(Pocket-lint) - Android 6.0 Marshmallow is the latest version of Google's mobile operating system. It made its debut on the Nexus 5X and the Nexus 6P, a double helping of Marshmallow to kick off the next generation of Android devices.
The updates have subsequently rolled out to existing Nexus devices as well as starting the march to other manufacturers. In a rare occurrence so soon after going public, we have also seen the launch of the first non-Nexus Marshmallow device, the HTC One A9.
It's an update that comes at an important time for Android. Lollipop did a lot to move this platform into a place where it stood up on its own feet, with more consumer shine than previous editions. What followed was a lighter take on Android from other quarters, with recent device launches choosing to better embrace Android, rather than ride roughshod over its sweetness.
That was the message with the HTC One A9, but we've also seen the likes of Sony taking a lighter approach on the Z5 as well as sensitive tweaking from the BlackBerry Priv, as more opt to avoid duplication of functions and features.
But in its purest form, just how good is Android 6.0 Marshmallow?
Android 6.0 Marshmallow review: Familiar material design
Much of Android 6.0 Marshmallow looks the same as Android 5.x Lollipop. It has the same material design governing things and many of the big changes that rolled in with Lollipop remain the same, like recent apps and notification visuals.
This is great from a consistency point of view and let's face it, there were some really strong introductions in Lollipop, which we felt was much more refined than any previous iteration of the Android OS. Notifications are still great, as are the slick swipe actions for that buttery smooth navigation that Google was after.
Head into settings and everything looks mostly as it did before, the use of colours, icons and so on stays consistent too, so Android Marshmallow is a familiar place for those coming from a device running Lollipop.
We've seen material design roll-out across Google's homegrown apps so there's a wonderful consistency, along with continued releases of individual aspects of Android (Calendar, Messenger, etc), meaning easy updates and a taste of the latest features for those on other devices, regardless of Android version. That situation remains the same, with many of Marshmallow's changes really lying under the surface.
Android 6.0 Marshmallow review: Slick performance
One of the things we first noticed about Marshmallow was how slick and fast it is. That's generally the case with Nexus devices and stock Android builds, but even when using the final preview build of Android M on the Nexus 6, it felt faster than it had done before.
That's something that's reflected in the Nexus 5X and the Nexus 6P, both of which are so fast and smooth they put other devices to shame. Some of this undoubtedly comes down to simplicity, as it isn't over-complicated with additional clutter or animations added by manufacturers.
However, as we've also had the Marshmallow-running HTC One A9, we'll pull that in. That is also an extremely slick handset and that's running Sense 7 over the top and has lower spec hardware than its Nexus brethren.
HTC said it wanted to keep things simple and it has really paid off. Undoubtedly, some of this comes down to HTC's long experience in software optimisation, but hopefully we'll see improved performance from other handsets when they update too.
There is a lot under the skin in Marshmallow that you won't see. There's Doze that puts things to sleep during periods of inactivity, designed to prolong your battery life. It seems to work too, and we've noticed some increased standby times. This isn't like Sony's Stamina mode, as you don't get individual controls.
It's really for that moment when you get home and fall asleep and you wake up the next morning and find your phone has had a Doze too: you'll still have important messages, like SMS and calls, but other apps will have been asleep and not waking the phone up.
There's a lot more too, such as more efficient task handling for better multi-tasking, as well as wider support and great efficiency on wireless networks, boosting Bluetooth as well as rolling 5GHz support into the hotspot.
Android 6.0 Marshmallow review: Slicker setup
Android has been playing with different methods for setting up smartphones for a while. Previously it leveraged NFC to identify a device using Tap & Go, but now there's a more seamless option to transfer settings, using the "Set up a nearby device" option that's part of the Google Settings. (In Marshmallow, the Google Setting moves out of the apps tray, and has its own place in the settings menu proper.)
Now when you start your setup process on Marshmallow, you'll be presented with this option. You simply have to follow the instructions and the devices will pair to transfer content. You'll also get emailed notifications to tell you that a new device has been setup. Some apps will need you to sign in again (Facebook, Instragram, for example) whereas some will be signed in already (Netflix, for example).
