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The Best Free Antivirus Protection of 2018

Free Malware, Spyware, and Adware Protection

These days it’s hard to go without antivirus protection. If you don’t install a free or premium antivirus utility[1], Windows 10 activates the built-in Windows Defender. When you do install protection, Windows Defender politely steps aside.

The problem is, tests show that Windows Defender isn’t as effective as the best third-party solutions, including free ones. You can do better than the built-in without expending your hard-earned cash. We’ve evaluated 17 free antivirus programs so you can choose the one that suits you best.

Your antivirus should definitely have the ability to root out existing malware, but its ongoing task is to prevent ransomware, botnets, Trojans, and other types of nasty programs from getting a foothold. All of the antivirus programs in this collection offer real-time malware protection[2]. Some take the fight upstream, working hard to ensure you never even browse to a malware-hosting site, or get fooled into turning over your credentials to a phishing site.

Free Antivirus vs.

Paid Antivirus

If free antivirus tools are so great, why should anybody pay? For one thing, quite a few of these products are free only for noncommercial use; if you want to protect your business, you have to pony up for the paid edition. At that point, you should probably consider upgrading to a full security suite[3].

After all, it’s your business’s security on the line. Even for personal use, most for-pay antivirus tools offer more than their free counterparts–sometimes a lot more. For example, the paid edition of adaware’s antivirus adds a behavior-based detection tool, along with protection against malicious and fraudulent websites that the free version lacks.

And Panda reserves quite a few features for paying customers, among them firewall protection, application control, and detection of insecure Wi-Fi connections. In addition, many companies don’t offer full-scale tech support for users of the free edition. The first time you need extra help digging a particularly stubborn piece of malware out of your system, you might regret the lack of support.

Independent Antivirus Lab Test Results

Around the world, researchers at independent antivirus testing labs spend their days putting antivirus tools to the test.

Some of these labs regularly release public reports on their findings. We follow four such labs closely: AV-Comparatives, AV-Test Institute, SE Labs, and MRG-Effitas. We also take note of whether vendors have contracted for certification by ICSA Labs and West Coast Labs.

Security companies typically pay for the privilege of being included in testing. In return, the labs supply them with detailed reports that can help improve their products. The number of labs that include a particular vendor serves as a measure of significance.

In each case, the lab considered the product important enough to test, and the vendor felt the price was worthwhile. The labs don’t necessarily test a vendor’s free product, but most vendors pack full protection into the free product, enhancing premium versions with additional features.

We Test Malware Protection

In addition to carefully perusing results from the independent labs, we also run our own hands-on malware protection test. We expose each antivirus to a collection of malware samples, including a variety of different malware types, and note its reaction.

Typically the antivirus will wipe out most of the samples on sight, and detect some of the remaining ones when we try to launch them. We derive a malware blocking score from 0 to 10 points based on how thoroughly the antivirus protects the test system from these samples. Since we use the same samples month after month, the malware-blocking test definitely doesn’t measure a product’s ability to detect brand-new threats.

In a separate test, we attempt to download malware from 100 very new malicious URLs supplied by MRG-Effitas[4], typically less than a day old. We note whether the antivirus blocked all access to the URL, wiped out the malicious payload during download, or did nothing. Norton holds the current top score in this test, followed by Trend Micro Antivirus+ Security and Avira Free Antivirus.

If you’re interested in learning more about our testing techniques, you’re welcome to read more about how we test security software[5].

Useful Features

Just about every antivirus product scans files on access to make sure malware can’t launch, and also scans the entire system on demand, or on a schedule you set. Once that cleaning and scheduling is done, blocking all access to malware-hosting URLs is another good way to avoid trouble. Many products extend that protection to also steer users away from fraudulent websites, phishing sites that try to steal login credentials for financial sites and other sensitive sites.

A few rate links in search results, flagging any dangerous or iffy ones. Behavior-based detection, a feature of some antivirus products, is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it can detect malware that’s never been seen before.

On the other hand, if it’s not done right, it can baffle the user with messages about perfectly legitimate programs. Any antivirus should eliminate spyware along with other types of malware, but some products include features designed specifically for spyware protection[6]. Features like encryption to protect your sensitive data and webcam control to prevent remote peeping typically show up in commercial products, not free ones.

