The newest version of Google’s mobile operating system is now available for a lucky few, and we’ve put Android 6.0, codenamed Marshmallow, through its paces on our test device.
There are significant changes, and we’ll highlight the most important ones to tablet users in this review.
Easily the most significant change — and the biggest improvement — in Android 6.0 is the ability to treat microSD cards as if they are internal storage. This means that people who have purchased a 16GB tablet can add a 64GB card and effectively have 80GB of internal storage.
When a microSD card is inserted, the user is given the option to treat it as Portable or Internal. Choosing Portable makes the card act like these always have: it can hold files and folders and be ejected at any time. The Internal option however results in the card being reformatted and encrypted.
Then some of the data previously stored internally on the device will be moved over to the adopted microSD card, and thereafter the tablet will automatically store new applications and files where there’s the most room.
The downside is that the days of easily switching between multiple microSD cards are over… at least for people who embrace Marshmallow’s Adoptable Storage. Removing a card that has been adopted immediately makes the tablet extremely crash prone at best, or non-functional at worst.
Adoptable Storage is a huge boon for those who purchased a tablet or phone with little internal storage and later came to regret it.
Now on Tap
The purpose of the Now on Tap feature in Android 6 is to bring users easy access to additional information on something they are already looking at. For example, someone who is reading a news article about Star Wars can use Now on Tap to pull up link to more news and images about this film series, the upcoming Force Awakens movie, and director J.J. Abrams. Or it can be used to get more details on a song and artist that’s playing.
Accessing Now on Tap is easy: just press and hold on the Home button. This will bring up cards with links to the additional information.
This feature works very well when it’s obvious what the user is looking for, but it is hardly perfect. For example, pressing Now on Tap for a news article that mentions a restaurant in passing won’t always bring up links to more information on that restaurant.
It can be combined with the OK Google voice control. For example, with a card open for a local restaurant, saying “OK Google, how long will it take to drive there?” will bring up a set of directions.
Doze and App Standby
Google engineers came up with an innovative way to save power: Android 6 includes a feature called Doze to judge when a tablet or phone probably isn’t going to being used for a while, then putting it into a very low power mode. It does so with the motion sensors built into so many devices — if a device hasn’t moved in a while and its screen is off, then Marshmallow assumes it’s time to Doze.
Most obviously, it will shut down wireless networking. It will also prevent software running in the background from using resources. It will, however, allow alarms that the user has set to go off.
This can extend the battery life of tablets that have been set aside but not shut down. It won’t extend the time between recharges for devices that are being intermittently used.
However, App Standby might. The goal of this feature is to prevent software that’s running in the background from unnecessarily using system resources. Well-written applications already do this, but the fact is that not all apps are well written.
Background software that isn’t brought up to the foreground for a long time will be put into App Standby: it will lose its access to wireless networking and just about all system resources.
Going to Settings > Battery > Menu > Battery Optimization will display a list of applications that might be subject to App Standby. From there, users can specify any of these that they don’t ever want to be put into standby.
In our benchmarking tests, we found no change between a torture test of a Nexus 9 running Android 6.0 vs. the same device running the previous OS version, but our device never went into Doze nor did it have any software that needed to be put into App Standby.
Google says it worked hard to make this latest version more stable than its predecessors. This is the sort of thing that only shows up with long term use, but in our testing we found that Marshmallow seems less likely to crash than its predecessors, though it does still happen.
The window that displays all installed software has received some improvements in Android 6. Most notably, instead of being broken up into windows that the user must scroll through horizontally, as in previous Android versions, the full alphabetical list now appears on one long window that the user can scroll down through.
Above this list are icons for frequently-used applications, and above that is a search box. Both can save time for those who have a lot of software on their tablet. For example, instead of manually scrolling through a long list of titles looking for “Solitaire” before realizing it’s called “Deluxe Solitaire”, the user can just start typing S-O-L and the game will appear.
These aren’t dramatic changes but they are welcome, especially when one considers how often the App Drawer is used.
Google has improved the ability to third-party applications to back up their data to the cloud, so that when an app is reinstalled it can return to the state it was in before. This is a feature that the developers must add to their own software, but once implemented it gives each app 25GB of free space on Google Drive to store the backup info.
Without this, restoring from a backup often means that third-party software is reinstalled without the user’s own data.
USB Flash Drives
A feature of Android tablets that’s probably not used enough is their ability to use flash drives. This can be especially handy for models that don’t include microSD card slots, like the HTC Nexus 9.
Perhaps more people will make use of these handy accessories now that Android 6 includes better support for them: when they are plugged in, a file browser opens to show their contents. This browser is a bit bare bones, but it’s able to display the files and folders on a USB drive, as well as move them around to internal storage or to Google Drive. They can also be deleted. What this simple browser can’t do is rename files; that requires a more full-featured one like the excellent and free ES File Explorer.
This feature can be taken advantage of even on tablets that don’t have full-size USB ports, as there are a number of flash drives that include both micro-USB and regular USB jacks. These are made by companies like Kingston and Strontium and are very convenient for switch files between a laptop and tablet.
Those who make use of Adoptable Storage might start seeing more need for thumb drives, as they will no longer be able to use microSD cards as additional external storage.
Previously, applications would ask for all the permissions they needed at the time they were installed. Now, the apps will ask for permission to do something the first time they actually need to do it.
This is a more logical system, and should help cut down on fraud. It’s easy to just hit “Approve” for everything when installing a new app without paying careful attention, but if a game suddenly asks for permission to access the Contacts lists for no apparent reason, that should alert the user that something’s wrong.
Even better, a user can deny an application access to a feature but continue using the software. For example, if a Camera app wants access to location data, and the user has no intention of GPS marking on their pictures, they can deny this permission and still keep snapping pics. Later, if they try to include GPS info in pictures, they’ll be informed why they can’t do this and given the option to enable that feature.
This is another feature that third-party developers have to implement in their own software. Otherwise, they will continue to act like apps always have: permissions are “all or nothing”, and people who don’t want to give an application access to one feature are blocked from installing the software.
Cut, Copy, and Paste
Google has moved where the Cut/Copy/Paste pop-up appears when selecting text. Previously, it was always at the top of the screen, but it now shows up next to the text being selected.
This is another change that’s not major, but it’s welcome, as the new location is more intuitive.
Android 6 includes support for USB Type C, a new format that offers faster recharge times and quicker data transfers. This doesn’t change anything about current models that have micro-USB ports, but it’s something those in the market for new devices should be aware of: anyone buying a tablet in 2016 that doesn’t have a USB-C slot should think twice.
In addition, Google integrated support for biometric fingerprint scanners into Marshmallow. Again, this isn’t much help for people who already have tablets without biometric security, but it should encourage future shoppers to look for ones that do.
Support for 4K screens has also been added.
Android 6.0 Marshmallow includes some very welcome improvements, especially Adoptable Storage and the redesigned App Drawer. Also welcome are all Google’s efforts to make the user interface a bit less kludgy, and the whole operating system more stable.