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Android N: everything you need to know

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Android N Developer Preview: what is it?

Available on some Nexus devices (Nexus 6P, Nexus 5X, Nexus 6, Pixel C, Nexus 9 and Nexus Player), the Android N Developer Preview is a test version of the new Android software, primarily intended for developers. Like previous Developer Preview versions (such as Android M, which later became Android Marshmallow), the first version of this software does not contain all the new features of the next version of Android, but only parts. 
Google said that the final version of Android N will be sent to all manufacturers this summer.

Android N Developer Preview: what's new?

Menu between the system settings

A hamburger menu button (the icon with three lines) has now been embedded into the system settings. When a user is in the Bluetooth menu, for example, they can quickly jump to the other system options using this left side menu. This menu is already a standard in other Google applications.

Reply to messages from the notifications bar

Of the new additions, this is possibly the feature which most resembles Apple iOS. Messages can now be answered from the notification itself. With this, the user will not need to leave an app to answer a message or even unlock their phone.

Multi-window mode

As we saw in the Android M developer preview, Google has been working hard to bring a native and efficient multitasking system to Android. Although the function was eventually omitted from Android 6.0 Marshmallow, with Android N, Google now seems ready to make the leap.

The image below shows the multi-window feature, which works on both tablets and phones and mirrors what you can currently get on some Samsung and LG devices.
Like most major platform changes, developers will have to opt in for the split screen mode to allow their apps to run smoothly. This can be done by adding a new attribute called: resizableActivity.
This attribute allows developers to specify the minimum size the app can be resized to and to determine whether resizing will be immediate or the application needs to restart with the required dimensions.

New Notifications panel

The notification panel has been completely redesigned, perfectly aligning with what we had seen in earlier leaks. Icons above the notification shade are now more prominent, and on the far right there is a dropdown toggle to expand the panel.

It is now possible to respond to messages directly from within a notification, a feature that uses the same RemoteInput API that Android Wear makes use of.
Notifications can now also be "stacked", optimizing the space in the notification area.
Developers can choose to stack notifications from the same application in a single line. These can then be expanded using the expansion button or a two-fingered gesture.

Enhanced Doze mode

The energy saving mode Doze has been improved in Android N. Previously, the feature had only worked when the phone had remained completely undisturbed for a long time, i.e. when you're sleeping, but now Google says Doze will also save battery any time the screen is turned off. We will have to test the new system more thoroughly to find out what impact it has on energy consumption.

A system like this that comes into effect every time the phone's display turns off might not be something everyone is keen on, but we'll have to see how it works in practice. It is possible that a less extreme version of Doze mode, one that monitors the energy consumption of apps without impairing the usability and notifications, might be worked out.

Android Beta Program

Another new addition from Google is a way to receive preview builds and updates over-the-air, avoiding the need for flashing factory images. Anyone with a compatible device is able to sign up for the Android Beta Program and receive these preview builds automatically.
These are just some of the new features of Android N, and many other improvements are yet to be implemented or previewed. Some features we may even have to wait for the final build to find out about. For now the app drawer still remains, although rumors suggest that it may disappear in the future.

Svelte design

Google says it has been hard at work on Project Svelte, a set of tweaks that make Android more able to run on aging and less-powerful devices. This project originates from Android KitKat but we don't know much about it yet. More details should follow with the full release of Android N.

How to download Android N

If you are a developer or just want to test the preview version of Android N, you can download images of the new OS directly from Google. Remember that this version is unstable and contains many bugs..
As usual, the Developer Preview version does not have a final name, it is still only "Android N". However, Hiroshi Lockheimer, the head of Android, is stoking the curiosity of Android lovers, making jokes about the possible "Android Nutella", but nothing is for certain at this point. Google’s I/O 2016 conference, where we originally expected this developer build to be released, promises more news on Android N.

Android N name

Android N is purely a codename right now, so what will the new version be called? There are already a lot of possibilities, but the major front-runners are Android Nutella and Android Nougat. If previous years are any indicator, Google will share the official Android N name in the weeks before the release of the 2016 Nexus devices.

In December 2015, Google CEO Sundar Pichai, speaking at a college in Delhi, suggested that Google is considering holding a poll to allow users to decide the official name of Android N. The comment came after Pichai was asked why there has not been an Android version named after an Indian desert. He commented that he would ask his mother for suggestions, and an online poll might make it a reality.

