UPDATE: What's new in Android N beta 2?

Google promised frequent updates to its beta service for Android N and the first one has arrived. While there isn't a whole lot new in this 250MB update, there are a couple of visual tweaks and some minor additions.

New look folders

The overall look of folders in Android has been given a facelift in this beta, and I'm not impressed. Icons are now displayed inside a circle with a thick white border and it looks more like a dodgy third-party alternative than something cooked up by Google.

As this is a beta, this could all change and I really hope it does.

folders
The new look folders

Emojis that, finally, look like real people

Google has added support for the latest batch of emoji in the second N beta and they look like real people, as opposed to the yellow blobs they were before. Obviously this is a small update, but nice nonetheless.

Vulkan support

As with all new versions of Android, expect to see a lot of under the hood improvements and new APIs added. A standout so far is support for the new gaming API Vulkan. This is a powerful 3D rendering engine and Google says is will provide "a significant boost in performance for draw-call heavy applications".

We've already seen what Vulkan can do in the super-slick gaming performance of the Samsung Galaxy S7, so it's good news that the rest of the Android crowd can join the party.

Other visual tweaks

Google has refreshed the initial set-up screen for Android making it easier and more straightforward to get going, while adding a 'Calculator' shortcut to the quick settings screen.

You can read our in depth hands-on of the original Android N release below

We take Google's Android N developer preview for a spin

Android N is the developer build of the next version of Google’s mobile operating system – known amongst tech gossips as Android Nutella.

This is an early sneak peak that’s designed to give developers time to take advantage of the OS’s new features, not the next full version of Android. As a result, Android N is not intended for general consumers. In fact, for now it’s best you don’t download it.

Being a developer build, installing it requires you to agree to a fair amount of tracking from Google, which monitors the build to spot and fix bugs ahead of the full version’s release. You also run the risk of bricking your _phone_ or tablet, as the code is still in development and may include more than a couple of bugs.

I’ve downloaded the OS onto my spare Nexus 6 and taken it for spin. So you can get all the details of Android N’s coolest features, without risking your smartphone or tablet.

Video: Check out our Android N hands-on

Android – Stacked notifications and direct reply

Powering up the Nexus 6, the OS initially looked pretty similar to Android Marshmallow. The app tray’s exactly where it’s meant to be and Google Now is still a simple left swipe away.

However, delve a little deeper and you’ll spot a number of subtle differences. The notification bar has been given a refresh. Swipe down once and a new shortcuts bar to key features like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and flashlight will appear above your incoming app notifications. Previously you had to swipe down twice (or swipe down with two fingers) to get access to the quick settings.

Google has also spruced up the way Android handles notifications in general. On N, app developers can opt to have notifications from their software come in stacked bundles in the notifications bar or lock screen. The feature is currently live on most of Google’s own apps, including Hangouts and Gmail, and from what I’ve seen works a treat.

Multiple messages on Hangouts appear in stacks, with a line telling me who's recently messaged me. From there I can expand the bundle by pulling it open with a two-finger gesture and pick which specific alert I want to address – removing the need for me to launch the app each time I get a new IM.

Android N

Related: Nexus 5X review

Google has also added a new setting shortcut to the notifications. If you partially pull any alert left or right from the lock screen or notifications bar, a setting icon will appear. When this is clicked the OS brings up options to temporarily stop, outright block, or silence alerts from the app/person messaging you.

Direct reply notifications are the final feature in Android N’s trio of alert updates. The feature expands on the quick reply feature Google added to Hangouts on Android Marshmallow. On Marshmallow the feaure made it so you could quickly reply to incoming Hangout messages without launching the application, via a custom shade view – like you can on many iOS 9 applications.

On N, developers will be able to add this functionality to their applications. If key companies such as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp get behind Android N’s quick reply feature I can see it being one of OS’s best new additions.

Android N

Android N on the Nexus 6 (left), Android Marshmallow on the Nexus 5X (right)

Related: How to get Android N

Android N – Multi-windows support

Multi-window support has been a staple feature for Samsung’s Galaxy range of smartphones for quite some time now, and is a key selling point for its latest Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 Edge handsets.

That's why it’s no surprise Google’s decided to add multi-window support to Android’s core code on N. The feature can be activated within any open application by pressing down on the _phone_ or tablet’s overview button – the square one on the bottom right of the UI. From there you can select the second app you want to have on screen and customise how much display real estate it gets using an onscreen slider.

Android N

The multi-window support worked great on the Nexus 6 I tested Android N on and was a massive productivity aid. The feature allowed me do things like keep the reference web page I was reading about on Chrome open while I was chatting to colleagues on Hangouts, removing the need for me to switch between apps while multi-tasking.

The multi-window support is also set to get even better as, eventually, it’ll also be possible to drag an item from one app into the other. This will let you do things like drag a photo from your camera reel straight to your Facebook app to upload it – I couldn’t get the feature to work during my hands-on, though, as Facebook doesn't run correctly in splitscreen at the moment.

Android N – Picture-in-picture

Picture-in-picture is another feature I didn’t get to test during my hands-on, which is a little sad as it sounds quite cool. The feature is designed for Nexus player and other Android TV devices. As the name suggests it will add picture-in-picture support so you can minimise videos being played to the corner of the screen – like you can in Android’s current YouTube app.

This will mean you can browse the web, or check your social media feeds when important alerts come in, without having to pause what you’re currently watching – which, let’s face it, will be cool. If it works.

Related: Nexus 6P review

Android N – Better battery, lower system requirements

Google’s developer build also brings a number of under-the-hood updates that should improve Android N’s power efficiency and lower its overall system requirements.

For starters, Google has expanded and improved the Doze feature it added in Android Marshmallow. Doze lets Android devices figure out when they’re not being used and go into a custom power saving mode that reduces battery drain. The improved version on Android N works whenever the screen is turned off, not just after prolonged periods of inactivity.

Android N

Google has backed this up with a few improvements to Android’s core structure that should let app makers reduce how much juice their wares consume while running in the background. If developers take advantage of the new feature, this adds up to mean the final version of Android N should be far more efficient than Marshmallow.

As a final perk, Google’s also continued its work on Project Svelte. Project Svelte is an initiative Google unveiled alongside Android 4.4 KitKat. It’s a project that aims to reduce Android’s overall system requirements – which is important, as it means the OS will in theory run faster and work with lower-end components.

Related: Pixel C review

Android N – Opening impressions

Making any final judgement on Android N is a fool’s errand, as the OS is a work in progress. All I can do is judge it as an early indicator of what to expect from the final new Android version that Google is set to unveil later this year.

But so far I'm impressed by Android N. Google appears to have listened to user feedback and is working to give developers the tools they need to fix the OS usability and power consumption issues.

If developers get behind the changes and start adding the functionality to their wares, the final version of Android N could be an incremental update to the OS, on a par with Marshmallow.

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