But some free products include features like a simple on-screen keyboard to foil keyloggers. One easy way to keep your PC protected is to install all security updates, both for Windows and for browsers and other popular applications. Windows 10 makes it easier than ever to stay up to date, but there are plenty of security holes in older Windows versions, in popular apps, and in add-ons.

Scanning for vulnerabilities in the form of missing updates is a feature most often found in commercial antivirus products, but it does turn up in some free ones. In the chart above you can see which products include these useful features.

What’s Not Here? What About Windows Defender?

This article reports only on free antivirus products that received at least a good rating in our reviews–three stars or better. Microsoft Windows Defender Security Center[7] joined the three-star group in its latest review, with hands-on test results much better than in its previous review.

However, it still isn’t a product, as such. Rather, it’s a component of Windows. And the very best free antivirus utilities offer many more layers of protection.

Several free utilities devoted entirely to ransomware protection[8] recently joined the party. Cybereason RansomFree, Malwarebytes Anti-Ransomware Beta, and Trend Micro RansomBuster exist for the sole purpose of fending off any ransomware attack that your regular antivirus misses. Bitdefender Anti-Ransomware works by fooling ransomware to think that your computer is already infected.

We include them in the blurbs below and encourage you to give them a try. They don’t appear in the chart simply because they don’t do the job of a full-scale antivirus utility. There are also numerous free antivirus utilities that work solely to clean up existing malware infestations.

You bring out these cleanup-only tools when you have a nasty malware problem. When the malware’s gone, they have no further use, since they offer no ongoing protection. Our favorite in this category is Malwarebytes Anti-Malware, and it’s definitely one you should try if you’ve got a malware problem.

But since they’re free, you can keep trying others if the first one doesn’t do the job. When the scare is over, you’ll need a full-blown antivirus for ongoing protection.

What’s the Best Free Antivirus?

Our current Editors’ Choice products for free antivirus utility are Avast Free Antivirus, AVG AntiVirus Free, and Kaspersky Free. Avast and AVG get very good scores from the independent labs, and Kaspersky took perfect scores in recent tests.

On the other hand, Avast and AVG include some useful bonus features not found in Kaspersky. Avast in particular packs a password manager[9] and a network security scanner in its toolkit. If you do have a little cash in your budget for security, the best paid antivirus software does offer more and better protection.

If not, try a few of these free tools and see which one you like best. Worried you might already be infected? Check out our article on the signs you have malware[10].

Best Free Antivirus Protection Featured in This Roundup:

  • Pros: Antivirus lab test results plentiful and positive.

    Excellent scores in our hands-on tests and antiphishing test. Network security inspector. Password manager.

    Many useful, security-related bonus features. Free.

    Cons: Password manager features limited. Some bonus features require separate purchase.

    Bottom Line: Avast Free Antivirus 2017 combines a great free antivirus with a surprisingly extensive collection of bonus features.

    Read Review[11]

  • Pros: Very good scores from many independent testing labs.

    Very good malware-blocking score. Decent malicious URL blocking score. Web security plug-in includes website rating and active Do Not Track.

    Cons: Poor score in antiphishing test.

    Initial scan slower than average.

    Bottom Line: AVG AntiVirus Free has a new look, and some new technology, but our hands-on tests and independent lab tests show that it’s just as reliable as ever.

    Read Review[12]

  • Pros: Perfect scores from four independent testing labs. Good scores in our malware-blocking and malicious URL blocking tests. Free.

    Cons: Poor antiphishing test scores.

    No direct tech support.

    Bottom Line: Kaspersky Free offers full-scale malware protection that gets perfect scores from the independent labs, and it won’t cost you a penny.

    Read Review[13]

  • Pros: Protects against most ransomware samples, including Petya. Recovers affected files. Detected 10 simulated ransomware attacks in our tests.

    Includes 5GB of hosted online backup. Free.

    Cons: Missed one real-world sample in our testing.

    Bottom Line: If your antivirus misses a zero-day ransomware attack, you’re in big trouble. The free Acronis Ransomware Protection offers another layer of protection, plus 5GB of online backup storage.

    Read Review[14]

  • Pros: Same antivirus protection as for-pay Bitdefender.

    Excellent scores from independent testing labs. Top antiphishing score.

