Android 7.0 Nougat review: All about getting things done faster
After a surprise debut and months of previews, Android 7.0 Nougat is ready for primetime. The broad strokes haven’t changed since we first met Nougat back in March (when it was just “Android N”), which means it’s still not the game-changer of an update some people have been hoping for. Instead, what we got was a smattering of big (and overdue) features mixed with lower-level changes that make Android more elegant. That might not make for the most viscerally exciting update, but that doesn’t make Nougat any less valuable or useful.
Before we go any further, let’s get on the same page about a few things. Yes, it might be a while before you get your OTA Nougat update. Yes, that wait will stretch out even longer if you’re not using Nexus hardware. Carriers and OEMs are keeping mum about their specific Nougat update plans, but if you do have a Nexus device, you can enroll it in the Android Beta program and install a full-fledged Android 7.0 build.
The first taste
I hope you weren’t looking of a dramatic revamp of Android’s stock look and feel — that definitely wasn’t in the cards for this first release. (Bigger interface changes might come with the launch of Google’s new Nexus devices, which will probably sport a sleek new launcher.) In fact, once you’re dumped onto your homescreen, you might notice anything new at all. That changes very quickly as you start to swipe around.
For all that Google has added to the Android formula in this release, there are two features that fundamentally changed how I used my Nexus. The first, dull as it might seem, is an improved take on notifications. In prior versions of Android, notifications would fill up the pull-down shade and just sort of sit there until you interacted with them. Then, pfft — they’d disappear. Nougat, however, does a much better job of bundling them up by app and let you get things done.
In the midst of writing this paragraph, two new emails popped up in my inbox. On a Marshmallow device, all I could do is tap on the notification to jump into Gmail and see what people were asking me. Fine. Under Nougat, though, I can expand that notification to see the full sender names and subject lines of a handful of my recent emails. Another tap lets me see the first few sentences of the email and (more importantly) archive or reply without ever jumping into another app. Google’s own apps all play nice with these expanded notifications, and other apps crucial for my life — like Slack, mostly — do the same. Even better, you can manage notifications for individual apps just by long-pressing one of their notifications. Your mileage may vary, but these changes have become crucial to me.
Then there’s split-screen multitasking, a feature that’s a big deal for big phones and gives Android tablets an extra edge. Here’s how it works: if you’re in a compatible app, you can long-press the Recent or Overview key (also known as “that square one”) to squeeze it into the top half of your display. The bottom half is taken up by the usual view of recent apps, and tapping one finagles it into the remaining free space. (If you’re working on a tablet, replace “top” and “bottom” with “left” and “right”.) In my experience, most apps worked in their diminutive forms pretty well. Sometimes they will make a fuss and proclaim they “might not work” properly running in a reduced size, but they’re usually fine — you’ll just notice some kludginess while apps try to figure out how to operate with such limited room.
Just for giggles, I ran Shazam in one window and Spotify in another, and wouldn’t you know it? The former could easily tell the latter was pumping out some Jacques Loussier. It’s a silly example, certainly, but it worked despite Shazam struggling to render all its interface bits in the right places. In time developers will (hopefully) smooth out the rough edges. The thing is, it can be tricky to work with both windows at the same time. I tried copying a bit of text from a Chrome window to a Hangouts window on the Nexus 6P for instance, and more often than not the necessary pop-up menus never appeared. Check this process out: I made Chrome full-screen, copied the text, went back to the split-screen view and then tried to paste into Hangouts. I didn’t get the pop-up option to do so, though, so I had to make Hangouts full-screen and finally pasted the text.
Of course, some apps don’t even try to adapt to smaller sub-displays. Games that take over the screen and obscure Android’s navigation keys certainly don’t and neither does image-heavy Instagram. When you try to force one of them into split-screen mode, they just sort of balk and refuse. Now, it’s understandable why the examples above don’t allow themselves to be contained in half a window: if they did, the experience would downright suck. What’s more puzzling is why Google didn’t extend this split-screen functionality to its own search app. You can have two Chrome windows working next to each other just fine, but you’re out of luck if you want to glance at info gleaned from Google’s search bar. It’s silly, arbitrary and more than a little annoying.
Thankfully, there are a few subtle features that help mobile multitasking work better. There’s an option to change the display size, for one, which scales everything on-screen up or down. For the people with lousy eyesight, display size can be cranked up three levels. For the folks who want maximum screen real estate, though, there’s a “small” setting below default size that neatly shrinks text, icons and more.
I always hated how big app icons were rendered on the Nexus 6P (one of the actual reasons I stopped using the phone), and this feature just fixed it all for me.
There’s also an option to clear all running apps when you’re sifting through the familiar stack of app cards (just like most other Android skins in recent years). Perhaps the single most useful Nougat addition falls under this category too — you can double-tap the Recents key to jump straight back into the app you were using last. It took maybe an hour for this to become second nature, and as far as I’m concerned, there’s no going back.
Still other handy — though less exciting — features become apparent once you start digging around a little more. Nougat still offers the option of customizing your quick settings options, for instance. They’re arrayed in a 3×3 grid, with extra icons shunted onto another page. For even quicker access to your five most used settings, look to a new bar at the top of the notifications shade. It’s useful enough, especially when you’re in a rush to turn that flashlight or get that WiFi going.
