At the end of September 2015, Google unveiled two new Nexus smartphones, both running the latest version of Android, now up to 6.0 Marshmallow. We had already seen details of Marshmallow over the course of 2015 with the release of several developer previews, but the Nexus 5X and 6P were the first devices available with the new operating system. Google has rolled out updates to the 2013 Nexus 7 and later devices, including the Nexus 5, Nexus 6 and Nexus 9. Unfortunately, the earlier 2012 Nexus 7, plus the Nexus 4 and Nexus 10 devices, will not be receiving the official Marshmallow upgrade. This is a shame, but these devices are now over three years old and have been moved from version 4.1 or 4.2 up to 5.1.
Let’s take a look at the productivity differences in Android 6.0 Marshmallow, as Google have made a number of changes under the skin but relatively few to the user interface. It’s important to state that some of the changes have already been implemented by manufacturers in other devices and Google are only now adding them to stock Android, whereas other improvements are under the skin and are being enforced by Google to be present in manufactured skinned versions of Android.
With Android 6.0 Marshmallow, Google have again improved the lock screen. The lock screen had already seen an improvement from version 4.4 Kit Kat to 5.0 Lollipop, but now Google have added an easy voice command option. If you use voice command on your device, for example to start a call, this could be a great feature to save you the time of having to unlock the device first.
The next set of improvements are present in the Google Now Launcher, so are also seen in older versions of Android. Here, Google have introduced three new features. The first is that the launcher places those applications you usually access at the top of the application tray, however here Google recognizes what you might want to use depending on the time of day and these change. Second, there’s a search function for applications, which is very useful if you have installed many third party applications onto your device. And finally, the application layout has changed with a vertical scrolling window of applications and the scroll bar includes a scrubber function, which makes it easier to find the application you are looking for by running your finger up and down the scroll bar. The launcher shows the first letter of applications you would see if you lifted your finger off the screen.
Google have included the System UI Tuner menu, which one can activate by holding down on the Settings cog in the drop down menu at the top of the screen. This gives a number of adjustments that may be made to the device, including adding battery percentage to the battery meter, customizing the Quick Settings area and changing what symbols show such as the alarm, NFC, Bluetooth and similar.
The next new feature of Android 6.0 Marshmallow is Google Now on Tap, which represents an improvement to Google Now and brings with it a few new features – chief of these is the ability to essentially stream applications from the web, giving the user something of a preview as to what a third party application could do for them. Another improvement is that Google Now on Tap takes a screen shot of what’s on your screen and uses this information as part of the search. In my testing, I have not found that Google Now on Tap adds any value into how I use Google Now, but if it is like many Google features, this one will be steadily improved as time goes on.
The next two features are ones that I have very much noticed: Doze and App Standby, which are part of Google’s improved power management within Android Marshmallow. Doze is designed to suspend much of Android’s background functionality when the device is locked and not moving. It shuts down WiFi scanning and closes open sockets and data synchronization, which means your device does not pick up notifications. App Standby prevents applications that have not been used for some time from operating, and instead is suspends these and so saves battery power this way. This does mean that when you pick up and unlock the device, it takes a few seconds to pick up your notifications.
The final change is how Google have refined how MicroSD cards work by creating Adaptable Storage; this improvement in device flexibility makes it easier to manage where applications and data are stored, which is important for those devices with a relatively restricted amount of internal space.
Having written about the new features, how do they work at the sharp end? From a productivity perspective, the improvements to the Google Now Launcher are especially welcome even if they roll back to older versions of Android. Instead, it’s the new power management features that make the most difference depending on how you use your device. For a tablet that spends long periods of time sitting around idle, Doze makes a meaningful difference: the tablet sips battery when not used. For a smartphone carried in a pocket, Doze is less effective as it is kept awake when moved around. For a smartphone running Android 6.0 Marshmallow, getting into the habit of putting a device down onto a desk rather than keeping it in a pocket can yield battery savings. The improved Google Now on Tap does not, for my use and at this time, add much to the experience although as I have written, over time it will likely make an improvement.
There are, however, some unwritten improvements when it comes to running speed and smoothness. Android has been steadily improved over the years, and 6.0 adds a little polish to an already good experience on 5.x Lollipop. The device is smooth and fluid most of the time: there are some performance hiccups on older hardware when the device is multitasking, but these are relatively infrequent. 6.0 is an improvement over 5.1, which was a significant improvement over 5.0 and this in turn is better than 4.4. Of course, for customers buying a device that comes with Android 6.0 Marshmallow right out of the box this is not an issue as they will never have experienced their smartphone or tablet on older software, but for those of us who ahave seen their device upgraded the experience moving to 6.0 is an improvement.