    Cons: Lacks all features of the for-pay Bitdefender beyond core antivirus protection.

    Bottom Line: Bitdefender Antivirus Free Edition includes precisely the same antivirus technology found in the commercial Bitdefender Antivirus, without the paid edition’s many useful bonus features.

    Read Review[15]

  • Pros: Tough, effective two-way firewall. Antivirus protection licensed from Kaspersky.

    Free. Several useful bonus features.

    Cons: Hardly any results from independent testing labs. Doesn’t include every feature of Kaspersky antivirus.

    No phishing protection. Behavioral detection flagged both good and bad programs.

    Bottom Line: ZoneAlarm Free Antivirus+ combines a top-notch firewall with antivirus protection licensed from award-winning Kaspersky. This free program can be a good choice if you don’t want a full-scale security suite.

    Read Review[16]

  • Pros: Prevents ransomware attacks by detecting ransomware-specific behaviors.

    Fended off virulent, real-world ransomware in testing. Quick, simple installation. Free.

    Cons: In testing, did not detect disk-encryption ransomware.

    Bottom Line: The consequences of a ransomware attack are dire, so supplementing your antivirus with a second layer of defense like Cybereason RansomFree is a great idea.

    It’s free; go ahead and install it.

    Read Review[17]

  • Pros: Detects and quarantines ransomware based strictly on behavior. Performed well in hands-on testing. Lightweight.

    Free.

    Cons: Ransomware may encrypt a few files before detection.

    Bottom Line: Malwarebytes Anti-Ransomware Beta watches program behavior to thwart any ransomware that gets past your existing antivirus. This lightweight, free utility makes a great addition to your security arsenal.

    Read Review[18]

  • Pros: Free. Excellent score in phishing protection test.

    Very good score in malicious URL blocking test. Very good independent lab results. Remote management for up to three PCs or Macs.

    Download protection.

    Cons: Poor score in hands-on malware protection test. Lab test results not current.

    Bottom Line: Sophos Home Free gives home users much of the antivirus protection found in business security tools from Sophos, including remote management of up to three installations.

    Read Review[19]

  • Pros: Excellent scores from independent testing labs. Very good score in our malware blocking test.

    Option to install many related Avira products. Free.

    Cons: Extremely slow on-demand scan. Sluggish real-time scan.

    Browser protection only for Chrome and Firefox. So-so antiphishing score. Real-time protection missed some malware EXEs.

    Bottom Line: The free Avira Antivirus gets excellent ratings from the independent labs, but in testing its scans were slow, and its browser protection only works with Chrome and Firefox.

    Read Review[20]

  • Pros: Detected and blocked all real-world ransomware samples, including samples launched at startup.

    Doesn’t permit encryption of files. Free.

    Cons: Installation not complete until after reboot.

    Bottom Line: CyberSight RansomStopper offers free, dedicated ransomware protection, and it now handles ransomware that launches at Windows startup. It’s a winner, and free.

    Read Review[21]

  • Pros: Full scan flags safe programs, speeding up subsequent scans.

    Free.

    Cons: Mixed scores in independent lab tests. Low scores in our hands-on tests. No protection against malicious or fraudulent URLs.

    Lacks features found in competing free products products and in its own previous edition.

    Bottom Line: In a complete makeover, adaware antivirus free 12 has a new name and a new look. Under the hood, though, its test results aren’t the best, and competing free products have much more to offer.

    Read Review[22]

  • Pros: Prevents infection by specific ransomware families using vaccination technique. Lightweight.

    Free for personal or business use.

    Cons: Does nothing against other ransomware families.

    Bottom Line: Bitdefender Anti-Ransomware vaccinates your PC against infection by four specific ransomware families, and testing shows that it does the job. But you’ll need some other kind of protection to handle other ransomware families, and other malware in general.

    Read Review[23]

  • Pros: Perfect score in our hands-on malware blocking test. Automatic sandboxing of suspect programs.

    Behavior-based malware detection. Virtual desktop and secure browser. Attractive new user interface.

    Free.

    Cons: Failed to detect hand-modified malware samples. Dismal score in malware-download test. Independent lab test results sparse and poor.

    No Web-based protection against malicious and fraudulent URLs.

