Google announced a new set of “Pixel Drop” features yesterday, adding a long list of capabilities to its existing devices. Well, sort of. As usual, Google’s definition of what counts as a “new” feature is suspect. Many of the features in this latest update have been available on newer members of the Pixel family, and others are just tweaks to the previous functionality. Let’s dissect this update and see what’s new and see what’s worth getting excited about.
New personalization options
This was probably the headlining addition yesterday, and it does considerably expand the visual customization options. Google says all phones from the Pixel 3 onward will get this, but some of them already had it. In my testing, the customization features didn’t change on the Pixel 5 or 4a 5G—they already have these features. The 4a and earlier didn’t have this before the update, though. Here’s a quick comparison.
The UI is different (and I think better), and you get three additional options for both font and system icons. The grid option is new as well. You can have just a few giant icons on the screen if that’s what you want. Again, this was already available on the Pixel 5 and 4a 5G.
New wallpapers from Google Arts & Culture and The Mandalorian are also live, and these are new for all Pixels from 3 onward.
Now Playing export to YouTube Music
If you’ve got Now Playing activated, your phone already keeps a list of the songs you encounter in the settings. Before this update, you could already go there and search for a song in apps like YouTube Music and Spotify. You could even add them to playlists in YouTube Music. The feature drop update added the ability to manage multiple songs and create and playlists in YouTube music right from the system settings. Here’s what it looks like.
Unlike many of the other Pixel drop features, this one is new for all devices—even the Pixel 5 didn’t ship with it.
Machine learning edits in Google Photos
There were already suggested editing looks in Google Photos—you’ll see at least a few even on non-Pixel phones like enhance, warm, and cool. Now, Pixel phones have a raft of new edits like dynamic, luminous, radiant, and so on. Dynamic appears to be an option on all photos, but the other new ones are specific to landscape images with the sky visible. Google says dynamic “enhances brightness, contrast, and color.”
However, I don’t know if you could really say this is part of the feature drop. All Pixel phones (3 or newer) should be able to see these ML-powered editing options, even if they’re not running the latest update. It all happens in the Photos app. That’s good because some of the edits do look pretty cool, and maybe we’ll get more outside of the quarterly Feature Drops.
Hold for Me
The Pixel 5 and 4a 5G launched with Hold for Me, and now the Pixel 3 and newer have it. This is a companion feature to Call Screen, and it’s almost as useful. When on hold, you can tap the Hold for Me button, set your phone down, and do something else without being assaulted by terrible hold music. When a person is back on the line, Assistant will ping you and reconnect the call.
Hold for Me just went live on my Pixel 4 XL. Yasss! pic.twitter.com/JT71qzvH6h
— Artem Russakovskii (@ArtemR) December 8, 2020
I’ve used this a few times on the Pixel 5, and it worked well. However, it does not work on all phone conversations. I’m not sure what makes some calls work and others not, though.
This one is just for the 5G-enabled Pixels, the Pixel 5 and 4a 5G. Adaptive Connectivity is enabled by default on the new update. Since 5G doesn’t help with things like browsing the web, your phone will drop down to 4G to save power. I’ve tested this, and it works. After just a few seconds poking around in Chrome, the Pixel 5 turns off 5G.
Pixel 5 turns off 5G in Chrome, enables it in YouTube.
The phone does seem to take its time turning 5G back on, but we all know 5G is of very limited utility right now. So, that’s fine by me. The phone switches back to 5G for video streaming and large file downloads. I don’t know if this will save a lot of battery, but it’s sure to make some impact.
Extreme battery saver
Extreme Battery Saver is an optional mode when you enable battery saver in the settings or via the quick settings. Again, this feature was available on newer Pixel phones, but now everything from the Pixel 3 onward gets it. You can have the phone always use extreme saver, never use it, or ask you each time. Using Extreme Battery Saver turns off all but your most essential apps, which you can control in the battery saver settings. It also ends background apps and flips on dark mode, among other power-saving measures.
Most of the phone’s features are disabled in extreme mode, but you can temporarily unpause apps without disabling the battery mode. Google doesn’t say how much time you’ll add to your battery life, but I imagine it’s a lot. I’d only bother using this mode if I was really close to running out of juice.
I’ve been using the new software for a day, and there are some features I haven’t been able to test or that just don’t seem to work yet. I’m not going outside a lot right now with the pandemic, but Google is planning for the time when I can. GPS on the Pixel 5 and 4a 5G leverage new features of the Snapdragon 765 to improve walking GPS accuracy. Basically, it augments GPS with 3D mapping in cities to make sure your phone knows where you are on the street. This will come to more phones later.
Adaptive Sound is another feature Google talked up in the announcement. On the Pixel 4a 5G and 5, you can now activate Adaptive Sound to manage your volume based on ambient noise. I’ve turned this on, but I’m not spending much time in noisy environments. Even attempting to simulate the real pre-COVID world with speakers, I don’t notice any difference with Adaptive Sound enabled. I’ll need more time with the phone in varied environments to see if it really makes a difference. I’m not sure how much I’m going to be using my Pixel phone’s speakers, though.
Google Lens is supposed to detect languages and offer to translate apps and web pages from the overview UI. However, this doesn’t seem to work yet. I also have yet to see Adaptive Charging kick in. This feature is supposed to charge your phone slower in the evening (when an alarm is set) to preserve battery health. I didn’t see any evidence this was working on my phone after installing the update, but the device was mostly charged when I went to bed. I’ll keep an eye out for that, and for the supposed improvements to Adaptive Battery. Lastly, there’s screen sharing in Duo group calls. The only new thing here is the group aspect. We already had screen sharing on 1-to-1 calls.
If you don’t have the latest update, check your settings under System > Advanced. You should be able to pull down the OTA right this minute.