Let’s Talk Marshmallow
I want to start this review off a tad bit differently than most other reviews. More specifically, I want to start this review off by talking about what Android 6.0 Marshmallow is about as a whole because it really is a crucial point in Android’s timeline. You see, Android 5.0 Lollipop was the biggest change to ever hit the Android OS. Lollipop brought with it not only a huge amount of user-facing and visual changes but a ton of new APIs and developer-facing changes as well. However, not surprisingly, all of these significant changes, which touched essentially every part of Android, brought with them the things that we as users hate most, bugs and glitches. This is where I believe that Marshmallow comes into play because with this iteration of Android Google did an amazing job of really polishing and cleaning up said bugs and glitches that Lollipop introduced. Not only did Marshmallow soften the rough edges of Lollipop, though, but also some of the rough edges that Android has had since its creation.
So what is it, what is Google’s intention with Android Marshmallow? To clean and polish things up in Android while also adding some great new features that have a significant amount of potential. And you know what, Google did a darn good job.
Apart from all of the changes that are not user facing in Android Marshmallow, there are quite a few significant changes that are. Arguably the most important of these are the changes made to the way that Android handles battery life. First off, there is a key new feature to Android which Google calls “Doze.” What Doze does is put your device into a deep sleep while it is sitting on your desk or anywhere else where it is not being touched. This is done by the device using its accelerometer to determine that it is not being touched or used, it then to slips into Doze mode where most apps will be silenced, saving precious standby battery life. And don’t worry, you will still get your important notifications even if your device is in Doze mode.
Google also payed some attention to your Marshmallow device’s battery life even when it is awake and actively being used. This comes in the form of something called App Standby which limits apps that are not often used in the resources department. In other words, that app that you downloaded and almost immediately forgot about will no longer use your data to pull down information 100 times a day. There is even a new ‘Battery optimization’ section in the settings that allow users to choose which apps get optimized for this.
This all sounds like it could lead to some great improvements in the battery life department, but do Doze Mode and App Standby really deliver? The answer to this is yes. I have been using the stable release of Marshmallow on my Nexus 6 and Nexus 9 since the first day it was released and the improvement to battery life is definitely noticeable. For example, around 3 or 4 in the afternoon my Nexus 6 running Lollipop would usually need to be charged up as the battery would be at around 35%. Now, on Marshmallow, my Nexus 6 at that same time of day will be at around 65%. And if I have my device sitting on my desk for most of the day the battery life is even better than that. I have had instances where 11 pm rolls around and my Nexus 6 is still at 80% because there were long periods of time that it was sitting on my desk in Doze mode. Then there is my Nexus 9, that thing just keeps on going for days on a single charge with daily use. With Lollipop, this was not the case.
Google Now on Tap
Google Now was introduced to Android in 2012. It was Google’s attempt at answering people’s questions before they even needed to ask them. Questions like what the weather for the week is going to be, how long it will take to get to work that day, and where the car is parked. Since its initial release, Google has improved and added features to Google Now, making it more intelligent, but perhaps the biggest update to Google Now to date is ‘Now on Tap.’ Now on Tap allows users to receive contextual information pertaining to what they currently have on their screen without having to actually leave that screen. All the user has to do is simply long-press the home button and information such as movie times, directions, and reviews will be presented to the user based on what they currently have on their screen. And don’t worry, you can still access Google Now with a ‘G’ icon that pops up at the bottom of Now on Tap after activating it.
An example of Now on Tap can be seen in the images below. It shows an image posted by the White House Instagram account that was taken at McCormick Place. When I used Now on Tap it gave me information about both the White House and McCormick Place, all without me having to ever leave that screen. Another example of this can also be seen above with a tweet from Bloomberg Business which mentions Ferrari’s profits rising this year. Using Now on Tap brought forward all the information that I could possibly want about Ferrari. It showed me all of Ferrari’s official social media accounts as well as news pertaining to Ferrari and Ferrari’s website.
In my use of Google Now on Tap, I found that it can be a very useful feature at times. However, a lot of the time it did not work as it should have. There were times when there was something such as a clear address on my screen and Now on Tap was not able to recognize the address. Things like this happened about 30% of the time when using Now on Tap, that is not acceptable for a feature like this. That is a failure rate high enough to make me stop using and forget about the feature. Don’t get me wrong, though the feature is fantastic when it works, it’s just a little rough around the edges right now. It’s an early feature and it has huge potential to be something amazing that we all use on a daily basis, it just needs some updates.
