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Google IO 2021 Event Recap

Google revealed new upgrades such as Android 12, tweaks to Wear OS and a variety of other new software reveals.

Android 12 is perhaps the most exciting addition with a whole new look for smartphones, plus the company confirmed a variety of new changes to Google Maps as well.

We were gearing up to see the Google Pixel 5a, Pixel Buds A and Pixel Watch, but there wasn't any hardware at the event. It may be that Google announces this at a later date, but that's currently unclear.

Below you'll find our commentary of what happened at the keynote, but before that, we have specific articles on a variety of announcements and details about the upcoming Google IO show that lasts until May 20.

Android 12

Google has announced a new Material Design language for Android 12, called Material You, which is a rethink of the whole UI across the operating system.

The current beta brings more rounded buttons, more varied colours, smoother motion and animations, and much more.

The company calls it colour extraction, where you can pick a wallpaper and the system will automatically apply the dominant, complimentary and best-looking colours from it to the rest of the UI, including the notification shade, the lock screen, and volume controls.

So everything is much more unified this time, something which Google was keen to highlight. Before, the colour scheme and even the fonts would look mismatched, but here, everything has been redesigned to look as unified as possible in Android 12.

This customizable theme is also coming to Google's web apps by the end of the year.

Widgets see a redesign too, looking much more rounded this time. Due to iOS 14 showcasing widgets last year, it only made sense for Android 12 to see a redesign in this area too, where its appearance will match the colour extraction you've picked.

Android 12: privacy and security

Google has made it a point this year of making sure that privacy is at the centre of Android 12. The company repeated the point of privacy being at the forefront this year, and that includes Android 12.

Android 12 other features

When held down, the power button will now bring up Google Assistant, a much easier method of summoning the service for a query when needed.

Photo modes will support a new format – AVIF, which promises similar compression to JPEG but at better quality, as seen in the examples the Android team gave (above) in an online developer session. Note the difference in cloud detail.

Android 12 also promises to make your device faster and more responsive. Google claims that it reduces the CPU time needed for core system services by up to 22% and reduces the use of big cores by the system server by up to 15%, all of which should also mean improved battery life.

A new built-in remote is also now standard in Android 12, so if you have a TV that runs on Android, or just a Chromecast, you can use your phone to browse through your favourite shows.

Alongside this, a new feature called Car Key enables you to unlock your compatible smart car with your phone. This will allow you to unlock, lock and even start the engine from your smartphone.

It uses UWB (ultra-wideband) technology, meaning that you can walk up to your car and it'll unlock, without you even having to take your phone out.

You'll also be able to share digital access to your vehicle with others – allowing you to lend your car to a friend without giving them a physical key and allowing them access for a period of time.

Fitbit on Wear OS

Google is building a premium Fitbit smartwatch running Wear OS

Google is also planning to bring some key Fitbit features to all devices running Wear OS, including celebrations when you achieve certain goals (like hitting your steps target), and activity monitoring on your wrist.

Wear OS already includes its own Google Fit app, so it will be interesting to see how this works together with the new Fitbit tools without duplicating the feature.

Android 12 lets you unlock your car with Pixel and Samsung phones

Google made several automotive announcements during its Google IO 2021 keynote, including the integration of a new digital car key feature as part of the Android 12 update.

If this sounds kind of familiar, then you're not wrong. Apple has offered its 'CarKey' digital vehicle access to users since July 2020 with the introduction of iOS13.6, and Samsung launched its own service at the start of 2021 on the Galaxy S21

Plus, and S21 Ultra, after partnering with Audi, BMW, Ford and Genesis.

However, the move by Google to build digital car key access directly into Android 12 opens up the feature to a wealth of new devices and users. The feature will allow you to unlock, lock and even start the engine from your smartphone.

Google Maps is getting five major upgrades - including a pandemic feature

No one likes hard-braking moments

Launching on Android and iOS globally in the coming months, Google's latest routing updates for Maps sees the service plan ahead and select routes that have the lowest chance of 'hard-braking moments'.

These moments – which can be caused by sudden traffic jams, confusing junctions or road closures – can result in more accidents, and Google claims that its new technology will help reduce the number of accidents on roads after work with the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute - and the brand believes it can reduce up to 100 million potentially crash-worthy incidents.

Google says it takes the fastest routes and evaluates which will have fewer chances of hard-braking moments. If the estimated drive time is the same (as the fastest route) or only a little longer, then the safer route is the one Google will suggest as default.

