Hands On With Android N Preview 3: Keyboard Updates, Android Pay and VR Support
Nougat? Nutella? We’re not sure what sweet, tasty treat Android N will be named after yet, especially since Google opened up the naming process to everyone. If you’re an Android fan, you’re probably teeming with excitement ever since Google released the Android N Developer Preview two months ago.
We’re on Developer Preview 3 now, and if you’ve been holding out on installing the beta for fear of stability issues — don’t worry, the latest update brings us the most stable version yet.
There are two ways you can get it: via an over-the-air update that became available on May 18, the first day of Google I/O 2016, or by manually flashing the preview’s images, which you can do by following our thorough guide here. The current build number is NPD35K — Preview 3. There will be five previews before Android N is released to manufacturers in the summer, which hopefully means device makers will be pushing Android N faster to people’s devices. Maybe that will help boost the latest version’s adoption rate since Marshmallow seems to be rolling out at a slow pace.
The developer preview only works on the following list of devices: Nexus 5X, Nexus 6, Nexus 6P, Nexus 9, Nexus Player, Pixel C, General Mobile 4G (Android One), and the Sony Xperia Z3 (D6603 and D6653 models), according to Google.
It’s still a preview, so you should back up your data just in case. At the same time, this version of Android N is the fastest and most stable one we’ve used. Developer Preview 2 absolutely trashed our Nexus 5X, making it frustrating to use with apps constantly crashing, freezing, and random reboots. Now, it’s a breeze without any hiccups. Of course, the experience may not necessarily be the same for other devices, so let us know if you’re having problems with Android N on another device.
Overall, Android N seems to be heading in a great direction, offering users far more control on their devices, while also introducing multi-window support, making multitasking much easier. If you want a recap of Android N at Google I/O, take a look here; and if you want a general recap of Google’s developer conference, you can read more here. The full changelog for Android N Developer Preview 3 can be found here.
We dive in to take a hands-on look at everything new in Android N Developer Preview 3.
Android Pay Now Works
Installing the developer preview before rendered Android Pay useless. That seems to have changed with the newest update. You can add your cards, if they’re supported, and make transactions with your phone again — just like on the current version of Android.
The company brought Android Pay to the U.K. on May 18, and has added a few new features to make paying with Android Pay on the web and through Android Instant Apps faster and easier for developers to implement in their apps. Bank of America also now supports cash withdrawals with Android Pay, and that feature is rolling out to its ATMs across the country. You can read more about updates to Android Pay here.
Google Keyboard 5.1, Emojis, and Shortcuts for Physical Keyboards
Google rolled out a welcome 5.0 update for Google Keyboard earlier this month, bringing a new one-handed mode, a quick access emoji bar, a few new gestures for the cursor, and the ability to change the size of the keyboard. That update didn’t come to devices previewing Android N.
Developer Preview 3 came to the rescue, and has brought all those features to the stock Google Keyboard — but there are two new features as well, hence the ‘5.1.’
You can now change the color of the keyboard to preset choices in the Themes section of the keyboard’s settings. There are 13 options, and while the update is pretty neat, it would be nice if Google offered a color palette to make our own choices. Google does, however, let you choose a custom image as a backdrop for your keyboard if you so desire.
While on the topic of keyboards, for people using devices with a physical keyboard — like the Pixel C — you can now type “Alt + /” on Android, or “Ctrl + Alt + /” on Chrome OS, to pull up a list of keyboard shortcuts. Google is urging developers to add their own shortcuts to the list, to make it easier for people to perform actions quicker.
Present are also the new emoji that Google promised after it introduced support for Unicode 9. That means there are emoji that look more human, with varying skin tones as well. You can change themes for the keyboard if you’re running a device that’s not Android N, but emoji support is only coming with the new Android version.
Recents Saves the Last 7 Apps
Tapping Recents, the rounded square on the far right of the navigation buttons, brings you your recent apps. Pressing it now does the same, but the app you were on moves all the way to the bottom, leaving more room to see the previous app. Also if you’re in an app, double tapping the button will bring you the previous app you were just using — useful for when you need to quickly look at some information while on a call, for example.