For far too long Android users have sat by and watched iOS users enjoy the benefits of reliable and secure fingerprint readers on their iPhones with TouchID. Now, with Android Marshmallow Android users can enjoy that as well with Google’s new fingerprint API. This new API allows manufacturers to implement reliable and secure fingerprint readers into their devices much easier. Before Google’s new official fingerprint API manufacturers were forced to create their own APIs on a per device basis. This often led to unreliable and less than secure fingerprint readers on Android phones that were a pain to use.
Note from Ben Schoon: After my use of the Nexus 5X with it’s built in fingerprint sensor, I can honestly say that I think Google may have the best implementation of a fingerprint sensor I’ve ever used. Even compared to the iPhone’s Touch ID or Samsung’s sensors, this set up is just great and that goes beyond the hardware. The software makes the device extremely easy to set up and it works across apps like the Play Store as well. Support is only going to get better over time as well.
Chrome Custom Tabs
One of the pain points of Android apps has always been in-app browsers. They are usually based on Android’s WebView, which is an embeddable web rendering engine that developers can also skin. This sounds nice, but it means that users miss out on many of Chrome’s great features that many of us have come to rely on such as remembering your passwords. Also, in-app browsers just tend to be slower to load up than tabs in Chrome are and nobody likes that.
Thankfully, with Android Marshmallow, Google has finally addressed the issue that in-app browsers have become. This was done with what Google calls ‘Chrome custom tabs’ which are essentially Chrome tabs that developers can fully customize to their hearts content. Meaning that now when you click on a link within an app, instead of being opened in the in-app browser it will be opened in an actual Chrome tab. Don’t worry, though this is all done within the app itself so you’re not being directed out of the app into the Chrome browser itself. Plus you get all of the benefits of Chrome that WebView does not include. Actually, Chrome custom tabs load times are also on average about 3 times faster at loading web pages than in-app browsers that utilize WebView.
Now I didn’t get to use Chrome Custom Tabs all that much due to not many developers having implemented them into their apps yet. There is one app that I was able to experience them in and that’s the news app, Feedly. When clicking on a link in Feedly, that link is then opened in a Chrome Custom Tab and it’s actually pretty great. Pages load slightly quicker than usual this way and I would get access to all of the great features that Chrome has built-in such as being able to search for certain words in an article. I found nothing wrong with the way Chrome Custom Tabs worked, they provided nothing besides an improved browsing experience inside of apps for me. Something that Android has needed for a long time.
Notification and Volume Controls
While this isn’t necessarily a new feature, a lot of changes have been made to both the notification and volume controls in Android Marshmallow. Probably the biggest of said changes is the significantly improved volume panel. Before Marshmallow, if you were listening to any sort of media (music, video, etc.) and turned the volume up or down, it would only be turning up and down the media volume. If you wished to turn down the notification volume on your device while listening to any sort of media then you were flat out of luck. You would actually have to pause and navigate away from the media you were listening to in order to then have access to your notification volume again. This was obviously quite the inconvenience for many people including myself.
With the improved volume panel in Marshmallow, when you turn the volume up and down it will bring up the volume panel just like usual, but now there will be a new tiny arrow located on the far right of the panel. Tapping this arrow will bring up all of your device’s different volume levels and allow you to modify them right there. It gives you access to your notification volume, media volume, as well as your alarm volume.
The next significant change pertains to notification controls. Now when you go into an apps notification settings you have more granular control over how that apps notifications behave on your device. You can now choose whether or not the app notifications can “peek,” which is when a notification rolls down onto the top portion of your screen for a second or two. There is also the new option for choosing if an apps notifications should be treated as priority notifications. If you choose to enable this for an app then when you have your device’s notification mode set to “Priority Only” that apps notifications will still be heard.
Last but not least the “Do Not Disturb” settings have been significantly improved in Marshmallow. With Lollipop, you had control over some aspects of Do Not Disturb such as setting certain times and days in which Do Not Disturb would automatically kick in. Now, though there are predefined days set up, weekend and weekday that are much easier to deal with. Of course, users are still able to create their own times or days just as before as well. Perhaps the nicest new addition to Do Not Disturb is the “Event” option that you can enable which will automatically kick on Do Not Disturb during certain calendar events. And if you happen to be signed into multiple Google accounts on a single device there is even an option to select which accounts calendar to enable the feature for.
Honestly, the changes and improvements made to the notification and volume controls in Marshmallow are among my favorite things in Marshmallow. At least for me personally, I get a lot of notifications throughout my day and being able to have granular controls over how and when I receive certain notifications is a pretty big deal. Even in Lollipop I still had some issues with the way notifications were handled in Android, but with Marshmallow I don’t really have any complaints. For the first time ever on Android I am completely satisfied with notification and volume controls.
