Image: Jason Cipriani/CNET

2019 wasn’t a perfect year for Android, but it was certainly a good one. There were features and devices that made the experience richer, more reliable, secure, and overall user-friendly. Some of these highlights directly affected end users, while others trend toward the indirect category.

Either way, there was much to be found in 2019 to bring a rousing “huzzah” from the Android community. Let’s dig in and take a look at Android’s top 10 highlights.

SEE: Android gift guide: The best gifts in 2019 (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

1. Google Pixel 4 camera

Although the Pixel 4 phone, when taken as a whole, comes off as a low point of the year (too costly, terrible battery life, not enough RAM or storage), one feature to raise eyebrows in a good way is the camera. Ever since the Pixel 3 arrived, Google’s line of smartphones have claimed the title of “best in show” for phone cameras, and the Pixel 4’s take on the camera did not disappoint. In fact, this particular feature of the device reset the standard by which all phone cameras will be judged. My guess is the next phone to usurp that title will be the Pixel 5. Hopefully that iteration of the line will make up for the mistakes Google made with the Pixel 4.

2. Android 10

I’ve been using Android since version 1.5, so I’ve witnessed almost every iteration of the platform since the beginning. Without hesitation I can say that Android 10 is the single best improvement of the platform to have been released. Sure, Google did away with the cutesy names for its operating system, but it picked up serious credit with hardcore users. On every conceivable level, Android 10 was a step forward from Android 9—which says a lot because Android 9 was fantastic. This iteration of Google’s mobile OS performs faster, smoother, and more reliably than any release to date. It’s unfortunate that this release hasn’t made its way to more devices and may not before year’s end. For those who have experienced Android 10, you understand why this release is considered a highlight among highlights.

3. Google Assistant

2019 is the year that proved artificial intelligence (AI) is at the heart of all things Android, including: Email, messaging, Google Assistant, photos, Google Lens, the Camera app, the live caption feature on the Pixel 4 phones, and so on. Artificial Intelligence powers Smart Replies in various communication apps; it helps improve battery life; it makes your photos better, and much more. I’d go so far as to say that 2019 was the year that proved AI has become an integral part of the Android platform. But, none of the Android features has benefited as much as the Assistant.

Thanks to a generous injection of AI, Google Assistant is even more capable of predicting what you want next. Once AI begins to learn your habits, it’s almost as though Google Assistant was made specifically for you. Another example of how AI is moving Google Assistant forward is with the help of Duplex—an extension of Google Assistant. Android is now capable of making restaurant reservations for you. Instead of you placing the call, Google Duplex, with the help of Google Assistant, speaks for you with an AI-based voice. “Hello, SkyNet, I’d like to place a reservation for two in your battery farm.”

4. Google Pixel 3a

Where the Pixel 4 failed as an overpriced, underdelivering flagship, the Pixel 3a and 3a XL proved that Google can create an overperforming, budget-friendly smartphone. Google should have taken the praise of the Pixel 3a to heart when it created the Pixel 4. Yes, the standard (non-a) Pixel phones are the Google flagships and are often used to prove what can be done, but when you can sell a mid-range phone that performs above its station and then turn around and sell a high-end device that performs below its station, there are lessons to be learned. Bottom line: The Pixel 3a is an outstanding value, and anyone looking to hop on board the Pixel express could do worse.

5. Dark Mode

From the office of “the squeaky wheel,” comes the feature that more users have been asking for from Google: Dark Mode. Although not a fan myself, there are a vast number of Android fans who’ve been begging for Google to unleash this particular feature–and release it did. Dark Mode isn’t just to prevent eye strain when viewing Android in dark environments–it can help save on battery life. This feature is a dual-purpose wonder that should have been released a long time ago.

6. Battery and memory management

After upgrading from Android 9 to 10 on a Pixel 3, I experienced significant improvement in both battery and memory management. My device can now last almost 24 hours (when not under heavy usage) and performs like it was somehow gifted more memory without my knowledge. That’s how noticeable the improvements are in Android 10. So anyone who suffered under poor battery life and memory management in 2018 could breath a great sigh of relief this year–as long as your device upgraded to Android 10.

7. Security patches

Google finally nailed the Android security patches. Back in 2018, it seemed the release of Android patches was an afterthought. I’d see devices with patches that were two to three months behind–not so in 2019. The Android Security Patch feature has become a well-oiled machine. This couldn’t have come at a better time with the continued rise of malware raining down on Android.

8. Much-improved share menu

Let’s be honest here—up until 2019 (and Android 10) the Android share menu was a wreck. It was slow, unreliable, and had a propensity to simply not know what you used the most. Fortunately Android 10–and it’s incredible AI–solved all that ailed the share menu. Now, when you go to share something, that menu opens quickly and has an uncanny understanding of what you use the most. The only way Google could improve the share menu would be to make it editable.

9. Gesture navigation

I know not everyone is a fan of Android 10’s gesture-based navigation, but give it enough time, and you’ll find that it makes navigating the platform much more efficient. The developers did a masterful job of creating an intuitive interface that no longer depends upon back buttons. Once you get the hang of swiping, you will not go back. In fact, every time I pick up an Android device that doesn’t have gesture-based navigation, I feel like I’ve been teleported to the past, where clunky was an actual UX design decision.

10. Private DNS

Google finally made Private DNS an option in Android. Why is this important? In a word, privacy. Private DNS is a more user-friendly term for DNS over TLS. It means that Android can now use a security protocol for encrypting and wrapping Domain Name System queries and answers via the Transport Layer Security protocol. In plain English: When you use any application that requires DNS, it does so via an encrypted protocol, meaning those queries are more secure. In other words, it makes it harder for anyone to snoop or use man-in-the-middle attacks to spy on you. This was a big step forward for Android security.

And there you have it–10 Android highlights from 2019. It was a good year for Google’s platform. Hopefully, Google will build on these successes to make 2020 even better.