Updated May 18, 2016, with the first release candidate build, which we're calling "Beta 1."
Android N — the next major release of the Android operating system — is in its infancy, though it's slowly gaining weight. This is our living document of what's new. There will be updates. Many updates.
The yearly cycle of Android upgrades has started early in 2016, with the first Android N Developer Preview dropping a full month and a half ahead of the annual Google I/O developer conference. That change in and of itself should be an indicator that big things are at work here, even if they're not entirely apparent at first.
And because this is Android we're talking about, it gets a little complicated. There are lots of things that go into a major new release. Open-source code drops. Device factory images. New APIs for developers. Minute features for a small subset of Android devices that, while important, will change once the mass market starts seeing updates many months from now.
There's an awful lot to take in here. This is our living document explaining it all. It will be updated as we get new releases ahead of the "final" (nothing is ever "final") public release of Android N.
Let's get to it.
What is Android N? You can name it!
Every major release of Android gets a version number and a nickname. Android 6.x is "Marshmallow." Android 5.x is "Lollipop." Android 4.4 is "KitKat." And so on and so forth. (You can check out the full rundown of Android versions here.)
The Android N Developer Preview is just that — a developer preview. While it's now "release candidate beta" quality we still have to issue a word of caution. Tread lightly.
Alphabetically, "N" is next. We don't yet know what version number Android N will be — Android 7.x is a pretty good guess, but not certain, as Google is only predictable in its unpredictability.
And we also don't yet know what the nickname will be. Google chief Hiroshi Lockheimer teased that "We're nut tellin' you yet." Maybe that's leaning toward "Nutella" – which pretty much is the most tasty treat ever to be tasted — or maybe it's some other sort of "nut." Or a red herring. Point is, we don't have any idea just yet.
But Google's giving you a chance to name the next version of Android. You can submit your idea here. (Though Google still reserves the right to veto things.)
We do, however, have a fairly good idea for when we'll actually see Android N be released. We've been told to expect five preview builds in total, with the final public release (including the code push to the Android Open Source Project) to come in Q3 2016. That lines up with previous releases, between October and the end of the year.
That's all ancillary. What is Android N? It's a whole lot of change, from the looks of it.
Android Developer Beta
Until Android N, Developer Previews were a decidedly nerdy affair. They still are, in many respects, but they've also become much more accessible to a lot of people. And at Google I/O in May 2016, Google released a "release-candidate quality beta" of Android N.
Android developer previews really have one goal: To give app developers (and to a different extent, hardware partners) an early look at upcoming features, and the code that powers them.
Google still keeps these previews relatively close to the vest. You have to have one of Google's "Nexus" devices to run the Developer Preview. Generally those have been limited to a scant handful of devices. This year, with Android N, we've got six. The Nexus 5X, Nexus 6, Nexus 6P phones all can run the N preview, as can the Nexus 9 and Pixel C tablets. The Sony Xperia Z3 also is supported as well. The aging Nexus Player — Google's Intel-powered media player from 2015 — also can run the N preview and is important for a few media-specific (TV-specific, actually) reasons. (And, now, the Huawei Watch and LG Watch Urbane.)
The Android Developer Beta makes it far easier to play, however. Previously you'd have to manually flash factory restore images to the supported devices. That generally involves some command-line work and SDK-type stuff — not really anything a casual user wants or needs to get involved in. But the Android Developer Program allows anyone with a supported device to opt in and receive over-the-air updates for the Android N Developer Preview. All your app data remains as it was (unless and until you opt out, in which case you'll receive a downgrade over-the-air "update" and end up with a clean device.
That's good and bad. It makes it easier for anyone with a Nexus device (and for these purposes the Pixel C fits that bill) to enter the Android Developer Beta.
Android N will make updates easier on everyone
Here's how Google puts it:
Android N also adds some important new features to help keep users safer and more secure. Inspired by how Chromebooks apply updates, we're introducing seamless updates, so that new Android devices built on N can install system updates in the background. This means that the next time a user powers up their device, new devices can automatically and seamlessly switch into the new updated system image.
Update in Beta 1: We had an inkling that Google was about to shake things up when it comes to software updates, and at Google I/O we got the full lowdown. Android devices will be able to update much in the same way as Chromebooks do, with system updates installing in the background and applying themselves after a reboot.