    Bottom Line: The free Comodo Antivirus 10 has a new look, and it aced our hands-on malware blocking test. However, it didn’t do as well on other tests by PCMag or the few independent labs that have evaluated it.

    Read Review[24]

  • Pros: Slick, attractive user interface. Vaccinates USB drives against malware.

    Panda Safe Web flags dangerous websites. Free.

    Cons: Poor scores in independent lab tests and two of our tests. Middling score in our malware-blocking test.

    Bottom Line: Panda Free Antivirus boasts an attractive user interface and an unusual USB vaccination feature, but its scores have slipped in both our tests and independent lab tests.

    Read Review[25]

  • Pros: 360 Connect smartphone app lets you remotely help friends and family use the product.

    Cleanup, tuneup, vulnerability scan, and many other bonus utilities.

    Cons: So-so scores in our malware blocking and malicious URL blocking tests. Dismal score in our antiphishing test. Default configuration not optimized for security.

    Bottom Line: The free Qihoo 360 Total Security 8.6 comes with a ton of bonus tools, but its core antivirus protection doesn’t measure up to the best free antivirus tools.

    Read Review[26]

  • Pros: Folder Shield blocks unauthorized access to protected documents.

    Detects encrypting ransomware behavior in any folder. Recovers any files that were encrypted before detection. Free.

    Cons: Folder Shield limited to two folders.

    In testing, behavior-based detection only caught half of the real-world ransomware samples.

    Bottom Line: It’s very good of Trend Micro to make RansomBuster available for free, and its Folder Shield successfully prevents unauthorized changes to your documents. However, the behavior-based detection system needs work.

    Read Review[27]

  • Pros: Slick, attractive user interface. Decent results from independent testing labs.

    Improved scores in our hands-on malware blocking test.

    Cons: Poor protection in our malware-download test. Dismal score in our antiphishing test. Actively reported some malicious files as safe.

    Bottom Line: Baidu Antivirus 2015 has definitely improved since we tested it last year.

    However, it’s still not a recommended choice for free antivirus protection.

    Read Review[28]

  • Pros: Perfect score in our hands-on malware blocking test. Secure Shopping Environment protects online transactions. Firewall stealths ports and controls which programs can access network.

    Virtual desktop and secure browser. Free.

    Cons: Dismal score in our malware-download test. Independent lab test results sparse and poor.

    Web-based protection against malicious and fraudulent URLs not yet working.

    Bottom Line: Comodo Internet Security Premium 10 merges Comodo’s standalone antivirus and firewall programs and adds a new secure shopping environment. That’s a lot of features for a free product, but some aren’t very effective.

    Read Review[29]

  • Pros: Built into Windows 10. Good hands-on test scores.

    Simple ransomware protection.

    Easy access to Windows security features.

    Always on if no other antivirus is present.

    Cons: Mixed results from independent test labs.

    Bottom Line: Microsoft Windows Defender Security Center protects Windows 10 PCs that have no other antivirus protection, and it has significantly improved in our hands-on tests since our previous review.

    Read Review[30]

References

  1. ^ premium antivirus utility (uk.pcmag.com)
  2. ^ malware protection (uk.pcmag.com)
  3. ^ security suite (uk.pcmag.com)
  4. ^ MRG-Effitas (www.mrg-effitas.com)
  5. ^ how we test security software (uk.pcmag.com)
  6. ^ spyware protection (uk.pcmag.com)
  7. ^ Microsoft Windows Defender Security Center (uk.pcmag.com)
  8. ^ ransomware protection (uk.pcmag.com)
  9. ^ password manager (uk.pcmag.com)
  10. ^ signs you have malware (uk.pcmag.com)
  11. ^ Read Review (uk.pcmag.com)
  12. ^ Read Review (uk.pcmag.com)
  13. ^ Read Review (uk.pcmag.com)
  14. ^ Read Review (uk.pcmag.com)
  15. ^ Read Review (uk.pcmag.com)
  16. ^ Read Review (uk.pcmag.com)
  17. ^ Read Review (uk.pcmag.com)
  18. ^ Read Review (uk.pcmag.com)
  19. ^ Read Review (uk.pcmag.com)
  20. ^ Read Review (uk.pcmag.com)
  21. ^ Read Review (uk.pcmag.com)
  22. ^ Read Review (uk.pcmag.com)
  23. ^ Read Review (uk.pcmag.com)
  24. ^ Read Review (uk.pcmag.com)
  25. ^ Read Review (uk.pcmag.com)
  26. ^ Read Review (uk.pcmag.com)
  27. ^ Read Review (uk.pcmag.com)
  28. ^ Read Review (uk.pcmag.com)
  29. ^ Read Review (uk.pcmag.com)
  30. ^ Read Review (uk.pcmag.com)

