In early 2016, Google shocked the Android world by releasing a developer preview of Android 7.0, codenamed "N." This latest iteration follows in the footsteps of Android 6.0 Marshmallow, with a focus on an improved user experience, updated notifications, and split-screen views. In its second iteration, N tweaks some more visual elements, adds new emojis, feels smoother and smarter than ever, and assures Android fans that the future is bright and that Google's mobile platform will only become a bigger part of their digital lives.
N Is for New
Android N is currently available as a developer preview, with the final release scheduled for the third quarter of 2016. If you're keen to get in early, you can obtain all the necessary files from the Android developer website and even enroll your device in a program that will deliver beta releases over the air. In this preview, I look at the second iteration of the operating system released to developers.
With some help from Lead Mobile Analyst Sascha Segan, I installed the developer version of N on a Nexus 6P, one of the best Android phones. Though it is a very, very early release, it feels surprisingly fast and responsive. Even when using new N features with older, third-party apps, it never crashed or sputtered in my testing. That said, using prerelease software always comes with a huge caveat that things might not work as you expect, and I've only had this second build running for a day or so. I'm sure that the longer I use it, the more little wrinkles I will find, but that's to be expected with early versions such as this.
For the most part, even the second iteration of Android N looks very familiar. If you've looked at pure Android in the last few years, you'll feel right at home. One change did catch my attention: folders now display a port-hole view into a tiny grid of apps rather than the stack of preview images over a black hole as seen in previous versions. It's a subtle change, but one that makes the Home screen look much cleaner.
Side by Side
The most dramatic new feature in Android N is split-screen display for apps, though this isn't the first time an Android device has included a split-screen experience. Samsung has offered it as a feature for years, but I've always been frustrated with how Samsung handles it. More often than not, I'm reminded that the feature exists when I accidentally trigger it, and that's about the only time I use it.
The split-screen experience is far better in Android N, and has improved in the second developer preview. Tap the bottom-right Task Manager button, and you see all the apps you currently have running. Tap and hold the app you want to split and then drag it to the top of the screen. That's it! The bottom half of the screen can be filled with another app, or it can simply show the bottom half of the home screen.You can adjust the size of your split screens by tapping and dragging the thin black bar that separates the apps. Swipe up on the black bar and you exit split-screen mode. Best of all, if you split the screen vertically and then rotate your device, the split smartly changes to a horizontal one. That's excellent.
I especially like that the feature does not appear to be limited by device size. That would be a bit of a coup, since Apple has relegated its multitasking window feature called Split View to tablet devices such as the iPad Pro. Google's decision to make this feature platform-agnostic strikes me as an excellent one, especially since there is such a range of sizes in the Android world. The Nexus 6P I used in testing has a 5.7 inch screen, and it appears that my experience will be the same for those (six people) with smaller Android phones.
I imagine that the bigger your screen, the better your splits screen experience is going to be. That's because apps that require the use of a keyboard necessarily take up more space than those that don't. This is especially awkward when the device is held vertically. In this configuration, the keyboard covers the bottom half of both apps. If you're hoping to take notes while watching a video, that day may not be here just yet. I'm sure handset users will find split screen useful, especially phablet users, but it's a feature that will really shine on any of the best Android tablets.
The advantages of multitasking windows are obvious. With multiple apps in view, you can easily move information among apps without having to do all that tedious jumping around in the multitasking manager. If you've ever been trying to make notes from a Web page, or consult a document while writing an email, your life is about to become a whole lot better. This is the kind of interaction usually restricted to desktops and laptops, and it's exciting to see it come to Android. It's also notable that some third-party apps like Netflix are able to take advantage of split-screen views without being specifically updated; that's great.
It's not true multitasking, however; at least not yet. One app is still the focus while the other is simply visible. For example, when I had a video playing in YouTube, playback halted when I tapped Chrome. In the second version of the developer preview, I am happy to say that YouTube videos playing Chrome continue even when the app isn't in focus. That said, my experience suggests that the degree of functionality seems to be determined app-by-app. Your mileage may vary.
Looking through the Android developer information, you see references to picture-in-picture functionality. Unfortunately, it seems that this feature is limited to TVs and devices such as the Nexus Player. I hope to see it make a full debut soon to counter the latest iPads, which support streaming video in a picture-in-picture multitasking view.
N Is for Notifications
In Marshmallow, notifications appeared as stacks of light-colored rectangles, which could be dismissed with a swipe or activated with a tap. With N, notifications fill the width of the screen and feel more in line with Android's Material Design aesthetic. However, the developer documentation does note that the appearance of notifications may change before final release.
Notifications are also more functional than ever. Some allow you to respond from the notification, without exiting the app you're currently in. Something similar has been around in Hangouts for a while, but with N all the action happens inside the notification pane. Apple iOS also has the ability to respond from within notifications, and it's good to see Android heading in that direction as well.