So what's new in Android N?
If you had to boil what a major release of Android (or any operating system) means to just a single acronym, it'd be this: APIs. That's short for Application Program Interface, and it's what allows apps to do, well, anything. There are a ton of new ones coming in Android N, and we've only gotten a small taste thus far. More should be announced as we get new preview builds.
Some, however, are more anticipated than others.
This is the big one we've been waiting for. Multi-window support — that is, two apps running side by side on the same display — was hidden deep within the first Android M preview in 2015, before being unceremoniously removed in a subsequent build. It was never really meant for public consumption, nor was it ever really publicly mentioned.
That is, until Google released the Pixel C tablet in late 2015. It's a bit of an odd product with an odd 1√2 aspect ratio — the same as a standard sheet of paper. That lets you fold it in half and have the same aspect ratio — perfect for running apps side by side.
Only, the Pixel C launched without that feature. So it was pretty clear then that we'd probably see multi-window with the N release in 2016. And we now have it. And not just on tablets — it works on phones as well. This is going to be one feature that developers need to take a look at very quickly.
Multi-window will be available for phones and tablets. On the Nexus Player, apps will run picture-in-picture. And Google says "manufacturers of larger devices" (note that it doesn't say tablets or TVs or what) will have access to a "freeform" mode that lets the user scale apps however they want in addition to side-by-side multi-window.
Direct reply notifications and bundled notifications
We've been able to interact with notifications for a good long while now. Not every app supports this, but look at Gmail as an early example. Pull down the notification, and archive an email without actually having to open it. Brilliant.
Google Hangouts took this a step further, allowing you to reply to messages right from the notification try, without having to open the app, or the message itself. It's slick.
You'll now be able to have bundled notifications. Or, rather, better bundled notifications. Think off it as more information in one place. Have a half-dozen emails come in through Gmail? You'll be able to see more subject lines at one time in the notification area.
Projects Doze and Svelte
Two major features from the past year are Doze and Svelte. The former has to do with all but shutting down your phone when it's not in use, allowing minimal communications to come through and maximizing battery life when the phone was at rest and not plugged. In Android N, it gets smarter, saving even more battery when the screen is merely off. That's a big deal.
Also a big deal is even better memory management and power consumption as part of Project Svelte. The short version here is that apps shouldn't wake up as often when a change in network connectivity occurs. If you've got a lot of apps that use the particular broadcast receiver in question (and you almost certainly do), then this will help a lot. The catch here is that the app has to be updated for these Android N features for them to work.
More widespread is that Google is reining in how apps interact with the camera. Instead of every app that hooks into the camera waking up any time the camera fires off for a picture or video, they'll stay dormant. That's a good fix, and it applies to any application, not just one that targets Android N.
New accessibility features
Android N includes a new screen zoom feature as part of the accessibility suite. It appears to be pretty straightforward, making everything on the screen larger and easier to see. There are some behind the scenes things added in N to help with this.
Equally important is that you'll see accessibility features — specifically magnification gesture, font size, display size and TalkBack — available during the initial setup process. That's a really good change.
Android For Work
There are a lot of changes coming to Android For Work in Android N. This is Google's system for allowing a company to have some control over your work phone.
One big change is that companies will be able to provision phones for Android for Work by simply scanning a QR code. Here's a quick rundown of other new Android for Work features that may be coming to a work device near you:
- You might see a security challenge when trying to open a work-controlled application.
- New rules for password policies — different required password lengths, for example.
- Apps can be temporarily suspended. (We warned you that you were spending too much time on Facebook.)
- A work profile could force a VPN connection, which would fire up when the device boots.
- Better integration of work and personal contacts, if permitted.
- Devices can be remotely rebooted — useful if you have, say, a tablet tucked in some sort of kiosk housing where the power button isn't accessible.
- Better device activity logging to keep an eye out for nefarious actors. Like Stephen Dorff.
- Disabling of location functions for work apps while still allowing them for personal apps.
- Custom lock screen messages. "Think different." Or something like that.
- And other little things like locking down the wallpaper and user icon.
So, a lot of stuff that you might or might not ever see. But it's still cool to have available for businesses.
