Android N may not yet have a name, but we already know a lot about it. Google has been iterating on its ubiquitous mobile OS far more publicly than usual, issuing a couple of developer preview versions earlier this year and now releasing a "beta-quality" build that it says is ready for regular use.
You can download the beta if you have a Pixel C tablet or Nexus phone as recent as the 6. If you’re not quite ready to take the plunge on non-final software, however (and you probably shouldn't on your primary phone), here’s what’s in the release — and what’s coming down the line.
Android’s lack of splitscreen multitasking felt especially pressing last year with the underwhelming release of the productivity-focused Pixel C tablet, and now N is putting things right. The splitscreen feature works on phones, too, and is accessed by holding down the task-switching button. It’s pretty intuitive, and on a Nexus 6 is kind of like having two BlackBerry screens at once.
Apps don’t necessarily need to be updated to use this feature. Some, like Instagram, aren't selectable at all yet, but others like Twitter and The New York Times load fine in the smaller format even though they flash up a "may not work" warning first.
The task-switching button has another trick in Android N, too: double-tap it to instantly switch to your most recently used app. Google calls it Quick Switch, but it’s basically Alt-Tab for Android.
Oh, and if all this hot multitasking ability has made you open just way too many apps? Now there’s a Clear All button so you can close everything at once.
The notifications shade has been completely revamped in N. Things are much tighter visually, with a full-width design and smaller icons making better use of space. Notifications are more functional, too — you can now expand them twice successively to see more information and take action. There are also little buttons to expand each notification if you don’t feel like swiping.
Another neat feature is the ability to long-press on each notification to control how you’ll receive alerts from the app in future. Getting too many thirsty messages begging you to go back to that free-to-play game you abandoned weeks ago? Long-press the notification and you can choose whether to display them silently in the future or block them altogether.
And my favorite update to the notification shade so far is the way quick toggles are integrated. On Marshmallow, you had to drag down the shade and then swipe down a second time to access things like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth toggles, but N includes a row of five icons above your notifications. You’ll still need to swipe again to see the rest, but the icons are customizable so you can pick the ones you use the most.
The settings menu has also undergone a welcome revamp. The first thing you’ll notice is at the top, where there are now suggestions for things you may not have done with your phone yet, like set up email accounts or voice commands. Each option on the list also gives you a little slice of relevant information, which could save you some menu-diving — you can check your storage capacity, current Wi-Fi network, data usage, and so on right from the menu.
Another change sees persistent settings reflected in the list itself when activated — for example, turning on tethering or the new Data Saver feature will give you a hard-to-miss turquoise toggle right at the top of the list. This can be swiped away, just like a notification.
Although there’s nothing really new in the current public beta, VR is a big piece of the Android N puzzle. Google is launching an entire new Android-powered platform called Daydream that succeeds its Cardboard initiative. You’ll need a Daydream-certified phone with the right kind of display and sensors, and they’ll work with a new VR mode in Android to improve performance inside headsets.
About that headset — Google is only showing off a reference design right now, along with a simple wireless motion controller. Companies will be able to produce their own headsets that fit the Daydream standard, and Samsung, HTC, LG, Xiaomi, Huawei, ZTE, Asus, and Alcatel are all on board to make Daydream-compatible phones.
As for content, Google is working on VR-ready versions of its own apps like YouTube, Street View, and Photos, and it’s collaborating with partners like Netflix, Ubisoft, and Electronic Arts. The Daydream platform is set to launch this fall.
Okay, so this might not be the biggest deal in the world, but there are now a ton of themes for the stock Google keyboard. You can choose various colors, add or remove the borders between keys, and even set a photo as a backdrop. It’s honestly kind of neat.
Google claims performance increases in various directions with just about every version of Android, and this one’s no different. N is adopting a new graphics API called Vulkan, which is also starting to see use in PC gaming and should help deliver more efficient visual performance on phones and tablets.
Android N also has a new JIT compiler, which Google says will improve battery life and result in apps that can be 50 percent smaller while installing 75 percent faster.
Google is updating its set of emoji for Android N, giving its quirky blobs a more uniform appearance. The company is also proposing that the Unicode Consortium adopt 13 new emoji to better represent professional women in the universal character set.
Android N doesn’t have a version number yet, but that’s not stopping Google from putting in its traditional Easter egg. If you’re not aware of these, each version of Android has a hidden visual flourish accessed by rapidly tapping the version number in the system settings.
Okay, it's not really a big new feature. But we would all be sad if it weren't there.
This one is a little underwhelming, to be honest — it appears to be pretty much just the N logo. But hey, let’s give Google time to pick an actual name for N first; no doubt we’ll get a nougaty or New York cheesecakey Easter egg with the final version.