The latest Android software, codenamed Marshmallow, is slicker and smarter than ever – but in terms of new features, it’s more like Android 5.3 than 6.0.
The headline feature is Google ‘Now On Tap’. Activated by a long press of the Home button, it offers Google Now-style information such as links, calendar updates and IMDB news that’s related to the app or web page you’re looking at. When it works, it works well. I was impressed to find in a text conversation that mentioned the words ‘sat’ and ‘bowling’ (in different messages), Now On Tap asked if I wanted to add a Bowling event to my calendar for the following Saturday. It’s a smart cookie!
Essentially, it turns the contents of what’s on your phone or tablet’s screen into a search or an action, offering similar results to a Google search or Google Now cards. Googling ‘Matt Damon’ for example and opening Now on Tap will give you links to his IMDB page and recent movies. Using it within the BBC News app or while browsing the Tech Chap website, Now on Tap will pick up key title words and provide contextual information from Wikipedia, related Google News stories and even links to YouTube.
However, like my local pub at the end of a busy Saturday night, there’s often nothing on tap.
Sometimes Google has nothing more to add and will say there’s Nothing On Tap. This reminded me of using Force Touch on the new iPhone 6S for the first time. It works on some apps, but not others – becoming a game of trial and error.
In the end it’s really just a shortcut to performing a simple Google search, but when it works it can save you some time. I’m a big fan of Google Now as a personal assistant and so integrating it into more aspects of your phone with Now On Tap is a good move.
“A Battery That Works Smarter, Not Harder”
Most people simply want a phone that lasts longer. Google are tackling battery life issues with the new Doze and App Standby features. With Doze, when your phone isn’t being used it will automatically power down after a period of inactivity – putting it into a sleep state. This can provide up to 2.7 times longer standby battery life compared with a device running Lollipop.
As well as Doze, App Standby reduces the battery drain caused by apps – limiting their standby impact on battery life. It’s difficult to know what effect certain apps have on our Android devices, for example I only recently learned that Spotify can drain as much as 2% of your battery per hour – even when it’s not being used and is simply cached in the background.
Combining an intelligent low-powered Doze mode with reduced battery drain from standby apps will noticeably improve your battery life.
Greater Control & Security
From passwords to drunken family photos, you have all sorts of personal data stored on your phone. Keeping your device, and more importantly your data safe is very important. When you download a new app, you will often be prompted to ‘allow’ or ‘deny’ it. Without really thinking, most of us will give it permission to do whatever it needs to do. More often than not, app permissions simply allow apps to access your location and push notifications for example, but they can store data and we hardly ever know exactly what certain apps are doing in the background.
The good news is that the latest Android software allows you to specify and even disable app permissions for individual apps at any time. Perhaps you don’t want Facebook to have permission to access you microphone or for Spotify to access your contacts – Marshmallow let’s you change these app permissions within your phone or tablet’s settings menu.
While it may not be the most glamorous or exciting new feature, refined app permissions may be one of the most significant new changes in Android 6.0.
The most obvious way of keeping your data safe is by preventing others from being able to access it. To that end, the new Android fingerprint software allows you to unlock your phone with a registered fingerprint. While this will be limited to devices that feature fingerprint readers, such as the new Nexus 5X and 6P, it’s a great new method for unlocking your device. With a PIN, password or swipe pattern set as a backup, you can rely on your finger to quickly and securely unlock your phone. You can even pay for apps in the Google Play Store with your finger and checkout securely with Android Pay.
Android 6 is also bringing back full support for SD cards. Previously, Android KitKat removed the ability to install apps on external storage devices like Micro-SD cards. With the new update, Google have added the ability to set up SD cards as ‘adaptable’ storage which means your phone or tablet will treat external and internally storage equally, as one. This is great news and means you no longer have to worry about file management between storage devices and, most importantly, you can install apps onto SD cards. Unfortunately, this update comes at a time when fewer and fewer devices are offering Micro-SD support.
Marshmallow is a sensible update. It adds deeper integration of Google Now and offers improvements to the battery life as well as smarter security and more streamlined storage. These may not be particularly exciting, but they are significant and are examples of how the Android operating system is maturing.
The main problem with Marshmallow isn’t a lack of features, it’s simply that most of us will have to wait months until we can use it. This is a result of the ongoing issue with Android fragmentation – where manufacturers can take anywhere from weeks to years to optimise their third-party software with Google’s latest OS. Of course this is nothing new, this has always been the case with Android. It does, however, make phones and tablets with the Nexus branding, like the Nexus 5X and 6P, much more compelling as they receive the updates almost immediately.
If you do own a Nexus device or are lucky enough to get the latest software soon after release, you may have to wait for some apps to be updated to support it!
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