Google announced this morning that Android phones will receive an update this winter that will bring around half a dozen new features to devices, including improvements to apps like Gboard, Google Play Books, Voice Access, Google Maps, Android Auto, and Nearby Share. The version is the latest in a series of update packages that allow Android devices to get new features outside of the usual annual update cycle.
The bundles may not offer the latest flagship features from Android, but they often offer steady improvements.
Among the more fun parts of the winter update is the change to “Emoji Kitchen,” the feature in the Gboard Keyboard app that allows users to combine their favorite emoji to create new ones that can be shared as custom stickers. To date, users have reshuffled emoji more than 3 billion times since the feature launched earlier this year, Google says. Now the option is expanded. Instead of offering hundreds of design combinations, more than 14,000 are offered. You can also tap two emoji to see suggested combinations, or double-tap an emoji to see other suggestions.
This updated feature was already available in the Gboard Beta app but will be available on devices running Android 6.0 and above in the coming weeks.
Another update extends the availability of audiobooks in Google Play Books. Now Google will automatically generate comments for books that don’t have an audio version. The company claims it worked with publishers in the US and the UK to add these auto-narrated books to Google Play Books. The feature is in beta but will be available to all publishers in early 2021.
The accessibility feature that allows users to use and navigate their phone with voice commands, voice access, is also being improved. The feature will soon use machine learning to understand interface labels on devices. This allows users to refer to things like the back and more buttons and many others by name while they speak. (Apple also announced today that iPhones can now automatically recognize and label buttons and UI functions for blind users.)
The new version of Voice Access, which is now in beta, will be available for all devices worldwide that are running Android 6.0 or higher.
An update to Google Maps adds a new feature to one of the most popular apps.
A new (possibly Waze-inspired) “Go Tab” allows users to quickly navigate to frequently visited places – such as a school or a grocery store – with one tap. The app allows users to view driving directions, live traffic trends, and incidents on the route, and outputs an accurate ETA without having to enter the actual address. Favorite locations – or routes for public transport users – can be set on the Go tab for easy access. For example, transit users can view exact departure and arrival times, notifications from the local transit agency, and a current ETA.
A potentially helpful use case for this new feature would be to pin both a transit route and driving route to the same destination and then compare their respective ETAs to choose the faster option.
This feature will be available for both Google Maps on Android and iOS in the coming weeks.
Android Auto will expand to other countries in the next few months. Google initially said it would reach 36 countries but then updated the announcement language as the rollout timing was postponed. The company now does not say how many countries will gain access in the following months or which, so you need to keep up to date with any news in this area.
The final change affects Nearby Share, the proximity-based sharing feature that allows users to share things like links, files, photos, and more even when they don’t have a cellular or Wi-Fi connection. With this feature, which was largely developed for emerging markets, users can now share apps from Google Play with other people.
To do this, access a new menu called “Share apps” in the Google Play app under “Manage apps and games”. This feature will be introduced in the coming weeks.
Some of these features are rolling out today so you may get them sooner than several “weeks” time. However, the progress of each update is different.