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Google IO 2021: New Android 12 and Wear OS updates revealed

New Android software is coming. This is what was revealed during the opening keynote of Google’s three-day tech conference.

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Google’s I/O conference may be geared towards the developer community, but there’s always some exciting announcements for tech enthusiasts.

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After the 2020 event was scrapped due to safety concerns surrounding the Covid pandemic, the technology giant made the most of its return in 2021 by unveiling updates to the upcoming Android 12 software and Wear OS.

There was a swell of speculation about Google’s announcements ahead of the event, with rumours mounting on social media that the company may unveil a smartphone, an affordable set of headphones and even a Pixel smartwatch.

But what was mere rumour, and what actually turned out to be true? Here is what was announced by Google during the opening keynote of I/O 2021.

If you are interested in Google’s growing line-up of devices, be sure to check out our in-depth reviews of the Pixel 5, Pixel 4a 5G and the Pixel Buds. Still not sure which Pixel to purchase? Read our Google Pixel 5 vs 4a 5G vs 4a comparison guide. And to find out more about the tech giant’s latest smart TV platform, don’t miss our What is Google TV? explainer.

Android 12

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Google revealed more information about its next major software update, Android 12, which was described as being the biggest design change to the OS in years. The update will launch in full this fall, and the beta is available from today.

The reveal was broken down into three sections: new customization options, new privacy/control features and how devices will integrate with each other.

Starting with Google Pixel devices, Android 12 will offer far more personalisation options, enabling the phone to automatically match the colour palette of the entire OS – including widgets and lock screen – to a background wallpaper.

Android 12 will also improve efficiency too. Google said it would make smartphones have better battery life and be more responsive. A new privacy dashboard on the OS will bring all app permission settings into a single panel and let you quickly revoke access to permissions that may be overstepping any boundaries.

A new indicator on the top right of the screen will show when apps are using your microphone or camera, and this access can be revoked with a new quick toggle.

The Quick Settings menu has been revamped to include Google Pay and Home Controls, and a long press of the power button boots up Google Assistant.

A new “fast pair” capability reduces the time devices take to connect via Bluetooth in a single tap. The OS will also turn into a remote control for other Android devices.

For connected car fans, Google said it is working with carmakers, including BMW, to create a new type of “digital car key” that can unlock or start your vehicle using a phone. This will roll out to some Pixel and Samsung Galaxy phones from later this year.

The first Android 12 Beta is available today is on a range of devices from Google, Asus, OnePLus, Oppo, Realme, Sharp, Tecno, TCL, Vivo, Xiaomi and ZTE.

Wear OS

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Google’s smartwatch operating system, Wear OS, also got some love during the keynote, although predictions of a new Pixel watch were unfounded.

Instead, the company announced that it was doubling down on its relationship with Samsung to create what it described as a “single, unified platform.”

In future updates, touted for later this year, Google said apps on the latest chipsets will load up to 30% faster, and watches will benefit from longer battery life, while new menus will let you create shortcuts to switch between apps.

It was revealed that YouTube Music will arrive on Wear OS later this year, welcome news for runners, and incoming versions of the next Wear OS will come with more backgrounds — also known as Tiles — for Android smartwatches.

Google is also planning to take full advantage of its acquisition of Fitbit, with on-wrist health tracking and goal progress being incorporated into the software.

Fitbit confirmed that it will be building smartwatches based on Wear OS in the future but did not elaborate on when we could expect to be wearing such a device.

In what will be disappointing news for anyone hoping for new hardware launches, there was no mention of the Pixel Buds A-Series or the Pixel 5a phone.

But that wasn’t all, with some other notable announcements including:

  • New updates to Maps, including eco-friendly routes and “safer routing” that will use artificial intelligence to identify dangerous conditions on routes.
  • A new experience in Google workspace, Smart canvas, which is a document and idea collaboration tool for teams and employees. It will offer inclusive language suggestions and integration with Meet video calls.
  • Work continues into quantum computing and live translation systems.
  • Updates to password manager, including more integration with Chrome/Android, and alerts that warn if your password has been leaked.
  • Increased privacy control options, including locking files and photos. A new Pixel feature will let users delete the past 15 minutes of searches.
  • From this month, search will provide more information about results and websites in an attempt to help focus on trustworthy results.
  • Another Google Map update will show more detailed results and bring up tailored results based on the time of the day and area busyness.
  • Updates to Google Lens will let you scan a product to show shopping results of the item. Chrome will save open shopping carts from sites.
  • New AI features on Google Photos will be used to resurface unique photos on the device from the past, a feature that’s dubbed “little patterns.”
  • Updates to Pixel device cameras will be able to capture more realistic skin tones.

The I/O 2021 showcase spans three days (May 18 to May 20) and is being held virtually, with attendees able to register via an official Google website.

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For the latest news, release dates and reviews, including new Google devices, head over to the RadioTimes.com Technology section.