Android Intelligence Analysis

2 weeks with Android N Beta on my personal phone

Living with Google's latest pre-release software is an interesting adventure. (Warning: Don't try this at home...yet.)

Android N Beta

A couple of weeks ago, I was feeling either exceptionally brave -- or exceptionally stupid.

After using Google's new Android "N" Beta for two days on my Nexus 9 tablet, I decided to go all in and put the software onto my own personal phone -- a Nexus 6P.

Anyone who's spent much time using pre-release software knows why this is a bold (and/or boneheaded) move: By its very nature, a developer preview is a work in progress and thus bound to be rough around the edges -- and on a phone you rely on from morning to night, well, venturing into such rocky waters is definitely a risk.

It wasn't an uncalculated one, though. Google described this latest release as its "first beta-quality candidate" and made it clear it was considered stable enough to run on your primary device. That's a sharp turn from the first two Android N developer previews, which included upfront disclaimers about being "intended for developers only" and not for "daily or consumer use."

True to those warnings, the first two N previews were pretty unpredictable. I tested them on my tablet, but I wouldn't have dreamed about putting them on a device I actually needed every day. After dipping my toes into new Android N Beta, though, I felt reasonably confident about its stability. And so I decided to take the plunge.

Android N, inside my pocket

One thing's for sure: Using Android N on a device you carry all day is a very different experience from using it on a secondary screen. For better and for worse, it gives you a whole different perspective on the state of the software and its real-world user experience.

Let's start with the good, shall we? In this third pre-release incarnation, Android N is (for the most part) impressively smooth and snappy. Most of the time, I don't even think about the fact that I'm using a beta version of a still-in-progress OS update.

Android N feels immediately familiar, which is generally a good thing. Sweeping visual changes should be a rare occurrence with an operating system -- more the exception than the rule -- and Google is absolutely not trying to reinvent the wheel this go-round. If you're used to Marshmallow, you'll feel comfortable from the get-go with N; in fact, I wouldn't be surprised if it took some casual users a fair amount of time to even notice what's different.

The differences are definitely there, though -- and once you clue into them, some of them can actually be pretty significant in day-to-day use. Android N's refined notifications, for instance, have become a real highlight for me and something I miss when I go back to a 6.0-level device. Google has taken a good thing and made it better, with clusters of individual cards now being grouped together by app and easily expandable.

Android N Beta Notifications

A refined look for this system shade; what an improvement it has made!

Visual appeal aside, Android N's notification setup lends itself well to another new element I'm really enjoying: the native ability to respond to a message right within its notification. It's basically an enhanced version of the workaround Google had created with Hangouts before, but it feels noticeably more natural to use -- and now, any app can take advantage of it. (The challenge, of course, will be getting developers to update their apps and support the feature so that it has widespread utility.)

Android N Beta Direct Reply

Direct reply -- oh so handy! Using it is a treat like candy

Android N's addition of a native multi-window mode -- which lets you have two apps on screen at the same time, similar to what Samsung and other manufacturers have offered for a while now -- is nice to have, though it truthfully isn't something I've found myself using terribly often thus far. (I've said the same when spending time with Samsung devices in the past.) It's good to know it's available if I ever need it, but I suspect the vast majority of people will try it out a few times like I have and then kind of forget that it's there.

It is easy to use, though, and it works quite well. It might provide more frequent value on a tablet, too, especially if you're trying to do productivity-oriented stuff -- like working on a document while watching a video or typing out an email while viewing a Web page. That being said, with Android apps coming to Chromebooks later this year, that sort of work may soon be better suited to a Chrome OS device -- so the practical need for any such benefit may be relatively short-lived.

Android N Beta Multi Window

Two apps, side by side -- even better when your screen is wide

After two weeks of steady use, what's proven more useful to me in a real-world sense is the fast-app switching feature Android N introduces. Tap the Overview key twice, and you zap back and forth almost instantly between your current process and the last app you were using. Being able to flip between apps so quickly is super convenient and almost always easier for me than taking the time to set up a side-by-side multi-window environment.