Google also says most people typically only go back to the last seven apps in their Recents screen. So, the company now will only show the most recent seven apps after a period of inactivity. We opened more than seven apps and were still able to access it within a short amount of time, but going back to Recents at a later period, we only saw the most seven most recent apps present. It’s unclear what that time frame really is.
If you swipe down all the apps and go to the end, you’ll also see a Clear All option at the top right.
In the last developer preview, tapping the Recents button after you pressed it once offered a quick, two-second timer to let you flip through apps just by tapping the Recents button before the timer runs out. That seems to be removed in this version.
Night and Dark Mode Disappear in the System UI Tuner
System UI Tuner was greatly expanded in earlier iterations of Android N. It lets you choose what goes into your status bar (the icons on the top right of your screen in any screen or app. So, should you wish to remove the clock from the top right, you can — or you can also choose to display seconds. You can also remove everything, if you want to go for that clean look.
Unfortunately, the “Color and appearance” section in the tuner that lets you toggle Night mode and dark mode has disappeared. Night mode adjusts the tint of your display, calibrates the brightness, and uses the dark theme for the system OS — all of which you could toggle on or off. For no apparent reason, Google has removed the setting from the System UI Tuner — but hope is not lost.
If you head on over to the quick setting tiles in the notification tray (swipe down on the notification tray), tap “Edit” and you’ll see an option to place a Night Mode tile. If you place it into your tiles, you’ll be able to activate Night Mode again. So Night Mode still exists in Android N, it’s just a little hidden and the move is strange on Google’s part.
You could also calibrate your display via controlling the RGB settings individually, but that seems to have disappeared as well. Of course, since it’s a developer preview, we can see these removed changes come back to the Tuner by the final release.
Google also has changed the language of notification controls to “Power Notification Controls.” Before, you could customize notifications from apps to levels of importance ranging from “Urgent” to “Blocked.” This language has now been changed to Levels. So “blocked” is the equivalent of “Level 0,” and “Level 5” lets notifications always peek, and allows for full-screen interruption.
You can toggle this on or off in the Tuner, and you can interact with these levels by pressing and holding on a notification.
Android N now supports virtual reality natively, and it’s all part of Google’s plan for its new Daydream platform, which will launch in the fall. Right now, this platform is more for developers to build apps from the ground up for high-definition virtual reality experiences, as well as for manufacturers to build a Daydream-certified VR headset and remote.
Manual Exposure in the Google Camera
Controlling the exposure on Google Camera is actually available for Android Marshmallow devices — you can install it from the Play Store if you don’t have the app. This feature wasn’t available in the Android N Developer Preview, but it’s is now back in Preview 3
Borrowing the same name from Chrome, there’s a dedicated Data Saver option in the Settings app, under “Data Usage.” Turning on Data Saver seems to force apps to restrict background data usage, and what’s neat is that if you turn it on, you can still toggle apps to have unrestricted data usage.
Going into the “Apps” settings, you can also click on an app to see its data usage. Clicking on that will let you see the total data used in the foreground and background, and it also lets you choose if you want to allow the app to use data in the background. There’s also now an option to set it to have unrestricted data usage when Data Saver is turned on. Google wants developers to allow their apps to integrate with Data Saver, so that the feature works more seamlessly.
Google Play Services has unrestricted data usage turned on by default when you turn on Data Saver — but you can turn it off if you want.
Quick reply and notification bundling are quite possibly two of the best features I have experienced on Android N so far. Previously, when you got more than one notification from an app, you would have to click on it to see all the contents. For example, previously with Gmail, if you got more than one email in a notification, you wouldn’t be able to act on them — you could just swipe it away or click on it.
Now, if you get more than one notification from the app, you can swipe down on each notification to read the contents of each email, and even act on them with quick actions like “Done,” or “Reply.” This, paired with quick reply integrated in messaging apps like Google Messenger and Hangouts makes notifications all the more powerful — allowing for easier multitasking so that you don’t have to open each individual app to interact with notifications.
