Google Android 6.0 Marshmallow review: more polished, greater control and longer battery life
The latest version of Android boosts battery life and adds new advanced search features making it Google’s most polished operating system yet.
Android 6.0 Marshmallow is already available on Google’s Nexus devices and LG and others have announced that they are bringing updates to their top-end smartphones within weeks.
There are some big new features and tighter app control but the most important change is arguably just how polished Marshmallow is compared to previous Android releases.
Google has made a big step forward in fit and finish. Apps pop and slide out in a slick, well-animated fashion. Menus and other elements slide out on smooth-moving trays as you progress through apps. It’s all very fluid, rivalling iOS on polish, but with less poppy motion.
Google’s Material design now stretches to small things such as the status bar, better complementing the colour scheme of the app and making Android 6.0 look and feel more uniform. Android was always capable and customisable, now it’s also a premium software experience.
Power users aren’t left out in this polished overhaul. Small additions such as the battery consumption measured in milliampere hours, the file browser in settings and the hidden System UI tuner will keep power users happy.
Now on Tap
The biggest new feature is Google’s Now on Tap – an extension of the company’s learning digital assistant called Google Now that gives it the power to read what’s on a user’s screen.
Holding the home button fires up the system, which scans the screen and suggests searches or information based on what’s on display. Now on Tap works great for those wholly submerged in Google’s ecosystem, recognising myriad things, from actors, movies, books and TV shows, to places, landmarks, phone numbers and contacts.
It works in any app, on any screen with text. Sometimes I found it wouldn’t recognise quite what I wanted, but more often than not it locked on and provided something useful.
It’s a novelty at the moment, but as Google Now has become something useful with sports and commute alerts, Now on Tap is likely to do the same. I’m already beginning to use it for grabbing phone numbers rather than copying and pasting into the dialer, for instance.
Privacy advocates will likely want to steer clear of it, as it sends the entire contents of your screen to Google when you hit the button. It can be disabled if you’re worried.
Google’s Now Launcher, which runs on every Nexus device and is available as a separate download for others, also now lists all apps vertical scrolling pane.
A row of four app icons at the top changes depending on what Google thinks you want to access next, based on location, time of day and previous usage. It works fine, but every app I want to use on a regular basis is already on my homescreen, so I’m not sure why I’d use it.
The app permissions system has been overhauled to an “ask when needed” system instead of an “ask when installing the app” system, matching that offered by Apple’s iOS.
Permissions govern which parts of the phone an app can access, including sensors, the camera, microphone, location, phone calls and SMS, as well as personal data such as your calendar, contacts or photos.
Now when an app is installed you don’t have to grant it permission to access a long list of features. Only when you press the button to get a photo, for instance, the first time will it ask for permission. That way apps only access the data and services you want them to, which is a vast improvement in user control.
You can also change the permissions given to apps after the fact, including for apps that have not yet been updated to ask for permissions. That may break some apps, but so far I haven’t found an issue.
Longer battery life
Marshmallow also includes a new automatic app control system called Doze, which is intended to extend battery life when your smartphone or tablet isn’t being used.
It works by detecting movement. When a phone is placed flat on a desk, for instance, and not touched for a while, it puts the phone and apps into a deeper hibernation state.
Some apps are allowed to wake the device up and collect notifications, others aren’t. Most notifications come through, but at a slower, less immediate rate.
A new data-access control system called “app standby” should also help prolong battery life. It controls the number of times apps that are not used regularly can access the internet in any given hour when running in the background.
I found a Nexus 5 and Nexus 6 updated to Marshmallow lasted about 20% longer. A Nexus 7 tablet lasted about four days longer when left on the coffee table, which shows both how little I used it and how much better Marshmallow’s control over apps in standby is.
It won’t make any difference to the battery life when you’re actively using a device, but if left on a desk or table for extended periods it should boost battery life considerably.