(A situation involving a video that I want to play while also doing something else would be an exception -- but with YouTube videos now supporting continuous background play on Android, going side-by-side in that scenario just isn't a move I think about very often.)

I've also been appreciating Android N's cleaned up Overview interface. The overwhelming nature of that interface is something that's irked me since 2014's Lollipop release; once you get 50 or 60 or 80 cards stacked up, with dozens of similar-looking instances of the same app piled on top of each other, the screen gets far too cluttered and confusing to be useful. Android N's approach of limiting the Overview to only your seven most recently used apps makes the feature much more practical.

Android N Beta Overview

Overview -- so nice and neat! This cleaned-up take is very sweet

What else? I continue to enjoy the customizable Share menu I pointed out as a high point back in Android N's first preview release. I actually only messed around with it once, but sharing things from most any app is now much easier as a result (though I am now keenly aware of how many apps opt to use their own non-standard Share menus instead of the standard system interface -- so counterintuitive!).

Android N's expanded Quick Settings interface is another thing I don't tend to think about actively but do benefit from nevertheless -- and also miss when I look back at devices with older Android software. The change is nothing transformative, but having access to quick toggles in the main notification interface is certainly handy and a much better use of that space. And being able to control the order and contents of the fully expanded Quick Settings menu is a welcome, if somewhat overdue, touch.

Android N Beta Quick Settings

These Quick Settings make much more sense; so good to see this change commence

The other side of the N Beta experience

So there's the good -- which is a fair amount! And the not-so-good actually isn't all that bad, in context -- though it's significant enough that I wouldn't advise most people to take their chances with this software on a primary phone just yet.

Most of the glitchiness I've experienced with the Android N Beta revolves around third-party apps that presumably have yet to be updated for full N-level optimization. Some apps, like HBO Go, won't even start -- which is obviously a pretty substantial problem. Others have specific elements that just don't work, like the 1 Second Everyday app my wife and I use to capture cute moments from our one-year-old's life. And others just randomly crash on occasion, like Pandora, Chrome, and Chromer, as well as a wallpaper app called Plastexo that I've been playing around with lately.

Android N Beta App Crashes

Some apps crash and some apps fail; thus is life on the beta trail

Some apps even crash when I'm not actively using them. I notice this the most when I restart the phone and sometimes see a few scattered error messages. It's nothing persistent -- and this kind of thing is very much a part of the process when you choose to use a pre-release OS update -- but it's enough to be annoying. (And remember, I'm using only a tiny fraction of the apps out there, so there are probably plenty of others that are also not quite ready to roll with N just yet.)

Apps aside, I sometimes notice a little lag while scrolling through the system settings menus. And I've encountered a few oddities here and there, like the fact that Android N lets you set a different wallpaper for your home and lock screen -- but doesn't make it particularly easy to control the two independently. The cleaned up Overview menu also doesn't always function as intended; I'll occasionally notice cards from more than seven apps showing up there, despite the supposedly present limitation.

To be fair, I'm particularly tuned into this kind of fine detail (and even with the inconsistencies, I haven't seen the Overview interface approach anywhere near the level of 50+-card craziness common on previous versions of Android). The problems I've run into have been relatively minor and manageable, though depending on the specifics of the apps you use, they could certainly be more detrimental. The truth is that you just don't know what sorts of compatibility issues you might run into or how problematic they could become, and that's why this software isn't something most people should mess around with right now.

But all things in perspective: In my experience with the Nexus 6P and this latest release, the vast majority of Android N's remaining wonkiness really is related to apps that just haven't been updated yet to work with pending platform changes. And for software in a pre-release state -- with two more beta builds expected before a final version arrives -- that's an impressive state to be in.

Android N isn't ready for primetime yet, but it's remarkably close -- and with each new update, it's looking increasingly promising.

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