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Android 12 beta hands-on: The biggest change in years

Android 12 has changed quite radically — and it's for the best

Android 12 review hands-on
(Image: © Tom's Guide)

Our Verdict

Android 12 is the biggest change to the look and feel of the OS since Lollipop back in 2014. Called Material You, the new design language looks and feels amazing, and we're excited for the full release.

For

  • Beautiful lock screen
  • Revamped Quick Settings
  • Subtle design tweaks throughout
  • Notification shade is more compact

Against

  • Slider widths take some getting used to
Key Android 12 features

• New lock screen 
A new theming system
• Quick Settings visual overhaul
• More compact notification shade
• New Settings menu
• Conversation widgets
• Thicker volume and brightness sliders
• More responsive notifications
• New privacy dashboard

Android 12 marks the start of something new. Google is taking its design language more seriously lately and it chose to practically overhaul most of Android's user interface to the point where it feels almost like a new OS.

From drastic changes to the Quick Settings and lock screen to the tight notification shade, the new Material You design initiative — as Google calls it — is great. You'll find plenty of changes, both subtle and in your face, and you'll soon see that this is the biggest visual change to Android since Material Design back in 2014.

Google has big plans for Android 12, which is in beta as of this writing.  Those plans include partnerships with several third-party phone makers, allowing phones outside of the usual Pixels can try the beta. Of course, we'll have to see how the best Android phones choose to tweak Google's new vision when the full version arrives.

Until then, I've spent some time with Android 12 Beta 1 on a Pixel 5, and I'll be keeping my eye out for changes in future betas and release candidates. Our hands-on Android 12 preview looks at Google's progress so far.

Android 12 beta availability

You'll need either a Pixel 3 or later to run the Android 12 beta on one of Google's phones. Additionally, 10 other phone makers, including OnePlus and TCL, have devices that will work with the new version of Android 12. (The finished version will run on a wide variety of Android phones, but how quickly it appears will vary between phone makers and models.)

We've got instructions on how to install the Android 12 beta, though we'd recommend doing so on an extra phone and not your daily driver for now.

Google's Android beta program typically runs for several months, with updates arriving throughout the summer. Google's current timeline shows the final Android 12 release arriving sometime toward the end of third quarter of this year.

Android 12 beta interface and Material You

Despite all of the other things present in Android 12, both for users and developers, the element that will stand out the most to anybody is the new Material You design language. Google has redefined the core look of stock Android, stepping away from the near-spartan vibe it's refined and polished over the years.

android 12 review

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Material You is a new approach to design, placing a focus on you the user — it prioritizes form, whereas Android 11 and earlier catered more to function. That's not to say that Material You forgoes function, though. Google is just choosing to hone in on making Android work for you instead of forcing you to adapt to it.

Google is embracing change with Material You.

This is a key part of Android's DNA, which helps set it apart from Apple's iOS, something notorious for largely pushing you into its way of doing things. Google is embracing change with Material You.

Other Android OEM skins have had varying degrees of customization, while Pixels have been largely set in their ways. Material You changes that, offering you a more personalized experience thanks to Google's new commitment to a "more humanistic approach to design."

Truly custom themes remain a pipe dream for the time being, but to see Google adopt a more robust theming system for stock Android is a sight to behold. Android will pull out the primary color from your home screen wallpaper and apply it system-wide. It'll also choose an accent color to go along with that main hue. So if you have, say, some purple in your wallpaper, the system will pull that out and apply it to the whole interface. 

As of the first Android 12 beta, this theming system isn't live, which disappointed me a bit. Even so, you can still set your system color from a preset selection. Some of the new widgets that Google talked about and showed weren't available yet, either, so I plan to revisit much of this in future betas. For now, we'll have to content ourselves with the other changes.

Android 12

(Image credit: Future)

After all, there's a whole lot more to Material You. Google completely redesigned the Quick Settings, Settings, and lock screen — even the staple notification shade has received a noticeable face lift. There's a lot to unpack here, but I think I like most, if not all, of these changes.

The lock screen and Always-on Display (AOD) have changed and adapt to whether you have pending notifications or not. If you don't, the clock takes front and center with a nice, large font on two lines. The weather and date info are up in the top left corner and it's overall a clean look.

If you do have notifications, the clock shifts to the top left with the weather and date, while the notifications sit in the center. The AOD also performs this same behavior. I really like this change, and on the whole I think it's my favorite thing about Android 12's Material You so far.

android 12 review

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Quick Settings gets a big overhaul, too. Gone are the little bubbles, which have been replaced by longer rounded rectangles. This makes toggling them a lot easier and there's more room for the labels. 

At first, I didn't like the cartoony vibe, but it's grown on me the more I've used Android 12 — now I really like it. Sure, there's less room for more toggles, but it all works well.

The notification shade has been a part of Android since the beginning and it's one of the things I love most about the OS. It's a dedicated space for your notifications, wherein you can open, dismiss, or otherwise act upon them in a quick, simple way. The shade is key to my notification triage throughout the day. 

In Android 12, Google has tightened everything, making the notification shade more compact than before. That sounds bad at first, but trust me when I say that it's for the best. It's a more efficient use of screen real estate and it just looks good.

I keep coming back to the word "clean," but that's because that's what Android 12 is, based on this beta. Obviously, Google will refine the look and feel as we get closer to the final release and the Pixel 6, but I like where it is right now.

Android 12 beta privacy and security

Other than just looking pretty, Android 12 also takes a firm stance on privacy and security. Key among these changes is the new privacy dashboard, which isn't live in the beta just yet. Google wants you to see what apps are using the location, microphone, and camera permissions in an easy-to-digest timeline that breaks it all down.

android 12

(Image credit: Google)

Furthermore, in the final build of Android 12, you'll see an indicator in the top portion of your screen whenever an app is using the camera and/or microphone. You'll also be able to toggle these two permissions via two new Quick Settings buttons, allowing you to temporarily revoke or allow either or both of those permissions when using an app.

Google is also going to mandate that all apps implement the new location API, which means that you can choose to only allow apps approximate locations instead of precise ones. This is a very good change.

android 12

(Image credit: Google)

On a security front, Google has talked about the Private Compute Core (PCC). This is where Google can use AI-powered services like Smart Reply and Now Playing while keeping the data on your phone safe and local.

All audio and language input will get processed within the PCC, separate from the network, meaning that nothing relating to these AI-powered services will ever leave your phone to go live on a server somewhere.

We expect to hear more about privacy and security in Android 12 as we go along, but it seems like Google is finally taking this stuff seriously. I doubt we'll ever see something like the App Tracking that appeared in Apple's iOS 14.5 update, I like to think of a safer, more private Android in the future.

Android 12 beta outlook

So far, the first Android 12 beta is in a really good spot and I haven't run into any issues using it on the Pixel 5. However, it is still beta software, so I recommend against using it on your main device at this point, just in case you encounter the kind of show-stopping bugs that can crop up in early betas of a software update.

In future betas and the subsequent release candidates, Google will continue to refine Material You and the new privacy features. The first beta is already a huge step in this new direction and I for one can't wait to see where it progresses from here.