Ambient Display on the Nexus 6

Ambient Display
Ambient Display (Image credit: Android Central)

The display is the notification indicator — for better or worse

You may have heard folks talk about "Ambient Display" on the Nexus 6, with comparisons to Motorola's "Moto Display" that debuted on their 2013 product line. That's fine and dandy, because the two are pretty comparable (and Motorola built the Nexus 6). But I'm betting a good many of us have never used either, and aren't quite sure what all the hoopla is about.

We're going to break it down a bit so we all are on the same page and know a little more about it.

Ambient Display is simply a new (sort of new) way to show you notifications. It's interactive — meaning the notifications do something when you press or tap on them — and uses the same notification "rules" the status bar does. If a notification would appear up top while you're using your Nexus 6, it will also appear on the Ambient Display. Persistent and recurring notifications — like the Google Now weather card or the "open Wifi network available" one aren't shown. This is only for things that the system assumes you want to know about right away.


It works like this: Imagine your Nexus 6 is powered on, but the screen is off and it's sitting on your desk or coffee table. When a notification arrives, it appears in a black and white on the screen. If you have more than one notification waiting, you'll have more than one on the Ambient Display, each contained inside it's own rectangular box. The screen goes dark again after a short period, but Ambient Display kicks in again when you pick up your Nexus 6.

While looking at the notifications in Ambient Display, you can tap on one. Your screen will light up (in full color), and you'll be told to tap on the notification again to open it in the associated application. From there, everything is "normal."

Finally, for those of us who don't want to use this feature, you can toggle it on or off in the Nexus 6 display settings.

Display settings

For better or worse, Ambient display has supplanted a notification LED. Some folks like seeing the LED flash from across the room to let them know they have a notification, while others prefer the extra information Ambient Display offers. Neither is better than the other. The issue is that the LED on the Nexus 6 (yes, there is a hidden RBG LED in the top speaker grill) is not in operation without a little bit of hackery. We can't help but think Google should have enabled this with a setting to toggle it on or off. But they didn't.

All in all, it's pretty cool. Though it looks a bit different and you're lacking the sensors that turn things on when you move your hand in front of the screen, it really is similar to Motorola's Moto Display.

Jerry Hildenbrand
Senior Editor — Google Ecosystem

Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.

