Praise and Criticism of N’s Multi-Window & Freeform from a Multi-Window Fan

Praise and Criticism of N’s Multi-Window & Freeform from a Multi-Window Fan

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After having used Android N for quite a while, I’ve grown used to all of its features, and most importantly to me, its revision to Android’s core functionality, including multitasking.

We have taken an in-depth look at the recents menu in Android N, where we found that with the re-arranged layout, Google has a lot to reconsider before the official release. To summarize, the new ways of navigating through recent apps are welcome; namely, the double tap to access the most-recent application, a staple of custom ROMs that we are never sad to see implemented by OEMs. The problem came with the fact that the most recent application took 75% of the screen’s height, with all other applications having no reasonable input area to switch without extra actions (scrolling). This coupled with the fact that you do have a nearly-instant way to switch to the most recent app made the design decision all the more frustrating.

What is pleasantly surprising in N multitasking, however, came by the hand of the multi-window mode the new OS update has adopted. Multi-window on Android hit the mainstream with the Note 2 (and the S3, retroactively) and since then a number of manufacturers have adopted it, including LG and Sony (to a very limited degree). Back then, the system was extremely clunky on Samsung phones: you had to trigger apps from a swipeable menu at the edge of the screen, and resizing was done with a thick bar in the middle. Given the small screen and high DPI the S3 had, I personally found it to be an awful experience.

LG had mimicked Samsung’s multi-window approach while Sony and others went down a more-limited “small apps” route. Samsung added floating “pen-windows” with the Note 3 (in one of the worst implementations to date), and merged both features with the Note 4. I’ve written a thorough explanation of why and how Samsung’s multi-window peaked with the Note5, and why Stock Android needed to adopt much of what it offered. The N preview shows us a system that still needs improvements, but so far hits the right notes specifically where Samsung didn’t.

1. Window Creation

The multi-window mode in Android N can be triggered through various ways, just like Samsung’s. The easiest way is achieved by long-pressing the recents menu button, which will turn it into a multi-window button until you long-press it again or otherwise abort all multi-window functionality. Keep in mind that this can only be initiated within an application (that is, not in the launcher). The bottom of the display then shows the stack of cards from which you can select your application. This is, I think, the first issue with multi-window on Android N.

Creating the bottom window can become tedious because you are only shown the multitasking menu’s apps, one at a time, given that the issues with the regular recents panel translate to this half-screen version as well. You can scroll through the deck of cards with no delay by pressing the multi-tasking button again, which is nice, but you are seemingly stuck with choosing an app that way. I say ‘seemingly’ because by pressing the back button, you can actually access your launcher’s bottom half, where you can also access the (cutoff) app-drawer.

2016-03-25 (1)This is radically different from Samsung’s and LG’s systems, where they show you a box with various icons for easy access. In Samsung’s case, and up until the S7 (which has worse multi-window than Lollipop TouchWiz), you could scroll to the box to access the recents menu and sort the multi-window apps through order of use. But the brilliant part of (Lollipop) TouchWiz’s implementation is that it sorted the box according to the apps you used most regularly on multi-window, effectively making the specific use-cases multi-window tackles much more readily accessible.

Another interesting bit is that when the multi-window mode is enabled and you then exit to the launcher through the home button, both apps will disappear, but the status bar will be tinted to that of the bottom app, letting you know that clicking on a launcher icon will bring up a pair of apps with your top-windowed app at the top again. I like this a lot, and on tablets it works similarly by leaving an app to a side. Other than that, another way to create windows is by dragging an app to the top (or sides, if on a tablet) from the recents menu. It’s worth noting that you can only drag to the top on phones, and all of multi-window seems biased towards making the top-window stick.

This is not a bad design decision; on the contrary, frequent multi-window users quickly learn that it’s best to leave the less-active app at the top: the window that requires the most input benefits most from being at the bottom especially if it involves typing on a software keyboard. This is also seen on yet another way to launch multi-window, perhaps my favorite one. You can enable swiping-up from the recents menu in the System UI tuner, and it allows you to drag a new window into existence from the bottom up in a super-fluid fashion. The top-window bias makes sense, but manipulating the two windows can sometimes make it a bit of a problem.

2. Window Manipulation

Manipulation the multi-windowed apps is easy, yet limited. You can fluidly re-size the applications by moving the black bar in the middle from the middle circle, and swiping up to the very top or the very bottom nudges the remaining app back to fullscreen. There is no quick way to switch the top and bottom applications’ places, but I can’t see how that’d be achieved without cluttering design — that being said, it makes alternating between two input-heavy apps a lot more troublesome. You can drag text in multi-window to copy it from one app to the other, much like you can on Samsung’s implementation, with no specific button presses. This is specifically useful for tablets, and even more so for productivity-oriented use-cases such as document editing. On phones, it works much better in landscape as selecting text and triggering the keyboard might push out the other textbox out of view.

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TouchWiz MW Manipulation

Re-sizing windows is relatively fluid in multi-window, albeit some apps understandably resize better than others, and we’ll see the functionality improve as more developers build around it. At the moment, some applications resize into unusable and often permanent (until closed) states, but given this is a Beta, I expect this to change. However, one thing I did notice is that apps actually resize much better in Samsung’s multi-window, even application that are not meant to be used with it (but are enabled through custom ROMs, app repackaging, Xposed or MW Commander). I also wish that Google would consider a mask effect for some of the more jerkier re-scalings that take place, For Material Design purposes, though, it’s better to nail smooth scaling rather than the transitions Samsung uses (as seen in the gif to the right).