The first noticeable big change is in the notification drawer, and with notifications themselves. Notifications now wrap all the way to the edges of the screen and don’t have rounded corners. There also aren’t spaces between notifications, just a single, thin line that separates them. I wasn’t a fan of it at first, but after using the OS for a bit it has started to grow on me — and it definitely feels a little more polished than the previous version. The “done” action for certain notifications, like reminders in Google Calendar, also got a makeover — it has blue text on an off-white background, is situated below the notification, and there’s no check mark.
Quick reply looks similar. Except that you can see the whole message that you’re responding to, and when you tap on “Type message,” a ripple effect changes the color — likely a color that varies on the app you’re using that developers can implement. For example in the image below, Google Messenger uses blue. Hangouts uses green for its quick reply action.
Swiping down once gets you a small bar, as you can see above, with quick access to Wi-Fi, data, battery, and other settings. There’s also an expand button on the far right that lets you see your full notification tray, or you can swipe down again. The notification tray is now one unifying color.
Pressing on a notification and swiping left or right gently will also display a settings gear icon, which brings up a slider that lets you choose the level of importance of the notification. It goes all the way from “Level 0” to “Level 5,” which allows it to “always peek, and allow full screen interruption.”
You can also swipe left in the notification drawer to get access to more quick settings, like Airplane mode, and there’s now an “edit” button on the bottom right that lets you move the setting icons around, or hide them completely. Google is urging developers to build tiles for own apps that people can add to their notification drawer if they so desire.
Additionally, if you press and hold the gear icon at the top right of the notification drawer, you’ll get access to the System UI Tuner.
Long-pressing on icons in the notification tray also takes you to their respective setting, for example, if you long press Wi-Fi, you’ll be taken to Wi-Fi settings. If you long-press the flashlight icon, you’ll be taken to the camera app, and so on.
Google’s dialer app recently got the ability to block phone numbers — but what if you use a different dialer, or someone continues to contact you through apps like Hangouts? You would have to keep blocking them through each app. With Android N, Google is making number blocking system-wide, according to the Android Developer blog.
Google is essentially creating a “blocked-number list” that can be accessed by the default phone, message, and carrier apps. Since carriers can access this list, they can also “perform server-side” number blocking. By making it systemwide, it also means that once you block a number on one device, it will still be saved should you perform a reset or switch to a new device. With Android N, number blocking will not be limited to your default dialer. Google is making this a system-level task with a consistent way for apps to implement support by accessing the same list.
Included in the blog post and Android N is also Call Screening, which means when you receive a call, you’ll have the option to reject the call, not allow the call to show up on the call log, or not get a notification for the call. It works for the default phone app.
Here’s a feature that has been a long time coming. It’s something other manufacturers like Samsung and LG have implemented in their devices for a while, and Google is just now catching up. Split-screen works quite similarly to how multi-tasking works on Samsung’s or LG’s devices. The screen is split into two — one app above and one below, of if you go into landscape mode, one app on the left and one on the right. It looks really simple and easy to use, though it was a little buggy. Keep in mind that apps have to add split screen support — it does work without it, but a notification pops up that says, “App may not work with split-screen.”
Now, onto split-screen. You can activate it when you’re in any app by pressing and holding the Recents button. That will move the app you were on up, and split it halfway, and the Recents menu will emerge below, allowing you to choose a second app to split the screen with. Tapping an app will place it below, and tapping the Recents button again, which now looks like two small rectangles on top of each other, will make the bottom half the app overview again. You can press the Recents button to toggle between apps here too.
My favorite usage of split-screen so far is when I don’t have a pen or paper on me, and I need to dial additional pins or codes when making international calls. I can simply just have my notes app on the bottom, and type in the numbers above on the dialer app. Another great feature is the ability to drag text between apps in split-screen mode.
Sliding the middle bar will let you change the size of the bottom and top app, so if you want more screen space for the app above, simply move the bar down. Sliding it all the way down will close the bottom app and make the top app full screen, and the same occurs for the bottom app when you slide the bar all the way up.