Live View goes more inside

Also launching on Android and iOS globally in the coming months are enhancements to Live View in Google Maps, which offers up an AR (augmented reality) street view display of your surroundings, overlaying key information such as road names and navigation directions on top of the live feed from your smartphone’s camera.

It will also show greater information about businesses around you, like a live guide to tell you where to visit.

While the feature is well established in 100 countries for outdoor locations, the new update will see an expansion to indoor locations including shopping malls, airports, train stations, museums and more – which became available in a limited capacity earlier this year.

The expanded indoor Live View will roll out first in Zurich, followed by Tokyo the month after, with more cities being added in the future.

Maps with more detail

Google is adding even more detail to its maps, as it aims to give users an idea of what an area is like before they visit it – from information on crosswalks and sidewalks to areas that are accessible to wheelchair users and more.

Detailed street maps are currently only available in a handful of cities, but Google will expand this by another 50 by the end of 2021, with cities like Seattle, Singapore, Berlin and Sao Paulo all in line for the upgrade this year.

It'll be available on the Google Maps app on both iOS and Android, with more cities coming very soon.

Google Photos will soon let you erase painful memories

The Google Photos Memories feature can be a nice way to be reminded of fun times, but it can also frequently jab you in the ribs with a painful memory too – so Google is bringing some new controls to help it become a bit less tone-deaf.

While the Memories feature – which appears at the top of your Photos feed with reminders of photos from previous years – does already let you hide photos of particular people or time periods, Google says it'll be making these controls easier to find from "later this summer" (so sometime between June-September).

During Google I/O, it showed off some new controls – which can be brought up by hitting the three dots in the bottom right-hand corner of memory – to help you quickly hide a painful memory or erase it.

Once you've hit the three-dot menu, it'll give you the option of removing a single photo from a Memory, renaming the memory, or removing it completely. If Google could let us do the same in our brains, that would be lovely.

This is an issue for virtually all Google Photos users, so it's great to see it being addressed – but it's not the only feature Google's adding to its cloud photo storage service. On the subject of Memories, from today you'll also be able to rename Trip highlights, while Pixel phones will soon be getting a handy new 'locked folder' feature.

Locked folders, which will become available on Pixel phones first and then other Android devices "throughout the year", will be passcode-protected spaces where you can save snaps to make sure they don't appear as you scroll through Google Photos (or any other apps). On Pixel phones, you'll also be able to save photos and videos directly to a locked folder from the camera, which is a pretty handy bonus feature for owners of those phones.

Wear OS is finally getting a new update that might improve its smartwatches

Well, it's a series of changes actually – apparently, this new version of Wear OS has been designed in collaboration with Samsung, which almost guarantees that the upcoming Watch 4 and Watch Active 4 will use the platform. The update will be rolling out through the rest of this year.

The new Wear OS isn't exclusive to Samsung and Google wearables – any device makers will be able to use it, and we'd expect the same companies who already use the platform, like Fossil and Suunto, will continue to do so.

Apparently, this new Wear OS takes much of its DNA from Tizen – that's the operating system previous Samsung wearables have run on – and rolls it into the existing Wear OS.

What's new?

Google says the key feature of the new Wear OS update is improvements to battery life – typically, Wear OS watches last about a day, which is poor compared to most watches, but apparently, they'll now last a lot longer. We'll have to wait until we've tested watches running the OS to know what that really means, though.

Performance is apparently another area that will be seeing improvements, with Google stating that apps will open 30% faster, and with smoother transitions.

A rumoured Wear OS change was third-party Tiles – those are the displays that appear when you swipe to the side – and Google has confirmed that there will be lots of new Tiles, including from some new platforms. Strava, Spotify and Adidas Running are among the confirmed apps that will get Tiles.

One upgrade (well, some people would call it that) is YouTube Music coming to the platform, so users of Google's music service will be able to download tunes to their wrist.

Apparently Wear OS is also getting changes to how you navigate around the user interface, although lots of the examples Google lists are actually things the platform already does. One new feature is the ability to quickly switch between apps, which is a useful feature on Android.

Google is also working with Fitbit – which it bought earlier in 2021 – to bring new fitness features to Wear OS, but it's not clear what this means. Google Fit is already an expansive platform, so we'll have to see what's new when this change rolls out.

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