“Android N might not be a revolutionary update, but it does offer some useful features along with performance improvements”
Nutella, Nougat, Naankhatai or something entirely different… only time will tell what Google decides to name its upcoming Android build codenamed N (or accept one from your suggestions at android.com/n). But the Alphabet-owned company hasn’t shied away from giving us a sneak peek at what the next iteration might offer, with two developer previews already being released, and the latest preview being a beta-quality update. What this means is that Android N is now much more stable and refined, and most features are close to what they will look like in the final version. At its annual I/O conference, it claimed that the Android N is the best Android yet (as has been the previous versions compared to their predecessors).
We’ve already highlighted some of the best features of the upcoming OS, but to test out Google’s assertions, we went ahead and installed Android N Beta on the Nexus 6P (review). Let’s find out if it lives up to the lofty claims. For reference purposes, we’ll also show screenshots of the current Android release, i.e. 6.0 Marshmallow, to highlight the differences wherever required.
First things first, if you were hoping for a dramatic change in interface, then there is none. Since Android Lollipop, Google has been focussing heavily on unifying its design language with Material Design ethos, and continues to refine the same. The lock screen, homescreen, and the app launcher – all of them look the same as they do on Android 6.0.
Redesigned notification panel and notifications
Swipe down from the top however, and you’ll come across a completely-redesigned notification drawer. Instead of simply showing the time and date on the left and icons for connectivity and battery on the right, the Android N offers the date as well as time, along with quick toggles for Wi-Fi, cellular connectivity, battery, DND mode and torch along with an option to expand them. Of course, both the versions show notifications, but there are subtle differences, which we’ll discuss in a bit. Expanding the notification shade shows more toggles, but unlike earlier, you can swipe left to the second screen to see more. You can also edit the sequence of toggles with an option up front.
The notification panel – Android Marshmallow (top) vs Android N (bottom)
While we are discussing the notification bar, let’s talk about the notifications themselves. Now you get better control over the notifications, be it on the lock screen or the notification shade. You can reply directly, without even opening the corresponding apps. If you get multiple notifications from a single app, then you have the option to check each of them individually and take appropriate actions. You can also decide whether the app can show notification or if its contents should be shown by long-pressing it. Earlier, this was only possible when you checked the app by going to the settings menu.
The first thing you’ll notice here is Suggestions at the very top, which ask you if you’d like to add your email account (apart from your default Gmail ID), enable voice search & actions, and personalise the phone by changing the wallpaper. Scrolling down you’ll get the usual options, neatly classified into Wireless & networks, Device, Personal, and System.
Settings menu – Android Marshmallow (top) vs Android N (bottom)
However, there are some interesting additions. In the Wireless & Networks, you get a new option in the data usage setting, which is to enable the Data Saver. It’s extremely useful since cellular data is still costly in India, and now you don’t need to install an app to use it more efficiently. Another interesting change is that beneath each option, you’ll be able to see the important stuff without going inside. Display for instance, shows you whether the Adaptive brightness is on or off. Similarly, you can see the number of apps installed, storage details, and battery percentage among other things.
At the very top, the settings menu tries to intelligently tell you about settings you have enabled or disabled. For example, it will prompt you that cellular data is off, and if you expand it, then you can turn it on. Similarly, if you have enabled the data saver mode or tethering, then it will show that and then allows you to disable them too.
If you’re inside a setting, and you want to go to another, then you can jump directly with a new pane which comes when you swipe right.
Getting ready for VR
With VR being the buzzword these days, it’s no surprise that the search giant wants to be the part of it. It introduced Cardboard two years ago, which has gone to become massively popular, but at this year’s IO, it took its biggest and boldest bet in this direction with Daydream – a VR platform which is a combination of hardware and software. The company will ensure that VR content can be played with low latency, and hence it has offered a VR mode in the display settings. It’s not known as to what it will do when coupled with a VR headset, but it’s for sure that Android N would play a central role in Google’s strategy for virtual reality.
Another display setting is the ability to change the display font. You can control the size by a slider.
Multitasking gets much-needed boost
Talking about the split-screen mode, this is definitely among the most-anticipated features of Android N. In fact, when we reviewed the Nexus 6P, we stated that we’d have loved something like Samsung’s Multi-window mode to harness the capabilities of the large screen, and the internet giant seems to have listened to our prayers with its own take on this mode. Unlike other implementations, the split-screen mode in the next release of Android would be compatible with most apps, and can be activated by long-pressing the overview button while using a particular app. In case it isn’t compatible with some apps, then it’ll say up front that the app won’t support this mode. Once you are in this mode, then you can choose another app from the recently-opened ones and you can resize them as well.
Google has also given another power to the overview button by letting you switch to the previous app you were using by double tapping it. Think of it as ‘Alt + Tab’ for Android, and it goes without mentioning that it’s extremely fast and is a much easier way to return to the app you were using. Lastly, there’s a clear all option to close all the apps, which is a welcome feature since most custom Android skins offer something like this.
While all the changes mentioned above are noticeable, there are several improvements under the hood. The major difference would be in the graphics department with the support for Vulkan API. There’s also a new JIT compiler in the Android N, which the company says will help in improving the battery life and app opening times. Battery life will be even better with Doze 2.0. While performance improvements can only be known in a long term, we ran the AnTuTu Benchmark on the Android N-powered Nexus 6P and could notice a significant performance bump compared to the AnTuTu scores on the same device running Marshmallow (of course, this is just indicative since the benchmark app we ran had different versions).
AnTuTu Benchmark score on the Google Nexus 6P– Android Marshmallow (left) vs Android N (right)
Android N also comes with a System UI Tuner functionality, but it’s not visible by default. To enable it, you need to long-press the settings icon in the notification panel. It then appears in the settings menu and once you open it, you are presented with a number of options. Status bar, as the name suggests, lets you check or uncheck things you’d like to always see on the status bar. If you are a fan of DND mode, then you can enable it to always show whenever you use the volume rocker.
There’s another option which will let you enable the split-screen mode by swiping up from the overview button. You can also enable granular control over notifications having up to five levels.
Now, let’s take a look at the keyboard. Google is adding a lot of functionality to its Keyboard app, and the Android N Beta comes with v5.1. The key new feature is the support for Unicode 9, which lets it offer new emojis. The new emojis will appear more human-like and there would be a wide variety to choose from. You can also change the theme of the keyboard and set borders for keys. Themes not only let you change the colour of the keys, but even add an image in the background, which is quite interesting.
Another feature that seems interesting is seamless updates – Google is promising that the new OS won’t take up much time to boot after getting every update and upgrading all the installed apps. There are also new launcher shortcuts, which let you initiate actions directly in the app, instead of the usual method of opening an app and then clicking on the particular action. However, Google seems to have removed the feature in this release, and we expect it to come in the final build in a refined avatar. Following Apple’s footsteps, Android N also offers a Night mode, which is a great option to use the display at night since it puts less strain on the eyes.
There are tons of more features and updates in the Android N, but the ones mentioned above are the most exciting. While the next version might not offer revolutionary changes, it does offer some useful features along with major performance improvements. Plus things like split-screen mode would be extremely useful for phablets and tablets. We can’t really wait to get the final build of Android N, which is expected to release this fall. What about you? Which features are you most excited about?