Android N: Google reveals future of the OS

Early developer preview available with better battery-life optimisation, faster app switching, multi-window and night mode

Google has released a very early preview of the next version of its mobile operating system – Android N – with split-screen multitasking, increased battery life and better notifications.

Usually Google releases a developer preview of the new version of Android at the company’s developer conference, Google I/O, at the end of May. It’s designed to allow developers time to test their apps and build new parts to take advantage of new features in Android before its release to smartphone manufacturers in October.

This year, however, Google has started two months early, with a developer and beta build that lets users test new features.

Head of Android, Hiroshi Lockheimer, said: “It’s earlier than ever, it’s easier to try and we’re expanding the ways for you to give us feedback. We want to hear from you and iterate on the platform with you – that’s what makes Android stronger.”

Google hopes that the earlier preview will allow greater testing and let it provide the new Android version to manufacturers earlier. It takes several months for most smartphone manufacturers to release the new versions of Android for their existing smartphones. This means that Google’s Nexus smartphones and tablets remain the only devices running the new version of Android for months.

This new preview strategy also gives an earlier look at what’s changing in the most-used mobile operating system in the world.


android n multi-window
Android N multi-window multitasking shown on a Nexus 6P and Pixel C. Photograph: Google

The biggest change is the introduction of a split-screen multitasking view called Multi-Window, which allows two apps to be run on one screen. It’s something Android smartphone manufacturers such as Samsung have had for several years, but will now come baked into Android N.

The apps can be run side-by-side or one above the other, with the split resizable using a central slider, much like Microsoft’s split-screen mode introduced with Windows 8 in 2012 and Apple’s iOS 9 released last year.

Android apps are built using a scaling, screen-size agnostic format, which means that most should work without modification with the new feature. While it will be available on smartphones, the feature is primarily aimed at larger devices including phablets and tablets such as Google’s Pixel C.

Faster app switching

Users will be able to double-tap the recently used apps button to switch to the previously used app without opening the recently used apps list, speeding up bouncing between apps.

Sleep and zoom

android n zoom
The zoom setting allows users to make objects on the screen bigger for a clearer view or fit more on screen by shrinking it all. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Android N will implement a night mode that blocks blue wavelengths of light to help prevent the phones from keeping people awake. Third party Android apps have been able to do something similar for a while using a red filter overlay on the screen and it’s something that Apple has slated for its next version of iOS.

Users will be able to change the size of icons and text on screen by using Android N’s new zoom slider, which will help those who need a bit of magnification to see what’s going on.


android n notifications
The new notification shade will have a top row of quick settings, which the user can change, and group notifications. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Android N will come with the ability to group notifications from a single app together. Several apps already do this, including Google’s Gmail app, which collects messages together as they come in and allows users to expand them to read the notifications or dismiss them as one.

Google’s quick-reply feature, available within its Hangouts and Messenger messaging apps and Android Wear, will also become a standard feature within Android N, allowing users to bash out replies to messages straight from the notification shade without having to enter the app.

Longer battery life

android n battery life
The new version of Doze will help prolong battery life when the screen is off. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Android 6.0 Marshmallow made big leaps in battery efficiency using a feature called Doze, which put a smartphone or tablet into a lower-power state and took tight control over what could wake the device up when the screen was off and it wasn’t moving.

This meant that when a phone was placed on a desk and not touched for a while it greatly extended the battery life, limiting things such as internet access to set intervals.

Android N is extending that feature to work when the screen is off but the phone is in motion – in a pocket or bag for instance - which should have a significant positive impact on battery life.

Thinner, faster Android

Android N also has a new version of its Java Android RunTime (Art), which runs the apps installed on the phone. It is faster and more efficient, meaning apps will install and update faster without needing a period of optimisation. This should greatly reduce the time required to install Android updates and other upgrades.

Google’s Project Svelte also been working on reducing the size and weight of Android so that it takes up less storage space and can run on lower-power devices, which should mean more space for apps and media.

Developers looking to try out the beta version of Android N can enrol a Nexus device with Google to update over the air, and can return to the latest version of Android 6 Marshmallow in the same way.

Those not running Google’s Nexus devices will have to wait until the manufacturer of their smartphone to receive Android N in the summer and then push it out to devices, which will likely be in 2017.


Samuel Gibbs

The GuardianTramp

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