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Hands-on with Google's first Android M preview

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The big stuff's not here yet, but there are still obvious changes

After loading Google's first developer preview of Android M onto a Nexus 6, we've just had our first peek at what's to come when the big update is ready for consumer release in Q3. For starters, the majority of the most important features that Google announced today are nowhere to be found. The very cool Now on Tap feature isn't yet active (hopefully that'll come in a later preview update), Android Pay's not yet ready, and obviously the Nexus 6 isn't going to do much in the way of scanning fingerprints. So what's left? Well, the first developer preview shows that Google has been working to refine and polish the work that began in Android 5.0 Lollipop. 

Android M lock screen

The first thing you'll notice is a slightly tweaked font on Android M's home screen. It's not a drastic departure from the Roboto of old, but it's a change you'll spot almost immediately. Unlock the phone and you'll be greeted by a very familiar homescreen; the only thing that's new here is a wallpaper. But tap on the app launcher and then you'll see the first significant shift. Google's app drawer now scrolls vertically rather than horizontally, with letters on the left side that keep you from getting lost in a sea of installed apps. Similarly, you can now search from within the app tray itself, another helpful addition for those who've downloaded a healthy selection of content from Google Play. The widgets picker shares this same vertical interface.

Android M app drawer

Google's making permissions and app privacy a huge focus with Android M. When developers start writing apps for the new OS, you'll be prompted to grant access to contacts, photos, your location, and other information only when those apps actually need it. That's arguably a better approach than having users sign off on a long, confusing list immediately upon downloading any app from Google Play. But since Android M was just unveiled today, permissions mostly still work the same way they always have.

You can however take more control by heading to the Apps section of Settings, choosing an app, and tapping on Permissions. Here, you're able to shut down access to individual things like contacts, calendar, the microphone, SMS, and so on. Obviously this can cause very real problems with current Android apps, so Android M warns you that being selective about permissions could cripple apps until developers are on board with Android M.

Android M

So what else? Like we said, this first preview is a bit thin on the big stuff. But there are more nice changes if you look around. Everything that pertains to your Google account (connected apps, security, etc.) is now grouped together right in a "Google" section of settings; the stand-alone app shortcut is history. The confounding Do Not Disturb mode introduced in Android 5.0 is now a lot more straightforward, both in terms of setup and Android M making sure you know what each setting actually does.

Do Not Disturb

If you dig into the developer options, there's a "Dark theme" setting that changes Android M's settings menu to dark gray. (There's also an "automatic" selection that presumably chooses based on the ambient light around you.) Is this something that could extend to Google Now, the app drawer, and other areas of Android that make heavy use — maybe too much — of white? We won't know until later builds come along.

Dark theme

That really applies to most of the best stuff Google showed on stage today; it's just not ready for testing yet. But Google has pledged to update Android M developer preview more frequently than previous developer previews, so the new features should come fast and frequent over the summer and as we head towards Android M's Q3 launch. It runs pretty smoothly right now, but we'd still recommend against installing this if a Nexus is your one and only smartphone. But one brand new Google thing is available right now: Google Photos. It sounds pretty great, so you should probably go give it a try — especially since it's free.

No Now on Tap

But wait... there is one last pretty nice addition. And hat tip to Android Police for spotting it just as we went to publish this story. Like many third-party Android launchers, Google is now giving users the ability to customize the quick settings pulldown to their liking. Similar to the the dark theme, this is also buried in the developer menus. Head into developer options, toggle "Show SystemUI Tuner" to on, and then head back to the main settings list. The new System UI tuner (Google really needs to rename this) icon is at the bottom. Tap that, and you can make quick settings truly yours.

Android M quick settings