  • Add this to the list of head scratchers of the Nexus 6. I like being able to have the ambient display, but really wish it worked like the Moto X. Also still wish we could simply silence our phone completely without having to turn it off or change priority notifications.
  • The volume issue isn't a Nexus 6 issue. Go check this out. It's the S5 with the factory Samsung Android 5 release for that handset. Same issue with sound.
  • the day you guys stop complaining about priority mode will be the day i start enjoying forums again. you guys annoy the shit out of me.
  • Cool story bro. You too.
  • What's so hard about hitting vol rocker once and hitting none, and there you go mute, use it daily at work, not as big a deal as some seem to try and make it
  • Notifications don't work then. That's not even a work around. Let's face it, if you use this phone (or Android 5.0+ in general) in a business setting the sound modes are terrible. Without messing around in every apps settings you either lose notifications or have to listen to the phone vibrate. Not to mention system sounds ignore priority. It worked better during beta when you could long press the bell for true silent mode. It amazes me some people think a company can do nothing wrong.
  • It's not that they did it wrong, they just a took a different approach to silent mode. If anything since people are disagreeing with it, we could say it's flawed. Posted via Android Central App
  • or hit vol rocker then the blue bell and bingo you got silent mode
  • Because I don't want to have to go into settings to turn media volume down before opening up media, and priority/none do absolutely nothing to media volume?
  • I have a Moto x but want to get a Nexus 6. How are they different? I've heard Nexus 6 isn't as reliable. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Other than the obvious size and internals, you lose a lot of the hands free functions that make the Moto X line so nice. While I love the larger size of the phone, man it sure has me considering selling it due to the camera freezing up and random reboots, though the reboots have nearly stopped. I'm guessing there are still a few major Lollipop bugs yet to kill because I would hate for it to be hardware related. I haven't looked around yet, but does anyone know if there are any Kit Kat roms built that would run on the 6?
  • Have the nexus 6 now, has the moto x 2014. The camera on the nexus 6 if so much better than moto x. Not sure why you are getting random reboots and camera crashes. Don't have any.
  • Probably just me and my luck with it. It was fine, when I first updated it back in December but has since gone back to getting a tad bit laggy. When it does work though, it does take some wonderful shots. Really would rather not have to do another factory reset on it.
  • Thought I was going crazy wondering why my phone is always turning off or rebooting.....glad I'm not the only one but not glad we're having these issues
  • This why I use Tasker. Put's the Moto X and Nexus 6 stock voice control combined look like child's play.
    Since you can root the N6 and (some) X's. Tasker>MotoVoice+GoogleNow.
  • Utter is also nice. Have you tried it?
  • Thanks Jerry....
  • I would love to use this on the Nexus 6, if it weren't made essentially redundant by my Moto 360. For those without Android Wear, I think it's a great concept and a very well-implemented feature. Posted via the aptly-named 'Shamu'.
  • "...While looking at the notifications in Ambient Display, you can tap on one. Your screen will light up (in full color), and you'll be told to tap on the notification again to open it in the associated application..." I assume you still have to unlock to get to the associated application. The whole new Lollipop lockscreen notification system only works if you don't set up your phone to require a password or pattern to unlock. And if you want any privacy at all, you're gonna want to set Gmail and various other apps to hide notification contents on the lockscreen. So if you're operating in any reasonably secure mode, you end up with an okay looking notification system that doesn't really provide any useable new functionality. I only wish they'd let you flag certain apps, say Yahoo Weather, and let you open them from the notification with a single tap. The app comes up in 'pinned' mode, the back and home buttons take you back to the lockscreen. There, suddenly the thing's useful. As it stands, to do anything you need to swipe up to bring up the password screen and then enter your password. And for what - just so your notifications can show up big and pretty - with no way to actually act on them. The old lockscreen showed you notification icons up top and let you enter your password without the swipe up. I.e., it was *more* functional. But with a simple 'launch from notification without password' flag, the new screen could be very nice for certain functions that you do a lot and don't care about password protecting. Checking the weather. Playing the next move in a multiplayer game. Stuff you do a lot, unlock the phone for - and then turn it back off.
  • You can setup truted places (like your home) or trusted devices (like a smartwatch), and when you are in 100m of your home or your watch is near the phone, the screen lock will be turned off automatically. It is a pretty handy feature if you ask me. On the street or at a random place you'll have secure lockscreen, at your home or places where you feel comfortable, you don't have to use it, and you get to the apps directly from notificaitons. And if ambient display is on, and your screen lock is off at the moment, if you swipe up on the ambient display, it'll unlock right away and take you to the homescreen/latest app where you left off.
  • I know about those features, and I'm sure they're nice. But seriously, it's kind of lame to make the default behavior one that's only useful if you've gone out and bought some companion device. Make it an option, then. Still, my special 'apps that don't need a password' feature would be a really nice compromise. By the way, I tried face unlock, which was pretty cool in my brightly lit office, but didn't work anywhere else.
  • While the moto X has a hell of a notification design, this is a very close second (some would argue otherwise.) I just appreciate the device making use of the amoled display. Nice step up from the nexus five, which is still my daylie driver : )
  • Another unabashed piece of puffery, with not one word about Ambient Display's rampant inconsistency. Posted via the Android Central App
  • But it works fine here. I can't make shit up.
  • Mine doesn't. Seems mine works like Benjamin up there. The only thing consistent about it is the inconsistency. Sometimes I can leave the phone sitting on the desk and it will light up 5-10 times with the same notification. No movement, no new notification, just lights up. Other times it doesn't light up at all. When I pick it up, sometimes the display lights up, sometimes it doesn't. Having to press the power button to turn the display on when it's supposed to come on when I pick it up is massively annoying.
  • My nexus 6 also lights up when it wants to. Sometimes without any movement whatsoever... Then at times it doesn't work when I want it to. I wish it was just a notification light. Double tap to unlock would have been awesome too BTW.. A phone this big is crying for that feature. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Double tap to wake is possible with a custom kernel, such as Franco Kernel. Posted via the Android Central App
  • I see the same issues you mention. Sort of frustrating from time to time.
  • +1 Posted via Android Central App
  • Why didn't you consult Benjy for this article? His opinions and experiences matter you know. Posted via the Android Central App
