The Google Pixel 2 and 2 XL bring a lot of cool new features to Android users, including an awesome Now Playing utility that actively listens for music in your environment and displays the current track on the ambient display.

While there’s an opportunity to enable this feature during the setup process, there’s a chance you may have missed it. Or, on the other side of that coin, you may have enabled it and now you hate it. Either way, here’s how you can toggle the feature—along with some other cool ways to make the most of it.

So, How Does Now Playing Work?

Here’s the thing: Now Playing does its thing without ever sending any data back to Google. In fact, it will work offline and even in airplane mode. But how?

The answer to that is actually pretty simple: it stores track data locally on the phone. Unlike services like Shazam, SoundHound, or even Google Now’s “What’s this song” feature, it doesn’t have to ping the internet with a sound snippet to see what’s playing—it just knows. It’s so cool.

Of course, since track data is stored locally on the phone, that also means it’s limited. While perhaps every song in existence can be identified online, it would simply take up too much storage to keep that kind of data stored on your phone. So instead, Google stores the digital fingerprints of roughly 20,000 of the most popular songs, according to Google Play Music, on your phone. It’s a constantly revolving list, too, so it’s not something that will quickly get outdated. Smart. If you’re interested, here’s a current list of (maybe) all the songs that are currently supported by Now Playing—17,300 at the time of writing. Not bad!

But how much space does this file take up? Less than 500MB, according to Google. That’s a pretty insane number for that comprehensive of a list, and it’s well worth the storage if you ask me.

The other big question you may have is how this feature affects battery life. In short, it really shouldn’t. It only activates and listens for music every 60 seconds, at which point it identifies the song. If it doesn’t identify any music for more than 60 seconds, it goes into a sort of “passive” mode where it waits for music to once again be detected. So I guess in theory, if you listen to music constantly, if could have a slight impact on battery life, though I haven’t noticed this myself (and I’m one of those people who constantly has something playing).

Of course, there’s the question of whether or not other Android devices will get this kickass feature. The short answer, at least for the time being, is no. Google says it requires a specific combination of hardware and software features, so the chances of it coming to any current Android device is basically null. Sorry guys.

How to Enable or Disable Now Playing

To enable or disable Now Playing, go ahead and pull down the notification shade and tap the gear icon.

From there, tap on Sound, then Advanced.


Scroll to the very bottom of the list and tap on Now Playing.

There are a couple of options in this menu: “Show on Lock Screen” and “Also Show Notifications”. If the service isn’t enabled yet, only the first of the pair will show up—go ahead and slide the toggle to the on position. Unless, of course, it’s already on and you want to disable it.

Once enabled, you can opt to also have song identification show up in the notification tray—it won’t generate an icon, but rather just a passive notification. It’s pretty sweet.

How to Get the Most Out of Now Playing

While we’re talking about the notification, I’ll clue you in on a little tweak some users are making to also get an audible notification when a song is identified. This is useful if you always want to know when it detects something, but don’t want to constantly look at your phone.

In the Now Playing menu (Settings > Sound > Advanced > Now Playing), tap on the “Also Show Notification” option. This will open the Pixel Ambient Services settings menu, where you can get a bit more granular control over the notification.

By using Android Oreo’s notification channels feature, you can take more control over how Now Playing works in terms of notifications. To make it more powerful (but also more intrusive), tap the “Recognized Music Notifications” option.

From there, tap the “Importance” option. By default it’s set to Low, which will prevent it from making a sound or generating any sort of visual interruption. If you want it to show an icon in the notification bar, change this setting to Medium. If you want it to make a sound and display an icon in the notification bar, change the setting to High.

There probably isn’t much reason to change it to Urgent, but if that’s your thing, you can do that too.

Past that, there’s also a cool app in the Play Store called Now Playing History that will, unsurprisingly, keep a running list of Now Playing’s history on your phone. The app will set you back a dolla dolla bill, but I think it’s worth it…even though I really feel like this should be a native function. Alas, it’s not, so someone found a way to capitalize on that. I’m okay with that.

It helps that it’s a good looking app that makes a lot of sense. Instead of just an arbitrary list with no real info outside of the song, it’s broken down by timestamp, which is an exceptionally nice touch. That way, if you’re trying to remember a song that you heard last night, you can thumb through the list until you get to around the time you heard it.

It will also open the song directly in the service of your choice when you tap on it, so you can listen to it right then and there. It’s a decent list of supported apps, too—it should include pretty much all the popular music services on Android.

Now Playing may seem like such a small feature, but it’s actually one of my favorite things about the Pixel 2. I find that, when combined with the always-on ambient display, I passively use this feature all the time. Very cool stuff.

Profile Photo for Cameron Summerson Cameron Summerson
Cameron Summerson is ex-Editor-in-Chief of Review Geek and served as an Editorial Advisor for How-To Geek and LifeSavvy. He covered technology for a decade and wrote over 4,000 articles and hundreds of product reviews in that time. He’s been published in print magazines and quoted as a smartphone expert in the New York Times.
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