Android 8.1 Oreo: Much More Than Just An Incremental Update

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Apart from the regular minor system UI and general tweaks, the new update brings ARCore, machine learning magic and finally enables the Visual Core chip

Google started rolling out Android 8.1 Oreo update for the Pixel and Pixel 2 range as well as the Pixel C tablet and last of the two Nexus devices, the 5X and 6P in the first week December. While its an incremental update to Google’s latest mobile operating system, it brings some new goodies to the table especially for the owners of Pixel 2 and 2 XL.

If you own a Pixel 2 or 2 XL, the update finally enables Visual Core, which is a dedicated system on chip expected to further improve the camera capabilities. Apart from that, 8.1 brings in advanced machine learning APIs, Augmented Reality stickers, general system improvements and UI tweaks and Android Go, a light version of the OS for entry-level smartphones. Let’s dive into these features…

Visual Core

Last year the camera on the Pixel offered one the best picture quality that one could get on a smartphone. This year Google has brought major improvements on the Pixel 2 which not only makes it the best camera phone, but one of the smartest that we have ever seen on any smartphone.

‘Surprisingly, Google mentioned that the Pixel 2 incorporated a special chipset called ‘Visual Core’ which was kept dormant at the time of the phone’s launch. The Pixel Visual Core has eight image processing unit (IPU) cores and 512 arithmetic logic units (ALU). Pairing that with machine learning, the whole process speeds up the HDR+ processing process by upto 5 times using just one-tenth of the energy. Getting access to the chip combined with Android’s Camera API will allow third-party photography apps to take advantage of the fast HDR+.

While the reason for not enabling the dedicated chip was not started at first, Google did confirm that the 8.1 update would enable it.

Now I have been testing the camera post the Android 8.1 update. While the overall camera speed has improved marginally, there is still time before developers tweak their apps to utilise the Visual Core chip. I did however notice some difference in quality using the camera for Instagram stories, although I still need to do a thorough comparison.

Notably, the new update does not enable the Visual Core by itself. Users have to manually enable it by entering the phone’s Developer Option menu. Once you have updated your Pixel 2/2XL to Android 8.1, goto Settings > System > About phone and keep tapping the Build number till you get a notification saying ‘You are now a Developer’. Under Developer option, head to the Debugging section and enable Camera HAL HDR+.

Apart from hardware, Google relies heavily on machine learning. By showing thousands and thousands of images, it has trained the machine learning algorithm to quickly identify objects such as buildings, trees, as well as humans, animals, landscapes etc. The brilliance of that can be seen in the camera’s portrait mode which uses only one camera to take amazing portraits with great low depth blurring effect which is done through the very same machine learning software. Oh, and the same portraits can be taken using the front camera as well.

Compared to a variety of flagship smartphones, the Pixel 2 camera produces great looking pictures. The edge detection is excellent, colours look natural and even low light performance is a big step for smartphone photography.

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