Android N: What's new in the developer preview, what's still to come

android n nexus
Credit: Derek Walter

There’s a lot to like in the first developer preview, and plenty more still to come.

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Android N is the smartphone equivalent of a Russian nesting doll. Google has built in a lot of interdependent features in the preview version of its next major operating system update. Changes to notifications, a new split-screen multitasking feature, and other tweaks build on one another and show how the operation system may grow to be more fluid and useful.

There’s plenty to find, and given that this is just the first developer release, there’s still time for more to show up, particularly with so many rumors roaming around about the app drawer going away or deeper support for virtual reality. Here are the marquee features and how they factor in to Google’s evolving vision for Android.

Google lays out the roadmap

Google says there will be five preview updates before the final release. You can track them at the Program Overview site, which says you can expect about four to six weeks between updates. A final release is planned for the third quarter of the year, though we can expect to hear a lot more about other changes and update plans at Google I/O in May.

It’s very easy to get Android N: you just have to go to the Android N beta site and sign up with an eligible device (Nexus 6P, 5X, 6, 9, Pixel C, or Nexus Player).

android beta install

Getting into the Android Beta program is very easy, but make sure you know what you’re signing up for.

It’s preview software, so know what you’re getting into: Apps frequently crash, the network connection dies, and Android Pay doesn’t work. Don’t put it on your daily driver unless you’re ready for some major headaches.

If you do install the Android N preview and decide it isn’t for you, all you have to do is head back to Google’s beta hub and un-enroll your device. You’ll then get an update that sends you back to the safety of Marshmallow. Just know that you’ll be starting over from scratch with a fresh install.

Smarter Settings

One standout feature that should have big benefits are changes to the Quick Settings and Notification Center.  

With N, swiping down reveals five quick options available with a single tap (see below).

Yes, no need to swipe down with two fingers or swipe and tap just to turn off the Wi-Fi, launch the flashlight, or enable Do Not Disturb mode. Then if you swipe to the right and touch Edit, you can change up the placement of the buttons and add in extra commands like Hotspot, Invert colors, and Data Saver. 

You also may have noticed there’s a native Night mode, which kills off the blue light that is detrimental to sleep. You can adjust the light configuration in the System UI Tuner

The Settings also have been made over, with a very useful slide-out menu and additional information available at-a-glance for the different settings.

new settings

The slide-out menu bar and tidier organization are welcome changes to the settings with Android N.

In general it’s easier to get around as there aren’t as many horizontal bars that divide up the content. The organization through the slide-out menu also makes it easier to find what you need, though Google has also kept the search option that’s launched from the magnifying glass icon.

Subtle, but welcome, Notifications changes

The Notifications got a very welcome redesign that at first glance may seem like they’ve been blended together compared to the old configuration. But when you look more closely you’ll see there’s some reorganization and a different use of icons and colored font. 

notifications android n

Notifications get some nice touch-up paint with Android N.

Android N better groups notifications together with a smoother animation and more details in each notification. Some Google apps are already taking advantage of all the options (such as the Play Store and Hangouts), though it may be a long while before this capability shows up with other apps. 

You can also swipe gently to the left or right on a notification to bring up a menu that will change the frequency of such notifications.

notification changes

It’s faster to customize how often notifications will bug you.

It’s a good move for more user control. That’s the overall theme, and there’s bound to be more as Android N gets additional fixes and features.

Some efficiency tweaks to speed up multitasking

Your productivity is about to get a big boost with split-screen mode. Yes, no more envy at Samsung Galaxy owners who have had this feature for years. It’s super simple to use: just hold down the Overview button (the square one) and scroll through the available apps. Of course, not all of them support this feature yet. You’ll just get kicked back to the first app if you try to add in another that isn’t supported.

But try it with Gmail and Chrome if you want to experience the newness.

android split screen

Split-screen mode is a huge productivity gain that’s been needed for a while.

You’re also able to customize this behavior: the System UI Tuner lets you enable a swipe-up gesture to launch into split screen if you’d rather do that than hold down the button.

split screen gesture

You can enable a swipe up gesture to quickly launch split-screen mode.

Here’s another that’s a huge life-changer: double-tapping the Recents button now takes you directly into the last app you were using. This sounds like no big deal, but I have to tell you it dramatically changed the way I used my phone. Clearly when most people hop to another app, it’s to go back and forth between the two apps they were most recently using. 

Multitasking in general is a little smoother. When you first launch this you’ll see nearly a full preview of the last app you used while the current one sinks to the bottom of the screen.

android n multitask

Multitasking is more full-screen with the changes in Android N.

The scrolling feels faster and you have more visibility of previous apps. However, the Google search menu is gone. This could be a temporary change, as it’s hard to imagine Google taking away any chance for you to hop into a Google search.

The rumor mill is churning

Several items that we’ve heard about didn’t make the cut for the first release. Yet there’s still a chance we could see them before the final build. One such feature is support for the Vulkan 3D graphics API. This is a huge deal for what’s called low-overhead graphics rendering, so games run faster, look better, and don’t use as much CPU. It could result in longer battery life, too. It goes along nicely with the theme of Android N using less system resources, so we’ll see if this pops up in another update. 

There’s also been much weeping and gnashing of teeth about the possibility the app drawer may be going away. It’s still here for now, but if Google wants to simplify Android for the masses even further this would be a way to do it. Power users may not like it, but there’s also the possibility Android N could just have the option to use it or not.

app drawer

Is this the last hurray fo the app drawer?

There also isn’t any mention of stylus support yet, but now that split-screen is here we expect to see this. The Pixel C shows that Google has big goals for turning Android into a larger-screen productivity device. The platform will need this to keep up with the Surface line and iPad Pro.

Split-screen may be only the beginning of N's multi-window support. There are hints in the code of a "freeform window" mode. You know, the way a desktop OS like Windows or OS X works. It might be just an experiment, but the references are there in the framework-res.apk component.

Apple is all-in with pressure-sensitive displays, which it calls 3D Touch. A couple of Android models have a similar feature, but it’s not baked into the core of the system, so developer support is thin. We wouldn’t be surprised if Android N included an official API for pressure-sensitive displays.

Finally, Google is all-in with VR given its Cardboard line and dabbling with 360-degree cameras. A more native VR mode, much like Samsung has in its latest high-end phones to support GearVR, isn’t that big of a stretch. This would require a substantial amount of under-the-hood work, which is why it probably it’s slated for a later release, if it shows up at all. And given that Google I/O is gong for an outdoor location at the Shoreline Amphitheater this year, you have to wonder if some type of visual show is in the plans.

A long road ahead

Since there are going to be five more updates to come, we’re sure to see more drop in. Monitoring Android N is going to be a long-term project here at Greenbot, so we’ll shout as soon as we spot something new with each release. 

Don’t forget you can try this on your own if you want, but be careful you don’t trip over those engine parts on the floor.

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