A final note on multi-window specifically is that Google can further optimize the UI and dimensions in order to make the feature much more effective on phones. On Samsung phones, the lack of on-screen buttons adds area to the available multi-tasking canvas, and the screens also stretch to the top of the screen in this state. The Nexus 6P at stock resolution sees 10% of its screen height taken up by the navigation buttons and status bar.

When taking into account the action bars and bottom bars of applications, the actual use space of a particular app takes a substantial hit. Ideally, multi-window would trigger immersive mode to make the best out of the limited space. Despite the equal screen size, multi-window on the Nexus 6P feels a lot more crowded.

3. Freeform Window

freeform

Different Freeform

This is a relatively new discovery in Android N, and something we didn’t fully expect to see implemented. We’ve enabled this hidden feature through adb and gave it a test drive. Keep in mind that this was a look at an early iteration of a feature that was not enabled by default, and that we toggled through unintended means; freeform is likely going to change, and we hope it changes to address some of the design decisions that we believe are misguided.

The first thing worth noting is that freeform multi-window is its own separate mode, and it currently remains divided from the regular application space by default. To be more specific, you launch an application into the free-form space by dragging it to select it, then tapping the freeform icon. This moves the app to a new empty space with just your wallpaper, where you are free to arrange and re-size the window, and add new windows through either the recents menu, or through opening applications from within this space. The only problem is that there is nothing but the wallpaper; I believe this is the case simply because this is an incomplete version of the feature, but in any case, floating launchers or global app-launching solutions do the trick for now and under this system.

Another issue I stumbled upon is that moving an app to the side of the screen turns that app into a multi-window app instead of reformatting it within the freeform space; this effectively cuts the freeform space in half, with no real benefit on a small screen and questionable benefit on a bigger screen. A better solution would have been “window snapping”, like we see on Windows and even Remix OS. The biggest design issue with the current freeform mode is precisely stated in the name: it is a mode, not a global feature like on Remix ROMs or Samsung phones. This means that you can’t overlay a floating window on top of a regular window for quick-and-dirty multi-tasking. On tablets, this feature is undermined by the lack of a persistent taskbar. On phones, it is simply impractical for any kind of usage scenario, whereas Samsung’s floating windows are usable and useful on phablets, especially with the ability to minimize the apps into bubbles. These limitations mean that Remix OS will still be a more viable productivity and multi-tasking alternative for tablets, unless Google improves upon the design issues in this early look.

Closing Thoughts

We’ve been waiting for multi-window on stock Android since the KitKat days, and the N preview’s has come a long way since the originally hidden version found on Marshmallow previews. I think that this system has a lot going for it: it is sleek, it is versatile, and it is aesthetically pleasing. The biggest point it needs to focus on now is being more useful. The ability to swipe up from the recents menu to initiate multi-window, and the easy dragging of text, are just a couple examples of how fluid and intuitive the system is. Google has a lot of right ideas here, but I think that it also needs to look at the already-established implementations to see what else there is to multi-window.

For all the things that TouchWiz does wrong, multi-window is not one of them. Sadly, the Galaxy S7 actually dialed back on some useful changes the Note5 brought to the system, such as the smarter sorting of apps in the multi-window selection. In summary, the things I think Google can improve upon are the following:

There needs to be a quicker way to select a multi-window application that is not your most-recent app, or a more intuitive way to access the feature through the launcher. You can go back to the launcher, but that’s after you trigger multi-window, perhaps for apps you don’t precisely need but put together anyway, just so that you can then go to the launcher and manage it better. The general UI can be improved by trimming the status and navigation bars with immersive mode, thus offering more screen real estate. Google has gotten the general feel of multi-window just right, and the top-app bias makes sense for the user experience, but there should be a way to switch the top and bottom app swiftly as well.

Freeform mode is a good start and it is better than nothing, and for an early implementation, we can’t complain — it’s definitely better than the other hidden, early implementation of multi-window that Marshmallow previews brought. But from a design standpoint, separating the multi-app space from the regular application space is not truly beneficial to tablets, and a nonsensical system for phones. Remix proved you can do better on the former, and Samsung showed you can do better on the latter. It is also clear to me now that this does not make Android N a Remix OS killer. Google should implement the best of both systems (Remix’s and Samsung’s) with the same meticulous focus on UX, aesthetics and general fluidity. Despite these criticisms, so far I’ve really enjoyed multi-window on Android N.

Things such as videos pausing, or apps oddly re-scaling, are a little puzzling coming from Samsung’s and Remix’s implementations which don’t have such issues. Devs can surely work around it by tweaking their applications, but a more-global solution wouldn’t be out of place anyway. But this is an early look, and what I’ve detailed above is merely constructive criticism — a huge deal of what early previews are for. Even if many my requested changes don’t make it into the final version, the system is still useful for various use-cases and I will gladly welcome and embrace it on my Nexus devices. Google has taken many, many right steps with Android N, and this OS is looking to be one of the more mature and thoughtful updates in a long time. I expect upcoming previews to be more polished and I hope the resulting multi-tasking experience is every bit as good as I know Google can make it.