Maybe the most obnoxious thing about smartphones is the constant influx of notifications, but Oreo handles them with elegance. The notifications shade, for instance, has been divided into three basic sections. Notifications for ongoing processes, like music and navigation, get top billing. After that, you'll find all the notifications your apps generate, same as always. The last section is the one you might miss -- Google refers to it as a spot for "By the Way" notifications, which typically include traffic updates and the weather. Basically they're like a less intrusive Google Now.
App notifications can now be categorized into channels by developers -- the Play Store specifies six of them, for instance -- and you can define how they present themselves to you. I definitely don't want my Pixel to play a sound every time one of my apps is updated, but I may want to see the notification LED blink. Alternately, I might want to mark Play Store account alerts as "urgent" so they make a sound and pop up on-screen. Not every app supports this kind of nuanced notification handling, and most people probably won't bother. Still, there's a lot of depth to Google's approach, and power users should have a great time with them. If you're less discerning about these kinds of things, you can also just tell apps to shut up for an hour.
Apps have notification dots now too, though they don't actually tell you how many associated notifications there are. That's fine by me -- iOS's notification badges make me anxious when the numbers get high enough. In Oreo, the dots are color-coded to match the app icon, and long-pressing the icon offers a quick glance at what just rolled in.
Oreo also picks up a picture-in-picture feature that first appeared on Android TV last year. It's surprisingly useful on smaller screens. Tapping the home button while watching a video shrinks the window and sticks it in a corner. You can flick it around the screen as needed. Still, the experience hasn't been perfect: not a single non–YouTube Red video app I've tested so far works with picture-in-picture, and having to pay Google $10 a month to use the feature with the company's most popular video service kind of stinks. It's much more effective with Google Maps, though. Minimizing the app allows you to see live navigation directions in the corner of your screen while, say, finding a new song to listen to in Spotify.
One of the most jarring changes deals with what's left of Google Now. It's been a platform mainstay since the Jelly Bean days, but the focus has definitely shifted since then. To the left of the home screen is what Google refers to simply as your "feed," which offers info cards on subjects you've recently searched for or topics Google already knows you're interested in. Oh, and every single emoji has been redesigned. Rest in peace, my dear blob friends.
So yeah, there aren't a ton of shiny new user-facing features in Oreo. Instead, Google went big on structural changes that should improve the way devices handle over the long haul. Project Treble, for instance, separates Android's core from manufacturers' software tweaks, which should make it easier and faster to roll out updates. Though I'll believe it when I see it. Another feature, Vitals, is a series of system optimizations and analytics tools for developers so they can see if their apps are working as intended. I'll continue to fiddle with Oreo as I work on our full review, but one thing seems clear: it's the most powerful, accessible version of Android I've played with so far, and that bodes well for the Pixel 2 and 2 XL.
The Pixel experience