Over the past few weeks, it’s become clear that Google is developing a mid-year follow-up to Android 12. Here’s everything we know is coming in what we’ve dubbed “Android 12.1,” from improvements for foldables, to fixes for a variety of issues, dynamic color availability, and much, much more.
What is “Android 12.1?”
Earlier this month, it was discovered that Google was planning a release between this fall’s Android 12 and next fall’s Android 13 – one that is significant enough to increase the API level that developers use to determine your Android version. This sort of mid-cycle “bump” used to happen more frequently, with Google most recently releasing Android 8.1 Oreo in 2017.
While this particular mid-cycle hasn’t been given an official name, we’ve dubbed it “Android 12.1,” following the usual pattern of Google releasing an x.1 update. Typically, x.1 updates to Android have come within six months of the major release. With Android 12 likely to release in early October, we could be looking at a potential late winter or early spring release date for Android 12.1.
In many cases, Android’s x.1 updates have been in support of recently released Pixel and Nexus devices. With that in mind, it’s possible that some Android OEMs may not even bother updating to Android 12.1, instead skipping straight to Android 13.
Thus far, there hasn’t been much public information about this supposed Android 12.1 release, with only a few hints being offered between Android and Chromium code. A source familiar with the development of Android has shared with us some of the internal details of Android 12.1, and there’s quite a lot to unpack.
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What will Android 12.1 change for foldables?
The largest chunk of Android 12.1 changes have to do with foldables, a form factor that Android has officially supported for a few years now. One suspicion for why foldables may be a focus for Google this year is the long-rumored possibility of the company releasing a foldable Pixel phone. The possibility of a foldable Pixel is supported by Android 12.1 itself.
The most meaningful change coming to foldables — and presumably tablets as well — with Android 12.1 is the addition of a “Taskbar.” If you’ve used a desktop or laptop in the last decade, you probably have a decent idea of what to expect. Android’s Taskbar will show your recent apps, as well as any apps, shortcuts, or folders of apps that you’ve pinned to the “hotseat” of your homescreen. Of course, when you’re not using it, Taskbar can be safely stashed away with a long-press and revealed again later.
The clearest picture we have of how Android 12.1’s Taskbar will work comes from an educational mockup of the feature, though the image Google included was later replaced with a placeholder. In the image, we see a simple bar, reminiscent of Chrome OS’s dock. The mockup shows a foldable that resembles the Surface Duo (albeit with a single, folding screen).
In a sense, the Taskbar will serve as a combination of Android’s recents menu as well as the “hotseat” of your launcher. While this may sound like a feature that would only work with the default launcher of your phone, it seems Google has taken special care to ensure that the Taskbar will still function with a third-party launcher.
It seems that you’ll be able to quickly enter split-screen (or change which apps you’re looking at) with a drag-and-drop gesture from the taskbar.
On that note, Google is also including a new take on split-screen with Android 12.1. Previously, we had reported that Google was working on the idea of “App Pairs” which would let two running apps be combined as one “task” in the overview menu. Work is still ongoing for App Pairs, and we could see it launch with Android 12.1.
Beyond that, though, we find that there is another split-screen overhaul in progress, which will work hand-in-hand with App Pairs. This new system will divide your screen into separate windows, internally referred to as a “main stage” and a “side stage.” Just like split-screen on Android today, you’ll be able to use a slider to adjust how large either stage is. And just like the App Pairs system, you’ll be able to double-tap that slider to have your two apps switch sides.
One wild new feature of this split-screen system — developed with help from Samsung — is the ability to long-press a notification and drag it into a window. This gives you more control over where and how that app opens, rather than simply tapping the notification and having it take over your whole screen.
This new split-screen will also be manageable by app developers, enabling new experiences for Android apps. For example, Chrome on the Galaxy Z Fold today can open a link into a separate second window, allowing for better multitasking. This same functionality will be available for all devices and app developers with Android 12.1.
Split notification shade
Just as your attention can be better split between two apps, so too may the Android 12.1 notification shade be split in half. On wider devices, like foldables and tablets, the usual panel found by pulling down from the top of the screen will be divided into two sections, one half for your quick settings tiles, and the other half for notifications.
If you don’t have any notifications, one half of the shade will simply feature a large clock. On the other side, the initial, condensed view of the quick settings panel will be slightly more helpful on foldables, with Google adding things like a brightness slider.
Two-pane Settings app
As a continuation of Android 12.1’s split-screen and activity management tweaks, the Settings app is getting a redesign for wide devices. Under the new design, Settings will be broken out into two panes, with the left side presumably showing the high-level sections and the right side showing individual settings pages.
Minor foldable improvements
There’s also a suite of less notable but still much-needed improvements for foldable devices. For instance, the launcher, status bar, and taskbar will all have special animations that play when you unfold your device. These animations will even be “driven” by your device’s hinge position, meaning the faster/slower you unfold, the faster/slower the animation plays. It’s a small tweak, but one that should make foldables just a bit more delightful.
