Google has announced that the latest version of Android, 7.0 Nougat, is rolling out to newer Nexus devices starting today. It’s a good upgrade, but only available if you have a recent Nexus device like the Nexus 6, 6P, 5X, Pixel C, or Nexus 9 tablet — and it will take some time for everybody's devices to receive the over-the-air update. I've been using the various public betas that have been running since March of this year and most of the bugs have been worked out.
Nougat isn’t radically different from the last version, Marshmallow, but does add a handful of notable user-facing features. Some of them, like improved multitasking, are long overdue and really useful on tablets. The rest are tweaks around the edges — but there are bigger changes underneath that should make Android faster and more secure, too.
But the story of Nougat isn't really whether it’s any good. Instead, it’s the same old Android tale: unless you have a Nexus, it could be a few months, it could be a year, before it becomes available on your phone. The real story of Nougat isn't happening today, it's going to happen over the next few months as we watch to see which Android phones will actually be updated.
What kind of story is this? For Nexus owners, it’s a heartwarming yarn. For nearly everybody else, it’s a mystery.
With Nougat, Google has added a major feature that’s been a long time coming: split-screen support. It’s been available on Samsung, Apple, and Windows devices for some time now, and now Google has weighed in with a system-level version of it that will hopefully become well-supported by all apps. It also works on phones instead of just on tablets — which is smart given how big a lot of Android phones are these days.
It works thusly: you long-press the square “Overview” button and your main window slides up to the top or over to the left, depending on whether you are using your Android device in portrait or landscape. In the remaining space, you get the good old multitasking view of your open apps, where you can either pick one or hit the home button to launch something else. You can adjust the size of each window and switch out the bottom / right one the usual way, by tapping the multitasking or home button to choose another app.
Every mobile split-screen system takes a bit of getting used to. The UX for all of them is confusing at first, and so Nougat’s variation also takes some time to understand. For me, it clicked when I realized that the core behavior going into split screen is essentially the same as “pinning” the main app to the top or left, and then the other screen can be switched as usual.
Split screen is long overdue on tablets
Once you get it, there are just the devils in the details to worry about. Theoretically, you can drag and drop text or images in supported apps, but in practice I never got this to work reliably. Some apps don’t fully support split screen, while others work fine but pop up a warning anyway. One nice bit: Chrome now has a menu option called “Move to other window” which does exactly what it says — so you can have two browser windows open side by side.
I find that split screen is essential and useful on a tablet like the Pixel C. Thanks to Nougat, the Pixel C has gone from a device that made next to no sense to a device that makes just enough sense to consider (but really only if you’re wholly invested in the Android ecosystem). On a phone it’s a little less important than on a tablet, but nevertheless really helpful in a pinch.
There is another multitasking tweak that I found myself using all the time, though. Double tapping the square button immediately switches to the last-used app. I hadn’t realized how much of my app switching comprised just toggling between two recent apps, and now that I can do it so easily I can’t really imagine going back.
Last and least: Nougat reduces the number of apps that appear in the multitasking view and adds a “clear all” button at the top of it. Google’s recommendation has long been that there’s no need to quit out of apps to improve Android’s performance and I don’t see any reason that would be different in Nougat. But if you like getting rid of things, well, have at it.
Besides multitasking, the other notable interface change comes with notifications. Nougat finally has a system-level way for apps to let you quick-reply to messages right inside their notifications. It works as you’d expect: when you get a message, you can drag down on the card, tap reply, and then type and send — all without opening the app.
Notifications are now full-width on the screen and stacked right atop each other instead of appearing as separated cards. You can do more with them, too: apps can “bundle” multiple alerts into a single notification, which can then be expanded by dragging down on it. It’s a smart system that I like using: you can triage notifications quickly or interact with them one by one, depending on your needs.
A long press brings up notification options for that app, which makes it much easier to quiet noisy apps. You can still dismiss notifications by swiping them away, of course. And Nougat also continues one of Android’s best notification features: they act exactly the same whether you’re in the notification drawer, the lock screen, or seeing them drop down from the top of your screen.
Those last two things — swiping to dismiss and consistent behavior no matter where you’re seeing the notification — are features that Apple still hasn’t figured out on iOS (even in the upcoming iOS 10 beta). Android has long had an advantage in useful and consistent notifications, and now that quick replies are standard on it I don’t see that lead diminishing.
Tweaks: for better and worse
The other thing to say about notifications is that Google has finally figured out that everybody wants to just see the quick settings panel at the top of the notifications tray right away. So now there are buttons across the top for your most-used settings toggles and you can customize their order, too. This is also where you’ll find Nougat’s Easter egg, a little game that lets you put treats out for virtual cats.
There are lots more nips and tucks throughout the new Android OS. The settings app is a little more informative now — it shows key details right on the main screen. There’s a Data Saver feature for limiting what apps can do when you’re on a cellular connection. Google’s keyboard — not technically tied to Nougat — can be themed with different colors or even a photo. There are more emoji with proper support for multiple skin tones. The camera app has been cleaned up a bit — and now you can twist the phone like a screwdriver when the camera is open to quickly swap between the front and rear camera. All of these tiny changes move Android in the right direction, making it more functional without adding too much visual complexity.
