Google updates its Android operating system each year, introducing new features and aesthetic elements that keep the software in fine fettle, and the new version for 2021 is Android 12.

Having just launched, Android 12 brings about a whole new design language and a host of new privacy features (among other improvements) to Google's device ecosystem.

Here's everything you need to know about Android 12, from what it does, to how to get it.

When can I get Android 12?

The latest version of Android is usually first seen in developer previews in March, then publicly previewed at Google’s I/O event in May, with public beta versions releasing shortly afterwards and the final, full release of the software arriving sometime in the autumn.

Android 12 development timeline

The first developer preview of Android 12 went live on 18 February, granting developers their first chance to really sink their teeth into the update (with the second preview touching down on 17 March and the third on 21 April), before Google officially revealed the new OS at I/O on 18 May, launching its first public beta at the same time.

The second public beta was subsequently released on 9 June, the third arrived on 15 July, the fourth on 11 August and the fifth and final beta (the RC or 'release candidate') was announced on 8 September.

In the past few years, Android has adopted the following release pattern:

Android 9 Pie

  • First public beta: 8 May 2018
  • Full version release: 6 August 2018

Android 10

  • First public beta: 7 May 2019
  • Full version release: 3 September 2019

Android 11

  • First public beta: 10 June 2020
  • Full version release: 8 September 2020

Android 12

  • First public beta: 18 May 2021
  • Second public beta: 9 June 2021
  • Third public beta: 15 July 2021
  • Fourth public beta: 11 August 2021
  • Fifth public beta: 8 September 2021
  • Full version release: 4 October 2021

While it was assumed that we'd get to meet Android 12 in its finished form alongside the release of the long-teased Pixel 6 this year, Google played things differently by releasing Android 12's source to the AOSP (Android Open Source Project) on 4 October, ahead of its new phones, which didn't arrive until 19 October – serving as the first devices to run Android 12 out the box and marking the arrival of Android 12 updates for other compatible Pixel phones (listed further down).

In his post on the release on 4 October, Google's VP of engineering, Dave Burke told expectant Android users to "keep an eye out for Android 12 coming to a device near you starting with Pixel in the next few weeks and Samsung Galaxy, OnePlus, Oppo, Realme, Tecno, Vivo, and Xiaomi devices later this year."

What about the Android 12 beta?

Burke's Android 12 announcement post also included some details about the beta releases of Android 12, with some 225,000 developers and fans having tested the beta on their smartphones, feeding back some 50,000 issue reports in the process (which should all lead to a better and more polished release for all).

Which phones get Android 12?

This is where things tend to get complicated. Android still suffers from horrendous fragmentation which means some phones get the new software straight away, others follow on weeks or months later, while a fair chunk won’t get it at all.

If you want to guarantee moving to the next version of Android, then you’ll want to buy one of Google’s own Pixel phones (as far back as the Pixel 3/3 XL), such as the Pixel 6/6 Pro, Pixel 5a, Pixel 5, Pixel 4a or Pixel 4a 5G, all of which get preferential treatment due to the fact that Google knows the exact make-up of each phone’s hardware and software configuration.

You should also be able to expect swift(er) updates to the new OS from any of the brands whose devices are listed below, all of which were included in this year's Android 12 beta program:

Any phones on the Android One platform, including many Motorola and Nokia handsets, also get the newer versions quickly, although usually only for up to two years after they were first released (in most cases).

You can read our guide to the best brands for Android updates to give yourself a clearer indication of whether (and when) your particular device will make the leap. Of course, you can also get in touch with the manufacturer’s customer support, as they may be able to help too.

Android 12

What's new in Android 12?

One of the main areas of excitement for any new version of Android is, of course, which new features Google introduces.

Here are all the key new and improved features confirmed as part of the update to Android 12:

Material You

The biggest change concerns how Android looks, moving forwards: Material You. 

That's Google's name for the new design language that adorns Android 12 on its Pixel phones, and will likely roll out across other Google hardware.

The OS is far more colourful, with customisable colour palettes that run throughout the phone, from the lock screen to your actual apps.

You can set these palettes yourself or let your phone create one for you by dynamically picking the colours out, based on your wallpaper.

