Android 7.0: Multi-window for everyone

Android Nougat's biggest user-facing feature has to be the new native multi-window support. The concept isn't new. Samsung's been doing it for a while, Microsoft is changing the way they do it for smaller devices and even Apple is doing it on tablets. Now it's Google's turn.

It's not an entirely new concept for Google, either. The basic Android framework has always allowed what you see on your screen to be drawn at almost any size, and the idea of having more than one view shown at a time was kicked around in more than one session at Google I/O 2011 as part of the "next-step" for Android Tablets on Honeycomb. Five years later, it's finally ready.

A good part of the reason it took longer was because baking it into Android at the system level can be tricky. Android is designed to run on just about anything with a processor. It powers microwaves, washing machines, refrigerators, sprinkler systems and more. It can even solve a Rubik's Cube with ease. The things that run Android and have a display — like your phone — also come in many different sizes. Once you change the operating system so that every app can run in a multi-window environment, it has to work everywhere.

And that's what Google did. Android 7.0 supports three types of multi-window views natively. That means any app you download can use it unless the developer of the app writes it so that it tells the system no when you try to move it to a multi-window view. And it's not just a split screen system — the other views make it even more complicated.

Android Nougat has three different types of multi-window mode.

Split-screen view is almost the same as what we see on Samsung phones right now. You can either long press a thumbnail in overview mode or long press the overview button and you'll be able to have two separate windows with separate apps running in each. You can drag and drop data between them, and the dividing line is movable so you can make one app larger than the other. Developers can optimize their apps by doing things like declaring a minimum size for the window it's in, but even if they do nothing their app will try to run in split-screen multi-window mode. Google says split-screen mode was designed for handheld devices, which means tablets and most phones.

Multi-window can also be displayed in a picture-in-picture mode. We already talked about how it works and how it will make Android TV better. When an app goes into a picture window, things like the controls and interface elements need to be hidden and the content portion shrinks to a size based on the dot pitch of the display being used. Also, apps can sprout the second view and have a picture window of one part of the app while another part of the app is in full-screen mode. The new API's support the new window view, and a developer can use it in their app without too much of a hassle. This is designed for Android TV and the people who built the actual hardware need to enable it. An app designed for picture-in-picture mode won't do anything if the user tries to put it in any other mode unless the developer has also included support for them.

Multi-window has a third view — freeform mode. So far it only officially exists in the documentation. It got hacked onto the first Android N preview, but since we haven't seen it. The Android Developer website says:

Manufacturers of larger devices can choose to enable freeform mode, in which the user can freely resize each activity. If the manufacturer enables this feature, the device offers freeform mode in addition to split-screen mode.

Notice they don't specify what a larger device is. So far it seems that this doesn't include tablets like the Pixel C, but it could be enabled on bigger devices with 12-inch screens, or Chromebooks that run Android apps. It's up to the manufacturer to decide if they want to include support.

The short time we had to play with freeform mode during the Nougat Developer Preview showed that it puts apps into floating windows than can be resized, moved around, minimized or maximized. This is just like how the software on your laptop or desktop computer works. The apps will support drag-and-drop data sharing and every app knows when it's been moved to the top layer and we're actively using it. Apps can even open in a "shrunken" view provided the developer chooses to do so. The apps each run in their own process and are independent of each other, though.

If a developer targets their app for Android 7.0 they have a few options for a multi-window view. They can define the size and the layout of the app when it's not using the full screen and make it easier to use after it's shrunk down. Because that's a real issue — some apps just don't look good or aren't very usable if they only use half of an already small display — developers can also decide to not support the feature.

If apps aren't updated, they are forced into a multi-window view by the system itself — sometimes with bad results.

If a developer doesn't update their app, it will be "forcibly resized" by the system after a dialog letting us know it's an older app that doesn't support the feature so things may be broken. If the app was written to only support a fixed size, multi-window mode is closed and that app takes the entire screen.

We already knew from hacking Samsung's Multi-Window feature that most apps just shrink down to one side or the other without much of a fuss if they aren't officially supported, and our time with the Nougat Developer Preview shows the same results. While the code used to do things is a good bit different as an Android native feature, the basic concept remains and apps that use best practices in the code look and work the same, only smaller. But not every app plays nice and we hope developers will soon update those to handle things gracefully even if they don't change anything else.

Finally, if you don't want to use multi-window on your phone, you don't have to. All Android apps will still run full screen until you tell them to change their view.

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.

