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Android 6 (Marshmallow) review

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I’ve been using the next version of Android for some months now – Android 6 (Marshmallow) – or to put it more correctly, I’ve been using various iterations of the Android M developer preview. It’s available on Google’s own devices and, if you’re feeling a little brave, you too can fire up ADB and Fastboot and load Android M onto your Nexus. We’re testing with a Nexus 5, but a Nexus 6 handset will work too.

I’ve reported on bugs and glitches as we’ve found them, but they may not be the same across all devices. Some were pretty serious, such as our Home button refusing to work entirely the first time I booted up the phone, while others were merely minor quirks. Warts-and-all, here are my ongoing impressions.

Before I even really got started, things have improved already. Google has streamlined two-step verifications, by autofilling the code for you from the text message seamlessly, you won’t even see or hear a notification of it arriving. Except for that the start-up process is familiar, offering to setup email accounts and import data from another device.

When’s Android 6 Marshmallow coming and what else will it contain

Now on Tap

It’s worth noting up front that none of the preview builds of Android 6.0 (Marshmallow) will contain Now on Tap. The new feature was heavily demoed by Google at the unveiling of the Developer Preview but will only feature in the first proper version of the new OS. Now on Tap extends Google Now throughout the OS, making it accessible at any point via a long press on the home button. At present though it just brings up a message saying it’s not working yet.

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^ I can’t test Google’s most exciting new feature, because it’s not going to be included until launch

Performance

I ran our usual suite of benchmarks on the Nexus 5 to see if Android M made any difference. It was a pleasant surprise to find a small uplift in scores in Geekbench 3, while Peacekeeper only dropped slightly, I couldn’t get GFX Bench GL’s Manhattan test to run. It’s an early build and Android M isn’t designed to increase performance over Lollipop, but it’s certainly no slouch from what we’ve seen.

PeacekeeperGeekBench 3 SingleGeekBench 3 MultiBattery Life  (170cd/m2)
Google Nexus 5 (Android 5.1)861822249107h 22m
Google Nexus 5 [Android M)8149112912TBC

In terms of hands-on feel, the new operating system felt incredibly quick and snappy. Now some of that can be put down to a fresh install of Android, but there’s certainly nothing to worry about performance-wise if you’re thinking of making the upgrade early.

In terms of battery life improvements, it’s standby life that Google is looking to improve with the new operating system. We’ve run some basic tests and there does appear to be some improvement in power usage when the handset is effectively doing nothing, around three times less power usage over eight hours, though it should vary considerably based on how many apps you have polling for updates I’d think, so think of that as a best case scenario.

Home screen

For starters, out goes the abstract, Material-influenced default wallpaper, replaced by a rather lovely-looking image of a coastline from the air. The home screen pretty much looks as we remember it on Lollipop. Google Now sits to the left and extra screens are created to the right. It may work the same, but it doesn’t sound the same. The noises for unlocking the phone and hitting the Home button are now less crisp, more rounded, and much nicer overall.

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App Tray

The first big change comes when you open the app tray. This has changed to a scrolling vertical list, apps are still listed alphabetically, with rows of four running left-to-right. It’s straightforward, looks neat and the vertical design makes it clearly differentiated from the horizontal homescreen design. If you have loads of apps there’s a search bar at the top too, which slims down your options as you type.

There are four apps ‘pinned’ across the top of the app tray. However, we couldn’t work out exactly how these were chosen. There’s no way to change them directly, by moving or replacing them, they instead seem to reflect apps you have used both recently and regularly, a kind of automated favourites bar. They seem to reflect apps you launch from anywhere (mainly from shortcuts on the homescreen), rather than simply apps you launch from the tray itself. You can long press any app to create a shortcut to drop on the homescreen, find out app info or uninstall it.

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Volume controls and Do Not Disturb

The other change you can see on the home screen are the redesigned volume controls. Pressing up or down on the volume rocker control here brings up the ringer/notification volume bar. However, tap the arrow icon and you can also adjust the media playback volume and the alarm clock volume from here too. You can do this with the rocker or simply by tapping or sliding your finger on the bar. It’s a much better and clearer system than before.

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The simplified volume controls means that the Lollipop’s Do Not Disturb feature has been redesigned and moved to the settings shortcut panel. Tap the icon here and you can set the device to Total silence, Alarms only or Priority only, until its deactivated or until a set time. Aside from this moved feature, the rest of the settings here are identical to the last version of Android.

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Settings

Delve into the full settings and you can see some bigger changes. Under Apps-Settings-Advanced, you can find the new App permissions settings. Android M deals with permissions in a completely new way, with apps requesting access to various permissions (be it the camera or your contacts list) as they require them, rather than at installation. This only works with new apps that support Android M permissions, legacy apps still ask for permissions upfront. In this menu you can edit the permissions each app has, revoking earlier permissions if desired, and you can look at a list of apps that access to each aspect of your phone.

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Here you can also see the new Domain URL management. This lets specific apps ‘own’ URLs from their related domains by default, so that unless you choose otherwise all Twitter links will be dealt by the Twitter app.

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Finally you have the option to finetune the new Doze mode, which Google claims hugely increases battery life in standby. This is under Battery Optimisations, and here you can choose which apps are affected by Doze’s less regular updates, and which you want to behave as normal. Obviously fiddling with this will chip away at any battery savings.

Conclusion

If you have a Nexus handset and like to have the latest thing then there’s no reason not to install the developer preview of Android 6 (Marshmallow) today. Even in its early state it’s remarkably stable and fast. However, the new features and tweaks are a bit thin on the ground; the volume controls are most welcome and the new app tray is a definite improvement, but neither is really a reason to upgrade. Still, I’m glad I did and you won’t regret doing so either.

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