Not everybody wants to churn through their data plan just as fast as possible. Android N adds a new tool in settings to help with this. When you turn the Data Saver feature on in settings, "the system blocks background data usage and signals apps to use less data in the foreground wherever possible." You'll be able to whitelist any apps you want to ignore the Data Saver setting.
But Data Saver only kicks in when you're on a "metered" connection, and your Android device generally is smart enough to tell when this is. A mobile network is the obvious example here, but there can be metered Wi-Fi networks as well (as set by the DHCP lease).
In addition to living the in settings, Data Saver gets a notification icon and can be toggled in quick-settings.
Update in Beta 1: Starting in Developer Preview 3, apps can use use an intent to display a system dialog that lets the user directly add the app to the Data Saver exemption whitelist.
This splits things into two groups when you first power up your phone. One group is able to do things before you unlock the device. Apps like SMS messages and alarm clocks and accessibility features may need to use this.
Anything else gets siloed off in a separate storage area until the device is unlocked. That's a very cool preview feature.
Language and locale
This one gets to be a little confusing for those of use who only do English, but Android N is making languages and locations a good bit smarter, particularly for app developers. Say your device is set to the Swiss version of French, but an app only contains a different regionalization of French. Previously it would fail over to, say, an English default — without actually knowing (or caring) if the user understands English.
Now it'll be smarter about things and look for similar regionalization before running back to the default language.
As a bonus, the Google Keyboard for Android N is completely themable. You can even use your own background picture.
Scoped directories tighten access to storage
This is pretty cool. Previously if an application needed access to a storage folder beyond its own data folder, you'd have to grant it a pretty sweeping permission — reading or writing to all of external storage.
Scoped directories tightens things up both from a security standpoint as well as a matter of organization. If an app always (and only) needs access to your pictures, this new API makes it so the app only gets access to the Pictures folder and not the whole smash. It's neater, and it's safer.
Picture-in-picture and TV recording
Android TV is getting smarter. If you've got a Nexus Player (or eventually something like a NVIDIA Shield TV) you'll be able to watch video picture-in-picture as you use other applications. So you can watch Hungry Shark Evolution videos while you're playing Hungry Shark Evolution, for example. (That's pretty hard-core.)
The PIP window opens at 240x135 in a corner of the screen determined by the system. (It'll be smart about what else is drawn on the screen.) Users will have access to a menu (via holding down the Home button) that allows the PIP video to be expanded to full screen, or closed. If another video starts playing on the main display, the PIP window will close.
Android TV also is gaining some proper TV recording features. (This will be good if you have a television with Android TV baked in.) You already can pause and rewind channel playback. But in N you'll be able to save more than one session. That allows you to schedule recordings or hit record as you start watching — basic DVR functionality, really.
Update for Beta 1: In addition to all that, at Google I/O it was announced that HDR mode in 4K sets would be supported. Also, PIP features could well be baked into devices other than televisions.
Edging toward Java 8
With Android N, Google is bringing support for new Java 8 features to Android. Using the open-source Java Android Compiler Kit — JACK for short — Google allows developers to use native Java features while building applications.
This means developers won't need to write as much support code — known as "boilerplate" code — when they want to do things like create events that listen for input. Some of the features will be supported back to Gingerbread when using JACK, while others are going to be strictly Android N and above.
Maybe the best news is that Google says they are going to monitor the evolution of Java more closely and support new features while doing everything they can to maintain backwards-compatibility. These are things that the folks building the apps that make Android great love to hear.
Faster reboots after updates
Ever get excited about an over-the-air system update, only to have it take close to an hour to install? That's going to change in Android N. Google is adding a Just In Time compiler to the Android Runtime (you'll recall that the old Dalvik Runtime also had JIT) to "constantly improve the performance of Android apps as they run." This will work alongside the Ahead of Time compiler that's already part of ART.
This means better RAM management (great for lower-end devices) — and also means faster app installations, and faster reboots after system updates because apps may not have to be optimized again.
Smarter quick settings
Google's tweaking quick settings in Android N. As we found out in the first preview, swiping left or right allows for more quick settings without taking up additional space. Developers also will be able to add their own quick settings tiles. And users will be able to move the position of the individual quick settings, as well as which ones appear.
All that said — there are few major phones outside of Google's Nexus line that use these default quick settings.
