Android has been making some big moves recently, redesigning and adding functionality to the mobile operating system to make it more capable and more competitive.
With the advent of Lollipop, Android moved to a state that felt like it was complete. It had polish that rivalled manufacturer skins, a maturity to apps that made them wonderful to use.
That was cemented with refinement in Marshmallow that saw many manufacturers moving to accommodate Android's native charms, rather than stomp all over them.
Anticipation is high for Android Nougat and in an uncharacteristic move, Google has released a developer build of Android Nougat into the wild much earlier than expected. We've been playing with the future version of Android see what's changing, what's new and what we can expect come launch day.
This is Android Nougat, and this is everything you need to know.
Android Nougat release date and availability
Android Nougat has been revealed much earlier than it has in the past, with a preview version of Android Nougat made available by Google on 9 March, it was updated on 13 April with a second version, before the third version and the first public beta arrived on May 18. The fifth and final developer preview arrived on 19 July.
In the past the first glimpse of the next version of Android has been at Google I/O. This is Google's developer conference which opened this year on 18 May. We saw a lot more from Google on Android Nougat, along with the unveiling of Daydream VR which will be heavily baked in to Google's next mobile operating system version.
Google has already said that the final preview version of Android Nougat will be ready by the summer. The final consumer version of Android Nougat won't land until later in the year however, usually around October.
This is typically timed with the release of a new Nexus handset, making the debut of the new Android version. The earlier preview process perhaps suggests an earlier release of the next Nexus, with HTC being strongly rumoured to be the manufacturer.
The roll-out of Android Nougat to other devices usually then follows, hitting existing Nexus hardware within a few weeks, but often taking several months to be incorporated into other devices. This year, Google opened it up to more manufacturers, so you may not have to wait as long as usual for the update to land on your Galaxy device. It all depends on whether or not Samsung takes advantage of the early developer releases.
Android Beta Program
One of the important differences in the early days of Android Nougat compared to previous versions is that it's incredibly easy to get. Google has opened up a the Android Beta Program that means you can simply enrol a device and have the update delivered over the air.
In previous versions you've been invited to download the software and manually flash it to your device. The big difference this makes is that Android Nougat is much more accessible and you can load it onto a Nexus or Pixel device without losing all the content and updates arrive over the air. Google has also included the Sony Xperia Z3 in the beta programme, which is an odd move.
Regular updates are expected to follow, in the same fashion as Microsoft ran the Windows Insider Program. If you've got a supported handset that's spare, you can take a look at what's to come. We've written all about getting involved in the Android Beta Program in a separate feature.
Android Nougat preview
Thanks to the release of the Android Nougat preview, we now have plenty of information about what Android Nougat might look like when it lands on a consumer device later in the year.
One thing to bear in mind with beta previews is that they are subject to change. The whole point of these preview programmes is that developers can feedback information and Google can evaluate which features are ready to be released. Some of what we see here may change over time, may not make the final release, or could be a rock solid feature. That's even happened between the first, second and third dev versions that have been released.
It's also worth bearing in mind that Google often keeps something in reserve. One of those things was Daydream VR, Google Android-based virtual reality system which will be built in to any compatible phone running Android Nougat.
We're still exploring some of the things that the Android Nougat preview offers, so we're updating this feature as we get to the bottom of things. There are some things we're not looking at here. Doze, for example, is reported to be much more enhanced, allowing apps to sleep whenever the display is in standby, not just when the device is inactive. There's also picture-in-picture for Android TV coming and support for additional programming languages.
Android Nougat Quick Settings: More flexibility
The notifications pane and Quick Settings go hand-in-hand because they occupy that same space at the top of your display. Swiping down now reveals a pane that spans the entire width of your display, a slight change in the visual design from Lollipop and Marshmallow that followed the card theme.
Quick Settings now occupies a smaller bar at the top, carrying the icons for those Quick Settings, but with no labels or anything else. You're just expected to know what they mean and that's fair enough - as these are quick settings, you're likely to know what they're there for.
On the Nexus 6 you get five icons, with a drop down arrow to expand the Quick Settings area to the full pane, also deployed with a second swipe. This betters Marshmallow, because you're presented with those top options immediately.
The full Quick Settings pane is similar to the current offering in Marshmallow, offering a brightness slider and nine icons, but here they flow over the page and offer up an edit function. This will let you drag icons around so you can choose the order, remove those things you don't use, or add extras. It's very much like Samsung's arrangement in TouchWiz.
Some of the options available are hidden in the System UI Tuner - an area where Google likes to hide features it's even less sure about.