Weirdly, my biggest gripe about Nougat is related to the thing you’d expect Android to be stupendously good at: Google search. It’s kind of a mess. Google Now doesn’t really seem to be getting any better at figuring out what information will be useful to me. Google Now On Tap is still pretty frustrating: it’s supposed to figure out what’s on the screen and return relevant results, but usually returns no results or, at best, not very good ones.
But even setting that aside, the Google search app itself just seems lost and disconnected from the rest of the operating system. When you search, it puts the results into its own custom browser window that feels custom-designed for one-off searches instead of persistent research. When you Google, how often are you opening results in tabs? I do it all the time, but it’s a huge hassle on Nougat. I wrote last month that Google’s apps seem better on the iPhone than they do on Android, and the Google app itself is the prime candidate.
It’s worst on the Pixel C, because hitting the search button on the keyboard now just brings up Now On Tap. Which means it reads the screen, fails to figure anything out, and then forces you to tap the search field to start typing. Then, when you do, it pulls up the Google app for search results. And, incredibly, the Google app doesn’t support split screen — which means that every time you search, the windows you have open are banished to the multitasking screen.
Behind the screens
A lot of what’s new in Nougat are features you can’t really see. I’m talking about deeply nerdy (but important) stuff like a JIT compiler for ART apps and support for the Vulkan API for 3D graphics. The former should provide some performance gains while the latter will help Android games look way better. Google also fixed up the way Android handles media so that it’s more secure, added file-based encryption, and added some features for enterprise users.
VR on Android will come later this year
Doze, which was introduced in last year’s Marshmallow OS, is Android’s battery-saving feature that shuts apps down when they’re not it use. Previously, it kicked in when your phone or tablet was sitting on a table. Now, it throttles stuff back whenever your screen is off. It should be a boon for battery life, but it’s hard for me to really say how much it will help just yet. Even though Google assures me the only difference between the final beta and the official version are minor bug fixes, I still feel like beta software can be rough on battery life. I haven’t noticed battery life being significantly better on my Nexus 5X.
My favorite structural improvement is also the one most richly steeped in Schadenfreude: seamless updates. Like Google’s Chrome OS, future Android devices will ship with two storage partitions for the OS. That allows Google to quietly send your phone a whole new operating system and install it on the partition that isn’t running your phone. When it’s done and checked out, the next time you reboot, the new version starts working and the old version sits there — waiting to be replaced with the next version.
It’s a super smart system and will mean that future Android updates will happen with much less waiting and worry. Except that, well, if you don’t have a Nexus device there’s no telling when or even if you’ll get an operating system update.
My gripes about the Google App aside, overall I am happy with Nougat. Think of it along the lines of the smaller updates we get every other year on Mac or the way that Microsoft is treating Windows updates today: it’s a little bit iterative, but builds the groundwork for future updates.
One of those future updates will be Daydream, Google’s upcoming VR platform. It’s not part of this Nougat release, so I haven’t addressed it here (and a disclosure: my wife works for Oculus so I won’t be addressing it when it is released).
But, as I mentioned early on, the bigger story here is not whether Nougat is a worthwhile OS update; it is. No, the real story is which phones will receive it and when. We don’t know how long it will be before a significant number of users have access to it, either via upgrades to existing devices or support from upcoming devices. All we can do is read the tea leaves.
No matter who you blame, the Android update situation is still a mess
This is a very old story, it’s something Android users have always and will continue to deal with. At the risk of belaboring it, let me just tell some small parts again. Only 15 percent of devices are on last year’s version of Android Marshmallow. Android has been rocked by serious security problems in the past year, and so the debate around updates has shifted from being about users who want the latest features to being about users who need to be protected from hackers and malware.
So instead of asking about the latest version of Android, we’re asking about the new monthly security updates that Google is issuing. And the answers to that new, less ambitious but more important question are not good, as Android Central pointed out in February. Now, buying a new Android phone demands that the consumer look into whether the manufacturer has committed to those monthly updates and if it has a good history of keeping that promise (so far: Samsung, HTC, and BlackBerry are doing pretty well, Moto and Sony are not).
It’s possible that this time will be different, but I’m not optimistic. Every year Google tries a different tactic to strong-arm manufacturers and carriers into updating their phones. The latest is a surprisingly early developer beta program for Android N — it was first released way back in March. Maybe that will help, and there is at least one good sign: the LG V20 will be launching with Android Nougat before Google launches the next Nexus phones. It’s a start, but right now the burden of proof is on Google to convince us that more will follow.
The only reliable way to be up to date is to get a Nexus
We’ve all become inured to the reality that the only real way to reliably get the latest version of Android is to get a Nexus phone. Luckily, Google has mostly been doing a pretty good job with its Nexus line lately. CEO Sundar Pichai has promised that Google would be “more opinionated” about the design of Nexus phones going forward. I’m very curious to see exactly what that means — and whether that opinion extends to trying harder to sell more Nexus phones.
I’m curious because given how recalcitrant manufacturers and carriers have been about updating Android and given how ineffectual Google has been at forcing them to do so, selling more Nexus phones looks like the only way Google has left to reliably get people on its latest Android operating system.
It’s been a problem for as long as Android has been around and even though it’s not new, it’s still a problem. Nougat is a solid update, it’s a shame it will take so long for anybody to see it.