  • Good read. I'm curious how this will be handled in Android with memory management. Keeping items in active memory is tricky (I'm looking at you Samsung) and working the balance of "what to keep active and what to relaunch" isn't consistent in Android. It's more annoying than anything else when I've got apps in my task manager that don't stay open, but I notice in Samsung's multi-window mode...those applications stay active for as long as I need them to - wondering how that'll work with the native Android implementation
  • Probably why the new nexus went from 2GB (on the 5x) to 4GB on the S1
  • When apps are open in a multi-window mode they are both in the foreground (the app that has focus and the user is interacting with) as far as the system is concerned. Even Samsung can't change Android into something that will close foreground apps :P
  • LG also had this with the dual window feature. I fail to see the appeal. If it was a tablet or a laptop, I would find it useful, but not on my phone. Haven't really seen anything to wow me with 7.0 unlike 6.0. Still, it isn't as bad as AW 2.0 Posted via the Android Central App
  • I'd have to agree. I've had this functionality on my phones since the Samsung GS3, then GS5, then LG G4. I've tried coming up with real uses for it but failed to do so. Cutting and pasting between two apps seems to be the most applicable use, but even that is just easier to do full screen, switching between the two apps. Interested to hear if other people actually use this feature more than once or twice as a novelty...?
  • I use it to read presentations while I take notes....what left of my job is all meetings :)
  • Surface tablet. I can't do that with half of even an 8" tablet Posted via the Android Central App
  • I would love to have it bc if I want to watch or listen something on YT or Browser , I'm limited w checking or replying emails and other forms of communication.
  • Same as mine, it failed and never ever used it..
  • Samsung also
  • Agreed. When you hear about multi-window support, it sounds like a nice addition. But on a small phone, it just doesn't seem very useful - it's just easier to jump between full-screen apps. The only time I "use" this feature on my S6 is accidentally, which is actually an annoyance. I've got a little app called Multiwindow Toggle that let's me turn off the feature so I'm not triggering it accidentally, but you need to manually turn it off after every reboot. So I'm still getting accidental triggers now and then.
  • i like to watch youtube while doing almost anything else i want to. have you ever taken a picture of something, like a numebr or an address? well you cant copy and paste it and since the toggle is so effortless, i find myself spliting the screen and transcribing it to text. Its may be a never use for you but i love it.
  • Will Moto G3 upgrade to Nougat?? Posted via the Android Central App
  • We should cause we're in the 2 year window for Motorola
  • But it will take 2 years for it to happen
  • Doubt it. Every phone that is not a nexus and from 2016 will have a hard time getting updated, regardless of whatever X company said one day. By the time they miss the headline they will say "oh no , thing is we made a bunch of testing but the phone can't handle the update for...... reasons, yeah, you can buy the latest though" I seriously, Seriously hope I am proven WRONG and the moto g3, as well as other phones from 2015 get updated. Posted via the Android Central App
  • The G3 might get Nougat. I didn't think at first it would but the G2 did get Marshmallow, so there's hope for the G3 :)
  • I still see no point in this on a phone. Why do 2 things badly instead of 1 thing well? Its fine on a desktop/laptop/tablet as you're likely to be using in landscape mode.
  • I've used it on Nexus 6 occasionally, and I like having the option. I suppose part of the usefulness depends on screen size.
  • Right, it fits well on my N6, but I wouldn't think it would on my wife's 5 inch phone screen. I'm guessing 5.5 would be a minimum prerequisite for enjoying this feature. I don't use it everyday, but it can come in handy.
  • If you've ever needed to reference one document or page in the act of working on another document or app, split screen is heaven sent. For those that really use their devices as tools, and creatively think of ways to get things done, splitscreen/multiwindow is a very welcomed addition. Granted, this is much more useful when you use an app like pen window manager that allows you to make ANY app multiwindow usable on a samsung device, not just the pre allocated ones. I'm looking forward to no longer being limited to Samsung devices as this is a major feature that I would miss too much if my phone was without.
  • its mostly for porn
  • So you'll be fapping at two porn videos at once? #TeamFrosty Nexus 6P
  • Well one screen I'll be DUOing with my wife.... a sort of 3-way if you will....
  • You win.
  • Rofl
  • One half the screen your photos and the other messages. Drag and drop. Useful!
  • Meh... I've tried that exact scenario on my iPad mini. It works and does feel a little like being "productive" but for some reason it feels way more cumbersome than even app switching. Mind you I haven't tried google's implementation, so maybe they've come up with some slick intuitive interface for it ...we'll see. But even above and beyond that, a "community" obsessed with screen size will no doubt have a rough time with 2 mini screens that are barely usable. Maybe we'll start seeing 8" phones sooner than we thought!
  • This is the only feature I have envied on the Samsung phones. Looking forward to be able to reply to texts etc whilst watching YouTube or TV on my phone.
  • So what's the process, or how does Twitch provide the free form pop up window that they've been providing for quite some time?
  • A developer has been able to define the size of a window in their own app since Android 1.5. This enables it in all apps and is user controlled.
  • I currently use the QSlide apps LG provides (mainly the calculator and calendar) from time to time. The calculator in particular is perfect for grocery shopping which I use with Wunderlist to add up my total before I get to checkout.
  • Cool to see this become native to Android. Although admittedly it's been a niche feature on my Notes (ex. Note 2 and 4) rarely using it. It was only on my OG Note 10.1 with its larger screen where it was more practical.
  • Meh. I've had multi window on my Samsung phones and tablets for years. I never use it except to show off to Apple lovers. It's not worth the trouble.
  • My question is will Samsung use Android nougats multi window or keep their own when my s7 edge is updated. Or will there be both
  • For a device with screen 6inches or less diagonally (like our phones), built in support for a stylus should go hand in hand with multi window support. The stylus provides the necessary precision to move around your screen fluently, otherwise it gets too cumbersome trying to interact between those windows or the split screen. Feels handicapped for productivity at this point, specially on a phone. Kinda like most large phones that have the moniker 'note' in their names, but do not come equipped with any support for styluses or digitizers. Posted via the Nexus 6P!
  • Funny they use Pokémon Go on the title. I have a feeling Niantic will be the first to enable the no-multiwindow flag on their app. Posted via TCP/IP
  • C'mon. It would be great to run Ingress and Pokemon Go at the same time. I'm already out at the portals; I might as well capture a few monsters while I build fields.
  • Just give Marshmellow to my S5 please Samsung and I'll be happy.
  • I prefer the freedom of the way Samsung currently handles multi-window. I sure hope they keep their more functional multi-window offering. I use multi-window constantly. My only complaint is that more apps do not support/allow it and root is required to force support.