I’ve been using the next version of Android for some months now – Android 6.0 (Marshmallow) – or to put it more correctly, I’ve been using various iterations of the Android M developer preview. After three developer versions though we’ve finally made it to the final release and we even have shiny new hardware to run it on, in the form of the Nexus 5X. Although as a write it’s also available on the Nexus 5, Nexus 6 and Nexus 9.
A new version of Android used to be welcomed with great jubilation, but as with iOS it’s now pretty mature and the changes in each new version become less revolutionary and more incremental. Not that there’s nothing here to desire, after all Android 5.0 wasn’t perfect, but most the changes are unlikely to blow you away.
Before you leave in disgust, there’s still some important new stuff to read about. Google has provided access to its Google Now assistant across the whole operating system, there’s improved standby battery life, plus support for the latest hardware trends such as fingerprint scanners and USB Type-C.
You may not be clamouring at Google to get Android 6.0 on your current handset (though if you’re keen read When will my phone get Android 6.0 Marshmallow?) but there’s certainly enough here to make it worth looking forward to.
There’s loads of little improvements in Android 6.0 but here we’ll deal with the big new features. It’s impossible to say which of these will make it through complete to your handset manufacturer’s particular version of Android, such as Samsung’s TouchWiz, but most of us should benefit.
Now on Tap
Google Now has been around for a while, but you may not have seen it if you’re using a modified version of Android. It’s a personal digital assistant that provides pertinent information in a series of ‘cards’, based on your situation. Standing at a bus stop and you’ll get bus times, book a flight and it’ll pull the details out of your email confirmation, it also learns what sites you visit in Chrome and pops up new headlines from them.
In Android 6 Google has extended Now so that you can access it from almost anywhere, this is called Now on Tap. Simply hold down the home button for a second at any time and Now will scan the screen and provide cards based on what it finds.
For example, a friend messages you on What’s App to suggest a restaurant for dinner, simply fire up Now on Tap and it plucks out the relevant details. In this case it finds the restaurant, offers to navigate you there, links directly to the menu on its website, you can see reviews from Google too, take a look on Street View or check out its Twitter account, it even found an article on my Guardian app for it and linked to that.
It’s not perfect admittedly, in this case it offered to create a Calendar entry for this meeting, and though it got the time and date right it pulled the work address from the email signature, thinking that the meal was happening at my office.
Essentially Now on Tap expands Google’s powerful search algorithms into every crevice of Android. It’s potentially useful as a shortcut to searching about a topic, or to quickly pull information from a message. I’ll admit that I’ve been playing about with it for a while and it’s still not second nature, but it’s undeniably useful at times.
App permissions are a bit of a pain in Android. The more open nature of the Play Store, compared to say the App Store, means you have to be a little more careful about what you install on your phone. It’s good that apps are upfront about what elements they want access to, but many apps present you with a huge list of permissions upon installation; and then refuse to install at all unless you agree to them all.
That’s now a thing of the past. In Android 6.0 app permissions are requested when required, not at installation. So the first time an app tries to access your camera, it brings up a request to do so, and you can agree either that once or forever. This means you’re not providing access permission to an app for features you never use. For example, if you only use Skype for voice calls it doesn’t need to access your camera.
There’s a smaller, simpler set of permissions now too, and you’ll be able to go in and edit them either by app, or by permission type; the latter will let you universally stop all your apps from accessing say your contacts or camera if you wish. Updates to apps are smoother too, as apps with broader permissions don’t require you to agree to them when the update is done. Apps must be upgraded to work with the new system, so apps will continue to use the previous ‘up-front’ permissions system until they’re next updated by the developer.
It’s not the most exciting of updates but it’s a big step forward for both security and convenience and one we applaud Google for.
Google is making further efforts to improve battery life, but this time its standby power that’s getting an upgrade. Doze is a new technology that detects when the device is motionless and unused and goes into a deeper sleep mode, polling for updates less often, but still making it available for important incoming events like calls or VoIP.
In internal tests, Google found it doubled the battery life of a Nexus 9 tablet, we’re guessing a not-much-used Nexus 9. Still we’ve always found our iPad lasts for ages longer on standby than our Google-power equivalent, so it’s a welcome effort from Google.
It’s hard to test just how much effect Doze will have on your battery life. In our limited experience so far it does little to improve the day-to-day battery life of a heavily-used smartphone. In artificial testing it’s far more impressive, reducing the battery drain of a clean Android install to a third of what it was before.
How much Doze helps your battery depends largely on how much you use your phone, how many apps you have polling for data and receiving it. What we can say for sure is if you leave your phone on overnight, without plugging it in to charge, it’ll be in a far better state in the morning.
Fingerprint sensors and Android Pay
Fingerprint sensors have been added to Android phones for some time now but they’ve never been supported by Google itself. This has changed with Android 6.0, which is good news all round as there’s a standard set of tools for developers to add fingerprint support to their apps.
So why now? Well Google has finally launched Android Pay in the US (which incorporates and supercedes the old Google Wallet). You can add your credit cards to the app and then use your phone to pay for stuff at checkouts with Contactless support, presuming it has NFC of course.
Fingerprint scanners add an extra level of security for authorising transactions, although they aren’t needed for Android Pay in the US, where the service will happily let you buy stuff as long as the phone is unlocked – be that PIN or swipe code, though it’s not as convenient obviously. Whether this level of security will be enough to please UK banks is yet to be seen. With Apple Pay now well established, and requiring Touch ID, Google may be forced to follow suit if it wants to avoid the usual £20 limit on Contactless payments.
Multi-Window and other bits
The new operating system is capable of running two apps side-by-side. We’ve seen this before on Samsung‘s Note devices, but it’s never been a feature in Google’s own version of Android. It will be a huge boon for users of biggers handsets, such as the Nexus 6. However as of yet it’s not available to most users, requiring quite a bit of mucking about with developer settings to get it running. We hope to see it officially rolled out for tablets and phablets soon.
Google is adding Chrome Custom Tabs to Android. These allow app developers to create browser tabs in their own style, to make the move from app content to web content smoother, by allowing apps to integrate web content without a visually jarring effect.
There will also be improved linking between apps, so you’ll see a lot less of that annoying screen that asks you to pick which app you want to use for a certain task. Certified apps will be able to ‘own’ links connected to them, for example by default the Twitter app will own Twitter links, and you’ll get taken straight to it should you click on one in a browser. You’ll be able to reassign these if you prefer another app, but by default it will be a far more seamless app-to-app and web-to-app experience.
This article originally appeared on https://www.expertreviews.co.uk/mobile-phones/1403322/android-60-marshmallow-review