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Android N preview shows off split screens

Mar 9, 2016 — by Eric Brown — 727 views

Google released a preview of the upcoming Android N release, featuring multi-window support, improved notifications, and better Doze power saving.

Alphabet-owned Google released the first of five planned developer previews for the upcoming Android N, available as an over-the-air (OTA) download for Nexus devices leading up to a third quarter release. Hiroshi Lockheimer’s announcement of the release appears to confirm rumors that Android N will be called Android Nutella, as Lockheimer writes “What will the N release be named? We’re nut tellin’ you yet.”

Typically, developer previews arrive only after a new Android release has been showcased at the Google I/O event, which this year will be held May 18-20. The early alpha-code release is a welcome step forward toward a more inclusive approach to open source developers. It’s unclear if it’s by intention or accident, however, as the release occurred after Ars Technica posted a detailed leak article, which has since been removed.

Multi-windowing on a Nexus phone with Android N
(click image to enlarge)

It’s uncertain whether this will be Android 7.0 or an Android 6.x build, but it already seems significant enough for a bump to 7.0. Google has no doubt saved some key features for a subsequent release timed for May, but there’s already at least one huge improvement here: the first native Android support for split screens. There have also been improvements to notifications, Java 8 support, and enhanced Doze power-saving, among other changes.

Vendors have been experimenting with multi-window functionality on Android devices for years, with Samsung releasing its first split-screen update for Android 4.1.2 running on a Galaxy Note 10.1 back in 2013. Now Google is providing multi-windowing for all, erasing one of Android’s biggest deficits compared to iOS and Windows Phone.

The feature works on both phones and tablets, starting on this preview release with the Google Nexus 6, Nexus 5X, Nexus 6P, Nexus Player, and Nexus 9, as well as Google’s Android-based Pixel C convertible tablet. The latter just got an apparently temporary $150 developer discount. You don’t have to prove you are a developer to pick up the typically $499, Nvidia Tegra X1 based device for $349 with 32GB of storage.

Pixel C, now only $349
(click image to enlarge)

In addition to offering split-screen mode, Android N can stack windows vertically. On “TV devices” such as the Nexus Player, Android N provides a picture-in-picture (PIP) feature in which a video window can float over an Android window. In addition, “Manufacturers of larger devices can choose to enable freeform mode, in which the user can freely resize each activity,” says Google.

The current preview lets developers specify minimum allowable dimensions, as well as disable multi-window displays. Users can activate the multi-window support using a long press on an activity title, combined with dragging the activity to a highlighted portion of the screen. Users can also drag and drop content between activities, an improvement in multitasking over the earlier support for dragging and dropping data only within a single activity.

Android N’s new Direct Reply notification feature
(click image to enlarge)

For notifications, Android N extends the RemoteInput notification API to support inline replies on phones, letting users “quickly respond from the notification shade without visiting your app,” says Google. Users can also expand notifications, and perform actions such as reply and dismiss on each, “individually from the notification shade.” In addition, notifications can now be bundled for group actions, and new APIs enable developers to enable system decorations in an app’s customized notification views for a more consistent presentation.

As usual with new Android releases, Android N provides power management improvements. This time around, there are enhancements to the Doze feature introduced last October in Android 6.0 “Marshmallow” (formerly Android M). In addition to saving battery life by postponing CPU and network activities when a device is idle, Doze can now save power whenever an untethered device’s screen turns off for a set period, improving performance while the phone is pocketed.

Android N also adds the following features, among others:

  • Background Optimizations — power and performance saving mode to reduce resource draining implicit broadcasts such as JobScheduler, providing “robust mechanisms to schedule network operations when specified conditions…are met.”
  • Direct Boot — a secure boot mode in which the device is powered on, but remains locked, enabling apps such as alarm and SMS notifications
  • Data Saver — ability to set device to use less data, “whether roaming, near the end of the billing cycle, or on a small prepaid data pack”
  • Java 8 support — optimizations for Java 8, including support for default and static interface methods, Lambda expressions, and repeatable annotations
  • ICU4J — support for the open source ICU4J Java library framework, for calling upon a device’s localization data to provide apps with Unicode and globalization support
  • Language and Locale — ability to select multiple locales in settings for more flexible multilingual support
  • Scooped Directory Access — simplified API to access common external storage directories
  • TV Recording — expanded time-shifting on Android TV devices by letting the user save multiple recorded sessions
  • Quick Settings Tile API — Quick Settings improvements such as more room for adding tiles, and more user control over appearance and layout

Further information

More information and links to downloads for the first Android N developer preview may be found here, and more detailed notes may be found in this Android N overview.

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