This early version of the next major Android software update, due to be released later in the year, gives us a good indication of where Android is heading. The second version hints at 3D Touch and VR support. What else is new? Find out everything you need to know about Android N below. Google surprised everyone with the spontaneous announcement of the Android N Developer Preview.
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.
The first update to the Developer Preview was released on March 17. The factory images are available for the Nexus 5X, Nexus 6P, Nexus 9 and Nexus 9 LTE. If you’re signed up to the Android Beta Program, you can expect to see the update arrive over the air very soon.
Developer Preview 2 was released on April 13. The latest version adds the ability for apps to define intent shortcuts, meaning users can use launchers to create shortcuts, like adding a memo to the calendar, with just one press.
Emoji Unicode 9 support is now incorporated, and a variety of APIs see inclusion, including Vulkan, which is intended primarily to improve gaming performance.
This update should roll out to your device OTA if you’re part of the Android Beta Program, otherwise you can download and flash it manually by grabbing the image from Google.
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.
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.
Below you can see a video one of our German editors, Eric Herrmann, made:
– Eric Herrmann (@reporteric)
March 9, 2016
With Developer Preview 2, notification’s can be set manually at any one of six levels of importance for each app:
- Blocked – never show notifications
- Min importance – silently show at the bottom of the notification list
- Low importance – silently show notifications in chronological order
- Normal importance – allow these notifications to play sounds
- High importance – peek onto the screen and play sounds
- Urgent importance – show at the top of the notifications list, peek onto the screen and play sounds
To access these, you need to bring down the notification shade and long press on the gear icon to activate the System UI Tuner in the Settings menu. Then enter said menu, go to Other and enable Show full importance settings.
Now, when you go to Settings > apps and select any app and press on Notifications, you will see a slider that allows you to change the importance.
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.
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.
We’ve now seen the first hint of what many suspected: native support for VR in Android N. The hint to what Google is working on appears in a menu in the new Android system. By going to Settings > Apps > Configure apps > Special access > VR helper, you can find a menu screen waiting to be filled by a list of apps that are making use of an API designed for VR apps.
There’s also something called ‘Sustained performance mode’ referenced, that is almost certainly intended to help devices run this demanding VR mode for longer periods of time. As anyone who has used a Gear VR will know, the phone quickly becomes very hot and boots the user out of the VR software, a problem that Google will need to overcome if VR is to become more widespread.
3D Touch support
Apple’s iPhone 6s launched with a pressure-sensitive screen that allowed users to make use of shortcuts by pressing either lightly or heavily on the screen. Now, it looks as though Google is baking support of 3D Touch in its Android OS.
The new feature was demonstrated by the guys over at Phandroid, who put together a simple app to launch Google Weather. Using Nova Launcher in conjunction with the app, they made a swipe-down gesture open a preview of the five-day forecast.
Although the example here uses a swipe-down gesture, the leap of imagination towards a Force Touch gesture is not huge.
Enhancements to Google Now Launcher
In Android N Developer Preview 2, Google made two improvements to its Google Now Launcher. You can use a pinch gesture on the home screen to bring up the overview page, where, at the bottom, options for wallpapers, widgets and settings appear. And, at last, app options when dragging apps from the home screen and the app drawer are consistent. The options are now Remove / Cancel, Uninstall and App info. A minor but very welcome change.
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. The update can be downloaded via this link.
Note: Only the Nexus line of devices can receive the preview build of Android N. Below you can see what the Nexus models support the OS:
- Nexus 9 4G (volantisg)
- Nexus Player (fugu)
- Pixel C (ryu)
- Nexus 5X (bullhead)
- Nexus 6 (Shamu)
- Nexus 6P (angler)
- Nexus 9 (Volantis)
Android Authority picked up on the findings of an eagle-eyed Reddit user who spotted something hidden in the HTML code of the Android N Preview page, suggesting that Google might be planning to make the Developer Preview available on non-Nexus devices. The code in question states, “More supported devices from OEM partners”.
The problems with this becoming a reality are manifold, however. It takes updates a long time to roll out across all manufacturers for a reason: OEM UIs, like TouchWiz and EMUI, incorporate features that are otherwise not supported by stock Android.
It might mean that Google plans to make the Developer Preview available on near-stock devices, like the Moto X Play, but we will have to wait and see.
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 launchers and 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.
What would you like to see in Android N? What do you think the Android N name will be? Let us know in the comments.