Android 6.0 Marshmallow review: Google Now is more important than ever

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Android Marshmallow is the sixth major update for Google's mobile OS

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Version 6.0 of Android is rolling out to Nexus devices now, appearing on the brand new Nexus phones very soon, and other recent Android phones over the coming months. Read on for our impressions of Marshmallow – and the difference it's going to make in your mobile experience.

Unlike Apple, Google has spun its main apps out of Android itself, so much of what you'll notice as new when you install a new version of the mobile OS is the Google Now launcher and the Settings app. In fact the immediate, on-the-surface changes this time around are so subtle that you might wonder if your Marshmallow upgrade has worked when you first install it.

Many of the new features ushered in by Marshmallow are aimed at making life easier for developers, though users should see the benefit as well. Chrome Custom Tabs, for example, which brings Chrome into third-party apps to save developers from having to code their own web viewers, but that should also make for better in-app web browsers for users.

Android gets smarter: Google Now on Tap

The headline Marshmallow feature you'll want to get playing with straight away is Google Now on Tap. It essentially gives Google's digital assistant some extra context for its queries, allowing it to scan the whole screen of whatever app you're in to try and work out what you want to know.

So launching Google Now on Tap with a movie prominently displayed on screen brings up links to the Internet Movie Database app (if installed), Wikipedia, YouTube (for trailers) and so on; or if there's a sports team displayed, you get links to the team's social media profiles, its official website and even directions to the stadium for the next match.

Developers have the choice of whether to grant Google Now this kind of access, so it's not supported everywhere just yet, and right now it feels more like a new foundation than a feature that's ready for primetime. It works well, on occasion, but too often it doesn't pick up the right bit of data, doesn't provide relevant enough links, or simply isn't useful enough.

The end goal for Google Now on Tap is to be able to answer a text message like "what time's the film?" in an instant, by knowing who you're talking to, what movie you've previously been discussing, and the times it's showing at the local theater. That's an appealing idea but Google still has a ways to go to reach that level of intelligence.

We tried out Now on Tap in Chrome, Gmail, Rdio, Hangouts and a few other apps, and it is genuinely useful when a movie or place name pops up and you need quick info about it. The feature is more miss than hit right now though, particularly outside of Google's apps, so mark this down as one for the future rather than something you're going to rely on straight away.

Google Now is still present and correct in its existing form, of course, and on smartphones the launcher's app drawer gets a slick-looking facelift, with icons scrolling vertically and the most-used apps at the top — however, this is technically included as part of a Google app update that's already showing up on Lollipop devices as well as Marshmallow ones. Only the Now on Tap functionality is unique to Marshmallow, at least for now.

Android lasts longer: testing out Doze

Doze is Android Marshmallow's new battery saver technology, which cuts down on background processes and checks for new notifications less often when your device is not in use – if the screen is off and the device is motionless then Doze kicks in (there's no switch or setting you need to flick manually to activate it).

Google has promised big improvements with Doze (the Nexus 9 lasts up to twice as long on a single charge, the company says) and we noticed the difference on a 2013 Nexus 7: the battery level only dropped 2-3 percentage points overnight, whereas previously a handful of nights would be enough to almost completely drain this (admittedly rather old) tablet.

The benefits you see will depend on how often your smartphone or tablet is left idle, but we'd bet that Doze is going to make a difference on those devices that are only used occasionally throughout the day or week. For devices that are used more actively and consistently, our testing found battery life seemed to be along similar lines to that in Android Lollipop.

The other main user-facing improvement concerns app permissions, which are much more iOS-like: apps ask for access to the camera, microphone, contacts list and so on as soon as they need them, rather than just as they're about to be installed. The change makes it easier to understand what rights particular apps want, and it also means you can let an app access one part of the system (like the camera) but block it from another (like the contacts list).

It's a welcome and overdue change, one which works well in practice. Even if most users are unlikely to delve into the app permissions list very often, it's there if it's needed, and the new system should mean more transparency regarding what apps can and can't do on the device.

Other changes and tweaks

Volume control and "silent mode" were something of a mess in Lollipop, and Google has thankfully improved the experience in Marshmallow. Tapping the hardware volume buttons brings up the system, media or alarm volume slider depending on what you're doing, and with another tap you can show all three on screen at once.

Priority Mode remains, but is easier to understand than it was in Android 5.0. A tap on the Do not disturb button in Quick Settings lets you choose among total silence, alarms only and priority only (the last one means selected contacts, events and apps can make a sound). It's a better approach, but it still needs work – switching in and out of quiet mode is something most of us do every day, and Google seems intent on making it more convoluted than it needs to be.

It's worth mentioning the native support for the faster, superior USB Type-C and fingerprint sensing technology that's built into Android Marshmallow, though you'll only see the benefit on new devices rather than upgraded ones. Support for Android Pay is also bundled with Marshmallow, though Google's new mobile payments system works on NFC-enabled devices with Android 4.4 KitKat and above, so it's not exclusive to the new software.

There are other small tweaks for the better, such as the improved text selection tool that highlights whole words at once so it's easier to pick out the words and phrases you want (there's now a floating toolbar for quick access to cut, copy and paste commands as well). A new Direct Share feature brings up the apps and contacts you connect to most often whenever you tap the Share button, meanwhile.

Marshmallow and Android's future

On the whole using Android Marshmallow is very much like using Android Lollipop, and this isn't the kind of major upgrade that's going to dramatically change how you interact with your smartphone or tablet. As with iOS, it's the intelligent assistant built into Android that's most interesting at the moment. With the two mobile OS software juggernauts now so mature and established, the innovation responsibility falls largely on Siri and Google Now, and Now on Tap is another step forward in Google's mission to know as much about you – and what you're going to want to know next – as possible.

After several days of using Marshmallow, you almost forget it's there: this feels more like Android 5.2 than 6.0. That's partly due to apps like Gmail and Google Maps getting updated separately, but partly due to the maturity of Android as a mobile OS. Perhaps from this point on, things like improved battery life, a smarter Google Now and a bunch of smaller tweaks will be big parts of each new edition of the software.

For a look at the latest version of Apple's rival mobile operating system, you can check out Gizmag's iOS 9 review.

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