The newest version of Android has arrived even earlier than you would expect: welcome, Android N.
N, as in, 'No, even Google has not decided on the name of it just yet'.
But first, you should know that this is not the final version of Android N: in fact, this is a Developer Preview, a version intended solely for developers and testers to check out on their devices and prepare future apps for the new features that Android N provides. At Google I/O 16, the company unveiled Developer Preview 3, the first beta-grade version of the platform ahead of the final release later this summer.
You can conveniently get Android N Developer Preview via opt-in OTA
You can install this beta only on recent Nexus phones (Nexus 6, Nexus 9, Nexus 5X, Nexus 6P, Nexus Player and Pixel C, specifically). So how do you get it? We manually flashed it on our Nexus 6, but the easier way to do it is to enroll in Google's Android Beta Program. Once you enroll, you will get the new Android N Developer Preview via an over-the-air (OTA) update. You can also easily revert to a public Android release without having to go through the hassle of manually flashing anything.
With all this in mind, let's start with the TL;DR: here's all the important new stuff in Android N:
1. Perfromance improvements with a new just-in-time (JIT) compiler that gets rid of super long 'Optimizing apps' screen at startup
2. New multitasking options: split-screen and picture-in-picture
3. New notificattion system with Quick Reply option
4. Quick Switch is like Alt+Tab: double tap the recents button to switch between the current and most recent apps
5. Quick Setting toggles
6. Subheadings for Settings that help you make more sense of them
7. Data Saver
8. Doze now works right after you lock your screen
9. Support for Unicode 9 emoji standard
10. Security-enhancements: file-level encryption and seamless updates
Let's dive in and explore each one in more depth.
1. Multitasking: Quick Switch (Alt+Tab for Android), Split Screen, Picture-in-Picture
While there are quite a few changes in Android N, multitasking is likely to be the one that's noticed most by users. There are three new multitasking feats and we think the first one will make quite the splash: it's called Quick Switch and allows you to double tap the recents button to switche to the app you used before. Yes, that's basically like having Alt+Tab on your smartphone. We've tested the new feature on our trusty Nexus 6 and it is ultra fast and reliable.
Then, there is split-screen multitasking. It has been around on smartphones for quite a while, with Samsung being in the lead there. With Android N, Google introduces native split-screen multitasking. You enable it by long-holding the multitasking button while you are in an app. You will see the button change its icon, splitting in two, and your screen will also divide in two. By default, the screen is split 50/50 between the two apps, but you can re-arrange that so that one app takes up to 2/3 of the screen. You cannot change it any further, but that actually makes sense as chances are that further increases in the split ratio will make one of the apps practically useless. Samsung, in contrast, allows totally free adjustments for the size, and we feel it's a bit over the top, especially if you give a certain app just 20% or less of the screen space.
Long hold the multitasking button while in an app to enter the new Split-screen multitasking
Good news is that split-screen multitasking on Android N works impressively smoothly. You can simultaneously use both apps (unless one of them is YouTube, which pauses whenever you do something on the other split-screen app) and everything works smoothly without any slowdown or lag.
You can use split-screen both in portrait or landscape orientation
You can also easily copy and paste text from one window to the other when working in split-screen view and that is a really nice thing to have to boost your productivity.
Nonetheless, we have serious doubts that many people would use the split-screen multitasking on a phone regularly. Yes, it's a cool show-off feature, but it makes much more sense to have it on a tablet. In fact, especially on an Android tablet, where apps are often not optimized for the larger screen and having two split-screen apps at all times can actually look better than having one app with vast amounts of wasted white space.
2. New notification system, quick reply and quick settings toggles
The new notification system is also quite a noticeable change: Google says that some 50% of our notifications come from messengers, and that's why it now smartly bundles those texts into one thread and allows you to send quick replies without having to actually open the app.
You can expand notifications using two fingers or by tapping the expand button
Google officially calls these threads 'Bundled Notifications'. You can easily expand the full list of notifications by tapping the expand button or using a two-finger gesture.
The notification card from each app are also neatly arranged one on top the other with very little spacing, so the information density is high and you can easily deal with those tons of notifications that occasionally flood your phone. While thinking about this new way to handle notifications we're amazed how much better the Android operating system is dealing with notifications than iOS, where discarding notifications one by one is a long and tedious exercise in frustration. Great job, Google!
New Quick Toggles are awesome, here is an expanded view of the battery setting on Android N
Then, there is the new Quick Reply option for notifications. Basically, it is very similar to the way Apple handles this: you get a notification, tap the reply button and get to type down a reply without having to open the app itself: quick and easy. Not all apps handle it perfectly yet, though, but that's expected since this is such an early build of the platform. You cannot use Quick Reply for emails, unfortunately, you have the Reply option right there, but once you tap on it, you are transported into the Gmail app to compose your reply email. Apps like Hangouts and Skype do support the new functionality.
Another clever new features appearing in the notifications dropdown is the list of quick settings toggles: there's a total of five of them and you can choose which one to be there by simply arranging them first in the list of settings toggles. While some of their functionality is already familiar from earlier Android versions (you can long hold the Wi-Fi icon to get right in the Wi-Fi network selection menu), others are new: the option to tap on the battery icon to see a neat graphical overview of your battery life drain is particularly awesome.
It's worth pointing out that all those new innovations happen with impressively smooth animations. Everything is arranged, re-arranged and moving quickly and stutter-free: the expansion of individual notification and the quick toggles to full settings dropdown. Kudos to Google for doing a great job polishing the experience here, despite this being an early beta.
3. Under the hood changes: security enhancements
The new notification drop-down and split-screen multitasking round up most of the noticeable visual changes in Android N. There is a whole lot that Google has done to improve the performance as well, though.
First, we ought to mention the focus on security: Google includes file-level encryption rather than block level, which should make it harder to break into Android phones, plus it now better protects from malicious media downloads and there is a more stringent app security check on Google Play.
Also, Android N brings improved battery longevity capacity by implementing aggressive Doze app sleeping that was first introduced in Marshmallow right after you lock your screen. Developers can now embed the feature in their apps. This will prevent apps from constantly waking up in the background and draining battery, and is a clever way to make better use of the battery resource on your phone.
Background work in Android N is also optimized and some other changes come as part of Project Svelte to minimize the RAM requirements for Android phones in order for them to run smoothly.
Android N also introduces a new compiler that will no longer require long 'app optimization' times when you reboot or update your phone. App code will also take less space and app installs will happen much quicker.
Android N brings important and practical functionality: the new Quick Switch and split-screen multitasking, as well as improved notification and quick reply system and a renewed focus on security and optimizing the compiler.
The fact that you can easily download the new Android N Developer Preview over the air is a great option for enthusiasts, and it is also great that most of the features work very smoothly even in this early form.
It's a pity that Android N will likely take loooong time to come to most phones
The only thing that mars our enthusiasm for this new version of Android is the fact that the most popular phones in the family (cough, Samsung Galaxy) will not be in a rush to get this new version. Samsung is taking its time with TouchWiz, and chances are that it might be up to a year until this new version starts arriving on those devices. And that's a pity, but for all else, Nexus users rejoice and let us know which of the new features in Android N you like the most in the comments right below.
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