Device backup and restoring has got much better, so it's now more like iOS's restore option.
You're also prompted to set security on setup now, with devices being encrypted by default. You're also presented with the option of needing a PIN to unlock your phone on startup, again to make it more secure. This was also in some Lollipop devices, but it's now presented and elevated when you're setting up a new device, so it's more likely to get used.
Android 6.0 Marshmallow review: Volume controls
One of the places where Lollipop went a little haywire was with the volume and controlling those new notifications. These new fangled volume controls sent ripples across Android devices on Lollipop, and the manufacturer skins that followed all tweaked it in some way. On Android 6.0 Marshmallow, they have changed for the better.
Hitting volume down or up will open the volume controller and a drop-down arrow will let you change the ringer volume, alarm volume and media volume independently. That means you can ensure that the game you're about to start up in bed doesn't blare out music as soon as it opens. It's the same arrangement that Windows Phone adopted a few generations back, coincidentally.
This makes it much easier to change all the important volumes without digging around into menus as you had to before. You can also tap the bell icon to switch instantly to vibrate. Additionally, you can turn the volume down past vibrate to silence the phone, which we always like.
Silence is golden, as they say, and Android Marshmallow now embraces silence.
Android 6.0 Marshmallow review: Do Not Disturb
When you do flip down to silent, however, you change the notification situation too, as the previous none-priority-all system gets a makeover and becomes Do Not Disturb.
Run the volume all the way down and you automatically enter the new Alarms only setting. That means that if you kill the volume when you go to bed, your alarm will still wake you in the morning.
You still have various notifications levels you can opt for. Swipe down the Quick Settings pane and you'll find a Do Not Disturb button. Tap this and you can flip to a new control panel. Here you'll find the new options of Total silence, Alarms only and Priority only.
For each option you can select the time frame, or until you turn it off. This means you can set 8 hours of silence, for example, while you sleep, as you could with the notification modes in Lollipop.
There's also a handy link to a menu option for more settings. You can access the Priority only settings here, if you want events, messages and calls from particular contacts, and whether you let repeat callers through.
From the same menu you can set auto rules, like weekend, night or event behaviour. You can add custom rules too, based around time or events, so Do Not Disturb can be automated.
As before, however, you can also dictate what apps can be treated as priority apps, although this has to be done through Sound & notification > App notifications. There's no link from those Do Not Disturb settings through to this option, which is a bit disconnected, as it means you need to fish around elsewhere to complete the puzzle.
However, once you've decided that you want Facebook to be a priority app, you'll get those notifications when in "priority only" mode, but other apps will be blocked. There's plenty of flexibility in reality. If you want no distractions apart from the essentials when you're at work, then the priority notifications system will let you set that up.
If you have security set on your device you also get the option to hide sensitive information from lock screen notifications.
Android 6.0 Marshmallow review: App controls get expanded
When it comes to app control and permissions, Android Marshmallow goes into overdrive. There's potentially more control than many people will need, but you can really go to town on governing what apps can do. Previously we've seen this added as a third-party extra, but now it's all native.
We've mentioned that you get a full range of notification controls above, including those you want to handle as Priority. Within the app settings you get other controls, such as blocking all notifications (great if there's something that's annoying you, or that you want to keep hidden).
There's also a setting designed to control peeking. Peeking is where you get a notification at the top of the display - a toast notification or a pop-up over the top of something else you are doing. They are most typical for incoming calls or messages, with actions, like reply or answer.
If you don't want them for whatever reason (irritation, privacy concerns) you can turn them off for each app at a system level. However, turn off the peeking on Telephone (previously Dialer) and you'll just get a full screen notification, rather than the lovely notification at the top. However, as developers start to use these options, you'll have the power to control them.
You also get to see the hardware permissions of each app. Head into Facebook, for example, and you have a huge list of potential permissions the app could ask for. Previously you'd grant blanket permission and Facebook could do whatever it wanted. Now, if you want to check in, it will ask if it can access your location. Once permission is granted, it's turned on, but you always have the option of going and turning it off again.