Android 12 color extraction

At launch, Google says that these custom palettes should work across every Google app but that eventually, third-party apps will also be able to take advantage too.

Icons and interfaces have been rounded off throughout, with circles, squircles and straight-up squiggles appearing all over the place.

This new design looks to be Pixel-exclusive at launch but it's hard to know how much of this aesthetic treatment will filter through to the Android skins used by Samsung, Xiaomi and other manufacturers.

Faster motion and animations

The interface is also more dynamic and responsive. Unlock your device with the fingerprint sensor and on-screen particles will ripple out away from its position, while a locks creen devoid of notifications will expand the on-screen clock to fill the space.

All of this should feel smoother and faster too, thanks to under-the-hood improvements that have reduced the CPU time needed for core system services by up to 22% and reduced the system server's use of big cores by up to 15%.

New privacy features

Beyond the design, the biggest set of changes to Android 12 are all about privacy and security, most of which first arrived in the second public beta.

First up is a new Privacy Dashboard, which is intended to be a one-stop-shop for all of your data privacy; letting you know what data was accessed, when, and by which apps – with the option to revoke app permissions right there and then too.

New microphone and camera icons indicate when an app is using either, so you aren't caught unawares.

If you want to be even more careful, there are new Quick Settings toggles to entirely block camera and/or microphone access for all apps at once for guaranteed privacy.

There's also a new 'approximate location' permission, so that you can give more vague location data to apps that don't need to know exactly where you are, like your weather app.

Android 12 approximate location

In a message first sent to Android developers in early June, it's also been revealed that Android 12 is giving users the option to opt-out of ad tracking, meaning such users' Advertising ID (which is used for ad tracking purposes) won't be supplied to developers who request it and they'll instead simply receive a string of zeros.

This follows on from a similar move Apple made with the release of iOS 14.5, where apps need to ask permission to track user information for the purposes of personalised ads. The obvious difference here is Google's opt-out approach versus Apple's opt-in, but for users made aware of the change, it will add a greater layer of privacy when it comes to ad tracking that is undoubtedly appreciated.

New way to access Google Assistant

Google has added yet another way to access the Google Assistant: a long-press on the power button.

Since this is already used in all sorts of ways by different phones, expect this to simply become another of several options for this button shortcut.

Quick Settings

Back on Quick Settings, the menu has been redesigned as part of wider tweaks to the notification tray.

Most excitingly, there are new Quick Settings options to access your Google Home device settings and Google Pay.

Android 12 Quick Settings

ChromeOS integration

Google is also keen to build up its wider device ecosystem, so Android 12 has tighter integration with Chromebooks and other ChromeOS devices.

A single tap on the phone will facilitate the unlocking of a nearby Chromebook, while you'll also get all of your chat notifications there in ChromeOS, and be able to access photos from your phone on your laptop.

Android TV remote

Android 12 is also designed to link more closely with Android TV.

Android 12 phones are able to operate as a TV remote for all Android TV devices, letting you use the phone's microphone for voice search, or type using your phone's keyboard.

Digital car key

Google is also the latest company to work on using your phone as a car key.

Using a combination of NFC and UWB (ultra-wideband) tech, you'll be able to use your phone as a secure key to lock, unlock, or start your compatible car, and you'll even be able to share keys securely with friends or family.

Since this relies on UWB, the digital car key is limited to phones with that hardware - in this case, "select Pixel and Samsung Galaxy phones," likely including the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, S21+, S21 Ultra, Z Fold 2, Z Fold 3 and new Pixel 6 Pro, being the only Samsung/Google phones with a UWB chip so far.

Scrollable screenshots

For a while it looked like this simple tool would appear in Android 11, as companies like OnePlus, Huawei and Samsung had already implemented the feature on their skinned versions of the operating system.

But it didn’t quite make the cut in time, so we're glad it's included on Android 12; granting you the ability to capture images that encompass the entire page of a site or app, not just what you can see on the display.

The feature was first made available to users in the third public beta, released in July 2021, with a "Capture more" button appearing every time you snap a screenshot with content that doesn't fit on screen. Google also reassured developers that this should work in most apps, without them needing to change their app’s code.