New in Developer Preview 2
Vulkan graphics APIs
The Samsung Galaxy S7 was one of the first Android devices to support the new Vulkan gaming APIs (and NVIDIA's Shield Tablet just got it, too), and so it's not a huge surprise to see them make their way into the next major version of Android. (The API was only introduced in early 2016 anyway.) Why Vulkan? Because it'll allow better graphics performance without taxing the CPU — never mind the GPU. Applications will be able to tap into Vulkan directly, and not through drivers, which is a good thing.
New launcher shortcuts are removed
Update in Beta 1: Google has decided to remove the Launcher Shortcuts feature that would have allowed apps to have multiple actions on the home screen.
Here's the deal:
We've decided to defer this feature to a future release of Android. We plan to remove the Launcher Shortcuts APIs (ShortcutManager and others) from the public Android N API starting in the next developer preview.
Originally, Launcher shortcuts would have allowed applications to give specific (and multiple) options for launchers. For instance: The Android Central app could have given the option to open straight to the forums instead of the blog roll. Or directly to the podcast page. Or wallpapers. Launchers will be expected to support three to five shortcuts per app, Google says.
Google described it as:
Your app can create up to five dynamic shortcuts. When users perform a gesture over your app's launcher icon, these shortcuts appear. By dragging the shortcuts onto the launcher, users can make persistent copies of the shortcuts, called pinned shortcuts. Users can create an unlimited number of pinned shortcuts for each app.
But, we'll just have to wait.
Good news, everyone! You're getting new emoji in Android N. These will be based off Unicode 9, and will look more like people and less like yellow, muppety blobs. (This includes things like bacon, facepalms and different skin tones.)
The bad news? Stock Android devices (and their emoji) make up a small percentage of the total number of Android devices out in the world. So maybe you'll see these. And maybe you won't.
Keeping a Developer Preview in context
We're going through a lot of features as we see them on Nexus devices running the Android N Developer Preview. And while this is important (and fun!) if you're dabbling in the Developer Preview, it's also important to keep things in context.
The first thing to know is that things are going to change. Developer Previews are like that. None of this is final yet.
Second is that we need to remember that the public release of Android N is still a ways off. Months. August at the earliest, most likely.
Third is that just because Android N code becomes public doesn't meant that you're going to see an update any time soon. Unless you're on a Nexus device, that is. For everyone else, the usual rules still apply. Manufacturers do their thing to the code, carriers sign off on it, and updates eventually trickle out. As we pointed out, Android N very much appears to be laying the foundation to streamline this process. But that's still a good ways off in the future, and your device will still have to be updated to N first.
And we still have absolutely no idea what Android N features the manufacturers will be required to use. Some — Motorola, for example, and HTC more recently — keep their user interface more in line with Google's vision and what you'll find on Nexus devices. Others — Samsung, LG, Sony, etc. — do more custom work on their own, for better or worse.
The point is that any examples of Android N features that you see on Nexus devices might well not look or behave the same on your device when it eventually gets Android N.
In other words, we all need patience here. It's exciting, but this is not end-user stuff. The Android N Developer Preview is for developers.
Webview geolocation goes secure
New in Beta 1: Says Google: Starting with apps targeting Android N, the geolocation API will only be allowed on secure origins (over HTTPS.) This policy is designed to protect users' private information when they're using an insecure connection.
Android Wear gets its own N beta
<a href="name="wear">Nexus devices aren't the only ones that can play in the N beta pool. If you have an LG Watch Urbane or Huawei Watch, you can download and install the Android Wear 2.0 beta, which is based on Android N.
With it you'll get options for watch face complications, new navigation and action drawers, expanded notifications and inputs, smart replies, remote input — and standalone apps that no longer require a phone at all.
We took a quick look at the beta at Google I/O.
And you can find more and download the betas here.
Cool Nexus stuff you need to know
All those previous disclaimers aside, there's a lot of fun and exciting stuff to be found on Android N on Nexus devices. And we're working our way through them. This updated list rounds things up nicely.
- Major changes to the notification shade
- Android N's Recent apps key has grown a bunch of awesome new features
- Android N adds a potentially life-saving feature
- How Multi-Window works on the Pixel C
- Waiting on the Android N easter egg
- The Nexus launcher — and potentially the Google Launcher at some point — now sports round folders.