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Ten years ago this week, Google announced the very first Android phone. I picked up that phone when it first came out and now, a decade later, I fired it up again to see how well it held up after all these years.
I’m not the biggest fan of the iPhone X because I still want my bezels, dammit. However, it’s inspired Android to take on gesture navigation and so far, it’s an excellent change.
At the Google I/O 2018 keynote, the company showed off its new gesture based controls for Android P. It is sure to make a lot of people very upset, because it’s a change to the fundamental way Android has worked for years. While there is still technically a Home button, it’s more of a launch pad for the new gestures. Oh, and that square multitasking button that let you see your recent apps? It’s gone. Only the Back button remains in its previous form (although it now disappears on the home screen). No matter what, it’s going to take some getting used to. But it is worth it.
The New Gestures Aren’t As Different As You’d Think
If you’re worried about Google completely upending how you do everything like this is some kind of Windows 8-inspired fever dream, don’t worry. The new gesture controls aren’t really that different. While the iPhone X’s gestures replaced the physical home button with a swipe, the virtual Android Home button still exists, so you can tap it to go home. It’s also still the button you long-press to activate Google Assistant.
The only thing that’s really changed is how you multitask. Previously, Google had a dedicated button for multitasking that would pull up a rolodex-style card view of your previous apps that you could flick through. In Android P, if you want to access that menu—which is now a horizontal, scrollable carousel of recent apps—simply swipe up from the Home button. If you’re on the home screen, a short swipe will open the multitasking menu, but a longer swipe will open the app drawer. If you’re in an app, on the other hand, any swipe will take you to the multitasking menu, while you can swipe a second time to pull up the app drawer. Notably, to the best of my knowledge this is the first time you can access Android’s app drawer without going to the home screen.
This is probably the most confusing of all the gestures because it forces you to think a bit about where you’re at in the OS to know what to do. I understand that Google is trying to give you what you probably need at any given time, but it’s a little clumsy. It’s not the worst thing in the world, but it’s the only change that I feel is less intuitive than the previous version.
However, Google makes up for it with the other gestures. For starters, you can swipe directly to the right on the Home button to quickly switch to your most recent app. This is very similar to double-tapping the Multitasking button in previous versions of Android, except in my opinion this feels way better. It’s also fast. The old quick switcher feels like a slog (and more prone to failure) than this new gesture. Best of all, it’s similar enough to the old gesture that it only took a few minutes to adapt my muscle memory. You know, once I realized it was there. Get ready to spend a lot of time telling your friends that gesture even exists, because it’s not very obvious.
A quick flick right of the Home button will take you to your most recent app, but if you hold that flick a little longer, and move it even further right, you can start scrolling back through all of your recently opened apps. That these two similar gestures are bundled together is brilliant. It makes it far more intuitive to find the recent app you’re looking for.
Gestures Make Using the Pixel Phones a Lot Better
When the Pixel 2 XL came out, I bemoaned it for, among other reasons, being way too big to use effectively. One of the key problems is that this phone combined very small bezels with a massive display, making it impossible to reach both the notification shade and the home button without having to adjust how you hold your phone.
Now, with gesture controls…well, the phone is still obnoxiously huge. Navigating the phone isn’t quite as much of a pain, though. Since the Home button is in the center, it’s equally accessible from both the left and right hand, and a quick swipe up brings the multitasking menu. This is much easier than trying to holding your phone in your right hand and trying desperately to bend your thumb enough to reach that tiny pocket of space on the screen where the multitasking button is. Also, since you can swipe again to reach the app drawer anywhere in the OS, there’s not as much need to go to the home screen at all.
I still have issues using the Pixel 2 XL because it is just way too big to use comfortably one-handed. However, on the normal human-sized Pixel 2, the gestures are even better. Here, the Home button is a lot easier to reach, so gestures are easier to execute. In fact, they’re easy enough that a bezel-less phone this size could still be relatively easy to control. I’ve only been using Android P for an hour or two, but the gestures have already become second hand.
The New Gestures Are Optional, But You Should Still Give Them a Shot
If you’re reading all of this and it’s not sounding appealing to you, don’t worry. At least right now in Android P, gestures are off by default. To turn them on, you have to open Settings, scroll down to System, tap Gestures, and enable “Swipe up on Home button.” Google might make them the default later on, but right now it’s buried so much you might not even realize it’s there.
However, if you’re trying out the beta right now—or if it’s still optional when it rolls out later this year—you should still do yourself a favor and give it a try. It’s not as drastic of a change as you might be expecting. In fact, I could make the argument that Google could’ve done more to move gesture controls forward. I would love to see a swipe-to-go-back gesture, but this might conflict with Google’s hamburger menu swiping gesture. As it stands now, though, what we have in Android P similar enough to what you’re used to that it won’t feel foreign, while still being a solid improvement on what came before.
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Brookstone was a good gadget store, and a good nerd. It was one of us. It was a store that loved massage chairs… and useless gadgets. As a novelty mall shop, it carried light up football speakers, AR laser tag, and flying tanks. Brookstone died.