App Search

Another addition from the third beta is "a new high-performance on-device search engine," which lets users search for indexed and ranked apps and app data on their devices.

'Conversations' widget

The 'Conversations' widget consolidates missed calls, status updates and messages from multiple platforms (including Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp) for a single contact (or potentially a small group of contacts).

System-wide camera improvements

Android doesn't natively support quad or nona-binning sensors (as on the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S21 series), so native support for such hardware across apps is now being implemented within Android 12, meaning better quality imagery between different apps that utilise the camera.

Cameras should also benefit from custom manufacturer shooting effects (like HDR, bokeh etc.) across more apps outside of a phone's camera app too, thanks to changes in how Android handles its CameraX library and Camera2 API extensions.

Rich content insertion

The ability to copy and paste richer bodies of content (such as images, videos and audio) by way of a new API that accepts content from multiple sources: clipboard, keyboard or drag-and-drop, in order to move it between apps.

Haptic-coupled audio effects

Haptic feedback (precise vibrations) governed by audio files can be used to control vibration strength and frequency, enabling more immersive experiences; something we've already seen from the likes of select Sony and Honor phones. Examples previously provided by Burke include a video calling app using custom ringtones to identify a caller through haptic feedback or simulating the sensation of rough terrain in a racing game.

Immersive Mode improvements for gesture navigation

Immersive Mode is effectively full-screen mode, where the notifications bar and on-screen navigation buttons are temporarily hidden while an app occupies the entire screen.

In Android 12, aside from when gaming, all other full-screen/immersive apps/experiences (such as video playback, reading, photo galleries etc.) are easier to exit out of with a simple swipe; in an effort to better accommodate Android's prior move to gesture navigation over button navigation, by default.

More of Android updated through Google Play

A continuation of Project Mainline, Android 12 better allows for various components of Android to be updated via Google Play going forward, without the need for subsequent full OS upgrades.

Optimisation for tablets, foldables and TVs

Android on tablets is famously 'meh', filled with incompatibilities and user interface issues borne from poor app optimisation. New tools should help developers build better Android 12-based experiences for Android tablets, foldables and TVs and includes a new Android 12 for TV preview to tinker with too.

Smoother PIP (picture in picture)

Currently, apps that support PIP usually take a second to pop up on your home screen (or supported screens outside the app powering the PIP experience), particularly if you're using gesture navigation (rather than on-screen or physical buttons) to move around your device.

As part of the Developer Preview 2, Google's made the transition far slicker, so the Twitch stream you're watching should now seamlessly scale down into the corner of your screen as you swipe up to exit out of the app, back out of your home screen.

Improved wearable pairing and connectivity

Android 12 improves the responsiveness of connected devices – such as wearables like smartwatches and fitness trackers – especially those on its revamped Wear OS 3. Your device will have a better grasp on when your watch is in-range or out-of-range/switched off so that it knows it can pass data to and from said connected device.

The pairing process and the permissions associated with it are also simplified into a single grant too.

App launch splash screens

When you open an app, they now feature splash screens, better concealing the loading process and making for a more polished experience every time you tap on an icon.

While there's a preset method for how splash screens are displayed, developers have the ability to customise them – from colour, whether they follow a device's dark mode settings and they can even include animation.

New call notification design

Dialler or chat apps now benefit from improved call notifications, with custom UI features and higher visibility over standard notifications, sitting at the top of the notifications pile when they occur.

Faster web link access

Users should now be able to open web links from within apps way faster, with the links opening in their device's default browser, rather than having to state a preference each time.

Compatible media transcoding

Despite an increasing number of devices encoding video in HEVC (which offers superior compression and reduced loss in quality compared to older codecs), compatibility is still an issue. In spite of this, Android 12 will automatically transcode HEVC files into the more compatible AVC format for apps where HEVC isn't yet supported.

AVIF image support

As for images, in a similar vein to above, AV1 Image File Format (AVIF) is now being adopted by Android as a new, more efficient image container that offers higher quality, more efficient compression compared to standards like JPEG.

Better compatibility with third-party stores

There are a range of app stores available besides the Google Play Store. For example, there's Samsung's Galaxy App Store and Huawei's App Gallery, plus other variants that often come pre-installed on some handsets.