Android N release date

The Android N Developer Preview is already here and this will be followed by monthly(ish) updates until the final version. That final version will likely come around Nexus time – late September or early October – with Android N availability for other manufacturers and devices in the six or so months to follow.

Google tends to announce its major yearly Android updates at Google I/O – its annual developer conference – in May, so it's very likely we'll receive some more information about the Android N developer preview then.

Android N: what we'd like to see

Below are some features not yet seen in the Android N preview which we would like to be implemented into the final build. 

Android N user-facing controls

Android Marshmallow delivered a lot of useful – if not exactly sexy – features, including granular app permissions, app standby whitelist (for exceptions to battery optimization), app linking preferences, System UI Tuner (for simple changes to the interface and RAM management.
Android N will likely continue to add more user-facing controls to stock Android. Some of the Android N features we'd like to see are more custom launcher features, such as the ability to change the number of rows and columns of icons in the app drawer, vertical or horizontal app drawer layout, user-defined gesture controls and a customizable power off menu. These features may well make it to prime time via updates to the currently hidden System UI Tuner.

Android N password manager

In Marshmallow, the Smart Lock for Passwords feature is hidden down the bottom of the Google settings. It's a fledgling password manager for apps that will basically set back to exactly where you were if you uninstall and then re-install an app.

Smart Lock for Passwords automatically signs you into apps, and Marshmallow's automatic app backup feature re-loads all of your app data and progress. It's a nice idea, but it doesn't work with many apps yet. We hope the Android N release delivers a fully functional and widely supported password manager.

Android N permissions manager

As we mentioned, Android Marshmallow already has granular app permissions – meaning that you can select individual permissions to grant or deny a particular app and change them at any time – but the feature is still a little confusing. The feature actually debuted back in the hidden AppOps in Android 4.3 Jelly Bean but was quickly removed, only to resurface in Android 6.0.
So we'd like to see an even better permission manager in Android N, one that makes the process more intuitive and allows better control over app permissions while making the whole process a lot more transparent. Right now you have to dig around in the apps settings of Marshmallow to even find and make sense of the current state of your app permissions.
By the time Android N rolls around, we also expect a lot more apps to support API 23, which ensures that granular app permissions do not significantly affect an app's functionality. It's early days for app permissions, but we think Android N will be the release where things get mature.

Android N default applications

Android Marshmallow includes an app linking feature that allows you to define which apps to use to open particular links with. In the same area, you can tell the Android system which apps you want to use as the default for a few functions, such as the dialer, browser, SMS app and voice input.
Google is slowly expanding the default app functionality introduced back in KitKat when Hangouts was set as the default SMS app. Now we have four default apps options, but we're hoping that Android N will introduce a default app picker for any number of your system needs: email, camera, file manager, fitness, weather, contacts, maps and more.

Android N theme engine

If you've seen the OnePlus 2 you'll know just how easily the stock Android interface can be themed, even on a very superficial level. OnePlus' OxygenOS looks a lot like stock Android but allows you to choose custom accent colors for the interface (that's the color of switches and toggles and so on). This would be a very simple but welcome addition to Android N.
We'd also expect to see a Dark Mode in Android N, but we wouldn't be surprised if it reappeared in an upcoming Marshmallow update, long before Android N. It goes without saying that there's no limit to how far Google could take a stock Android theme engine if it felt so inclined. After all, Android has been borrowing features from alternate launchersand custom ROMs for a while now.

Android N system update independence

This would be the holy grail of Android N updates: independent system updates from Google that are totally separate from any subsequent updates imposed by your manufacturer or carrier. These last two are the reasons why Android updates take so long for non-Nexus devices.
If Google could update the core functionality of Android, independent of any interface and software feature changes added later by manufacturers and carriers, we could suddenly be looking at Nexus-speed Android updates for everyone, just like with iOS, and the end of Android fragmentation.
Add-ons from carriers and OEMs could simply come at a later date, but the core functionality would be near instantaneous. How this could all work is a bit of a mystery, but there has to be a team at Android already looking at it how it could make it work.

We saw Smart App Updates introduced back in mid-2012, whereby app updates don't install the entire app again but only the new parts unavailable in your current version. We've also seen manufacturers like HTC pushing software features and apps to the Play Store to cut down on the weight of system updates.
By disentangling those features that don't need to be tied up in major Android updates, patches and bug fixes can be pushed out a lot faster and the heavy lifting when major updates arrive will be lessened. If Google could manage this on an Android-wide scale (which is, admittedly, not very likely) it would be the best news to come out of Android in a very long time.