call this a "hands-on," given how much of what we know about the new software is locked behind disabled flags. (Due to that, I think the only real hands-on for Android 12 before this summer will likely come out of XDA.)

All of the most important changes we've seen so far, like the new privacy toggles, one-handed mode, and even that big visual redesign (presumably Material NEXT) are included, but disabled. Like the Silky home settings tweak that can manually be enabled via ADB, they seem to be works in progress. Google isn't done, and all we've seen is a glimpse of what's going to happen, subject entirely to change.

Even just cruising around the redesigned Settings, things feel incomplete, and it can sometimes bug out — at least visually. As much as I'm sure Google enjoys minimalism, the current incarnation feels a little bit like using a mock-up that hasn't seen enough iteration. That's pretty much what I'd expect for a feature in a very early Developer Preview that isn't even turned on, and I suspect (or maybe just hope) that we'll see adjustments to it in the future.

So far, it seems like an ambitious vision, and Google has decided to mix things up again. Those that complained about not enough visual changes in Android 11 will be pleased (or pissed) when more of these changes land in Android 12 — assuming your phone gets them.

 

Many of Android 12's biggest changes are hidden more deeply than these.

This is an assumption, but given the details revealed so far, some of these visual changes may not actually manifest on non-Pixels. Although folks that pay attention to software can tell you that Google's first-party flavor of Android has already diverged from true stock, many of the bigger changes spotted so far seem like they could be tied to the new theming system. Paired with hiding so many of them behind flags, I suspect that some of these hidden and disabled changes are destined for Pixels on Android 12. And while the building blocks and new theming engine can be used by any manufacturer, some of the hidden redesigns we'll see over the next few months may be Google-only.

A stable foundation for change

Anecdotally, this first Developer Preview is a bit more stable than I expected. Google's list of known issues in the release notes is pretty brief, and I can confirm that bugs are few and far between. Perhaps the most annoying is the lack of blur on the notification shade, making it almost impossible to read content against the busy background of an app loaded with text. But I have to assume that was an oversight, and we'll see some kind of adjustment to better fit with Google's other planned UI changes later.

Not quite ideal.

The few other issues I've run into aren't things that break functionality — they're just annoying: A couple times, the navigation bar hasn't correctly hidden for me in full-screen views (potentially tied to the new gesture support for full-screen apps?); the Assistant has failed to "connect" when triggered a few times; the stock Pixel launcher can toss items partially offscreen; automatic brightness on Pixel 5 is usually pretty mediocre, but it also seems worse at night on Android 12; and the just visible flickering as the display switches between 60Hz and 90Hz on touch at certain brightness levels (which is the primary reason I don't like the Pixel 5) is also a bit worse for me in Android 12.

Mild derp.

On the other hand, some things in Android 12 explicitly aim to improve the buggy experiences that other apps impose on us. I'm not going to just rote repeat our feature-level coverage here (you can read that on your own). But there are a few developer-facing changes worth pointing out as major improvements to the way Android will "feel." Breaking "trampoline" notification functionality means that weirdly inconsistent wait when opening certain apps from a notification should be eliminated. The unified rich content API will also mean a more intuitive experience moving content between apps.

This could be the biggest Android update in years

I thought Android 11 was actually a pretty sizeable update. Just a glance at the sheer magnitude of our changelog is enough to demonstrate there was more to it than meets the eye. But I think there was a strange expectation that we'd see more change-for-the-sake-of-change visual redesigns, and when that didn't happen, Android 11 was (incorrectly) written off as a minor update. Android 12 looks set to fix that perception problem.

I think it's too early to really form a strong opinion or offer any judgment. We're at Developer Preview 1 out of 7+ total releases. Beyond any discussion of features and our collective just-over-24-hour anecdotes, Android 12 DP1 is very literally incomplete. This is just our first glimpse at the changes Google is working on for this year's release, and most of the bigger features we'll be discussing this summer are still hidden.

But, based on what we've seen so far, Android 12 is poised to bring big changes — though maybe not universal ones. Much as Samsung's flavor of Android 11 skips out on details like the Quick Settings media player, I suspect that these changes could kick off an increase in the divergence of different phone makers' versions of Android.