Google Android 9.0 Pie

The time of a new Android operating system is now upon us, with the venerable Android 8 (aka Oreo)[1] setting in the west and the sparkling, new Android 9 (aka Pie) rising in the east. This latest iteration of the world’s most popular mobile operating system tackles screen addiction and reimagines how we interact with Android with new gestures. It also refreshes the look and feel of Android to be more Google-like.

With the final version of Android Pie just now being released trickling out to Android devices, this preview represents time spent with developer previews of the OS. We’ll update this to a rated review once we have a chance to try out the final version of the operating system.

A Peek Behind the Curtain

The full name of Android 9.0 was revealed on August 6, ignoring Persimmon and Popsicle and going with the gooey and delicious Pie. Keep in mind that, depending on your device, you may not receive Android Pie on its release–or at all.

Google’s Pixel devices are the first in line, with a handful of partners lined up for early rollout. It’s sobering to see Google’s own statistics[2] on OS adoption, which reflect the fact that, despite enormous strides with the operating system, getting the upgrade to users is still a challenge. As of May of 2018, only 5.7 percent of Android users were on the latest version of the OS, Oreo.

As mentioned above, this story is based on the last developer preview to come out before the official release of Android Pie.

The experience was very close to the final release, and using the developer preview afforded me the time to experiment and live with the new OS. Not all features were live in the preview, however, including the Digital Wellbeing features–Google’s name for its screen-addiction tools. In fact, the Digital Wellbeing features aren’t even launching until the fall.

Slices, a feature that embeds app capabilities into Google search results, also won’t be available until the fall. I also couldn’t test new battery-life, brightness-control, and app-actions features, all of which are AI-powered tools that adapt the OS based on your usage. I’ll be updating this preview soon with my impressions of the final product.

If you can’t wait until then, take a look at the features I’m most excited about[3].

Apples and Androids

Reviewing operating systems can sometimes feel like trying to write a review about the sky or the ocean. They are so large, encompassing so many features, that even trying to sum them up is a daunting experience. In the case of mobile operating systems, it’s even stranger, since consumers don’t really have a choice.

You either buy an iPhone with iOS or another phone with Android. You can’t run iOS on a Samsung phone.

While it’s easy to say that Apple is the closed-and-pretty-one and Android is the open one, that’s also enormously reductive. Both Google and Apple are designing for human users and, as such, use a lot of the same tools and tactics in their mobile operating systems.

In fact, if you read the comments of any review of either OS, you’ll find fans pointing out the extent to which each “copies” from the other. Still, I find it useful to compare the two occasionally, since they highlight different approaches to the same issues.

The Look of Android

For years, I felt like little thought was given to the actual look of the Android OS. I presumed this was because Google felt like it was making the foundation that OEMs and others would build upon.

That seemed to change with the last round of Nexus devices, which felt decidedly more unique and more consumer-focused. The Pixel devices (and the Pixel Launcher) cemented this idea: there’s now a unique look to Android. The latest twist in this tale of aesthetics is that Google is pushing out a unified look to more and more of its properties, including Android.

The bigger, more rounded look spotted on Gmail and Google Drive[4] is seeping into Android. The Notifications pull-down pane has distinct, white cards with rounded corners that feel much more substantial than the previous design. There’s also a setting for a Light or Dark theme in Android now, which recolors these cards as either black or white.

You can also opt for Android to choose which theme to use based on your background image. Some of these new design elements are best seen in the Settings app. The larger search fields and suggestions at the top of the app are far more inviting, and the bolder icon colors more eye-catching.

It feels much cleaner, and more like a cohesive statement. A final thought on aesthetics. Google seems to be consciously shifting attention away from Android and toward Google itself.