For whatever reason, everyone finds themselves in their device’s settings eventually. Luckily for them, Google finally overhauled it a bit. While the old settings layout was basically just a list of categories you could dive into, the new one peppers the list with really helpful bits of context like remaining battery life, current ringer volume and how many apps were blocked from sending notifications. Settings sections like Display and Battery offer most of the same options, but now you can bring up a navigation sub-menu that lets you jump between those sections. Handy, but easy to miss. The main settings menu also offers suggestions that aren’t really all that helpful. It can tell you about setting up a fingerprint (on compatible devices) and change your wallpaper, but did we really need this? Most of the time Nougat just suggested I add another email account. Thanks, but no thanks.
The revamped Settings page, by the way, is where you’ll find more of Google’s new handiwork. Consider Data Saver, for instance: the feature lets you define which apps can use your data plan without limits and which ones can’t, which is all too handy if you haven’t migrated onto one of those unlimited data plans carriers have started talking up lately. And if you’re one of those fortunate polyglots, Nougat added support for 100 new languages. Maybe more important is how you can now also have multiple languages enabled at the same time, creating what Google calls a “multi-locale” — when Google searching, for instance, you’ll get results back in whatever enabled language you typed your query in.
Then there’s all the other stuff — the smaller changes that help Nougat feel more thoughtful and polished. At long last, you can set different lockscreen and homescreen wallpapers in stock Android. How it took this long to implement, I’ll never understand. There are 72 new emoji here because of course there are! (They’re part of the Unicode 9.0 standard). You can display emergency info like your name, blood type and allergies on your phone’s lockscreen, too, and Android Nougat also allows you to block calls and text messages from specific phone numbers. Oh, and the best part? Those numbers stay blocked across different apps.
Meanwhile, not everything Google planned for Nougat made the final cut. Remember that Night mode that showed up in the first developer preview? Well, it’s gone — sorry, folks. Google apparently chalked its excision up to poorer-than-expected performance, though you can re-enable it pretty easily if the thought of Dark Android does it for you.
Under the wrapper
Just as important in Nougat is all of the stuff you can’t “see”, strictly speaking. These foundational changes aren’t as eye-catching as some of Nougat’s other new features, but they’re more important — and more useful — than you might think. The most obvious of these low-level changes is Doze on the Go, which builds off of a similarly named feature that debuted in Android 6.0 Marshmallow. Think of it as a light sleep — when the device is locked but in motion, a set of rules kicks in that limit what apps can do and restrict their network access. Then, when the device can tell it’s staying put for a while, the original Doze rules from the Marshmallow update kick in, leading to still more restrictions meant to preserve battery life even further. The one-two punch of Doze and Doze on the Go might not blow your mind, but it should still move the needle — my Nexus 6P seemed to gain about an hour or two of standby battery life.
This year’s Android updates also folds in support for Khronos’ Vulkan API, which should make for some seriously good-looking mobile gaming. There’s a dearth of compatible games right now, though; here’s hoping more developers get to pushing performance and graphical limits soon. You might also notice apps installing and launching a little faster than usual, depending on what kind of hardware you’re working with. That’s thanks to Nougat’s just-in-time compiler, which works with existing systems to determine when to compile an app’s code.
The arcane stuff goes on. Encryption has been moved to the file level, which — among other things — means your secured device can boot up and compatible apps can do their thing before you even unlock your gear. It should also mean lower-end phones can be partially encrypted (and run a little better) since full-disk encryption can really screw with performance sometimes. Alas, I didn’t get to try this out on a low-end phone because who knows when Nougat will make it beyond the Nexus playground.
The value of other features won’t be apparent for a while, either. Consider the case of seamless updates: Nougat can support two system partitions, one for handling your day-to-day work and another that can install big software updates that quietly download in the background. Once those updates are installed, you’ll be told that Android will update itself next time it restarts, at which point the device starts using that updated partition (complete with all your stuff). It’s possible that some phone makers will never embrace this feature and existing devices like the Nexus 5X or 6P don’t play nice with it either. But we can at least assume it’ll pop up in this year’s new batch of Nexuses.
Those Nexuses, by the way, are likely to be the first devices to fully embrace features Google revealed at its 2016 I/O developer conference. Nougat ships with a VR mode, for instance, a sort of high-performance system that drives down the time gap between your head’s motion and the image on-screen updating. Neat, certainly, but we’ll get a better sense of the benefits VR mode brings to the table when Google’s Daydream virtual reality platform launches this fall. Meanwhile, we know that Google’s new intelligent Assistant will be baked into the company’s Allo messaging app and the Amazon Echo-like Google Home speaker, but recent evidence suggests it’ll also be made part of Android thanks to an upcoming maintenance release.
After playing with Nougat for a week, one thing has become abundantly clear: Android is smoother, smarter and more elegant than ever. That doesn’t mean it’s completely issue-free — split-screen multitasking isn’t nearly as elegant as it could be and it kind of sucks that seamless software updates won’t happen on older hardware — but the platform’s foundation is in great shape. It’s a good thing, too. The version of Nougat you’re playing with now is just the first step, and you can bet the features we’re really looking forward too, like Daydream and Assistant, will build off of what was wrought in this update. Yes, chances are you’ll have to wait for a taste of Nougat, and yes, that blows. Just know that the improvements here, subtle though they may be, are worth the wait.