What is Android 6.0 Marshmallow?

Following on from last year’s complete overhaul with Lollipop, Android’s sixth major iteration opts for under-the-hood tweaking over design alterations.

A quick scan of the feature list might have you asking why this update simply isn't called Android 5.2. But spend time with a Marshmallow equipped device and the answer becomes obvious.

Now on Tap has the potential to be a killer feature; Doze’s battery optimisations improve standby time no end; and a host of minor tweaks add up to make the once confusing OS into a more inviting and user-friendly place. Lollipop brought the looks, but Marshmallow brings the performance.

Android 6.0 Marshmallow review – Now on Tap

Headlining Android 6.0 Marshmallow is Now on Tap, an extension of Google’s already fantastic Now service that’s been slowly getting better, cleverer and more aware since it was released alongside Jelly Bean.

Related: Google Now on Tap – what is it?

Now on Tap lives everywhere. In Hangouts, on the web, your email, Spotify and so on, and it’s designed to get you to the information you want, faster.

It works like this. From wherever you are in Android 6.0, you can press down on the home button to bring up a sleek animation that glides over the sides. Now on Tap will scan the screen and throw up suggested searches, links and information.

For example, if you’re in a text conversation discussing seeing the new James Bond movie Spectre, a Now on Tap request will bring up information such as cinema times and a link to the trailer on YouTube. It doesn’t stop there, however. Maybe you want to know who directed the latest Bond outing – just say ‘Who directed it?’ and the software will know what film you’re talking about spit out the answer.

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It’s a superb idea, and as yet it has no competition. Clearly, Now on Tap is the start of something huge – but it isn't quite there yet.

There were plenty of times when the most obvious information didn't come up. I suggested meeting at a pub, for example, but it didn't pick up the location and just ask me to create an event without any further info. The feature would be great if it could piece it all together and create a complete calendar event.

Running into the "Nothing on tap" error is far too common, as are the times it just throws up a "no connection" page.

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Having used Now on Tap for a few weeks, it hasn’t yet integrated itself into my daily regime. I've no doubt that will change with time and as the feature itself becomes smarter.

Android 6.0 Marshmallow review – Doze

It hasn’t created quite as much of a buzz in the run up to release as Now on Tap, but for me Doze is the true killer feature in Marshmallow. At last Andoid is able to wave goodbye to its awful standby battery problem, which has plagued the operating system since the very beginning.

If you’ve used an Android phone, you’ll be aware of the extent to which the battery drains when the handset is idle. Before installing Marshmallow, I left a Nexus 6 unplugged overnight to observe this power drain. The battery dropped from 78% to 62% without me even touching it. In the same test, carried out on the same phone, with Marshmallow installed battery power reduced by only 4%. This is because of Doze.

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Doze is like a battery-saver mode, but one that’s always whirring away in the background.

When it senses your _phone_ has been left alone for an extended period of time, it dials down the number of processes running in the background. Don’t worry – you'll still receive notifications of calls and texts, but the system knows which alerts aren’t as important and it’ll stop these coming through.

The best thing is that you don’t have to do anything for these enhancements to happen; just use your Marshmallow device normally and you’ll witness huge battery improvements automatically.

You can dial down further and see if any applications aren’t optimised for Doze – just head into Settings | Battery | Battery Optimisation – but so far the only apps the service isn’t available for is Google Play Services. And this is something you really want running all the time.

With Doze, Android devices can now match the iPhone when it comes to standby time. Rejoice.

Android 6.0 Marshmallow review – Privacy and Permissions

Permissions have received a complete overhaul in Marshmallow – and they were needed. You now have far more granular control over exactly which apps have access to what system functions.

In prior versions, you’d have to accept all of an apps permissions upon install. So if an app wanted access to your phone, camera and contacts, you’d have no choice but to tap "OK".

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In Marshmallow, you’ll still receive these permission overviews when you install, but you'll also get prompts for a second time when you open an app. For example, Instagram will ask if it can use your camera when you first fire it up.

If you’ve used an iPhone then you'll be aware that this is exacty how iOS handle permissions.

Note that if you’re not a fan of pop-ups then the new system might annoy, but it provides more peace of mind. If you don’t want an app having access to your _phone_ number then simply flip the toggle in settings and it won’t be able to access it. Google states that withdrawing permissions may cause some apps to act strangely if they haven’t been updated, but in time this should get sorted.

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Android 6.0 Marshmallow review – Design refinement

Just like iOS 9 took the basis of iOS 8 (and iOS 7 before it) and tidied up the edges, Marshmallow doesn't see a departure from the complete redesign heralded by Lollipop and Material Design.

It’s still the best-looking mobile operating system out there – sorry iOS – and I remain a fan of the fluid animations and the way everything flows together. From the notification panel that slides down to the fantastic, and constantly updated, stock apps – Android has made the move from ugly to sleek in only a couple of years.