  • They're not opinions. They're facts, which have been proven out by the responses thereto. Like almost every article written here, this one sung the praises of Google without one iota of objective commentary regarding flaws and bugs. 1000 responses to my Google Product Forums thread about random reboots, and not one word of it from Android Central "editors". Objective journalism at its finest... Posted via the Android Central App
  • I love the nexus 6. I love this phone. I love it. Ambient display is cool. BTW, I love my nexus 6. Posted via Nexus 6
  • Same here. Current Android the way its supposed to be, bloat and skin free. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Lol the way it is supposed to be. What a joke. What barren and buggy is supposed to be the norm? Posted by my soon to be retired Note 3
  • Barren and buggy? Are we talking about your note 3 here? Have you even owned the Nexus 6 or are you going off of some facts that you read on a Gizmodo article?
  • The only reason I don't use ambient display is because after about 30 seconds a notification no longer flashes rendering it basically useless as a notification system. I use light flow (root required) or led blinker (for onscreen led notification using the amoled screen without root) for a nice notification that doesn't time out.
  • If that is the case, yes not as useful as on Moto X. X will stay on till you address notification. Posted via the Android Central App
  • With my GWR, I haven't found Ambient Display all that useful, and my phone is never far enough away from me for an LED to be more useful than a tone of vibration. In my use case, it makes no difference. I'm actually tempted to turn off AD and see what happens to battery life... I already only use 30% over 12-14 hours (with wifi, Bluetooth, GPS, phone radio all set to on - no skimping here) thanks to franco.kernel and Clean ROM. Of course, that's root/custom ROM that many people won't do, but it's the very reason I bought the Nexus in the first place; customizability and developer support. Posted via the AC App on my Nexus 6
  • Do you think in any future updates Google might unlock the LED for use?
  • There has to be a reason it was included on the board. I can't even try to guess, but I certainly hope so — all options possible should be made available.
  • In the Moto x 2013 it's there too and only used when the battery is so low that it cannot use anything else to indicate it's still receiving a charge. There was some attempts on xda to get it working for notifications but I don't think they ever got it working. I'm betting Moto put it in and it probably performs the same way. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Turned mine off. Didn't like my display Turing on every 2 minutes or unlocking issues picking up the phone to pocket it. Also it kills the battery for obvious reasons. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Every two minutes? My Moto X is every 5 seconds and doesn't kill the battery. Turning on your phone every 2 minutes kills your battery. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Doesn't this depend on whether or not you have the low power processor driving this?
  • I don't think I'd buy a smartphone without a working notification LED. Seems like a dumb thing to say, but here I am saying it.. LOL. I prefer to let the light blink away indefinitely until I'm ready to address it. Ambient display is not serving this purpose imo Posted via the Android Central App
  • I used to think the same but after owning 2013 moto x I could never go back. Nothing like touching the screen and seeing the notification, also it does save on battery. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Samsung does both and it isn't bad. Sitting in a meeting I see the led go off, wave my hand and see if it is an email or a text. I would kill to be able to see a preview of whatever message, but I can live with that setup Posted by my soon to be retired Note 3
  • Moto X 2014 here, I"ll fix this for ya. Nothing like waving your hand over the screen and seeing the notification, also it does save on battery. Also, "OK Computer, What's up?" when your phone is across the room and you just want to hear notifications is pretty awesome.
  • FWIW the LED can be used on the N6; it just requires root, and the paid version of Light Flow. Posted via the Android Central App
  • I never used the LED notification light on my Nexus 5 since I got an LG G Watch, and I still don't miss it on the N6. Also, I love t the way the ambient display activates when I take the phone out of my pocket, and then it's just a quick swipe up to unlock. The case I use makes it hard to find the power button, so anything that saves me from using it is a plus. Posted via the Android Central App
  • I like the way it works, I just wish I could control the viewing time. If not exact, at least with a short, normal and/or long setting.
  • I like the ambient display, but when sitting on my desk it keeps coming on for no apparent new notifications at about every minute. So I went back to no lock screen.
  • I like the ambient display, but when sitting on my desk it keeps coming on for no apparent new notifications at about every minute.
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  • What the actual fuck is this? Posted via the finally lag-free LG G3 on CM12
  • Spam.
  • Hmm.. isn't that Nokias thing? They did it a while ago. Give credit to them. I wish my note 4 had this feature. Posted via the Android Central App
  • If my memory serves correctly, the original moto x debuted with this feature before the windows phones were updated with "glance". On windows phone, the screen showed info but it wasn't interactive. Also, you should look at the app acdisplay to mimic moto display. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Two words for you Google/Nexus/Motorola warriors "Mobile Nations". Think about it and figure it out. Stop being such fanboys already. sdrater Posted via the Android Central App
  • Wish you could set ambient display for notifications without it turning on when you pick up the phone. The gesture often goes off when the phone is just sitting on my bed and gently wobbles, but hardly ever works when I just take it out my pocket. Double-tap to wake would have been a better option imo.
  • I like the idea of ambient display but it is woefully inconsistent. Mainly not firing off when new notifications. But also seems really inconsistent in the interval between fading in and out and stops all together. Also find it too dim during the day and too bright at night. Being in an enterprise environment I need to know if I have any notifications. An LED with Light Flow had been great and the Moto X was pretty good too. Hopefully Google is working on addressing these issues. But if this is there idea on how ambient display is to work, I want my LED back. Thinking about going rooted and hacking the LED.
  • not sure what the issue is...i mean more customization options are great but you can just lift the phone off the desk or take it out of your pocket and it displays your notifications if it wasn't pulsing before.
  • I love ambient display, but unfortunately it does show some persistent notifications. I use Weather Timeline for my weather, and it's persistent notification always shows up on ambient display. It's annoying.
  • Just got the Nexus 6 today, having come from a Nokia Lumia 1020 and I love the ambient display. I'm so used to the glance screen on Windows Phone, that it was nice to find a similar'ish feature on my Nexus 6. After a limited time though, I would say I prefer the ambient display. There's something strangely satisfying about picking my phone up and seeing the time and notifications just fade in slightly. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Why even include the LED if it can't be used without tinkering around in a third party app? Posted via the Android Central App
  • Loving having both, CM12 with LightFlow installed enables the LED! :-) Posted via the Android Central App