Now that Android 6.0 Marshmallow is running on 2.3% of devices, it’s time for us to start talking about the next version of Android – Android “N”. Marshmallow was released in October 2015, but the Developer Preview of that version (Android “M”) was first unveiled in May 2015 at the Google I/O conference. Just as before, we don’t know what Android “N” will be called when it’s released, but in the meantime we’ve got our first taste of Google’s newest mobile OS.
How to install the Android N Developer Preview
Here’s where the first major change come in. Unlike previous Developer Previews, Android N comes in two installation flavors: Factory Images, and OTA updates.
If you’re used to the old way of doing things (by flashing factory images), you’ll need ADB, Fastboot, and the appropriate drivers installed on your system (we recommend the 15 Seconds ADB Installer to get all these in one neat package); and the factory image for your device. After that, simply follow the instructions at developers.google.com to flash the image onto your device (this will completely wipe it, so you’re forewarned).
Google is enabling something new this time around: OTA updates. If you sign up to get preview versions of the Android OS, Google will push them directly to whichever device(s) you specify over-the-air. These updates are automatically downloaded and will update your device just like official system updates do. Just keep in mind that if you enroll a device in the Android Beta Program, then later opt-out of receiving updates on the device, all user data on that device will be removed.
Also, these two methods are mutually exclusive. For example, since we manually flashed the Android N Developer Preview to our Nexus 5X, we can’t sign it up for OTA updates without first reverting back to Android Marshmallow (which we’ll talk about a little later on).
What’s new in the Android N Developer Preview
First of all, split-screen multi-tasking (called Multi-window support) is finally available in a stock version of Android. Users can run two apps side-by-side or one-above-the-other in split-screen mode on phones and tablets running Android N, and can even resize the apps by dragging the divider between them. Android TV devices can run apps in a sort of picture-in-picture mode.
The Notification Shade has also been redesigned, and it’s not just visual. The changes here go deep into the API with new templates, direct-reply abilities, custom views, and notifications can even be bundled together by message topic (for example). This follows the same model that’s being used in Android Wear.
Quick Settings are also getting an overhaul which promises to make them easier to use and gives developers a new API to define their own Quick Settings tiles.
Doze is one of my favorite Android Marshmallow features. This approach allows the OS to reduce data calls when the device isn’t being used (overnight, in a long meeting, etc.), which can significantly reduce battery use. Doze on the go promises to provide the same sort of battery savings while you’re “on the go”, like when your phone is in your pocket or purse.
Project Svelte is an ongoing effort to minimize RAM use by system and apps. In Android N, Project Svelte is focused on optimizing the way apps run in the background, and removes three commonly-used implicit broadcasts which can wake background processes, putting a strain on memory and battery.
If you use Chrome on your phone or tablet, you’re probably already aware of the built-in (but “off by default”) data saver feature which routes your web traffic through Google’s servers. Google then “optimizes” the data before sending it to your device. The resulting pages are smaller, faster, uses less data, and can improve battery life. This preview of Android N exposes the same functionality but applies it system-wide. Just in case you need to, Android N allows you to exempt certain apps from this feature by giving them “unrestricted data access”.
One of the changes I really like the sound of is number-blocking. Now, when you get a call that you don’t want, you can block it right in the Android dialer app. Android N is smart enough to also block texts from the number as well, and since this is a system-wide list, other apps can leverage it, too. Blocked numbers can even automatically be carried to your next phone through Android’s Backup & Restore feature. Take that annoying telemarketer guy!
While we’re talking about calls, Android N is getting something that Google Voice/Grandcentral users have enjoyed for years: call screening. Enough said.
Other changes include direct boot support (to allow things such as alarms to work even if your device rebooted in the night and you haven’t unlocked it with your PIN), security and encryption enhancements, Android for Work improvements (including the ability to “Turn off work” when you’re at home), more locales and languages, a new approach to JIT and AOT app compilation, an update to the OpenGL graphics library, ICU4J APIs in android.icu (rather than com.java.icu), and various accessibility enhancements.
Initial thoughts & how to go back to Marshmallow
This is very much a developer preview and isn’t meant to be used on your everyday phone. Most of the changes are iterative, but welcome. The new “Doze on the go” improvements sound interesting and promising, but will take some time for us to determine whether or not they live up to the promises.
Potential privacy concerns aside, we really like the system-wide data saver feature. Also, the inclusion of a new “Emergency Information” screen is a wonderful application of technology which has the potential of saving lives. Split-screen is going to take a little while to get used to, and we can see this working out better on the Nexus 6 and 6P, as well as Google’s tablets than on smaller-screened devices.
It’s worth mentioning that this is a developer preview. Features that are included in this build may be changed or even removed before Android N is released to the public – so don’t get your heart too set on anything.
When you’re ready to jump back to Android Marshmallow, simply download the Marshmallow factory image (available here), and follow the instructions at developers.google.com to flash it back onto your device. (If you opted for the OTA method, you’ll need to leave the beta before you do this, otherwise you may end up with the developer preview automatically re-flashed OTA).
What are your thoughts of the Android N Developer Preview? Which features do you like best? Head down to the comments and let us know!