This enhances control over apps, as you get to decide on a case-by-case basis what something can access. We've seen reports of things like torch apps sharing location, and Marshmallow will put an end to that.
Battery, data, defaults
You can also see the battery use for individual apps, the data usage and other useful information. If you suspect that something is burning through the battery, it's going to be much easier to check in Marshmallow.
You can also view what the default apps are, so, for example, if you have more than one mapping application (Google Maps, Citymapper), you can see which will be opened when you want to view an address. You can also quickly change the defaults, which beats wiping out the whole lot just because you want to change one particular default.
Previous versions of Android have made it simple to select the default messaging app and launcher, for example, but now it's easier to swap around all your defaults as and when you want.
Android 6.0 Marshmallow review: Now on Tap introduced
While much of what Marshmallow was to offer was previewed in advance, Now on Tap got itself a tease, before retreating into secrecy. The initial reaction was good - the ability to search any page and get contextual Google results from it wowed.
With the launch of the Marshmallow, Now on Tap is available to a wide range of users. It's simple to operate: all you need to do is long press on the home button and Now on Tap scans the page, and returns results.
In many ways it's an extension of regular Google search. If you use Google searching a lot, you'll know how Google structures results, offering things like Maps, websites and other information. Now on Tap is basically the same.
But it is smarter than you might immediately think. It does more than just offer search results. Use Now on Tap on a reminder message from your friend, and you'll be prompted to do a reminder to your phone. It's similar to the way in which Inbox will suggest actions based on the content of your emails.
Now on Tap will also offer to add events to your calendar. For example, if you're looking at a Facebook event page and you want to go, Now on Tap will offer to add that to your regular calendar, which can be really handy.
As nice as this connection between content and results is, you have to remember to use it. And that's our biggest barrier to Now on Tap: we forget it's there, and we don't miss it when it isn't. Android has always been well connected, and finding information has never been hard. We still catch ourselves using copy and paste at times, when Now on Tap will pull out that location in a flash.
Of course, how essential it becomes will be governed by how you use your device, the apps you use and the information you regularly are sent or find yourself seeking. We'll keep using it and see how we feel over a longer time period.
Now on Tap naturally segues into the functionality of Google Now Launcher, although it still works if you choose something else as a launcher. We installed Microsoft's Arrow launcher, and found Now on Tap worked perfectly.
Google Now Launcher is one of our favourites, however, although it exists independently from Marshmallow. Now when you open the apps tray you have your most frequently used apps suggested across the top (you can turn this off), as well as the option to search apps, which steps around the lack of options to customise or make folders in the apps tray.
But then Google searching with voice is also smarter. There's a range of tricks, like telling it to turn on the torch/flashlight that have been around for a while, but you now have more app control. Not only can you tell Google to open an app, but you can tell it what to play: "Ok Google, play NoFX on Spotify" and after a friendly "ok" confirmation, you'll be listening to the best of Punk in Drublic.
Android 6.0 Marshmallow review: Nexus Imprint
One of the features that gets native hardware support in Android 6.0 Marshmallow is fingerprint scanners, and Google is calling the whole thing Nexus Imprint.
Android has a fair smattering of security options, and the fingerprint scanner support falls into the security section in the settings. When you setup a new device, you're asked if you want to use it (hardware dependant, of course).
To register a fingerprint you have to allocate a backup method of security first, like a pattern or PIN, then you simply have to tap your finger on the scanner to have that fingerprint registered. It is pretty much the same process as on the iPhone, or recent phones like the SGS6 or Huawei Mate S.
We've tested this on the Nexus 5X and 6P and it's lightening fast to unlock. There's no need to press the standby button first to wake up the phone, you simply tap the fingerprint scanner and the display is unlocked and ready to use.
Android 6.0 Marshmallow review: Flex storage
Flex storage is one of the new hardware features that you only get access to on a non-Nexus device. Again, our time with this feature comes courtesy of the HTC One A9. Flex storage is the feature that will let you expand your internal storage using microSD.
