Android 6.0 Marshmallow review: S'more to love
October 5, 2015, will be remembered as the day when Google decided it is high time it released the Android 6.0 Marshmallow factory images onto the world. That's right, they are up for a couple of compatible Nexus devices — namely Nexus 5,6,7, and 9 — and just anyone rocking one of the mentioned handsets might get themselves immersed in the marshmallow-y taste of Android 6.0.
The changes that Google Now has scored are rather significant. The star of the show is Now on Tap, a proactive and contextually-aware functionality for Google Now. You enable it by holding the home button of your device and once you do so, the feature will "scan" the screen for places, people, movies, song names, others, and provide you with relevant actions. Sounds a bit dull on paper, but it's actually pretty exciting in real life, we promise!
Eager to check out all the goodies that Google demonstrated a couple of months ago, we quickly flashed it on our trusty Nexus 6 and delved to find out if it's as good as we expected. True, most of the new features have been around for some time, given that Mountain View released a total of three developer preview versions of the OS; still, we're rather impatient to finally experience the real deal the way Google intended.
So, sit around the campfire, grab a roasting fork in hand, and hear our impressions of Android 6.0 Marshmallow.
The subtle interface changes
The Material Design vibe that debuted with Lollipop is here to stay, and it hasn't been changed a bit. This is not a bad thing or an issue in our book, mind you - we still think that this refreshing design language is one of the best things that could have happened to Android. This means that you still get a host of card-based UI elements, paired with colorful icons, and predominantly white menus. Sorry, folks - the nifty dark UI theme that got spotted in one of the early dev previews will probably make the cut next time, as it isn't a feature found in Marshmallow.
One of the more notable additions to the OS is the revamped app drawer. Gone are the horizontally-scrollable cards that were present in Lollipop! Marshmallow comes with a stock launcher that displays the installed apps in a neat vertical window, which is not comprising separate cards (the same applies to the widgets pane as well). As usual, it sorts the apps in an alphabetical order, yet some of the apps you use the most will appear at the top of the drawer page, providing you with easy access. There's also a nifty search bar at the very top of the app drawer that allows you to manually search for an app.
Additionally, we have a teal slider on the very right side of the app drawer that provides users with an easy way to navigate the window; still, the slider itself is somewhat inconspicuous and you might not notice it if you don't pay attention. Although it's a matter of personal preference, we like the new vertical app drawer as a whole a bit more.
Another area in which Android 6.0 Marshmallow has received a visual update of sorts is the lock screen. In Lollipop, you had a dialer and camera shortcuts, but the new variation of the OS has ditched the former for a Google Now voice search shortcut. That's pretty understandable considering that Marshmallow puts emphasis on the improved pro-active and contextually-aware Google Now. Still, we miss the dialer shortcut a bit.
This is not everything that's changed within Marshmallow, of course - we have a surplus of minor other changes that aim to make the user experience more coherent. Some of the more notable ones that we will highlight are the revamped Apps menu, a new Do Not Disturb toggle in the quick settings pane (which allows you to easily configure it straight from the notifications panel), as well as a revamped stock Phone app. Check out the gallery right below for additional differences between Marshmallow and its predecessor.
Heading to the Settings menu, we quickly notice a handful of structural changes. For example, RAM usage has been decoupled from the Apps menu and now exists as a separate section in Settings. This new menu shows the average memory your phone has used during the past 3, 6, 12, or 24 hours, as well as a list of the apps that have eaten the most of your RAM. Sadly, we can no longer view the current memory usage, whereas you could do this in Lollipop, of sorts.
The battery section of the Settings menu has also scored some improvements. For the most part, this menu provides the same functionality as before, but it now provides Android fanatics with an approximate estimation of how many mAhs (milliampere-hours) each app has consumed. Previously on Android, this was only achievable via a third-party app.
The storage menu is another field in which Android Marshmallow delivers a couple of interface changes, mostly for the better. Sadly, the colorful bar that displayed the amount of storage the different types of content take is gone — it's substituted with a much simpler bar that only displays the used versus free storage on your device. Right below, you still get a broken-down list of the apps, images, videos, audio, and user-downloaded files that dwell in your on-board storage; tapping on each and every category opens an explorer that allows you to browse the items.
Bottom-line: As a whole, the minor tweaks of the interface are definitely a step in the right direction that we definitely like. Although the majority of these are certainly "not-in-your-face" ones, seasoned Android users will most probably notice and appreciate them.
Now on Tap - relevant information at your fingertips
For example, imagine someone sends you a specific location in Hangouts. If you open the specific conversation and enable Now on Tap, you will be shown a couple of information-rich cards. In our case, these were two Google searches of names that were present in the conversation, as well as a card providing us with relevant information and actions about the venue, the location of which we received.
Apart from viewing it in Google Maps, procuring a general Google search of it, and directly opening the venue's website, we were also allowed to straight up call or even see what is the venue's events schedule. Both nifty and helpful!
Let's imagine another scenario. You're casually browsing YouTube while you stumble upon a video depicting the career of basketball player Louie Dampier. In case you're not familiar who Dampier is, launching Now on Tap will allow you to quickly procure a Google search and open an Wikipedia article in a jiffy, which will quickly reveal that Louie Dampier is a famed basketball legend that is one of the latest additions to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. In case you're wondering what the latter is, launch Now on Tap while on the same screen and you will learn that it's an American history museum and hall of fame located in Massachusetts. Of course, you can do all of these manually, but it will take you significantly more taps and time.