For Android 12, Google has stated that it's opening up how these are made available to users; with a spokesperson telling 9to5Google "we will be making changes in Android 12 to make it even easier for people to use other app stores on their devices while being careful not to compromise the safety measures Android has in place. We are designing all this now and look forward to sharing more in the future."

Android 12 rumours

Separately, Google explained that app stores wishing to offer features like automated app updates that don't require user permission have to follow strict guidelines in order to do so. Such functionality is also opt-in (i.e. not automatically granted) and an “update packages without user action” permission needs to be obtained first.

One-handed mode

Much like scrollable screenshots, one-handed mode is another feature that's already widely available on Android handsets, but until now, didn't exist as a native feature.

Prior to release, XDA Developers reported that a one-handed mode was on the way to Android 12, making the feature available to every handset manufacturer, even if not every OEM will include it on their phones.

Having first tested an implementation in Android 12 beta 1, the OS' native one-handed mode is arguably more like iOS' Reachability feature, pulling whatever's on-screen down by about 45% so that elements at the top of the display are pulled within reach. This is different to the many one-handed modes from other Android phone makers, which usually scale the entire interface down towards one of the bottom corners of the screen, temporarily.

Back double-tap gesture

9to5Google claimed to have seen information suggesting the return of the double-tap gesture, available within beta releases of Android 11, last year. When enabled, users would be able to double-tap with a finger on the back of their device to activate the Google Assistant, take a screenshot, play or pause media, open the notifications shade or open the recent apps view.

The feature - codenamed "Columbus" (after the Zombieland character) - was expected to feature in the public build of Android 11 but was pulled prior to release, so word of its resurgence in the Android 12 beta proved promising.

Sure enough, in Android 12 beta 1, while the feature wasn't yet active, an entry for double-tap appeared in the settings menu and also included the option to open any app of the user's choosing (as well as all the potential functionality mentioned already).

In its Android 11 beta form, it's thought that Columbus was too sensitive and that the Android 12 iteration requires far firmer and more deliberate taps to function. Whether the gesture is guaranteed to see the light of day as a Google Pixel-exclusive feature remains to be seen, though.

Dedicated gaming features

July's Google for Games Developer Summit shed light on new gaming-centric features destined for Android 12.

The primary inclusion is a dedicated dashboard, not unlike the overlays that various manufacturers have implemented on their respective skinned builds of Google's mobile OS (such as Sony's Game Enhancer, Oppo's Game Space, and Samsung's Game Launcher and Game Booster) already.

Tools like an FPS counter, a Do Not Disturb toggle and screen recording all feature as part of the gaming dashboard's UI, along with achievement stats and the option to live stream to YouTube.

The new Game Mode API, which the above dashboard ties into, allows developers to better optimise their games for both performance and battery life, depending on the title and the user's needs; changing things like frame rate and graphical fidelity as needed (a feature some games already have baked in natively).

Players are also able to “get into gameplay in seconds while game assets are downloaded intelligently in the background," with the 'Play as you download' ability in question demonstrated by way of a 127MB BMX game that was made playable after only 20% of the game's assets had been downloaded, on stage at the Games Developer Summit.

Smart auto-rotate

Here's a welcome new feature: Google has added some AI smarts to Android's auto-rotate, in an overdue update to a feature that was previously only based on your phone's gyroscope and accelerometer.

9to5Google initially reported that the feature would use the phone's selfie camera to detect which way your face is, relative to the phone, rotating or not correspondingly. The site did however warn that it's possible this will be a Pixel-exclusive feature, rather than opening up to all Android devices.

This feature subsequently arrived in the third beta, released in July.

Unconfirmed Android 12 features

Even with the AOSP build of Android 12 now available, some Android 12 features remain up in the air but have been tipped in rumours and leaks. Here are a list of unconfirmed entries that supposedly exist within the new OS to:

A single, native media-player

Android is a system with many options, that’s what we like about it, but it also means there can be a confusing amount of approaches and apps when it comes to things like media playback. During a Reddit AMA, Google's engineers hinted at a single, unified player.

