Update, Feb. 18, 2021: The Android 12 developer beta is here, and you can install it and try it out now.
The latest and greatest version of Android has been out for a few months now and has slowly made its way to more devices. Samsung recently announced the rollout of Android 11 to some of its Galaxy devices, adding new and exciting features to the company's latest phones. The rest of the launch will take some time, as is always the case with major Android updates.
If you'd rather not wait for your phone to receive the update, you can pick up Google's Pixel 4a 5G or Pixel 5, both of which run Android 11 out of the box.
You'll find subtle tweaks throughout the new operating system that make a big difference in how you'll use your phone every day. For example, there's a new Bubbles chat feature that makes it easy to keep messaging from any app. My personal favorite is the new quick-controls page for accessing my smart home devices with a swipe, and there's a new screen-recording tool for showing off your favorite game helping someone troubleshoot a problem.
These are seven of my favorite Android 11 features and how to use them.
Android 11 quick controls are a true highlight
The first thing you should do after installing Android 11 is long-press the power button on your phone to bring up the new quick-controls screen. On the Pixel, at least, this screen gives you power control options along the top and provides shortcuts to your Google Pay cards and boarding passes. Then below that you'll find my favorite feature of Android 11 -- quick controls for smart home devices.
My phone automatically picked a few devices I've linked to Google Assistant, like the Nest thermostat in my office and my Nest video doorbell. I can even view a livestream from my doorbell directly on this screen without having to open the Nest app, which is slow and a pain to use. So this quick-controls option is great.
You can add or remove smart home devices from this grid by tapping the menu button and selecting add or edit controls.
Google Assistant can wait on hold for you
Instead of waiting on hold, listening to the same boring music on loop, Google is bringing a new feature to Assistant and it debuted with the Pixel 4a 5G and Pixel 5.
Called Hold for Me, Google Assistant's new trick shows a prompt on the screen letting you know you can go about doing whatever it is you want to do and your phone will alert you when someone finally answers.
In order for the feature to work, you need to turn it on by opening the Phone app, tapping on the three-dot menu icon, then tapping Settings. Select Hold for me from the list of options, then turn it on.
Now, when your phone detects you've called a customer service number and you have vibrate, silent mode or do not disturb turned off, the in-call screen will have a Hold for me button that you can press when you're placed on hold.
Tap Start and then a screen will show up reminding you not to hang up. You won't be able to listen to music or use your phone to play a video while on the call.
There will be a text transcript that's shown, live, just below the call screen where you can monitor what's being said (is it just a recording thanking you for being patient, or has someone answered?) or catch up when you return to the call.
When you're taken off hold, your phone should vibrate and ring, as if you're getting a call, to let you know that someone's waiting to talk to you, so you can then resume the call.
I tested out Hold for Me by calling Comcast and I was able to almost immediately have the Assistant begin listening to the call for me. The live transcription was a nice bonus that I wasn't expecting to see, but will surely make it easier to figure out if you need to answer the phone before Assistant alerts you.
New message notifications get the limelight
After installing Android 11, you'll notice that alerts from all of your messaging apps, like Google Messages, have a dedicated Conversations section in your notification tray.
The change makes it easier to find the alerts you likely care about most, but if you receive a lot of messages, even this section can get messy.
Instead of letting Google sort your new alerts on its own, long-press the conversation you want to follow closely and select Priority. Doing this will move new messages in that thread to the top of all of your conversation alerts, turn on Bubbles (more on that below) and use the contact's avatar as the alert icon in the notification tray and on the lock screen.
Being able to glance at the notification tray and see a profile icon, instead of the standard text alert that doesn't offer any really valuable information, is a nice touch.
Messaging Bubbles for your friends look like they'll be useful
Remember Bubbles? This feature was supposed to be part of Android 10, but Google pulled it at the last minute. It made the cut for Android 11.
Bubbles are similar to Facebook Messenger's "chat heads" feature. When activated, a small avatar -- or Bubble -- shows up on your screen and is visible no matter what app you're using. Tap on the avatar and it will open a small window where you can read and send new messages in that thread, without fully opening the app. You can drag the Bubble around your screen, or drag it to the bottom of the screen to delete it.
In order to use Bubbles for a conversation, tap on the small Bubbles icon in the bottom-right corner of the notification. Tapping on it will immediately enable Bubbles for that thread. Alternatively, you can mark a conversation as a priority to always use Bubbles for that contact.
You can then drag the icons for your various Bubbles chats around on your screen, or tap on the avatar for the person you want to talk to and the thread will open up, all without leaving the app you're currently using. I'm glad this is an opt-in feature, based on each thread, instead of an all-or-nothing feature like Chat Heads, which can be messy and downright overwhelming.
To get rid of a bubble for a specific conversation, just drag the icon to the small X that shows up at the bottom of your screen.
If you want to completely disable Bubbles, disallowing any and all apps from triggering the potentially annoying feature, open the Settings app and search for Bubbles. There will be a setting to turn off Bubbles altogether.
App developers will need to update their app to work with Bubbles, and right now I can confirm that Google's Messages app works. Facebook Messenger worked throughout the Android 11 beta program, but an update just a few days before Android 11 launched seems to have broken or disabled the integration. If you're having trouble getting Bubbles to work at the same time as a particular app, I recommend reaching out to the developer and seeing if it plans on adding support for Bubbles.
Android 11 gets fancier music controls
In Android 11, there's a new playback control that no longer appears as a pending notification. Instead, there's a small box that shows up as part of the quick settings panel. You can skip, go back, play, pause or switch the device the music is playing on all from the new control box.
As soon as you start playing some music, the new media controls will be available. They're so much better than the old notification.
A built-in screen recorder
Screenshots are a quick and easy way to capture something on your screen, but there are times when a recording is better suited to the task at hand. For example, if you want to show off your gaming skills, or highlight the steps to reproduce a bug -- screen recording FTW!
You can find the Screen Record tool in the Quick Settings panel after installing Android 11. If it's not visible, tap on the pencil icon to add it to your panel.
Tap on the Screen Record icon and select whether you want your microphone to record audio and if you want your touch interactions to be highlighted in the video. To stop recording, tap the Screen Record notification. The video will be saved to your camera roll, where you can edit and share the recording.
For Pixel owners: App Suggestions replace your app dock
At some point after installing Android 11, you'll see a prompt asking you to enable app suggestions on the home screen. Essentially, the new app suggestions will replace the app dock on your phone, leaving it up to your phone to swap apps in and out of the bottom row -- or dock -- on your phone, based on which apps you use at certain times of the day.
The apps have a glowing border around them, letting you know your phone added them, and you'll frequently see different ones when you go back to your home screen. You can long-press on any of the app icons to pin that suggestion to your home screen.
You can also block apps from showing up as suggestions if you don't want something like Gmail showing because you use a different email app.
To access App Suggestions and tailor how it works for you, long-press on your home screen and select Home Settings and then Suggestions. There you can control suggestions in the app drawer and on the home screen or block apps from showing up on the list.
Google made some important changes to how Android handles privacy settings you should know, as well. And if you're looking for instructions on how to install Android 11, we have your back.