Sound familiar? Well, where previously you could add extra files on the external storage card (like photos, movies and music), Android will now let you have that external storage integrated into the internal capacity. Rather than there being a distinction between the two types of storage, it will be one resource for the phone to use.
This will be a huge benefit to those who like big apps with lots of data. In some instances these could only be stored on the internal storage previously, whereas now you'll have more scope to expand. Also, those looking to buy a phone with small internal storage to save costs will have an easy and cheap method of expanding the capacity of their device.
It's very easy to do - and you can read our guide on how to use Flex storage right here - but there is a catch. Once you've enabled it, that microSD card is encrypted and integrated, so you can't hot swap it, you can't move it to another device without losing the content. Equally, once done, you can't really then upgrade that card if you run out of space.
So the best advice is to buy the fastest card with a big capacity that will meet your needs through the life of your device use. You can always repurpose the microSD once you've upgraded to a new phone.
We're really pleased to see this feature. It's not applicable to Nexus devices, but could work on anything with a microSD card slot - Moto X, HTC One handsets, LG G3 and G4, etc.
For fans of storage, Marshmallow now also have a native file browser hiding at the bottom of the storage breakdown in settings.
Android 6.0 Marshmallow review: System UI Tuner
One of the hidden gems in Marshmallow is called the System UI Tuner. It's hidden because it's not a final feature, but this being Android, we're given the chance to play around with some features we expect to see added to the platform in the future. It's in here that you'll get the ability to turn on the battery percentage meter for your status bar.
This has been one of the biggest omissions from Android (and is included in every other skin) over the past few years. Again, we have a full guide on how to enable the feature, but it's pretty simple, and opens up some other options if you want to play with them - but be aware this isn't final consumer-facing stuff right yet, so features might be changed. This is also likely to be removed on non-Nexus devices.
Android 6.0 Marshmallow review: A treat for Nexus 5X and Nexus 6P owners
There are some hardware dependent elements in Android 6.0, like the fingerprint scanner support, and that also applies to USB Type-C, which is now supported. You can expect to see this on other devices in the future, but at the time of writing, it's only on the OnePlus 2, aside from the new Nexus handsets.
But there's another small thing. This isn't so much a Marshmallow feature as it is a new Nexus, but there's the option to launch the camera from a double press of the standby button. We loved this option on the Samsung Galaxy S6 (where a double press on the home button did the same thing), and we've found it really useful on the 5X and 6P.
Sadly, it isn't an option on the Nexus 6 we've also been testing. Hopefully, it's going to be more common on other Android devices in the future.
Android 6.0 Marshmallow is all about polish on the surface and performance underneath. Marshmallow takes what Lollipop started and adds finesse. We liked Lollipop a lot, it was much more complete and friendly than KitKat was, as we move to a state where stock Android betters many of the manipulated versions of it that appear. We've found all the Marshmallow devices we've used to be slick and fast, and that's a good thing.
There are some really important features in things like Flex storage that a lot of people could benefit from, especially with future low storage devices. You could buy a cheap phone with 8GB storage and expand that with a 64GB card for very little cost - certainly much cheaper than the prices you're expected to pay for increased internal storage capacities.
At the same time, Marshmallow addresses pain points, tightening up on app controls, to make the Android world a better place. You'll have more control over what those apps are doing on your device. Then there's the rearrangement of volumes and notifications. The volume changes were essential and the notifications tweak results in a really powerful system.
For Android fans who like to tinker, there's a lot to get involved with, fiddling with the nuances of your device. Now on Tap is the headline feature that has the highest profile in presenting something new for users on the surface level and it's clever and convenient. We've yet to totally manage to embrace it, but we suspect it will make it to find information for many users.
- Samsung Galaxy Note 20, What3Words CEO, and Withings Sleep Analyzer reviewed - Pocket-lint podcast ep. 65
Overall, this isn't the biggest change in Android visually, but it's definitely worth being excited about. How much will survive once your manufacturer gets a hold of it, remains to be seen…