Android 7.0 Nougat review: Google tweaks its OS with an eye on the future

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Android Nougat is rolling out now – this is our review, based on months with the developer previews(Credit: David Nield/New Atlas)

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After nearly six months of beta testing, Android 7.0 Nougat is being pushed out to the most recent Nexus devices from this week. What goodies and new features does Google's latest mobile OS have in store? And how will it change your phone? We've been putting the software to the test since March and here's what we've found.

What you notice first about Nougat is how little there is to notice. Unlike Apple, Google doesn't update its main apps at the same time as its mobile OS, and the Material Design principles introduced in Android 5.0 Lollipop have only been given slight tweaks. Even Google Now gets updated independently of Android these days.

That leaves the system settings, a bunch of under-the-hood tweaks, and a few extras (like emoji) as the main upgrades arriving with the seventh major Android version. Don't expect a massive difference after you've got the new software installed – at least on the surface – but it's well worth having nonetheless.

Look and feel

The ever-useful Quick Settings pane gets improved and can now be customized

What visual flourishes there are, we like. Notifications are now grouped by app and look tidier on screen as well. There are other small touches, like quick info bars on the Settings page: You can see how much battery is left before tapping on the Battery menu, for instance, or what the ringer volume is set to before you go into the Sound menu.

Notifications are easier to respond to as well – drag down on an alert to see quick responses added by the developer (you can reply in Hangouts and Archive in Gmail for example). There's a new Clear All button at the bottom if you want to dismiss the whole stack of notifications at once. Much as we like iOS as well, it feels like Android has notifications figured out better at the moment.

There are a few small improvements like this, such as the fluid way the Quick Settings pane expands when you pull it down from the top. For the first time you can edit this pane yourself without any third-party apps or hidden system tweaks (or using customized versions of Android, like Samsung's), so you can choose which icons are shown and how they're arranged on screen.

Notifications are grouped by app and take up more space to fit together better on screen

Bear in mind we've been using the beta versions of Android 7.0 Nougat, and in most cases before any apps have been upgraded to match it, but even so the mobile OS has been a breeze to use on our Nexus 6, particular in the recent builds. Whatever Google is doing to make animations and actions snappier, it's working.

One of the most notable new features is support for a split-screen view, accessed from the Overview (app switching) screen. It's going to be most useful for those on Android tablets, but even on the Nexus 6 it occasionally comes in handy: keeping two websites open at once, say, or making notes from an incoming message.

A double-tap on the Overview/Recent Apps button switches back to your most recent app in Nougat, so flicking between two apps (the one you're using and the one you just left) is easier. It's another example of the small tweaks in Nougat that you're going to enjoy discovering, once the update finally lands on your phone.

We found the double-tap shortcut to have much more use than the split-screen functionality, at least on our Nexus 6P. It's one of those small improvements that isn't going to raise a lot of eyebrows but makes an actual difference to how you get around the OS.

Behind-the-scenes tweaks

The OS is slightly more user-friendly than Android 6.0 Marshmallow and you get a reminder when your phone is silenced

Beyond the immediately obvious, Google has improved battery performance again (it says) and battery life on our test device was at least on a par and perhaps slightly improved. Remember we were using pre-release versions of Nougat, without optimized apps, but the early results are promising and you should be able to eke out more life from your device.

The Doze battery feature introduced with Marshmallow, where apps go into a low-power mode when your phone isn't being used, is now smart enough to work when your phone is in your pocket or a bag (in other words, not just when it's still).

A new Data Saver tool has been added that lets you stop certain apps from sending and receiving data in the background. It's designed to help you while traveling abroad or if you're close to your data plan limit, though Android already had some comprehensive features in this area and the new update doesn't add much more.

The addition of 72 new emoji takes the total in Android to more than 1,500

You will notice more emoji available – 72 new additions to be exact – which gives you that much more freedom if you like expressing yourself in little pictures as well as words. Emoji have to be added at the OS level, although the Google Keyboard used by default by Nougat is another of the apps that have been spun out of Android, and gets updated separately.

Graphics performance has been improved with a new Vulkan engine designed to give games better access to the CPU horsepower in your phone. We weren't able to test this too extensively on our 2014 Nexus 6, but the games we did try certainly didn't get any worse: performance remained fluid and smooth throughout.

Again, installing Nougat isn't going to make a huge difference to your phone in these areas, but they're another set of small steps forward that we've come to expect from Android updates. Longer battery life, better graphics and a little extra in the way of customization are all appreciated even if they're not spectacular upgrades.

It all means your Nougat experience won't be much of a change from your Marshmallow one. Think of it as a tune-up for the car you've got rather than swapping it for a new one.

Daydream VR and the Android future

Split-screen support is one of the major new features – though how useful it is on a phone screen is debatable

Android 7.0 Nougat also comes with the foundation of Google's new Daydream VR platform, which is essentially a set of graphics and hardware standards designed to power new mobile VR headsets. Daydream-ready phones are "coming later this year", Google says, so this won't make any difference to your current handset.

One of the big features that arrived with last year's Android upgrade, Google Now on Tap, seems to have stagnated somewhat, and can be a bit hit and miss with its results. It is useful sometimes, for looking up info about what's on the screen, but there aren't many occasions when we feel the need to fire it up.

More significant improvements in Google's AI software are set to arrive with its upcoming Allo messenger app and the Google Assistant intelligence underpinning it. The same Google Assistant – which seems to be a next-gen version of Google Now, although Google hasn't been very clear on that point – will also be arriving in the Google Home speaker launching later this year and the Allo messaging app which should be here before long.

A bunch of clever, small tweaks have been added, but Android is about much more than just the base OS code these days

There's another new feature worth mentioning, which is good news if you're on a Nexus: seamless background updates. Android will update itself in the background invisibly, much as Google Chrome does now on the desktop, but while that should make for a better user experience it flags up Android's continuing fragmentation problem.

Nougat will arrive in the very near future to the Nexus 6, Nexus 5X, Nexus 6P, Nexus 9, Nexus Player, Pixel C and Android One, and it's going to come pre-installed on the upcoming LG V20. For everyone else, it could be a long, long waiting game: just 15.2 percent of handsets worldwide are on Android 6.0 Marshmallow to date.

Based on our time with it, Android 7.0 Nougat makes a few pleasing tweaks to the look of Android, gives you a more stable and battery-friendly experience overall, and lays the foundations for what's coming next with Daydream VR and Google Assistant. What it also emphasizes is just how much lies beyond Android and iOS updates now.

These major releases are no longer the feature-packed game-changers they once were, particularly on Android where the native apps remain untouched. There are still plenty of reasons to get Nougat installed as soon as you possibly can, but like Windows 10 this is now an OS that's going to continually improve and refine itself, little by little.

You can read more about Android 7.0 Nougat in Google's official announcement.

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