9 things we discovered in our first few hours with Android M

At this early stage, Android M only shows minor differences from Lollipop. The most interesting features seem to be coming later.

android m lead
Credit: Jason Cross
A lot like Lollipop

Google just announced Android M at its annual Google I/O developer conference. And just as it did last year, the company made a developer preview available for Nexus devices.

This is our first chance to get a real hands-on look at the next version of Android. It focuses on the "core user experience," addressing concerns like bugs, performance, battery life, and app permissions. There's a ton of good stuff in there

So naturally, we couldn't wait to flash the developer image onto our Nexus 6 and take a look. And unfortunately, there's just not a lot of killer stuff there yet. Some of it, like Android Pay and universal fingerprint support, is coming later (none of the Nexus devices have fingerprint readers, anyway). Other features, like the new permissions handling, may require app support. 

While this is only a developer release, meant for app makers to get their feet wet with the new operating system, it's hard not to be disappointed. Almost none of the cool stuff Google talked about on stage is in this build.

We did find a few nice changes and improvements, though. Here's what we were able to discover in our first few hours with the initial Android M developer preview.

android m volumes
Finally, granular volume control

Gone is the annoying single volume slider from Android Lollipop! You don't have to hop into the Settings menu to give your ringtones, notifications, and alarms different volume levels. When you adjust the volume, you get a single volume slider, with a simple drop-down arrow on the side. 

Tap that, and you're presented with this lovely, simple three-slider volume control. 

The Silent mode is still gone from the volume slider, however. It goes from Vibrate to your Do Not Distrub mode, as it does in Lollipop.

android m app drawer
New vertical app drawer

Tired of furiously swiping left on your app drawer to get to that app you just downloaded?

Good news! In Android M, the app drawer is now a single vertical scroll, grouped by the first letter of the app. And the last four apps you launch are pinned to the top of the list.

Yes, the list of apps is only three icons wide, but the new app drawer is fast and makes it really easy to find what you're looking for.

android m dark theme
New dark system theme

This one is sort of hidden, but we managed to find it anyway.

Tucked away inside the Developer Options is a new Theme setting, which can be set to Light, Dark, or Automatic. I have no idea what "Automatic" is supposed to do, but it's great to see a Dark system interface theme for those that prefer it. Besides, those mostly-black interfaces can save real power on AMOLED displays.

Here's hoping Google pulls this out of Developer Options and into the display settings where it belongs.

android m now on tap
Google Now, not on tap

The new "Now on Tap" feature of Google Now is one of the new OS's coolest features. It's supposed to recognize what's on your screen (the page you're browsing, music you're listening to, or message you just received, for example) and provide you with contextual information. 

Only it doesn't work yet. I even tried the exact same query Google did in its keynote: I played some Skrillex in Google Play Music and asked what his real name was.

The closest I could get to Google acknowledging that this feature even exists is the above image, found when I held down the home button on any screen.

android m permissions
No new permissions, yet

On the left, a preview from Google of what the awesome new app permissions are supposed to be like in Android M. Instead of agreeing to a host of "all-or-nothing" permissions as soon as you download an app, apps are supposed to ask you for permission to use each system resource (camera, microphone, locaiton, contacts...) as they're needed.

That way, not only will you know why an app needs a particular permission, but you can run an app even if you don't agree to all of them. For example: Don't want Uber to use your camera? Fine. It can operate as long as it knows your location.

I never once got this sort of permissions dialog box in my first hours with the Andoid M developer preview. I don't expect app developers to have this working yet, but not even Google's own apps are on board yet. I got the same permissions upon download from the store as I always do (on the right, above).

android m system ui tuner
System UI Tuner

Here's another one buried in the Developer Options that we hope to see in the regular display settings by the time Android M hits the market.

There's a toggle in Developer Options labeled "Show SystemUI Tuner." They forgot a space in there. Turn it on, and at the bottom of the main Settings menu you'll see a System UI tuner selection.

That new settings menu only has one setting: Quick Settings. But the fact that there's a menu implies that there will be other parts of the System UI you can customize. 

Choose the Quick Settings option and you're taken to a mockup of the quick settings shade, but you can drag and drop the toggles,reordering them or removing the ones you don't care about.

This sort of built-in interface customization is exactly the kind of the stock Android needs.

android m hotspot
Support for 5GHz hotspots, maybe?

Mobile hotposts work great on Android, but they've been limited to the 2.4GHz Wi-Fi network band. Modern phones have the hardware to support your phone broadcasting as a 5GHz hotspot.

In the hotspot settings menu, I found a new setting for "Config AP Band" that has a dropdown. Oddly enough, my Nexus 6 showed only the 2.4 GHz band, even though the hardware is there for 5 GHz. Still, this setting wasn't there at all before, so it's pretty obvious that Android M intends to provide support for 5 GHz hotspots.

android m permissions menu
Permissions in the Apps Settings menu

Android M may not have the new in-app permissions experience yet, but at least there are granular permissions settings buried in the Apps menu.

Go to Settings > Apps > Advanced (in the upper-right overflow menu) and you'll find an App permissions menu. In this menu, you'll find eight app permission categories.

Just select one of these and you'll get a list of every app that has permissions to use that feature (like the camera). You can toggle off just that one permission for just the apps you desire. There's no guarantee this won't break the function of the app, of course. App developers need to update their apps to account for some permissions being turned off.

This is a great first step, but it's buried way too deeply in the menus. App permission settings need to be front-and-center in the Apps settings menu.

android m app ram
Better visibility into RAM usage

Also in the Apps menu, in the Advanced section, is a Memory menu. It's a big improvement over the information you get in Android Lollipop. 

You can see which apps are using the most RAM, with both average and maximum RAM listed. 

Tap on an app and you get more detailed info, including the exact amount of RAM used, and more precise average/maxiumum values.

This will be a great tool for figuring out which apps are sucking up more system resources than they should be.