Android 11 preview released: These are the top new features

Android 11 preview is here
(Image credit: Google/Android)

Android 11 is going to give users more chat options, streaming improvements aimed at gaming services like Google Stadia (see our Google Stadia review for more information) and tweaks to privacy and security features. That's based on an early preview of Android 11 revealed by Google today (Feb. 19).

Specifically, Google unveiled the first developer preview of Android 11, as it's now known with Google shifting away from letters to numbers with last year's Android 10 release. This figures to be the first of many Android 11 previews as Google fine tunes the update to its mobile OS in advance of a full release toward the end of this summer.

Because this is a developer preview, don't expect a lot of end user-facing features to appear in this edition of Android 11. Google usually saves those highlights for its developer conference keynote, with this year's Google I/O slated to begin on May 12. Instead, the developer preview issued today is aimed at software makers so they can get started on developing apps that take advantage of the under-the-hood improvements Google plans to introduce in Android 11.

Still, there are a few notable changes to be found that could have an impact on how you use the best Android phones once Android 11 starts rolling out in the later months of 2020. Here's what you can expect based on the Android 11 developer preview.

Easier access to conversations

Android 11 includes a Bubbles developer tool, with Google describing Bubbles as "a way to keep conversations in view and accessible" when users are taking care of other tasks on their phones. Bubbles had been a part of Android 10, but now Google is pushing app makers to include the floating notifications, which will let you glance at the entire conversation.

In fact, Android 11 will bring a dedicated conversation section to the notifications shade where you'll be able to find any ongoing chats with other people more easily. Apps that support image copy/paste will also be able to allow users to insert images when they reply to notifications, too.

Broader display support

Wether we're talking foldable phones or more conventional handsets like Samsung's newly launched Galaxy S20 series, we're seeing displays that come in different shapes and sizes with camera cutouts designed to free up more screen real estate. 

Android 11 - unique display support

Android 11 will be able to better accommodate displays like the Infinity O screen on the Galaxy S20 Ultra. (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Google says Android 11 is extending its support for a wider array of displays, specifically providing tools for developers to tailor their apps to better fit on pinhole and waterfall screens. On waterfall screens in particular, Google is adding developer tools to lets apps use the entire screen, including the edges. 

Google Stadia improvements

Android 11 will deliver low-latency video decoding so that the the first frame of a stream appears as quickly as possible once decoding starts. Google notes that this helps any real-time streaming apps, specifically calling out its own Google Stadia gaming service. While we've been impressed by Stadia's ability to stream games, the graphics haven't always looked as sharp as they would if we were playing a console. Clearly, Google's looking to improve that element of the Stadia experience, and if it helps out with other video streaming services on Android 11 all the better.

New privacy tools

Android 10 added a "While app is in use" option to permission, and Google says it's been a success. "So far, when given the 'While app is in use' option, about half of users select it," Dave Burke, VP of engineering at Google, wrote in a blog announcing Android 11's changes.

Android 11 - permission requests

The "Only this time" permission in Android 11 (Image credit: Google)

Look for more granularity in Android 11, as Google introduces a one-time permission option. That will let users give temporary access to an app until a user moves on, with the app having to request permission again the next time the user launches the app.

Security enhancements

Google says that Android 11 will expand biometrics support to address a wider range of devices, and that different levels of granulator are coming the authenticator apps supported by the OS's BiometricPrompt feature.

Android 11's release notes also refer to a feature Google and Qualcomm first showed off in December where the OS will be secure enough to store identification cards like state IDS and driver's licenses. Government agencies will have to sign off on this feature for it to be of any use, though.

Android 11 - identification

Android 11 can store official IDs. (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Other highlights

With 5G networks become more widespread and the number of 5G phones expected to grow in 2020, Google's adding a tool that lets apps check to see if connections are metered so that they can offer higher-resolution images. It's also going to be easier for apps to check downstream/upstream bandwidth.

In addition, Android 11 expands Project Mainline, in which certain types of Android updates can be broken into chunks and download through Google Play instead of requiring a full update. Android 11 improves SHAKEN/STIR support to authenticate incoming calls, and there's better support for the HEIF image file format.

Android 11: How to get this developer preview

If you're not an Android developer, you're really going to want to take a pass on this one. This early release of Android 11 isn't public-facing at all and certainly not intended for any device other than one you use to test out apps.

That said, to get the first Android 11 developer preview, you'll need to flash a device system image to any Pixel 2 phone or later (including last year's Pixel 3a and Pixel 4 releases). Google has those instructions on its Android 11 announcement blog where it also explains how you can set up the Android Emulator through Android Studio. If those words mean nothing to you, you'll probably want to wait for a user-friendlier update later this spring.

Android 11: Release timetable

Google promises regular updates for this developer release of Android 11 throughout the first half of the year. We'd expect to see a more accessible beta by the time the Google I/O developer conference gets underway in May. Google estimates a third quarter release for Android 11, which should happen around late August if the release schedules for recent Android updates are any indication.

Philip Michaels

Philip Michaels is a Managing Editor at Tom's Guide. He's been covering personal technology since 1999 and was in the building when Steve Jobs showed off the iPhone for the first time. He's been evaluating smartphones since that first iPhone debuted in 2007, and he's been following phone carriers and smartphone plans since 2015. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics, old movies and proper butchery techniques. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.