Google Android N for Tablets Preview: Split-Screen Multitasking (Finally!) & More

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Google hasn’t officially named the next version of its mobile operating system, just given a temporary code-name. But it is making beta versions of Android N available for testing before the full release.

Google released a third one of these in May, and this was the first that the company suggested the general public install. We installed it on a Nexus 9 and used it for several days to see if we think average users should really try it.

Note: This is an updated version of an article originally based on earlier Android N previews. It contains a new section on performance improvements, and our latest thoughts on this operating system’s stability.

Side-by-Side Multitasking

Last fall, Apple’s iOS 9 gained the ability to display two applications next to each other on an iPad screen. Android users criticized Google for not incorporating the feature in Android 6.0. The company obviously listened, and so side-by-side multitasking is the most significant addition to Android N.

Using this new feature is relatively intuitive. With an application already on the screen, pressing and holding the Recent Apps button will push the first app to one side and bring up the list of recent applications in the other half the display, allowing the user to pick the second.

Android N Review: Side-by-Side Multitasking

Android N Side-by-Side Multitasking

In portrait mode, the two applications are at the top and bottom of the display, while in landscape they are on the left and right.

The user can move the dividing line between the two either way so that the screen is split 50/50 or 66/33. To give one of the applications the whole screen, move the divider the edge of the screen to expand that app to 100%.

Some developers are going to have to tweak their software to support side-by-side multitasking. Opening many third-party applications, and even some of Google’s own, results in a note that warns this “App might not work with split-screen“. However, virtually every application we tried worked in this mode, despite the warning.

The ability to display two applications at once is a very welcome improvement to Android N, and will make tablets running it noticeably better for the whole range of users, including both businesspeople and consumers. It will be more useful on larger tablets, of course, possibly spurring sales of full-size models running this operating system.

A note on Google deve lower website says, “Manufacturers of larger devices can choose to enable freeform mode, in which the user can freely resize each activity,”  which will allow multiple applications to float in resizable windows. As this feature isn’t currently enabled on our Nexus 9, we were not able to test it.

The picture-in-picture mode that is part of the Android TV version of this OS is not coming to the tablet version of Android N.

Direct Reply Notifications

Any Android user knows that dragging down from the top of their device’s screen pulls down a “window shade” with links to commonly-used settings, as well as a list of notifications. With the upcoming version, it’s possible to respond to many of these notifications without needing to open the application they are associated with.

Android N Review: Direct Reply Notifications

Android N Direct Reply Notifications

For example, the alert in Android N that there are updates available for third-party apps includes a button to install all the updates right from the notice. Users can also choose to reply to or delete incoming email messages directly from their notifications.

This is a nice enhancement that will make people’s days easier.

New Section: Performance Improvements

Google has promised that a new JIT compiler will be able to install third-party applications 75% faster. To test this, we compared installing Microsoft OneDrive onto our test Nexus 9 with installing the same application on a device running Android 4.4.1 (KitKat). Not counting the time spent downloading the software, installation under Android N took approximately 5 seconds, while the older model required about 33 seconds. While the KitKat device has a slower processor, it nevertheless seems clear that app installations are indeed going to be much quicker.

The goal of Preject Svelte is to allow third-party applications to require less storage space, but Google doesn’t seem to have accomplished yet. When installed on the KitKat model, OneDrive requires 40.2MB, but on the Android N tablet it takes slightly more: 41.1MB.

The company is working to make this version more power efficient by improving the Doze feature from Android 6.0 Marshmallow. This judges when a tablet or phone probably isn’t going to being used for a while, then puts the device into a very low power mode.

Android N will include the Vulcan 3D graphics API, which has been designed to make high-end games run faster and look better, but we were not able to test this yet, as games have to be written to take advantages of this API.

Display Size

A newly-added feature that those who have smaller devices — or those don’t like to pull out their reading glasses with their tablet — will appreciate is Display Size. This is a system-wide setting that lets the user increase or decrease the size of items on the screen, icons as well as text.

Everything on the screen isn’t simply zoomed up, though. Android N rearranges items so they fit better at the larger sizes, sometimes in ways the user might not expect. It’s not surprising that fewer icons will fit on the Homescreen in the two largest Display Sizes, but it is unexpected that the Homescreen supports only portrait mode with this feature on the Larger or Largest settings.

Android N Review: Display Size

Android N Display Size

Tweaks

Google is making many small changes to the look and feel of this operating system with this new release, some of which are just now appearing as subsequent beta versions are released. For example, the appearance of application folders on the Homescreen changed in the second developer beta so that they are now circular. More such changes are possicle as the final release draws near.

Google Android N Review

Android N Application Folder

Conclusion

There are some nice changes coming in Android N, and based on our testing we think it is going to be well-received. Assuming Google irons the typical beta kinks out of side-by-side multitasking, and gets app developers on board with fully supporting this feature, tablets running this operating system will be better competitors with the various iPad and Windows models on the market. And the other changes in N, while not as significant, are certainly welcome.

How Stable Is Android N Right Now?

There’s good news for people who are excited by the changes coming in Android N: in our testing, we found the third beta to be remarkably stable. In our week of extensive testing, our Nexus 9 has crashed only once.

The first two Android N betas had terrible performance, but the third one is much better. We tested the latest one with Geekbench 3 and found that our Nexus 9 with this version had a slightly higher score than the average score this tablet receives while running Android 6.0.1 (Marshmallow): 3283 vs. 3215. This shows that Beta 3 is fast enough for daily use.

Android N with App Support Warning

Android N with App Support Warning

Just be aware that some applications, such as Android Pay and Xfinity TV Go, currently don’t work at all.

Those who want to go ahead and try the Developer Preview anyway — and who have a Nexus 9, Pixel C, Nexus 6, Nexus 5X, Nexus 6P, or Nexus Player — can go to the homepage for the Android Beta Program and download it for free. The installation process is easy and requires no technical expertise, and it can be uninstalled later.

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