"We recognize [sic] the confusion resulting from having multiple player options with different APIs and capabilities. We have begun efforts to converge them into a single solution based on ExoPlayer. The converged player will be full-featured and easy to use - and we’ll share more info with the developer community as this progresses!"

WiFi Sharing

Keen-eyed devs and fans often find potential new Android features within the AOSP, which often hides code for features being developed by Google engineers, although this doesn't confirm that they'll necessarily end up officially included in the next OS version.

That's the case for Nearby Wi-Fi Sharing, spotted in a submission to AOSP from Google engineer Abel Tesfaye. It's essentially a way to simplify the process of adding new devices to your WiFi network through sharing the network login details. You've been able to do this since Android 10 by sharing a QR code, but Tesfaye's submission would automate this process a little more and send the password over Android's Nearby Share feature.

Restricted Networking Mode

This is another feature dug up from AOSP. It appears to be a setting that – when enabled – restricts networking only to apps with a specific high-level permission - which will in effect limit network access only to default system apps, and none that the user has installed. 

We're hoping this is joined by a customisable permission list that allows you to specify which apps have permission to use the network, but even if not this looks to be a useful new networking safe mode.

Native support for WireGuard VPN

VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) are becoming more and more the norm in these digitally surveilled times in which we live. So, it’s good news that the new, fast encryption protocol WireGuard looks like it gains native support in the new version of Android.

App pairs

This is a new split-screen multitasking feature that allows you to save shortcuts to specific pairs of apps, so that they open together with a single tap.

First reported by 9to5Google, app pairs are another feature you can already find in some Android phones, but Google is now building an official implementation.

User access to Android's hidden recycle bin/trash

A recycle bin of sorts has actually existed within Google's mobile OS since Android 11; designed to temporarily hold onto app files so that an app has a window of time to request to retrieve them on behalf of the user. For the time being, this temporary holding area remains hidden from end-users.

XDA Developers has unearthed signs that an option may soon appear in the Storage subsection of Android's Settings menu, letting users manually empty this trash can to free up device space. This runs in parallel to signs that a forthcoming update to the Files by Google app will let users both delete and restore files from within the app. It's unclear at this stage whether a restore option will also be present in Android 12's updated storage settings.

Automatic app UI translation

Another discovery after XDA Developers got its hands on an unreleased Android 12 build (i.e. not a developer preview) uncovered references in the framework code that allude to a new native translation service that would serve to translate in-line text within applications from one language to another.

This would allow a developer's app to reach a far wider audience without the need to pay for or source translation services for versions that aren't in the app's native language.

Screenshots won't auto-upload to cloud photo storage

Phones from the likes of Samsung, Xiaomi, Oppo and Realme throw screenshots into the same 'DCIM' directory as photos taken with your phone's camera (rather than 'Pictures > Screenshots', as most other Android phones do); meaning there's a greater chance of your photo backup service of choice pulling them up to the cloud along with your snaps.

A trusted source has apparently supplied XDA Developers with a 'preliminary revision of the Compatibility Definition Document (CDD) for Android 12' wherein copy pertaining to the 'Application Shared Storage' section states, "If device implementation have [sic] screenshot or screen recording functionality, including by way of hardware shortcut or software button, they: MUST save the image or video file generated in a directory called “Screenshots” which is automatically generated under “Pictures” on onboard memory or a [sic] SD card in a reliable port. It is accessible by using DIRECTORY_SCREENSHOTS. MUST NOT save screenshots and screen recordings in DCIM, Pictures, Videos, or a custom directory."

While the reason for this more rigid stipulation on Google's part is unclear, if this change makes it into the final CDD, affected users won't have to worry about unpicking screenshots from the cloud-stored pics, if they didn't want them there to begin with.

What dessert is Android 12 named after?

Sadly Google has long since abandoned the official dessert names for Android versions, but the company does still use those names internally - Android 11 was unofficially known as Red Velvet Cake, for example.

Android 12 is 'S', and XDA Developers claims that this stands for 'Snow Cone' - pretty disappointing when they had shortbread, s'more, and sherbet sitting right there.

For more, check out our guide to the best Android phones if you want to ensure that Android 12 is in your hands very soon.