Most apps seem to work fine in split-screen already, and the process seems fluid and slick when it works — there have been quite a few force closings and errors that force you to restart the app.
Launcher Shortcuts Have Been Postponed
Google gave us a tease of Launcher Shortcuts in the last developer preview, but weren’t accessible. The feature lets users interact with app icons and widgets by pressing and holding them, kind of like how iOS’ 3D Touch works. Unfortunately, Google has postponed the feature for another update to Android.
“We’ve decided to defer this feature to a future release of Android,” The Company says in the developer post for Android N. “We plan to remove the Launcher Shortcuts APIs (ShortcutManager and others) from the public Android N API starting in the next developer preview.”
It’s unclear what the problem was, but we hope to see it soon in a future update.
“Picture-in-picture” mode turns apps into small, floating windows when you want to multi-task through your Android TV. It’s a very nice addition, as you can continue watching a video, for example, while running a search on the Play Store to download an app at the same time.
Doze Mode Now Works Whenever the Screen Is Off
What might be the most intriguing feature that will certainly change Android as a whole under-the-hood, is that “Doze” mode will now work whenever the screen is off. Previously, the device had to be stationary for it to kick in and save battery, but now, whenever your phone goes into standby mode, you’ll save battery through Doze.
Other Features in Android N
Android now has a sustained performance mode that allows manufacturers to throw hints as to when a long-running app is starting to cause performance issues. This can be noted by developers to tweak their apps to perform better over a long-period of time — certainly a boon as it would lower the amount of stutter and lag for people playing games, or even using Android’s Daydream mode, for a sustained period of time.
Android installs apps much faster than it did on its previous flavorful iterations. This means that after installing an update, you won’t be seeing the “Optimizing” apps pop up as you reboot the device — because it’s that much faster. It’s all thanks to Android Runtime’s (ART) JIT computer.
“Even large apps that required several minutes to optimize and install in Android 6.0 can now install in just a matter of seconds,” according to the Android Developers blog.
Another interesting feature is that you can manually change the DPI of your device in the Settings app, under “Display.” Hit “Display Size” and you will see a bar you can move across to increase magnification or decrease it — you can go from Small to Default to Large, Larger, and Largest. It’s helpful for developers who want to test their apps on different screen sizes, but it’s also good for people who just want to increase the size of apps they interact with. This feature doesn’t just increase the font size, but everything on your screen.
When you first sign into your device, there’s a new emergency information section that lets you add an emergency contact, your full name, address, date of birth, blood type, as well as any allergies, medication, or medical conditions you have. There’s even an option to list if you want to be an organ donor. This can be found in the Settings app as well, under Users. For anyone to see this information, they have to go to the Emergency Dialer in the lockscreen.
The Settings app also has undergone a slight makeover. There’s a Suggested feature that’s at the top (that also disappears sometimes) — it recommends to activate certain functions if they’re off, like Android Pay. Each section also shows more information, for example, under Display, there’s a subheader that says, “Adaptive brightness is off.” Likewise, other sections like Battery have subheaders like, “79% – 39 mins until full on AC.”
You can also swipe right from the edge of the screen in the Settings app to bring out an additional menu, for quick access to different sections. For example, if you were in Wi-Fi, you can press the Back button to go back to the Settings app and choose another section, or you can swipe right from the edge and pull out the Settings menu, which lets you jump to another section immediately. The difference is minimal and will barely save you any additional time, but it’s a nice option to have.
Android N also lets you cancel downloads from the notification, whereas previously you couldn’t do anything to a download until it was complete. There’s also a new “Move to” option in the Downloads app for files. In Settings, you can also choose to have “Mono playback,” which is a welcome addition.
Don’t forget to check out a few of the new wallpapers that come with Android N Developer Preview 3, and you can choose to set them as your Home Screen, Lock Screen, or both.
Image source: http://www.digitaltrends.com/mobile/android-n-news/#:yXlacrR_X7QwVQ