Case in point: when I reboot my Pixel it doesn’t say Android in bright letters anymore. It says Google with the words “powered by Android” in smaller letters at the bottom. Using Android is now, really, the experience of using Google on your phone.

Screen Addiction Ending Soon

This year has seen mounting concern about screen addiction[5]; the social and health consequences that come from staring at screens all day.

At Google I/O, this topic received a lot of time. The company even offered an antidote to Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) with the Joy of Missing Out (JOMO). To that end, Google announced that a series of powerful new Digital Wellbeing tools were coming to Android to give users more insight into how they use their phones and hopefully curb their usage.

These are the biggest and most dramatic features of Android Pie and they were unfortunately missing from the developer previews I tried. As mentioned earlier, they’ll be released this fall. The idea of Google trying to get customers to use their phones less might, at first, seem laughable, or even disingenuous.

After all, the company presumably wants people as many people using their apps and services and making Google money as often as possible. But there has been mounting concern that consumers might be fatigued by the modern smartphone experience. Android 7, for example, included fine-grained notification controls because, as a Googler said on stage at that year’s I/O, it’s better for a customer to mute a few notifications than to uninstall an entire app.

At the center of Google’s efforts is the Android Dashboard[6]. When launched, this will show you how often you’re using your apps, among other statistics. A new Shush option will work like Do Not Disturb for notifications, so you can focus or simply check out from disruptions for a little while.

An App Timer feature will let you set limits on specific apps, which is also a powerful tool for parents who look to police their children’s app usage.

One feature I’m particularly excited for is Wind Down. Set a time range for when you want to use your phone less, and your device will fade to black and white during that interval. It’s a powerful visual cue, reminding you to take a break.

It also guts the strongest and most alluring part of smartphones: the lush colors and dopamine squirt-inducing visuals. Apple has already shown off its answer to screen addiction in the beta version of iOS 12. It’s hard to compare the two since Google didn’t include its tools in the developer preview, but they’re clearly using similar features to achieve similar goals.

These tools are a bit more striking on iPhone if only because there has been no way to get this kind of control over the device before, whereas Android has enjoyed a wide variety of parental control solutions for years. That said, I think the Wind Down feature is far more useful than Apple’s approach, which simply greys out the apps during the periods you select.

The Top of the Screen

App notifications and the Android menu bar are likely the main ways people engage with their devices. Notifications show us what’s happening, and give us the opportunity to take actions.

The menu bar has critical device information like battery level and the current time. Android Pie carefully tweaks both of these areas, giving consumers a quality-of-life boost. Although it is a very small change, Android Pie moves the current time from the far right corner of the screen to the far left.

I actually like this move since it helps tidy up the top of the phone, but it’s mostly there because of the notched phone fad that we’re all suffering through. And yes, Android Pie absolutely supports notched devices, but only up to a point. With Android Pie, notifications will support media, like the images sent as attachments.

You’ll also be able to see the avatar of the person messaging you, which makes the notification experience far more complete. Similarly, Android Pie has AI-generated canned responses, like those seen in Gmail. They’re particularly handy for sending quick, rote responses.

Google has also said that Android Pie will have better support for group chat notifications. All of these improvements really bend toward seeing more in notifications, and having more options available to respond to notifications. That leads directly to the improvement I’m most excited about: drafts.

I am a verbose person by nature, and rarely fire back a short response to a text. I’m the kind of person who tries to type out the entire text of Beowulf in that one-line text field. I am a monster.

That means I am also the kind of person who screams in agony when I accidentally tap out of the notification and lose everything I just typed. Thankfully, Android Pie will include a draft function that will automatically save what you wrote in the notification reply field as a draft. Huzzah!

While I’m interested to see the changes coming to notifications in Pie, I am a not convinced the full potential of these changes will actually be realized. The major push in the previous version of Android was reworking notifications to give the user more control over what they see and when. The introduction of notification Channels, intended to let consumers toggle off some kinds of notifications from individual apps was a radical change, but one that, in my experience, hasn’t been widely embraced by developers.

I hope that, with the arrival of Pie, more developers will take advantage of these tools to make notifications less of a nuisance.

Highly Appropriate Gestures

The three buttons at the bottom of every Android device haven’t changed much in recent memory. Sometimes they have different symbols, sometimes they are physical instead of just displayed on the glass, but they’re almost as iconic as Apple’s single home button design for the iPhone. And just as Apple did away with the home button with the iPhone X, Android Pie puts a whole new twist on its navigation scheme.