There are no drop down options on things like Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, but with a tap you get a neat overlay menu - a little like the Do not Disturb pane in Marshmallow. Tap the battery, for example, and an overlay pops up with a graph and your estimated time left. Tap Bluetooth and it will show paired devices that are available. In both cases, a long press will take you through to those sections in the settings menu. This means more options for less space and a cleaner UI, which we're all for.
There's a neat animation that sees the top quick settings you get on the first swipe shifting location to reveal the full set when you open the full pane.
Android Nougat settings menu: More information
The settings menu has had a makeover, removing some of the division bars and bubbling up more information. When you open up the settings menu, you're now faced with a bit more information. The new Nougat arrangement makes Marshmallow look at little sparse, so this is a change we like.
One of the interesting elements is that there's now a status banner at the top of the page, perhaps to let you know what's going on if you're heading in to the settings to change something. If you're in data saving mode, that's labelled here, as is Do not Disturb. If you were heading in to fix something like not getting updates or alerts, there's now that quick option at the top to turn those major device behaviour features off.
There's also a suggestions bar. If you don't have security set-up on your device, it's here that Android will suggest you do something about it. At the moment it's difficult to know what the range of suggestions will be - but rather like the BlackBerry Priv with its suggestions from DTEK, perhaps this is Android looking to guide users a little more around things like security.
Otherwise the settings menu is laid out using the same sort of icons as it was before and in the same sort of arrangement. But as we said, there's more information, so you don't have to go digging. We can see at a glance that on this test device, there's 74 apps installed, we're using 7GB of storage, the battery will last for another day and so on. There's no diving in and out of sub-sections, because this information is all there at a glance.
However, there's a new navigation option for settings. Once you're in an area - like Bluetooth for example - you get a side menu. This will let you jump to any area of the settings quickly. We can't really see that it's that useful at the moment, as hitting back to return to the top level isn't that tricky.
Android Nougat notifications: Easier management
Continuing this theme of bubbling up more information, the notifications are now richer than they were before, containing information on where they came from. If you have a number of notifications from one app, these can be bundled together much more cleanly than they were before.
They can still be pinch expanded, but there's also long press options to control notification behaviour. Press and hold and you'll get access to manage how much priority any individual app's notifications should get. You can have it set to automatic, or slide up and down between 6 levels of power notification controls. These range from blocking all notifications to interrupting anything, and showing up everywhere.
This can also be done from the lock screen, so if you're getting notifications you don't want, it looks as though it's going to be easier to individually manage them. Power notification controls can be switched on or off in the System UI settings, suggesting that - for now - it's not a nailed on feature for when Android Nougat is released to the public.
The Do not Disturb system is still in place, but it looks like the language is changing as Google tries to refine a system that's very powerful, but has certainly been confusing through Lollipop and Marshmallow. There's now the option to have an app's notifications "override do not disturb" which is a little more direct than it might have been phrased in the past.
We've not seen the full range of notifications, but we can already see from a mass of Gmail notifications, that it's going to be much easier to open the email you want and action it. There are also going to be direct reply notifications. This is something that Android has been talking about for some time, and Messenger sort of went there with a reply outside of the app, but this is now expanding.
Notifications has always been a strong part of Android and it looks like Nougat is no exception.
Android Nougat goes into multi-tasking overdrive
This is where things get different and pretty exciting, as Android Nougat looks fully equipped for multi-tasking mayhem. This is going to serve devices like the Pixel C really well, but there's a lot for smartphone users too.
Marshmallow gave the home button a makeover with Now on Tap, but in Android Nougat, the recent apps button gets a complete revamp.
In previous versions of Android the "recent apps" button has been a bit of a damp squib. Even Samsung hung onto a menu button for several generations, but here in Android Nougat it has real purpose.
A tap on the recent apps button brings up the card-style deck of your apps. But a repeated tap now cycles through apps in the first dev version released. Rather than flicking with a finger, you can keep tapping the button to move through your apps. There's a timer too, so if you pause, that's the app you've selected.
This was the case in the first Android Nougat dev version, but since the second dev version on our Nexus 6, this seems to have been removed, which is a shame, as we liked it.
Then there's a double-tap option. This will quickly switch from your current app to the last. This will become a core feature, we can feel that in our bones. How many times have you been looking at an email and switching to maps or similar?
We mentioned Samsung just now and that was no accident, because spilt-screen viewing is similar to Samsung's implementation. A long press on the recent apps button takes you into split-screen mode. Like Samsung it takes the current app to the top of the page and lets you select the bottom app. However here it lets you use that tapping action again to leaf through your recent apps and select the one you want to fill the bottom half of the screen.
You can also activate split-screen mode by tapping the multitasking button, then dragging any of the app cards to the top half of the screen. There’s even a setting in System UI Tuner which lets you activate split-screen by swiping up from the recent apps button. In short: There's more than one way to use it.
