Android 11 is available from today as a beta download for Pixel 2, 3, 3a and 4 phones. Google pushed the update live after postponing its online launch due to the civil unrest in the US after the killing of African American George Floyd by a white police officer. Its announcement at Google's annual I/O event meant it had already been delayed since I/O was cancelled due to coronavirus.

In the meantime, we have a new version of Android to dig into. All you have to do is visit this page to enrol your phone. You have to have a compatible Pixel and be logged into the correct Google account.

Google has a few new changes up its sleeve as you’d expect, but just like Android 10, Android 11 doesn’t completely revamp the OS. Android is mature now, and Google is settling into an annual tinker. We’ve been hands-on with Android 11 to show you some of the best new features coming to Pixel phones later this year.

Google has also made available 12 new presentations from some of its Android team about what's new in Android this year. 

The real question is when other major handsets will get Android 11, and if all these features will carry over. The certain software updates are, in my opinion, the best reason to buy a Pixel. It’s frustrating that the phones are not available globally.

What’s new in Android 11?

In a blog post Google broke down the new features of Android 11 and we’ve explored the biggest and best changes below.

Notifications and conversations

Notifications are now split into three categories: conversations, alerting notifications and silent notifications. These are marked in the notification shade when you pull it down, and helps to rank your onslaught of pings into an order you might want to address them. The addition of conversations and the approaches to messaging feel like the biggest change.

Just like Facebook Messenger has pushed for years, you can put any kind of conversation into a floating chat head in a feature Google calls Bubbles. Developers will have to build the API into their apps for it to work though. Weirdly, Google’s own Messages app doesn’t support this yet so you can actually only do it with Facebook Messenger but using Google’s system instead of Facebook’s. Nice and confusing.

There’s a nice touch if you assign a contact’s notifications as priority – their picture will now appear in the status bar to show you a message from them specifically is waiting. These also appear on your lock screen, and alerts from these people can override Do Not Disturb.

Media controls

Media controls can now live in the top of the notification shade, which takes up more room but you might prefer it. Oddly in this beta build you have to enable developer options and then turn on ‘media resumption’. It’s not the definition of discoverable for the average user, and it's unclear if it'll be on by default in Android 11's final build. 

The change is presumably so media controls don’t take up space in the notifications list like they do on Android 10, and if you have a ton of conversations waiting to be read then other apps can get pushed down the list. But we still prefer Google’s efforts to sorting notifications compared to iOS’ messy chronological list with lazy grouping.

Image: Henry Burrell / IDG

Privacy and permissions

Android is getting better at asking for permission to use location data in particular. When you use an app for the first time there’s a new option to only allow location permission once, rather like iOS 13 does. This is good if you need an app to access the information for a task but don’t want it idling away in the background tracking you. Handily if you don’t use an app for a while, the permissions all reset. These choices are actively discouraging you from setting any app to access your location all the time, which is great.

Voice access

The best new accessibility feature on Android 11 is improved Voice Access. Download the app and enabling it in Accessibility settings allows you to control the Pixel with your voice far easier than before. Icons and buttons are labelled with numbers and you can intuitively ping around into apps, send tweets, scroll and more with just your voice (notice the Assistant dots at the top of the screens below waiting and listening for voice commands).

It’s very well done. I could say Spotify on my home screen and get there, then control the app with the numbers assigned. It’s also a doddle to compose and send a tweet and will hopefully improve Android use for those with limited motor skills. 

Image: Henry Burrell / IDG

Other changes

Holding the power button now displays a page that will populate with your Google Home app’s smart home shortcuts if you have them set up, letting you control devices like lights and speakers. There’s also a scrolling strip above that where your payment cards and boarding passes will sit for easier access.

The recents screen now shows three buttons or taking a screenshot, sharing one, or selecting text and you can toggle on the fixed app dock on Pixels to show suggested apps, which bumps your docked apps up onto the first home screen. Yuck.

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We’ll be tinkering more with Android 11 in the coming days and weeks as we wait for the launch of the delayed Pixel 4a. Normally we’d expect to see Android 11 launch officially alongside the Pixel 5 in October but given the Pixel 4a’s lateness thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, the timelines are uncertain and Google is keeping its cards close to its chest.

There are fun small things too like different icon style shapes as well as dark mode scheduling, be able to pin apps to the share sheet and other small pick-me-ups that you’ll uncover along the way. It’s refreshing to see some of the new changes, and the notifications and Voice Access implementation stand out.

But as ever, it’s hard to know if and when your Android phone will get Android 11 if it isn’t a Pixel, and fragmentation of the operating system is one of Android’s biggest problems.

Read next: How to install Android 11 right now