In my testing, I responded to Hangouts messages from the notifications screen. All I had to do was tap the reply button, type my message in the field that opened, and press send. It felt very natural, and I like that I don't have to leave the app I'm currently using to send a message. Note, however, that not all notifications may have this quick-reply feature. Hopefully we'll see it utilized in the best Android apps as N rolls out.
More functional notifications are also in keeping with the multitasking introduced in Android N. You can still do work without having to change your current view. The potential here for improved productivity is quite exciting.
Bundling similar emails is a key feature of Google's Inbox by Gmail app, and a similar feature exists for notifications in Marshmallow, in which notifications are grouped by the apps that generated them. Apple's iOS notifications have improved over the years, but Android continues to have an edge with notifications that are easier to use and to read.
In N, you can now pull down on a notification bundle to expand it, showing more information and even allowing additional actions. For example, pulling down on a Gmail bundle reveals the sender and a preview. Pull on a specific message and it reveals the full text along with Reply and Archive buttons. I'd like to see future versions go further, perhaps including a long swipe to archive email and a short swipe to snooze, as iOS does for lock-screen notifications. You can also long-press on any notification to change how frequently alerts from that app are displayed.
Even the notification shade is more useful than before. A short pull opens the shade, and shows notifications with quick-action toggles for Wi-Fi, mobile data, alerts, and the flashlight across the top. Pull down further and these icons smoothly transition down to the familiar quick settings options. A new Edit button gives you more control over which features are available here. This is an amazing improvement, and is exactly the kind of smart, simple feature that will make iPhone users drool with envy.
As a journalist and a reviewer, I spend an inordinate amount of time in the Android Settings app, and I appreciate the changes Google has brought to this humble, yet essential, component in N. Like the All Apps view in Marshmallow, the Settings app now shows suggestions at the top of the screen. If you've activated certain status-changing features, such as Do Not Disturb mode, it will appear here, too.
Moving through the Settings menu is often an experience of tapping through endless screens, but no more. Swipe right from the left edge and a hidden tray opens with easy navigation to the rest of the Settings app, wherever you are. It's excellent.
Behind the Scenes
While most of us are here for the flagship features and fancy new effects, there are a few other things going on under the hood that will appeal to Android power users and app creators. The biggest addition for developers is the inclusion of Java 8. This lets developers take advantage of new tools and processes for making new apps.
The Doze mode introduced with Marshmallow also gets beefed up in N. In the previous version, the OS put your device into a more power-efficient sleep mode when it wasn't in motion. In N, Doze can now take effect when the screen is off, meaning your phone can be moving and still be in Doze. It works by shutting down background processes, but strikes a balance between availability and efficiency.
Speaking of background processes, developers may wish to take note that Google may be clamping down on what background processes can run. Sascha Segan notes that this could make Android function a lot more like iOS, which greatly limits what apps can do when not in use. The upside for users might be increased security, but developers may have to adapt their apps.
Some new tweaks to the Settings screen will surely be appreciated by savvy Android users. In addition to the navigational improvements, the System UI Tuner reintroduces Night mode, which changes the tint of your screen throughout the day. The Tuner also includes manual RGB calibration, if you're into that kind of thing.
Do you spend time in the Android file browser? Probably not. But for the six of you that do, it has been improved since the previous version. Unfortunately, it is still buried inside the Settings menu.
A new setting option for display size lets you zoom the entire Android experience, not just text size. This will be a huge boon for any users challenged by the size of most screen text, and it also takes good advantage of the increased screen real estate available on most devices. The new Data Saver feature lets you control which apps have unfettered access to data connections, following the path started by Marshmallow to put control over app behavior into the hands of users.
In the second version of the developer preview, Google has also given developers the ability to create action-specific shortcuts to the home screen. These would let you trigger a specific function within an app directly from your home screen. I'll update this review when more apps start to take advantage of this new feature, but as it stands I'm curious to see if these shortcuts will actually be more useful than widgets already available in Android.
The latest developer update also adds support for Unicode 9 emojis, which means new and more detailed emojis to spice up your textual communications. It also adds support for varying skin tones for some emojis and additional emojis, like one for selfies. I wasn't able to view the new emojis, but they're likely coming to an app near you.
There's still a lot that's not known about Android N, not the least of which is the sugary confection that N represents: Nutella? Nutter Butter? Necco Wafers? The possibilities go on.
So far, N looks to be a modest update. It's not bad, not even disappointing, but one that might signal a shift in Google away from huge updates for Android. Perhaps Google is giving up on a leadership role for Android and focusing on incremental updates pushed out via components Google controls, components that can be updated through the app store, rather than encouraging carriers and OEMs to keep up with the latest version. Considering the low rate adoption of Android 6.0, caused by the slow rollout from the carriers, that might not be a bad idea.
In its second iteration, Android N feels more polished. This might seem obvious, but it's quite remarkable for an operating system to feel this stable so early in its life cycle. Still, N is shaping up to be a subtle, but important, update to Android. It also hints at a future, not too far away, where we'll be using mobile devices in much the same way we use laptops and desktops today. The future of Android is bright.