Once activated, you can tap the home button and select a new app, even opening up the apps tray. When you pick your app, you return to split-screen mode. The clue to where you are is the style of the button, changing from a square to two rectangles to represent that split display. One thing is for certain: those devices opting for capacitive buttons rather than on-screen buttons will easily get lost with this feature.
Some of it's a bit rocky because this is an early software build, but we can see this could be a hugely powerful feature. Also hidden in the dev build is code that looks to support floating windows. This is perhaps a nod to even more flexible multi-tasking. More recently, Hiroshi Lockheimer, Google's SVP of Android and Chrome OS tweeted out an image showing the feature working in real life. This could allow tablet users to detach and move an app as you would on a desktop. It could also conceivable be built in to a smartphone which then plugs in to an external display and can be used as a computer.
Android Nougat data saver
One of the other interesting new things is data saver. This isn't unique to Android Nougat, because there's a function on the Samsung Galaxy S7 that does the same thing.
It's an important job however, and that's restricting background data on apps when you're on a mobile/cellular network. The idea is to save data on your plan, but when you're connected to Wi-Fi, all your apps get there data access as normal.
It should have the added advantage of saving battery life too.
Android Nougat battery level indication
One of the very simple but very annoying omissions from stock Android has been a simple indicator of the battery life. You only get a percentage when you flip down the Quick Settings pane, rather than all the time like you do on just about every other Android skin.
In Marshmallow, Google included an option to turn on a battery level indicator in the System Tuner UI. This is a hidden part of the menu designed for developers and it's though that this might become standard in a future version of Android.
In the Android Nougat preview the System Tuner UI still has this option, it's not a standard offering, but you also have the option to show the battery level only when charging, or remove the battery icon completely. Really Google? Don't you know how much Android users obsess about battery life?
With other areas - like the settings menu - seeming to be looking to elevate more information, this would make perfect sense.
Android Nougat: Night Mode
Like the battery level indicator, the System Tuner UI throws up another interesting feature and that's Night Mode. This has appeared before, but is yet to make it to a release version of Android. Apple managed to implement this in iOS9.3, called Night Shift, and Android's version is the same sort of idea.
In Android Nougat dev two there's the option to make this turn on automatically, so when you lift your phone up at night, the colour tone has changed to reduce blue light, so it's less of a strain on your eyes, with a yellowed hue instead. In early developer previews there was also the option to change various UI aspects from light to dark, like the settings menu. Sadly, that's no longer part of Night Mode in preview 3.
In preview 1 and 2, the options again were in the System Tuner UI. They've since been moved from there and are can only be accessed using the Night Mode toggle button in Quick Settings. If you don't want the colour change you don't have to have it, so it offers a range of options. You can change the tint or the brightness.
For those playing with their phone in bed, this is a great addition, and we hope it appears in the Android Nougat final release.
The System Tuner UI also includes options to turn off system icons, change the way the time is shown and plenty more. None if it is really "core", but it's good to know it's there if you want to have a play around.
Android Nougat: Easter Egg
This year's hidden easter egg is a little different to the last couple of Android versions'. Rather than have a Flappy bird-esque game, we now have a game which involves baiting a cat using various edible treats. Enabling it involves heading to settings>about phone then tapping repeatedly on the Android version before tapping and holding the "N" logo. Then you drag the cat quick toggle to the main quick settings panel, tap on it and select a food. A little while later, a cat arrives.
Android Nougat: App drawer or no app drawer?
Rumours have been circulating that app drawer's days are numbered. That wasn't helped when a tweet from the Google Maps Twitter account appeared showing a phone with no app drawer.
It's a brief flash, but it shows a Nexus 6P with no apps drawer button in the centre, instead with three dots indicating different pages to scroll across to. Google quickly moved to say this was a misrepresentation and inaccurate, but fans were already throwing their toys out of the pram.
There's been murmurings that this might happen for some time. For Android users it's a key distinction between Android and iOS. iOS, as you'll know, has spread its app wares all over the home screens since the dawn of time, whereas Android has always been more discreet.
But (and this is a big but), this only added fuel to a fire that was already burning. Android Authority reported previously that it had heard from two sources confirming that Google planned to ditch the app tray.
Removing the app drawer is common on Chinese devices - it's a hallmark of Huawei's EMUI for example - but we've now seen that move replicated by the LG G5. Additionally, hiding in the Samsung Galaxy S7's settings is a section called Galaxy Labs, which also gives you the option of removing the apps tray.
We'd say that's quite a body of (perhaps coincidental) evidence to suggest that something is afoot. Of course, this being Android, switching the launcher would likely right any wrongs.
We'll continue to keep an eye on talk about Android Nougat, and bring you all the details as they get revealed.