Final Android 8.1 Preview Turns On Neural Networks API

Google has released the final developer preview of Android 8.1 Oreo. This system update is anything but minor and includes a bevy of under-the-hood changes for developers and end users alike. In this build, the Neural Networks API is now active to boost on-device machine learning. Android 8.1 also unlocks the Pixel Visual Core chip in Google's Pixel smartphones, which developers can target with the Android Camera API. Here's the skinny on this beefy update.

The most important addition to this final developer preview is the Neural Networks API. This tool is meant to help boost smartphone smarts by running computationally intensive operations directly on the device rather than in the cloud. It puts down a base layer of functionality for higher-level machine learning frameworks such as TensorFlow Lite and Caffe2. It is available to all Android devices running 8.1 (API level 27) and up.

What does it do, exactly?

The Neural Networks API "supports inferencing by applying data from Android devices to previously trained, developer-defined models." If you're looking for an example, think object recognition, predicting end-user behavior, or crafting the right response to a search.

The benefit are many. For example, it reduce latency to a minimum. On-device calculations are orders of magnitude swifter than those that require a network connection and travel time to/from a cloud-based server. This also means the app can make use of machine learning when there's no network connection at all. For devices that have dedicated Neural Processing Units or Digital Signal Processors, routing them via those processors is far quicker than tagging the main CPU. Moreover, using on-device calculations is more secure/private, and negates the need to pay up for cloud-based server crunching.

There are drawbacks. Primarily, on-device calculations can chew through battery life, as well as add to your application APK size. Something to keep in mind.

If you develop camera applications, you should be excited about the Pixel Visual Core and the Android Camera API. The new Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL smartphones include a dormant image processor, called the Pixel Visual Core. This chip includes advanced HDR+ powers to improve imaging on the Pixel 2 handsets. Android 8.1 unlocks the Pixel Visual Core on both phones. The benefit here is that third-party imaging applications now have access to this secondary processor through the Android Camera API.

What's the big deal here? The Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL have excellent cameras and Google's accompanying software is the BOMB when it comes to processing photos and creating lush pictures. If you're Instagram or Snapchat, however, you app won't produce the same amazing results even when captured through the Pixel's powerful camera. That changes with the Pixel Visual Core and the Android Camera API. Developers can now tap into the Pixel's photography prowess to improve the results captured via their own apps.

As always, the developer preview is available to all registered developers and those who've signed up via the Android Beta Program. Most enrolled devices should see the update appear over-the-air in the days to come. Images are available from Google for sideloading. The preview runs on the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL, Pixel, Pixel XL, Pixel C, Nexus 5X, and Nexus 6P. These same devices will be the first to receive the public release of Android 8.1 Oreo in December. Google hopes developers will take the time to update their apps ahead of 8.1's general release.


Be sure to read the next Mobile article: Google Tasks Developers to Help It Improve Play Store Security


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