The very latest Pixel Feature Drop has arrived alongside the December 2021 security patch, and it brings with it the very first set of new features for Android 12 devices — which means that we’ve gone hands-on.

Beyond the bonus of the cleanest, smoothest version of Android running on your smartphone, if you do opt for a Pixel, Feature Drops are yet another enticing prospect for owners and prospective buyers. You’re getting some extra features and device improvements all lumped in with what would normally be just a regular update schedule.

Unlike most other smartphones on the market from the likes of Samsung, Xiaomi, Oppo, and more, the December 2021 patch is not all that Google is adding with this regular monthly OTA update file. This OTA update includes a slew of extras, courtesy of the last Pixel Feature Drop of 2021.

The latest “Drop” is actually a little later, courtesy of the later-than-usual Android 12 release. Even so, there are some nice features here that make being a Pixel user just that little bit more “exclusive.” That said, it is worth mentioning that some of these added extras might come to other Android devices, but at least for the time being, you won’t find them anywhere else.

Video — Hands-on with all the December Pixel Feature Drop features

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Power button customization (sort of)

No, you can’t fully customize the Power button with the December 2021 Pixel Feature Drop update, but you can tweak it slightly. The downside here is that you need to be using the “Hold for Assistant” feature.

Provided you own a Pixel 3 or newer device, you’ll be able to tweak the activation length when pressing your on-device Power button. It can be adjusted as required so you can get access to your favorite voice assistant as quickly or slowly as you deem necessary.

Conversation mode for Sound Amplifier

Google keeps expanding the massive suite of accessibility tools and the December 2021 Pixel Feature Drop continues that tradition. Via the Sound Amplifier app, Pixel phones are the very first such Android devices to gain a new audio enhancement “Conversation mode.” This features uses on-device machine learning to benefit those who are hard of hearing or with hearing impairments.

By pointing your phone — via a camera UI — at any person you want to have a conversation with, the app will enhance audio and tune out background noise in loud environments. With the small viewfinder, you can identify just who you’re talking to, then pin the participant. Doing so allows you to put your phone down, and “Conversation mode” will continue to enhance their speech. All in all it’s yet another incredible new feature that goes above and beyond what we’d expect our smartphone to be able to do.

Now Playing search

December 2021 Feature Drop - Now Playing search

Although the enhanced Now Playing search feature has been steadily rolling out over the past month or so, with the latest Pixel Feature Drop it is now officially coming to more devices. Effectively this is one of the biggest changes to what is one of the most underrated Pixel software features that you won’t find anywhere else.

Normally, Now Playing on Pixel phones uses an on-device database to “fingerprint” a song being played nearby, allowing the feature to work while offline and more importantly not send your recordings to Google without active consent. Of course, the world has a great wealth of music, the “fingerprints” for which cannot all be simultaneously stored on your device, so Now Playing has a relatively narrow knowledge base of songs that you’re likely to want to be identified.

With Now Playing’s new toggle enabled within the deeper settings section, if your Pixel can hear that music is being played, but it doesn’t recognize the song, you’ll see a new music search icon on the lockscreen. Tapping this icon presumably begins transmitting audio data to Google Search / Assistant to be identified. If it’s able to do so, the song title and artist are shown just like a normal Now Playing find, and this expands the usefulness of the feature even more so.

Car Crash Detection expands

Another incredible added feature that is only available on Pixel devices is that of Car Crash Detection. This has been available in quite a few regions, but the safety option is now coming to Taiwan, Italy, and France having been available since the launch of the Pixel 4 back in 2019. You will have to activate Car Crash Detection, but it’s one of those features that even it if saves just one life, which it has already, it’s worth having on your Pixel.

More Google Recorder languages

The December 2021 Pixel Feature Drop also brings further language support to the Google Recorder app. You’re now able to record and save audio, turn your speech into searchable words on your screen, and search through recorded audio files in Japanese, French, and German on the Pixel 3+ after those languages debuted on the Pixel 6. It’s worth noting that this is a great tool for transcribing meetings or lectures, and best of all, it’s completely free.

Increased ‘Internet’ quick toggle access

December 2021 Feature Drop - Internet QS toggle at lockscreen

This could easily be considered a “bug fix,” but Google proves that it does listen to feedback by increasing the access to the “Internet” or formally the “Wi-Fi” quick toggle. You’re now able to access the toggle from your lockscreen which restores a feature that was available on Android 11 and lower for quite some time.

However, you will need to enter your device PIN, password, pattern, scan a fingerprint or use Face Unlock to switch from one Wi-Fi network to another — that part is not new and has been around for a while.

Quick Tap for Snapchat

During the Pixel 6 series launch, we heard from the makers of Snapchat that Android 12’s “Quick Tap” feature will be integrated into the photo sharing app. It has taken until this latest Feature Drop for the option to arrive on Pixel 6, Pixel 4a 5G and Pixel 5 hardware though.

In Settings, you can enable “Quick Tap to Snap,” which will quickly open Snapchat and take a photo. This even works on the lockscreen, which goes beyond the standard “open app” feature when using Quick Tap with other third-party application and functions.

Also starting from this month, Pixel phones will get an exclusive “Pixel Face” lens that you can add to any Snapchats with more promised with future Feature Drop updates.

Added wallpapers

Google has also expanded the Pixel wallpaper collection in celebration of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. The collaboration features artwork by Dana Kearly, a disabled multidisciplinary artist from Vancouver B.C. Although already available to many, once you grab the OTA update you’ll get three brand new wallpapers to choose from within the Curated Culture section.

Dynamic Color boot animation

Expanding the reach of Dynamic Color beyond just the homescreen and on-device apps, when you reboot your Pixel you’ll now get a color-coded and themed boot animation. The “G” logo will be tuned to colors that match all of the accents and hues you’ll find as part of your chosen Android theme once you’ve booted into the latest patch.

Software fixes

It’s not all features and functions with the December 2021 Pixel Feature Drop. There are a number of notable software bug fixes including for the display flickering and artifacting that some Pixel 6 owners have seen when their devices are completely powered down.

Ultra-wideband enabled on Pixel 6 Pro

The December Feature Drop also enables the long-awaited ultra-wideband support on the Pixel 6 Pro after it was initially disabled at launch. Ultra-wideband connectivity or UWB allows for more accurate ranging and spatial orientation. Google is initially using the capability to “improve” the Nearby Share wireless sharing feature. 

Bass Boost for Pixel Buds A-Series

Although not useful to everyone, if you have the Pixel Buds A-Series Bluetooth earbuds then you’ll also get access to the “Bass Boost” feature that is already available on the 2020 Pixel Buds. This should add a bit more “oomph” to the $99 wireless earbuds, but the difference is appreciated — at least until we get a premium follow-up.

On any device running Android 6.0+ device, open the Pixel Buds app and use the slider to adjust the bass from -1 to +4. That gives you some wiggle room to tune the bass as you see fit and tailor the audio a little bit more than the general Bass Boost toggle offers already.

What is your favorite new addition from the December 2021 Pixel Feature Drop?

We did say that the new additions were relatively modest, but that doesn’t mean they are not welcome. The December 2021 security patch is no less important either, but do you have a favorite new function that has arrived as part of the second Pixel Feature Drop of 2021? Let us know down in the comments section below.

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About the Author

Damien Wilde

Damien is a UK-based video producer for 9to5Google. Find him on Twitter: @iamdamienwilde. Email: damien@9to5mac.com

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