While Google has been putting a heavy emphasis on building apps for screens of all sizes — including tablets, Chromebooks, and foldables — there are always going to be apps that simply never update to accommodate these sizes. Normally, those apps are opened in a “letterbox” on foldables, meaning there are black or transparent bars on either side of the app.
On Android 12.1, the letterbox effect will be tweaked to put the app on either the right or left side of the screen – rather than in the center. This should help make those apps easier to use with a single hand. There should also be a way to switch which side of the screen the app is shown on.
One of the things that stands out the most about Android 12.1 is that it will actually change the API level of Android, meaning that there will be changes that affect app developers. We’ve already mentioned that there will be an API available for developers to open a second window for their app.
Another API change we’ve spotted is a new way for developers to know ahead of time what window sizes are possible on a particular device. Previously, this sort of information would only be known for the current state of the device, meaning if the phone was folded, the app couldn’t know what sizes are possible when unfolded — without using device-specific tricks.
What else will Android 12.1 change?
While Android 12.1 seems to have a focus on foldables, Google also appears to be taking the release as an opportunity to continue to improve on the additions of Android 12. That said, since most of these changes won’t require a change to the Android API, some of the improvements may not need to wait until Android 12.1.
According to our source, some may arrive earlier as part of a quarterly update to Android 12, and we’ll try to note that possibility where relevant. As you’d expect, these same changes will also be present in Android 12.1.
Dynamic Colors on non-Pixel phones
With Android 12, Google’s Pixel phones have gained the ability to retheme almost the entire phone’s UI — as well as various Google apps — in a system called Dynamic Colors. As has been seen with Samsung’s One UI 4.0 Beta, this same capability is not coming for all phones with Android 12.
According to our source, the Dynamic Colors system, internally referred to as “Monet,” isn’t becoming a part of the Android Open Source Project until Android 12.1. This means that OEMs and ROM developers may not be able to take advantage of the feature until then. This would explain why One UI 4.0 didn’t include Dynamic Colors.
That said, it will likely still be entirely up to each OEM to decide whether or not to enable Android 12.1’s dynamic color system on any particular device.
Dynamic Colors in boot animation
Over the years, not much has changed about the boot animation for Pixel phones. With Android 10, Google added a dark mode for the animation, ultimately making it the default instead of the blinding white it was before. More recently, Google added a progress percentage indicator for updates, letting you observe the progress of an update.
With a quarterly update to Android 12, Google is working to bring dynamic colors to the boot animation. While we weren’t able to preview the new animation, it seems the animation will gradually introduce your currently preferred colors to the normal boot-up logo.
Scrolling screenshot improvements
Another headlining feature of Android 12 was the addition of scrolling screenshots, which automatically capture an entire page by scrolling through it, vertically. There are, however, a few cases where scrolling screenshots don’t work, including Chrome, apps built with Flutter, and apps like Gmail that use a “WebView.”
Chrome is already working on its own solution to scrolling screenshots not working, but Google doesn’t expect every app developer to fix scrolling screenshots for their own app. With Android 12.1, Google is including a formal fix for apps that use WebView to better support scrolling screenshots, with no work on the developer’s part.
Assistant long-press sensitivity
Following the pattern of Samsung Galaxy phones — among many others — Android 12 has introduced a new way to access the Google Assistant, by long-pressing the power button. If enabled, the usual power menu is only accessible via the Quick Settings.
With a quarterly update to Android 12, you’ll be able to tweak how long you need to press the power button to invoke the Assistant. The options will range from 250 milliseconds to 750 milliseconds, with 500 milliseconds as the default.
For Android 12.1, Google is working on APIs for having audio be “spatialized,” an effect that typically makes music or other stereo audio sound as though it’s in surround sound. The best recent example of this effect is the addition of Dolby Atmos to Apple Music.
It will be possible for developers to mark certain audio as not being fit to be put through the spatializer. This points to the effect perhaps being applied system-wide rather than per-app. It’s not clear if this is simply an enhancement for Android, or if Google has plans for such an effect to be available for Pixel phones in the future.
Android 12.1 will also include some new animations for the newer styles of fingerprint sensors that are becoming natively supported. For under-display fingerprint, there’s a “dwell” animation to indicate that you need to keep your finger down for a bit longer for it to be read. Meanwhile, there’s a new pulsing animation to indicate the location of the side-mounted fingerprint sensors.
Goodbye blinking white dot
For recent Pixel phones that put their proximity sensor under the display, when it’s in use, you’ll see a blinking dot at the top of the screen. With Android 12.1, Google has changed the way automatic brightness works, no longer checking the proximity sensor. This should cut down on the number of times you see the annoying blinking dot on Pixel phones.
Dylan Roussel contributed to this article.
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