Just when we'd grown used to Google launching previews of Android at its I/O event in May, it decides to unveil the Android N (update: it's now officially "Android Nougat) preview early. These developer previews give app makers and users alike a heads-up about what's coming in the next version of the Android mobile OS, and these are the major new features we know about so far.
With iOS 9 supporting a side-by-side mode (and Google's Pixel C now on the market as a laptop replacement), it makes sense for Android to offer the same feature too. Once developers build this feature into their apps you'll be able to easily run them side by side on the same phone or tablet display.
Type out a message while viewing a map, check the weather while watching Twitter, and so on. Samsung's TouchWiz version of Android already features a similar kind of facility, but it looks like Google's own take works just as well. The screen can be split horizontally or vertically as you prefer.
Modern smartphones have to be good at handling floods of notifications and Android N has a couple of improvements in this area. First, developers can choose to bunch together alerts from the same app, enabling users to see them as a bundle and then expand them individually when necessary.
Second, notifications support a new "direct reply" feature so you can respond to a text, WhatsApp, tweet or anything else straight from the notification pane without having to launch the app in question. You should be able to power through your notifications like never before.
Better battery life
Google introduced a new battery-saving feature called Doze with Android Marshmallow and it's been improved in Android N. Doze now works whenever the screen is off, not just when the device is stationary, so your device's battery should last even longer when it's in standby mode.
Like many of the tweaks Google introduces to Android with each new version, it depends on developers incorporating the feature into their code, but there's no reason why they wouldn't. Google says it's also improved the way that memory resources are used in the background of the mobile OS.
Another feature Apple introduced in iOS 9, picture-in-picture lets you (for example) view a YouTube video while reading through a report in Word. Again, this is going to be more useful for those of you with tablets or larger phones, otherwise the display is likely to become a little too busy.
Based on Google's blog post this is aimed primarily at Android TV devices and big screens but you might find it useful if you want to check your email while keeping an eye on Netflix. Note that the screenshot above shows the existing functionality inside the YouTube app, not the new feature.
The return of Night Mode
We were expecting to see a Night Mode in Android 6.0 Marshmallow based on the developer previews, but it eventually got pulled. Well, it's back in Android N, making your smartphone or tablet display that much easier on the eyes in a dark room. It can be linked to daylight times in your location as well.
Like third-party apps that do the same job, Night Mode changes the color scheme and the tint of the display to reduce the amount of blue light and ease eye strain late at night (for those regular before-bedtime social media checks). A similar feature is on the way in the 9.3 update for iOS too.
How to try out the Android N developer preview
There are other new features in Android N, including a redesigned Settings menu and a tweaked app-switching interface, but those are the major ones. This time around Google is also letting anyone receive the latest developer preview updates over the air, just like standard Android updates.
First you need a compatible device (currently the Nexus 6, Nexus 9, Nexus 5X, Nexus 6P, Nexus Player and Pixel C). From the Beta Program page you can log in with your Google account details and enroll your device; a few minutes later, you should receive a prompt to download the new Android N preview.
It goes without saying that this is a very early, very buggy release of Android N: don't do this with a device you rely on and make sure all your key data is backed up first. There is the option to switch back to stable releases of Android at any time, but all the data on your device is wiped in the process.
Again – do this at your own risk. Most apps won't work well with Android N and you're going to see a lot of crashes. It's only really for app developers and those with a spare Android device to hand who are particularly curious to see what the next version of Google's mobile OS has in store.
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