Over the past couple years, those of us who pay close attention to mobile-tech matters have been watching a whole new paradigm of design shape up right before our overly moist eyeballs.
And you know I have to be talking about something important here, ’cause I’m using big words like “paradigm” and, erm, “eyeballs.”
The subject in question is something core to the Android experience — particularly for anyone who’s palming a Google-made Pixel phone, where the core Android software exists in its most undiluted form.
It’s a little somethin’ called Material You, and having lived with a Pixel through a full year of Android 12 and now the beginning of Android 13, I’m here to tell you it’s one of the most shape-shifting and underappreciated advancements we’ve seen in modern tech — even if hardly anyone seems to be giving it the credit it deserves.
Material You, if you aren’t familiar, is the new design standard Google introduced with Android 12 in 2021 and then fine-tuned further with this year’s Android 13 update. It’s easy to brush it off as another mere revamping of Android’s on-screen appearance — some added shadows here, some extra-rounded elements there, and other such arbitrary-seeming adjustments.
To do so, however, would put you at risk of missing not only one of Android’s most clever and significant enhancements of all time but also one of the coolest and most consequential design innovations to hit any form of technology in recent memory.
Mark my words: If Apple had shipped a system like this with its latest iPhone, we’d be hearing endless oohing, ahhing, and overusing of adjectives like “game-changing” and “magical.” But Google is far less shameless effective at marketing its progress, and consequently, this (ahem) magical and game-changing innovation is going largely unnoticed.
So allow me to take a moment to wax poetic about just how impressive Material You on Android truly is and why it genuinely does deserve your oohing-and-ahhing attention.
The magic of Material You on Android
The key piece of the Android 12-and-up Material You setup is something best described as a dynamic theming engine. That’s a fancy way of saying the software can pull complementary colors from whatever wallpaper you’re using on your home screen at any given moment and then create a custom system-wide palette that stretches across your entire Android experience.
Every time you change your wallpaper, bam: Android automatically adjusts its entire interface to match. That means everything from the color of icons on your home screen to the coloring of your on-screen keyboard and even the accent colors throughout all sorts of apps change on the fly, dynamically — without any thought or effort on your part.
It isn’t a productivity feature, per se, and it certainly doesn’t have any practical function. But let’s not kid ourselves: The way our technology looks matters. And feeling like you have a whole new and freshly personalized phone every single day is a powerful perk — one that absolutely enhances your enjoyment of the device and gives you a more pleasant productivity experience.
And — if I may be so bold as to borrow a favorite word from the company currently creating an uproar over a gaping black bar in the middle of its latest device’s viewing surface — it truly does feel magical in a way that extends into nearly every corner of your phone-using journey.
Here, for instance, is my Pixel 6 home screen with a green-themed wallpaper in place:
See how the icons and even the widgets — both the world time clock widget I have at the top of the home screen and the search bar widget built into the Pixel Launcher — are colored to match?
That same coloring shows up in everywhere from my phone’s Quick Settings to its on-screen keyboard:
Compatible apps like Gmail and Google Drive pick up on it, too, and change their entire core appearances to match:
…as do system-level tools such as the Android Calculator app and even something as simple as the Google Contacts Android interface:
And the second I switch to a different wallpaper, poof: The entire system adjusts itself to match.
If I really want to get wild, I can even head into the system Wallpapers tool to override the automatic color matching and create my own custom look, on demand, with a single tap of my suspiciously sticky finger:
And again, in the blink of an eye, the entire system interface takes on a whole new look to match — with the extent of its reach serving as a constant source of delight and surprise.
It may be one of those things you have to live with for a while to fully appreciate, but when you have this level of constantly evolving intelligent personalization in your pocket, it really is an awe-inspiring experience. And you definitely don’t have to be a power-user to appreciate it.
If Google managed to actually market the system in a way that’d let ordinary phone-ownin’ folk understand what it’s capable of doing — to market it in the way Apple would (and perhaps eventually will), in other words — well, the phone-buying masses might start to see how special Android has become and how powerful the presence of advanced personalization potential really can be.
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