Now, there’s just one button and a whole lot of gestures. In the version of the developer preview I tested, gestures were an option buried in the Settings menu. Otherwise, my Pixel XL defaulted to the same three icons at the bottom of the screen.

How it will ship on on the final version isn’t clear to me, although it’s worth noting that Google took time to highlight the new interface[7] during the I/O developer conference, suggesting it’s an important new feature. Instead of three icons, you now have a single lozenge-shaped button in the center bottom of the screen. Tap it and swipe up all the way, and it will display the full apps tray.

This is everything you’ve got installed on your device. It’s not far off from how the Pixel Launcher displays apps now. Tap the center button from anywhere, in any app, and you’ll be taken back to the home screen.

So far, so simple. In the past, the far right button (sometimes shown as a square or a menu icon) opened a view that displayed all the apps currently running on your device. You could flick them away to close the app, or jump quickly from one app to another.

In more recent versions of Android, this view also let you run apps side-by-side in a split screen view. With gestures in Android Pie, most of these functions are shifted over to the home button. To open the app tray with the center button, you need to keep your finger on the screen pretty much all the way to the top.

It’s not a flick action. But flicking or dragging just partway up the screen does open a new task manager view, typically handled by the far right button. In this view, cards show each app currently running.

The icons on top match the icon for each app, and the rest of the card shows what’s currently happening in the app. I am surprised that in at least some cases you can copy and paste from these app previews, but it’s not clear how much action can be taken from this view. The bottom of the screen shows a smaller app tray, showing a set of apps that seem to be derived from how I use my phone.

Android Oreo has a similar feature already in the full app tray view that displays frequently used apps. You can scroll left and right through the app cards, and toss the cards away to shut down the app. Dragging an app to the top of the screen will still start a split screen session, so not much has really changed.

One new trick is when you tap the center button and drag to the left. This opens a fast app-switching screen. It’s a simplified version of the app manager view, minus the app tray at the bottom.

Without lifting your thumb, you slide left and right through the apps currently running on your phone. Release your thumb and whatever app is in the center position will move into focus. It’s much faster than opening the old app manager of the half-swipe up gesture, but I really struggled with this one in testing.

It’s just too fast. I’d either let go when I didn’t intend to or swipe all the way to the end of the list and lose it. Google could tweak this particular gesture, but in using it I was reminded of how I learned to drive stick shift or, more recently, used the gestures available with the Apple Magic Trackpad.

It’s all muscle memory and I feel like I could master this new gesture in time. Explaining this big change to the average consumer, and getting them to use it without frustrating themselves, however, could be a much bigger issue. The left-hand button traditionally moved you back one screen, and doubled as the back button on some browsers, too.

It would be hard to imagine that OS without it, which is why it still pops up from time to time. Every now and again while using the gesture button, a tiny triangle appeared in the lower left, which you can tap and move back. This downgrade makes sense, since the home button will always take you back to the home screen.

You just don’t need it in sight all the time. My expectations of the Android Pie gestures were way out of line with what I experienced in the developer preview version of the OS. From what I read online, and saw on stage at I/O, I had imagined a totally new way to interact with my phone.

It’s not that. It’s a smart redesign, with a few rough edges to work out. I’m curious to see how it performs in the long term, but honestly I wouldn’t mind if Google went even further overhauling the navigation in Android.

The OS is nearing a decade in use, and smartphones are ubiquitous enough that companies can stand to be a little more experimental than they were in 2008.

Going Long

Two tweaks in Android Pie both take advantage of your screen’s horizontal space in new and interesting ways: new screen rotation controls and an improved volume bar. Screen rotation was one of those ooh-ah moments with the iPhone when the OS smoothly moved between landscape and portrait views depending on how you held the device. It’s an essential feature that’s on every kind of modern smartphones, but it’s also deeply annoying.

How many of us have been laying in bed, reading our phones, only to have the screen spin around to an inconvenient angle when we make the slightest move? Too many, that’s how many.

Sure, you can toggle screen rotation off in the Settings (or in the menu available in the notification tray) but who has the time to do that? In Android Pie, rotating your phone when an app is open won’t automatically rotate the app.