Now, we should mention that Now on Tap is not a magical feature, so don't expect it to show you available actions for just anything that you have on your screen. As we mentioned, it will work best if you have a certain place, a person's name, or another easily-searchable item visualized on your screen. Opening your empty Google Calendar and launching Now on Tap will return an empty search.
Additionally, the more apps you have on your device, the more actions Now on Tap will provide. For instance, having Foursquare, Yelp, or TripAdvisor will provide you with some additional shortcuts in comparison with a device that doesn't have them on board. The feature can potentially save you tons of time that would be otherwise spent on app switching.
Revamped app permissions provide meaningful choice and control
One of the key new features of Marshmallow are the granular app permissions. These provide a stricter control over the permissions each and every app requires. Just like in iOS, apps in Android 6.0 Marshmallow will only you to grant them a certain permission immediately before the app needs it and not in bulk during the installation, which was the regular practice until now.
Android 6.0 Marshmallow officially introduces API Level 23, which is one of the requirements to have app permissions that can be granted on demand. All Android apps need to be updated so that they support the brand new API Level 23 libraries in order to introduce the individual granular app permissions. The permission manager can be found in the Apps section inside the Settings menu; once you go there, you need to tap the gear icon at the top, which will hence open the menu giving you access to the app permission manager.
Inside, you're presented to a list view of various permissions, like body sensors, calendar, camera, contacts, location, microphone, phone, SMS, storage, and three new categories that came with the Marshmallow developer preview 3, car information, read instant messages and write instant messages. Under each type of app permission, you can see how many apps have been granted access to it by you, the user.
Of course, they wouldn't be called "granular app permissions" if they didn't allow you to fine tune and disable permissions for individual apps. Tap on a given category and you will be greeted by a list of the apps that are currently enabled to make use of it. You can flip the corresponding switch and grant or revoke the permission in question for the particular app.
Battery and performance improvements
Let's be honest, the features mentioned so far are worth paying attention to, but the most important ones are usually hidden from our eyes under the hood. Android 6.0 Marshmallow comes with a rather interesting one, named Doze - a batter-saving feature that aims to greatly reduce the standby drain by putting your device in deep sleep.
Another nail in the dismal battery life's coffin is the App Standby feature will also have a beneficial effect on battery life by putting apps you don't use much in a reduced activity state and limiting their impact on the battery. Google claims that Marshmallow users should experience up to 30% better battery life thanks to Doze. We're quite eager to see if this is truly the case and we're about to test these appealing claims.
From a strictly performance standpoint, Android 6.0 Marshmallow does the job top-notch. Although your mileage may vary depending on the device you rock and a couple of other reasons, it seems that Google has finely tuned all the cogs under the hood. In our brief (so far) time spent with Marshmallow, we hardly ever experienced lag or frame drops of any kind, nor any hiccups or lag when switching between apps via the app switcher. The latter is most certainly due to the improvements that the ART runtime has scored: Google has tweaked its multi-tasking abilities in terms of performance and lowered the memory overhead. It feels like the new version of the OS has breathed new life in our handset. Call it a placebo effect, but even animations feel smoother system-wide. We expected no less from the stock iteration of Android and we are happy that Google provided.
Security is key, Android Pay is the lock
With baked-in native support for fingerprint scanning, Android Marshmallow makes it easy for manufacturers to endow their upcoming devices with fingerprint readers without having to feature. Apart from the added security, this also coincides with the launch of Android Pay, Google's brand-new mobile payments service. Currently, there are only two devices that can benefit from this added functionality, and they aren't even being sold yet. We are talking about the spic-and-span Nexus 6P and Nexus 5X, which are the first Nexus devices to both feature fingerprint scanners and Android 6.0 Marshmallow out of the box.
We guess you're familiar with the gist of Android Pay. Android handsets that come with an NFC chip will be able to use the feature when checking out at retail stores and restaurants that have an NFC-based POS system. Those who had downloaded the Google Wallet app can update it to Android Pay. New users can download and install Android Pay directly from the Google Play Store. New Android handsets from Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile running Android 4.4 or higher will have Android Pay pre-installed.
Of course, the fingerprint-reading functionality is not exclusively intended to serve as a protector of your financial credentials. In case you have a device equipped with a fingerprint scanner at the back, you can use your own fingerprint to secure it.
The evolutionary step that is Android 6.0 Marshmallow certainly does not flaunt as many eye-catchy features as Lollipop did last year, but along with the latest new iteration of Google's OS debut a hefty amount of significant under-the-hood improvements. We really like Google Now on Tap, as well as the subtle and inconspicuous visual improvements that many users might not notice at first sight. All of the new additions to Android are not "risky" ones, on the contrary, each is carefully thought of and tailored with the user experience in mind.
We are fairly content with the state of the platform as of now. However, we feel like Marshmallow could have been even more awesome if some of the hinted features from the developer previews were actually included in the final release. You know what we are talking about — multi-window and the night UI theme. Of course, this is just nit-picking and merely a couple of minor gripes that would have most probably made the platform even more appealing to its vast userbase. Maybe in Android 7.0, eh, Google?
As a whole, there's little not to like about the newest Android version on the block. It's polished, doesn't suffer from any major issues (no "memory leak"!), potentially prolongs the time you can spend away from your charger, and feels way more mature than Lollipop. All of these are paired with the regular arsenal of unrivaled features that Android offers.
Frankly, we are in love with the combination.