Android Marshmallow represents the 6th major update to the Android platform and while some have argued that it is not worthy of a full “dot-zero” version number, when you see the list of things that Google has added or addressed in v6.0, it starts to make sense. Android Marshmallow is certainly not revolutionary. It is an evolution of Android Lollipop, bringing with it a laundry list of improvements, enhancements and features that will make it a worthy competitor to iOS 9 from Apple and a worthy upgrade for users.
For the sake of saving you having to read 10,000 plus words, I’m not going to go over every single new features that is in Marshmallow. Rather, I’m going to focus on the key features that are likely to impact the most users or are going to have the greatest impact long term on the life of this version of Android. Likewise, I’m not going to try to answer the question of if your particular device will receive Android Marshmallow. I’ll give some guidance but it is nothing more than that. I, in other words, don’t know the answer on if your phone or tablet will see it.
Note that this review has been based on testing and usage of the Developer Preview 3 on a Nexus 6.
The Laundry List of Features in Android Marshmallow
The number of items being added or improved in Android Marshmallow is impressive. Many of the things you would expect to see at this point such as USB-C support, native 4K output support,
and native fingerprint authentication. These are all somewhat table stake items in a modern mobile OS and Marshmallow doesn’t disappoint. Indeed there is so much in this release that it would be difficult to cover all of it.
One of the most comprehensive lists of features in Marshmallow was put together by Android user Salman Ahmad on Google+. This will give you a feel for what I mean by a laundry list.
- Now on Tap
- Permissions Management
- SD Cards can be “merged” with internal storage
- Android Pay
- Native fingerprint authentication
- Automatic app data backups
- App Links (you’re going to see less of those “what do you want to open this in?” prompts)
- Doze and App Standby
- Multi Window(currently hidden, uncertain future)
- Themeing support(currently hidden, uncertain future)
- Dark theme(removed, uncertain future)
- Customization of Quick Toggles along with other UI tweaking
- Visual Voicemail Support
- Redesign of the Clock Widget and Music Identification Widget
- New “Memory” Section in Settings(it was there before, but hidden)
- Support for deleting screenshots directly through the notification center after they’ve been taken
- Landscape mode available for the Google Now Launcher(feature will likely be back-ported to older versions of Android)
- New app and widget drawer with scroll bar support and vertical scrolling
- Built-In File Manager receives a bump in functionality
- Native tap to wake support
- Ability to disable “heads up” or “peeking” notifications
- Native 4K output support
- Stricter APK validation
- MIDI support
- USB Type C support
- New boot animation
- Introduction of a “voice interaction” API to allow better interaction with voice actions in apps
- Toggling battery saver by voice
- Ability to undo and redo text changes with Bluetooth keyboard shortcuts
- Multi-selection to merge, delete or share has been added in the contacts application
- Faster text selection along with a floating toolbar for text actions
- Default apps UI
- Direct share can allow you directly share stuff with contacts through the share menu
- Much more granular app info
- Native Bluetooth stylus support
- Split-screen keyboard
- Mobile radio active bug will be fixed
- Better do not disturb along with repeat caller exceptions
- Bluetooth scanning to improve location accuracy
- Native flashlight API
- Easier access to Multi volume controls(ringer, media, alarm)
- Smoother volume scrubbing
While many of the things on this list are minor in nature – a new boot animation for example – others are significantly more important and will benefit users immediately. The bottom line is that Android Marshmallow is an evolutionary step in the lifecycle of Android.
Now On Tap
The first big banner feature in Android Marshmallow is Now on Tap. This feature, part of the Google Now experience, gives you contextual information on what you are viewing on your device. For example, if you are in Google Search and are searching for a restaurant, you can tap and hold the Home button and be provided additional context for that restaurant such as being able to book a table through OpenTable, get Yelp reviews and the like. The beauty is that you don’t have to switch out of apps. You can go directly to OpenTable and book your table and continue to effectively stay in Chrome.
If this sounds familiar, it should. Microsoft’s Bing search app added a similar feature earlier this summer which many saw as Microsoft leapfrogging Google. On the surface they did but given that we are playing in Google’s domain (Android), you can expect the experience to be better with Now on Tap with Google Search on your Android devices. The same would be true for Bing on a Windows 10 Mobile device.
Underpinning all of this behind the scenes is the Google Machine Learning engine that they have been continuing developing and have made great strides in particular over the past 12 months. Google Search on your Android phone or tablet leverages it and that is what enables this rich content for you on your device. Personally I think that Now on Tap represents one of the greatest examples of integration between all of the Google back-end machine learning and analytics to date.
I have been working with Now on Tap for a few weeks and it has been an on-and-off feature in the development phase. When Preview 3 was released it worked then it didn’t work then it did work after a Google Search update then it didn’t work and now it is working again. 🙂 In other words, it has been hard to really give this feature a good testing because it hasn’t always been there and outside of the Google apps themselves, not many are up-to-date to take advantage of the feature. But I have tested it enough to get a feel for how it is going to work and it should be pretty handy for users.
To a large extent, the success of Now on Tap is going to come down to how fast developers support it within their own apps. That shouldn’t take long and as we saw at the Google event at the end of September, OpenTable has already been working on this as it was part of the demonstration.
Improved Permissions and Security
We have seen glimpses of the new permissions structure as Google has been updating their various apps over the course of the past few weeks. Essentially, what Google has done is move the permissions that apps ask for from the install of that app in mass to the individual apps themselves at the time the app requests to access a part of your phone. For example, let’s say you have an app that wants to access your camera. Today, when you install that app, will be the notification that the app will want access to your camera and likely a long list of other things the app will want to access. It is a binary decision for you as a user: You either accept all of the things that the app wants to access or you don’t get to install the app.
