Android N Shows that Google Listened by Bringing Smart Refinements, Requested Features
Android N is not just polish, it’s enhancement, the kind of enhancement that users can actively benefit from every day.
Android N’s developer preview hit us all by surprise yesterday, way ahead of the expected Google I/O announcement, and it brought a small Android christmas to enthusiasts around the globe.
Now that we’ve had time to test, dig and discuss, I want to voice some comments regarding what we’ve seen on Android N, and the design philosophy of the update that I believe is a much-needed step forward for Android at this stage of its life. First of all, I should bring up the fact that Marshmallow personally disappointed me; some might recall a feature I wrote where I said it was what Lollipop should have been, and where I mentioned that enthusiasts open to customization and modifications had long-achieved much of what Marshmallow had offered.
“Android N is showing us functionality and customization we’d been dying to see implemented in stock Android”
Let’s get the big feature out of the way before digging into the other (and just as significant) UX changes. Multi-window is now there by default, fleshed-out and looking great. If you follow me on XDA you might know that I have always argued that multi-window is a particularly underrated feature. Now it’s coming to the Android base for millions of devices to adopt, and what we see so far is very promising. The animations and fluidity of Google’s system are great: while long-pressing the recents is familiar, swiping up from the multitasking key is intuitive and smooth, and the card-stack as a selection method makes it easy to insert a recently-used app.
Google’s system does have its shortcomings when compared to Samsung’s, which is more than just “two apps at once” as it turns applications into windows rather than divisible blocks, with all the control that entails. The fact that the card-stack is the main selector for N’s multi-window means that finding a particular app could get troublesome unless it was used recently, but Samsung’s system was botched with Marshmallow as it removed the ability to select from the card-stack at all, and it also got rid of most-used-apps order in the multi-window screen. So in reality, Google progressed while Samsung regressed, making the final outcome more of a tie than it would have been had this been introduced last year. Either way, I expect Samsung to ditch its own in favor of Google’s, or at least partially adopt the new system. With how good Google’s looks and flows, Samsung would be crazy not to borrow from it.
Android N brings significant changes to multi-tasking besides multi-window
The multi-tasking experience in general has been revamped: a double tap of the key allows you to switch to the previous app – a staple feature of custom ROMs that many people love – and subsequent taps let you scroll through the list one app at a time. The actual screen has seen some changes too, but judgement on this is mixed so far. Overall, Android N brings significant changes to multi-tasking for both single-app use and now double-app use as well. While those on particular OEM ROMs or used to certain custom ROMs won’t feel this is much of an innovation, the consumer reach that these features will have by being built into Android means an edge for the operating system as a whole (particularly against Android’s competition, which has worse implementations) and millions of users being able to experience it.
The most significant everyday-change in Android N is a refinement of the user interface in a few of the areas where the user spends most time with. The notification panel is now very different, with bigger, richer bundles of notification-cards that can be expanded to show more information than before, in an optimized tray which now fully adopted quick toggles at the top. Long gone are the days of having to scroll down twice, or do a “quick pulldown”, to reach every-day toggles. This is a welcome addition that has been finely executed, and it still allows for more toggles with a second pull as well. And if that’s not enough, developers can add their own tiles!
But going back to the notification-part of the notification tray, pushing for support for quick reply on multiple notifications from various apps is brilliant, and I can already salivate the workflow optimizations it’ll bring to my daily usage. With the current model, having to jump around apps and interrupt your activity, or having to go back on said app to then find the proper chat to reply with, can be frustrating. Hangouts’ quick reply system has already alleviated many of these issues for me, but N will take this a step further. With more information-rich notifications, the feature shines even more.
But this is not where the trend stops for Android N: the settings menu now also adds information about the submenus and settings that you might be interesting in, allowing you to simply glance in order to get what the data you want, without the need to actually enter the submenu just to check a setting or a datapoint. It might sound small on its face, but the settings menu in Android has remained rather static for a while with plenty of unused (and wasted) space. This allows for more, quicker information for those who need it. Another nice change in the settings menu is the slide-out menu, which allows you to hop between categories easily. Before this change, configuring a bunch of settings at once was a particularly nonoptimal experience, as you had to constantly go in and out of menus rather than simply leap from one to the other.
“The UI in Android N feels more mature and more serious, rich with relevant information and shortcuts”
Contrary to popular belief, though, you don’t need root to do this: shell commands allow for it without rooting your phone. But even then, this is a neat accessibility feature that will also help those with bad sight. On top of that, there is even mono sound for users with hearing impairments.
Then there is night mode and dark mode. The former allows you to change the tint of your display for less eye-strain during mornings and nights, and the latter is just what it sounds like. Seeing this come back and come as a realized standard will satisfy all dark-theme-loving users, myself included. I personally always try to go for darker themes on all my phones through theme engines or flashable themes, and seeing this come with Android itself is extremely satisfying. If that wasn’t enough for the visual experience of N, it also comes with an RGB slider to fine-tune your color calibration.
Android is now focusing on better information delivery and better UI navigation
This isn’t even all there is to N, but I hope you noticed what I did: so much of these are precisely the things we’ve been waiting for and asking for years. Multi-window, night mode, dark mode, better settings menus, better toggles, better notifications, etcetera etcetera, are tangible features that some phones have and some don’t, that many users go out of their way to obtain and that add concrete value to the user experience without real sacrifices. Whereas Marshmallow focused on features nobody asked for, like Google Now on Tap, and shaky passive functionality like Doze (which is enhanced in N, by the way), this preview build is showing us absolutely tangible, useful, and much-requested features.
And it’s not just that we get the functionality we want like multi-window, we also get a refined user interface with clear improvements to the user experience. The UI in Android N feels more mature and more serious, rich with relevant information and shortcuts so that every action takes less of a hassle and so that the system flows better. While it is still not perfect and there certainly is room for improvement, the new design philosophy is perhaps my favorite part of N’s refinements. The fact that consuming and interacting with notifications has been enhanced will make my actual job easier, while quality-of-life additions to the settings menu will make configuring my phone on the fly less of a headache. All of this with more control over the theme and visual experience of the device, with better multi-tasking for productivity and leisure.
I like what I see. To me, this is precisely what Android Marshmallow should have brought: tangible features one uses everyday, that are straightforward and that the community has requested — unlike the dust-gathering Now on Tap or the headache-inducing Doze that is luckily being addressed. Android N is not just polish, it’s enhancement, the kind of enhancement that users can benefit from actively and daily. This is just a preview and there are things that must improve — I have a whole piece planned on that. But I have to commend Google for actually addressing Marshmallow’s shortcomings while simultaneously giving us the features we wanted from it, and refining the user interface in sensible ways that we can both notice and appreciate. I am excited to see more of Android N. So far, so good!
What do you think of Android N’s new direction? Let us know your thoughts below!