How many phone cameras is too many? In the next couple of years, Android device makers are going to find out. One of the least-hyped but most intriguing new features in Android P is support for multiple cameras. For developers, this opens up lots of opportunity to innovate. For Android users, it likely means the next phone you buy will look a little odd.
Cameras are perhaps the only part of smartphones where manufacturers are trying to make bold moves, rather than simply working towards the hardware specs consensus set by the major players in the field. To ensure that Android keeps pace with the latest iPhones, Google has put a lot of work into improving software support for device cameras into Android P.
Multi-camera API support allows the feeds of two or more cameras grouped on the front or back of the device to be used for real time effects. For phone photographers, that means seamless zoom, bokeh and stereo vision using multiple cameras either on the front or back of a device.
This won’t be new for top-end phones like Samsung’s Galaxy S9 or Note 8, or LG’s G7 ThinQ, they can do this already thanks to their considerable R&D and financial resources. But low to mid-level manufacturers will no doubt be adding more cameras to their future handsets thanks to Google doing half the work of implementation for them. In Google’s tussle with Apple, bringing evermore premium features to low-end Android handsets will give it an advantage.
And it’s also speeding up the whole photo process. New session parameters in Android P will let much more of your phone’s processing power be pushed towards loading up the camera app and firing the shutter, hopefully doing away with at least some of the lag that can plague lower-end handsets. There’s also an API which lets the phone screen be used as a flash (another convenient shortcut for devs), and support for USB and UVC connected camera devices if you don’t want to use the inbuilt phone hardware.
Once you have your image, there’s also more that you can do with it. Surface sharing promises to keep your camera recording while you mess around with the last photo you took, rather than having to stop your camera to work on them. Additionally, there’s optical image stabilisation timestamps squeezed in, which will make editing, adding effects and, of course, stabilising the image much easier to do within apps.
There are of course plenty of other minor and technical changes added to this beta, but these won’t mean a lot to the average user. All the same, there’s going to be some very happy Android phone photographers when we finally get a finished version of Android P.
Elsewhere, the latest Android P beta contains a number of new features for developers to play around with. One is the introduction of indoor positioning, using Wi-Fi to pinpoint your location so apps can serve up super-localised features. The developer notes suggest things like indoor maps for navigation through big buildings, or voice commands that change depending on your location, such as turning on this light, or asking about that product on the shelf.
There’s also an option to pin the orientation of your screen, rather than have it rotate when it thinks you are making a deliberate motion to do so. Some phone manufacturers had tried their own solutions, but this feature will soon be present on every compatible Android phone, standardising small but useful features being something of a theme in Android P.
One new improvement that should have been on Android phones a long time ago is its introduction of a magnifier when selecting text, which applies in any app that cares to enable it. iPhone users are no doubt sniggering at the thought that something that has been present on Apple’s devices for nearly ten years is only just coming to Google-powered products, but at least Android users will be able to catch up soon.
There’s some interesting stuff that boosts privacy and permission control too, thanks to some new behaviour changes. Apps running in the background are forbidden from accessing the camera or microphone by the OS, along with other more minor sensors. There’s a group of new permissions restricting access for data like phone numbers and call logs that you will have to contend with when setting up new apps and features too.
Notifications are getting some new goodies as well. Your message app’s more advanced options from the main app can be made available within the pull-down tray; potentially more convenient and much quicker for the user. Do not disturb has also gained some new customisability, allowing prioritisation or exemptions for certain kinds of attention seeking from your apps.
Can’t wait to try out Android P right now? You can download Beta 3 right now, but only on certain devices. The final version will start to be rolled out to compatible handsets starting from August.