In Android Marshmallow this changes to be more in line with how iOS handles app permissions. Now when you open up an app that wants access to your camera, you get the notification and request for permissions at that point, not at the installer point. That means you can be far more granular in what you will allow an app to access on your device and what you will not allow it to access. So if you want to give an app access to your calendar but not your camera, you can do that easily enough.
The new permissions is very much a “growing up” feature in Android Marshmallow and one that a lot of users have wanted for some time.
Related to permissions is overall security improvements, most notably the ability to use a fingerprint for authenticating on your device. If you have a device that has a fingerprint reader, there is now a native fingerprint authentication API in Marshmallow. That means that it is tied in with the OS itself and not an additional app that does the authentication. That’s good news for a couple of different reasons. One, any app can now access that authentication code and user it for purchases or even access to sensitive information (think Mint for your financials for example). It also is good in that you don’t have a potential security risk with a middleware app that is doing the authenticating.
Doze and App Standby
Battery life in my opinion remains the single biggest stumbling block when it comes to mobile devices. As apps and hardware have gotten more power hungry, Operating Systems and apps have struggled to keep up. The answer by OEMs has been to build bigger and bigger batteries into the devices. That in turn adds size and weight. Certainly improvement in battery technology has dramatically improved in the past few years but it still remains a daily challenge for power users.
Doze and App Standby are aimed at addressing this through software. In Android Marshmallow, when your device is sitting idle, the OS will shut down apps to a very lower power state but will stay alive enough for you to get updates and notifications. When you pick your device back up, everything comes back to life as normal and you won’t have any lag or delay when you open up an app. This is the Doze part of the equation. What makes this really impressive is Marshmallow learns your habits and the apps that you use most and which ones you don’t so much. On these apps it dramatically restricts the amount of power used by the apps for maximum battery efficiency. This is the App Standby functionality.
When you combine the functionality of Doze and App Standby, users of Marshmallow should see a dramatic improvement on battery life and it isn’t just for the new Nexus devices. This is something that every device that gets upgraded to Marshmallow will see the benefits from almost immediately.
On my Nexus 6, the Doze and App Standby feature have had a dramatic impact on my battery in a very positive way. Generally, I was able to make it throughout a whole day on my Nexus 6 with Lollipop. If pulled the phone off the charger at 6AM, I could expect to be able to use it at 7PM although I’d be down to sub-10% remaining battery. Now I can do the same thing and have about 20% battery remaining. It is a huge improvement and I can only imagine that the Nexus 5X and 6P, which are properly optimized from a hardware perspective for Marshmallow, will perform even better. This one feature alone makes Marshmallow a worthy upgrade in my mind.
USB Type-C Support
Related to battery life, Android Marshmallow brings USB Type-C support to Android devices. This is important as it is likely a very high percentage of new devices in 2016 will have USB Type-C. If you aren’t familiar with why USB Type-C is so exciting, it is a reversable connector (doesn’t matter which side is “up”) and gives far higher energy throughput to charge batteries faster. This connector can have an energy throughput as high as 20v/100w. In fact this is the very reason why Google did not include wireless charging on the Nexus 5X and Nexus 6P because charging times are significantly faster using this type of connector. Equally as important, USB Type-C also can handle up to 10Gbps of data throughput so driving things like external monitors would be a non-issue going forward.
Apple was the first major manufacture to adopt USB Type-C with their new Macbook and it is the single connection for that device that drive charging, external monitors, etc. Other manufactures are quickly joining them as this technology should significantly cut down on the number of cables you have laying around the desk.
Application and Application Data Backup
A feature that hasn’t caught a lot of attention but is important in Android Marshmallow is the improved application and application data backup features in it. Currently, when you backup your device, applications are not backed up and no application settings are not backed up. That means that if you are restoring your device, you have to go through and configure the apps again on your device which is time consuming and inevitably you forget an app or two in that process and don’t realize it until you need it. This new ability will back up your application settings and can even backup apps themselves (although not really necessary as the apps are in the Play Store and markers for which apps you have installed are backed up) which means that on a new device or a restore, you will have all your settings you had before restored so you can get up and going faster.
The backup of this information is done to your Google Drive and it can only store up to 25MB of information. Again, we are talking about settings here so not a lot of data to store even if you have hundreds of applications installed.
When Can You Get Android Marshmallow
The inevitable question for Android users is when they will see the update on their devices. Fortunately we have a reasonable idea thanks to Google and other OEMs. If you are running a Nexus 5, 6, 7 (2013) or 9 then you will start receiving the OTA update to Marshmallow on Tuesday, October 6th. This will also include the Nexus Player. HTC has committed to having the One M8 and One M9 updated by the end of this year with a much larger list of their devices as well as Samsung devices expected to be upgraded as well over the course of 2016.
As a general rule of thumb, if your device is 24 months or older, you are likely not going to get the update. OEMs tend to focus on the last two years for updates so set your expectations as such.
Android Marshmallow is a great update to the Android platform and will have significant enhancements and improvements that users will appreciate. It’s hard to pick just one key feature to appreciate the most but I suspect that the improved battery life thanks to Doze and App Standby will be the “killer feature” for most users. But there is a lot to like about this release and my testing of it over the past few weeks has been a joy.