Instead, a little icon (shaped like a phone on mine, but I’ve seen other variants) appears in the bottom right corner. Tap it, and the screen will rotate to match your phone’s position. Otherwise, it stays right where it is.

I saw this feature working beautifully in the Android Chrome browser, but it’s unclear to me if it’s going to be a universal option or app-specific. Regardless, it’s a quality of life tweak that I really appreciate. Upgrades to the volume slider in Android Pie also fall into the quality of life department.

Now, pressing the volume rocker switch on your phone will tick the volume up and down as before. But in Android Pie, the volume menu pops in from the right of your screen and runs down the horizontal axis of your phone. The animation, position, and shape of the volume menu are the same as the shut down/restart menu that appears when you press and hold the power key.

Moving the volume menu out of the notification area and mimicking the power menu makes so much sense. It’s a visual cue that you’re taking actions that you’re interacting with the operating system, and puts the menus closer to the actual position of the buttons. It’s smart all around.

The smartest part, however, is that the volume buttons control media volume by default. If you want to mute your ringer, you tap a button at the top of the volume menu. The logic is simple: most of the time, people want their ringers either on or off, and want to have fine-grained control over their music and media volume.

This is miles better than the weird context-specific menu in Oreo, which had the media or ringer controls visible depending on what was happening when you pressed the volume control. The new option is elegant, and bested only (perhaps) by a physical mute button on your phone.

In the Background and Under the Hood

As with all operating system updates, there’s a lot going on with Pie that might not be immediately obvious to the user. Here’s a quick rundown of the highlights as taken from the developer documentation.

In the realm of security, Google has changed the conversation about Android in a big way. Rather than talk about putting out fires, Google wants to challenge ideas of what a phone can be safely used for. It’s a statement of confidence, and one that’s quite refreshing.

For Android Pie, users can look forward to improved encryption for the device and device backups, the latter of which will now require a PIN or pattern code to unlock. Android Pie also brings improvements to the Autofill framework, which lets apps fill information directly into apps and websites. If you use a password manager (which you should) the Autofill framework is a game changer that takes the pain out of entering passwords.

P promises to make that experience even more seamless. Fingerprint readers, and other biometrics, are now common across smartphones. Android Pie simplifies the experience by having one system-level prompt for users to place their finger or thumb on the sensor.

This assures the user that it’s a legit request for their biometric information. Google continues to tighten what apps running in the background can do in Android Pie. In addition to the restrictions we saw in previous versions, Pie restricts apps from receiving sensor information when they’re in the background.

Best of all, background apps can no longer access the microphone or camera. In my opinion, this is a long time coming but a much welcome improvement. Android Pie also expands the support for dual-camera devices (that is, smartphones with two cameras facing in the same direction).

Features like bokeh, seamless zoom, and stereo vision will now be possible.

Blueberry, Apple, Cherry, Pumpkin, and Plum

My time with the Android Pie developer preview was as surprising as it was satisfying. I’m very impressed with the new gestures, and the tweaks that need to be made seem obvious and easy. I’m also very intrigued by changes to the look and feel of Android going forward, as it becomes more bound to the Google visual experience.

That said, I am left wanting as neither the developer preview nor the released version of Pie include Google’s tools to address screen addiction. It’s sure to be the biggest change to Android, an already powerful and mature operating system, we’re likely to see for some time. The final version of Android 9.0, aka Pie, is making its way to phones as you read this.

Perhaps it’s already there, waiting for you to take a slice.

We at PCMag, however, will have to wait to make our final judgement about the latest Android confection.

Google Android 9.0 Pie

Bottom Line: The latest update to Android (9.0 Pie) brings visual tweaks and smart quality-of-life improvements that really work, but key new features like screen addiction controls aren’t included at launch.

References

  1. ^ Android 8 (aka Oreo) (uk.pcmag.com)
  2. ^ Google’s own statistics (developer.android.com)
  3. ^ features I’m most excited about (www.pcmag.com)
  4. ^ Google Drive (uk.pcmag.com)
  5. ^ screen addiction (uk.pcmag.com)
  6. ^ Android Dashboard (uk.pcmag.com)
  7. ^ took time to highlight the new interface (uk.pcmag.com)

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