The biggest change this time around is the updated Google Now Launcher. Instead of storing all your apps on separate pages, they’re now displayed in a scrollable list with a handy slider at the side that makes jumping to the bottom much easier than before.

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Along the top, four newly installed, updated or frequently used apps are given priority. I'd like this to be a bit smarter and throw up music-related stuff when you plug in headphones, for example. Google’s even added a search bar, which will explore across both your installed apps and the Play Store.

Each of these changes is for the better, rather than having a whiff of change for changes sake – iOS 9 multitasking switcher, anyone? Apps are far easier to find, and I appreciate the ability to search and head straight to the Play Store. Interestingly, the new launcher isn’t exclusive to Marshmallow, you can grab it for any Android device running 4.4 and higher.

Changes to the lockscreen are minor – there’s now a bolder font for the clock, and the phone icon in the bottom left has been replaced by a microphone. This makes sense, as you can jump right into shooting off a voice command.

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Sadly, the system-wide dark mode from the preview builds didn’t make the final cut, but a handy UI tuner has. This lets you alter the settings featured in the notifications panel, but there are only a couple of options and limited customisation on offer. Still, it’s nice to have.

It’s a shame, then, that Android apps in general aren’t as good-looking as their Google-made counterparts.

Also disappointing is that Google still struggles to make Android tablets anywhere near as productive as its Windows and iPad rivals. There’s no split-screen multitasking, no pop-out video players, and hardly any visual improvements to make the most of the bigger canvas.

This is even more baffling as Google is looking to take on the Surface Pro and iPad Pro with the Pixel C. The first non-Nexus tablet from Google could be a complete dud on arrival if such features aren't seriously beefed up before launch.

Android 6.0 Marshmallow review – Support for fingerprint sensors, USB-C, Android Pay and Flex Storage

Marshmallow isn’t just about bringing features to older phones; it’s also about supporting new standards and ensuring Android works with all the latest advances. Two of the biggest additions this time around are support for USB-C and fingerprint sensors.

There are a couple of Android phones that offer these features already without running Marshmallow, but 6.0 brings proper, system-wide support. Fingerprint scanners work to authorise payments from Google Play and third-party apps, while fast-charging through USB-C is present too.

Android Pay – Google’s eventual Wallet replacement and rival to Apple Pay – might currently be restricted to our US cousins, but it also picks up full support in Marshmallow.

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But the killer update is Flex Storage, a change to the way Android manages microSD cards. In the past, internal and expandable storage were completely separate. You could move apps that supported it to the microSD card, but the 64GB card wouldn’t join your base internal storage.

In Marshmallow, it does. Pop a fast 64GB card into a 16GB phone and you’ll have more than 70GB to play with. This makes microSD support all the more important, and the amount of base storage less so. Great for making phones cheaper.

Android 6.0 Marshmallow review – Everything else

I don’t think Marshmallow makes phones faster, but the toned down animations across the board certainly make it seem faster. Apps rise smoothly out of their icons and in general jumping through menus and into Settings is less sluggish.

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Marshmallow is currently only available on Nexus devices, and HTC’s One A9, all of which are pretty powerful phones and tablets. I’ve been using it on a Nexus 6 and the older Nexus 5. The Nexus 5 has always been a solid performer, and even though it’s been around for a couple of years, it doesn’t feel bogged down by Marshmallow. If you receive a pop-up stating your device is ready for the update, I’d download and get it installed.

One of Lollipop's most disliked features was the removal of Silent mode – if you turned off the volume then absolutely nothing would come through, including any alarms that had been set. Thankfully, this has been changed in Marshmallow. The Do Not Disturb mode has been moved to the Quick Settings bar, and you can safely silence the device without killing all sounds.

Should you download Android 6.0 Marshmallow?

Yes, definitely. Google Now on Tap has buckets of potential; the updated permission controls have been a long time coming; and Doze genuinely makes a difference to the battery power of your device. Then there’s the bevy of design tweaks and the updated, and much more functional, Launcher.

But as is well known, updating to the latest version of Android isn’t as simple as downloading and installing iOS 9, for example. It tends to take months for OEMs and carriers to sort upgrades and push them out.

Even when the day finally comes, and a notification pops up to inform you that your Marshmallow update is ready, it will probably look completely different to the vanilla Google version I’m using here. You’ll still get all the features, but Samsung or HTC will have overlaid their skins.

I wish Google would sort out this problem. Or at least give everyone the option to ditch the skins and have Android the way it was meant to be.

Quibbles aside, Marshmallow is the best version of Android yet. It’s faster, slicker, longer lasting and more user-friendly. To put it bluntly, it’s the number one mobile operating system out there. Well, for phones anyway.

The tablet side still needs work, with it's lack of support for split-screen or proper multitasking. Maybe that will come next year, with Android 7.0 Nougat. Or Nestlé.

Verdict

Slick, fast and feature rich: Marshmallow is Google’s most complete version of Android yet. It's only a shame most people won’t see it this way.

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