IF YOU OWNED an Android phone in the late aughts, or even the early part of this decade, you were unwittingly part of a grand experiment in smartphone design. Google spent all those years trying to work out what people wanted in a smartphone. A few features, like homescreen widgets and that pull-down notification shade, have been around since day one. But it took two versions before Android had an on-screen keyboard (!) and three before the so-called omnibox let you search your phone, the web, and more all from Google’s white search box. Multitasking didn’t really exist until Ice Cream Sandwich. There were lots of ideas in between, most of them bad. The oldest version of Android that looks even remotely like what’s now on your phone is probably KitKat, which didn’t come out until 2013.
A lot has changed recently, though. Or, rather, not much has changed—and that’s a good thing. The latest version of Android, called Nougat (shoulda beenNun’s Farts), is the latest upgrade to the software that’s now used on more than three-quarters of all smartphones in the world. It’s slowly rolling out to Google’s Nexus devices starting today. (It’ll come to other phones, too, eventually, but if history is any guide you’re going to have to buy a new phone if you want to see what Nougat’s all about.) Unlike the many Android sweetmeats that came before—from Cupcake to Honeycomb to Jelly Bean—Nougat makes clear that Google now knows exactly what it’s doing.
Nougat is polished, refined, and mature. It exists in a smartphone market that is all of those things too, which means Google’s no longer grasping at straws trying to make Android work on a hundred different device types and screen sizes. The market chose big screens and software keyboards. Everyone knows how to use smartphones, and with a decade of data in its hands Google knows too. Nougat’s not a terribly exciting update, honestly—its most noteworthy features are more about TVs and wearables than smartphones—but it’s further evidence that Google has locked onto the way forward for smartphone software. And it’s definitely the best version of Android ever.
There are only a handful of truly new features in Nougat. The one you’ll probably use most is the new emoji: Google finally ditched those blobby yellow characters for actual, you know, people. Nougat has 72 new emoji, too, including avocado, scooter, bacon, selfie, and clown face (which is horrifying and you should please never send it to me). Beyond that, the most important new thing is the side-by-side window support, which lets you open two apps on the screen at the same time. I originally expected to never use multiple windows on a phone-sized screen, but it’s great for copying addresses to my calendar or watching a video while I burn through some email on the train. And as long as you have a recent-ish phone with a recent-ish processor, it works without a hitch.
While we’re on the subject of multitasking, it’s worth noting the way Nougat tweaks app-switching. Instead of showing you your most recent apps when you hit the square button on the right side—including the app you’re currently in, which is redundant and dumb and redundant—it shows you the app you were using before. Or you can skip the menu altogether by just double-tapping the square button and jumping straight to your most recently used app.
As always, notifications got some tweaking in the new version of Android. Google seems to know that notifications are a huge advantage over iOS, and just keeps extending the lead. Now you can take more action in a notification, archiving or snoozing or replying directly without ever even opening the app. Getting notifications you don’t need? Long-press on one and change the settings right there. You can group like notifications, re-order them in terms of priority, and more. If you use Android, you probably spend more time in notifications than anywhere else—that’s only going to grow.
Sweetening the Deal
None of these features will inspire you to fling your iPhone from the top of the Burj Khalifa while shouting, “Finally, Android has what I need!” Nor will the new dark mode, or the ability to edit which settings show up at the top of the notification shade. Personally, I’m sold on the whole thing just because I can pin Google Keep and Inbox to the top of the sharing menu, but you’re probably not as excited about that as I am. That’s OK! The Android team doesn’t need to have more wild new ideas about everything. In fact it’s better not to. Our phones are too important to fiddle with for fiddling’s sake.
Right now, iOS is making big changes—but virtually all those changes are Apple catching up to the openness and interconnectedness that has made Android so successful. Meanwhile, Android’s in the spit-shining phase: it’s mature and finished, but it could always be a little cleaner and prettier. The new settings that help you save more data, or more battery, or more time, are all deeply un-sexy. Each makes Android better, in the small ways Android can still get better.
None of this is to say there’s nothing left to do, of course. I still think Android has a toolbar-overload problem, and it keeps adding fiddly bits without making it easier for average users to find them. And given that a huge part of Nougat is its VR mode, meant to support Google’s Daydream VR platform coming later this year, there are still opportunities for Google to be weird and ambitious. But for you, dear Android phone owner, Nougat offers only the small and subtle progress of an already excellent smartphone OS. When it comes to my smartphone, where I work and play and sext and watch The Americans, I’ll take that over reckless reinvention any day.