There has always been a significant amount of debate surrounding app permissions on Android. Google has tried implementing a couple of different systems that handle app permissions throughout Android’s existence, but users have always been so divided on whether or not they like the systems. So with Marshmallow, Google decided to take another stab at getting app permissions right with an entirely new app permission system.
Before Marshmallow, users would approve a list of permissions when installing an app from the Play Store, an extra step that many people found irritating. Now in Marshmallow, users no longer need to approve a list of permission at the time of an app install. Permissions are instead presented to users and asked for approval upon them first being needed in a newly installed app. Let me elaborate a little. If you install the Facebook Messenger app on your phone and then go to send a picture with the app for the first time, you will be greeted with a little popup asking for your permission to access your device’s photos.
The nice thing about approving app permissions on a per permission basis is that users can then later on pick and choose which permissions they want to allow or not allow. For instance, you can give Google Chrome access to your location data but can then go back in and revoke that access via the apps permission settings at any time. You can do this for any app, just go into that apps setting and select “Permission,” which will then show you all of the apps permissions and which ones you have allowed access. The only downside to this is that giving users the ability to revoke certain permissions of an app can cause the app to misbehave and even become unusable.
When I first began using Marshmallow I was not really sure how I felt about the new permissions system, but after installing a few apps I found it to be quite convenient. It was especially convenient when downloading updates for multiple apps that required new permissions, all of which I would have to allow separately upon downloading the updates as opposed to just hitting the “Update All” button and forgetting about it. However, there was one thing in particular that I was not fond of when it came to the new permissions system. Some apps have their own unique window that pops up when the app requires you to accept a new permission, hitting allow on that window then makes the default Android permission window pop up that you then have to click allow on once again. A good example of this, if you want to see what I am talking about is the Twitter app. Something else that quite a few people seem to be bringing up about the new permissions system is how annoying it can be, which I can definitely see based on my time with it. Installing a new app and then having to interact with five different pop ups asking you to allow certain permissions can be rather annoying at times, especially if you are trying to get something done quickly within an app.
The Little Things
Other than the bigger changes and additions to Android Marshmallow listed above, there are also a few smaller, more subtle changes in the OS as well. The first of these worth mentioning in the much-improved text selection. In Marshmallow, text selection has been completely redone to be easier and more intuitive for users to interact with. Now when you highlight text a floating toolbar will pop up with the options of “select all,” “copy,” and “share.” Also included in the far right of the toolbar is a menu button that includes contextual options such as a share button or insert link button depending on the text you have highlighted.
On top of all of this the touch targets for tapping select all, copy, or share are all significantly bigger than they were before. This leads to a lot less mistakes when attempting to tap a certain funtion. Also, the buttons are simply more appealing to the eye, which is always a plus.
Being able to share content such as photos or links between apps has always been one of Android’s strong points, but with the new Direct Share feature in Marshmallow, Android’s sharing has received a nice boost. What Direct Share does is add the ability to not only share something such as a photo with another app, but with individual contacts within a certain app. That may be a bit difficult to understand so let me explain.
Let’s say that you take a photo of your new cat and want to send it to your significant other via a text message. Before Marshmallow, you could do this by tapping the share button and then choosing your texting app. From there a list of your current conversations within that texting app would appear and you would then have to select which one you would like to share the photo to. With Direct Share, all you have to do is just select the contact photo of your significant other with the texting app icon next to it. Doing this will share it directly with your significant other via a text message. One and done.
Adoptable storage in Marshmallow solves one of the biggest issues that came with using external storage on Android. Before in Android, you were only able to move certain content over to the external storage from your device’s internal storage, which was very limiting for some power users. There was just no way to move stuff like private app data over to your SD card if you wanted to. Marshmallow’s adoptable storage resolves this issue by formatting any SD card and then treating it the same as internal storage.
The way this adoptable storage feature works in Marshmallow is very simple. When you insert an SD card into your device you will be greeted with a pop-up that offers you the option to have that SD card set as portable or internal storage. Choosing the internal option will cause your device to treat the SD card as internal storage, as the name implies. However, choosing portable will cause your device to treat the SD card as your Android device would typically treat an SD card.
All in all Android 6.0 Marshmallow is a much-needed upgrade from Android Lollipop as it brought with it some issues that needed resolving. Thankfully, Marshmallow solved a majority of those issues while also smoothing out a lot of Android’s rough edges. However, there is still one major issue that has plagued Android since the beginning that Google still has not found a solution to with Marshmallow, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
During my day to day use, I quickly realized that the upgrade from Lollipop to Marshmallow brought with it nothing but improvements, for me at least. My battery life got noticeably better, my notifications were better curated, and the OS in general just seemed to function more reliably. Sure, you can use the argument that I’m just an “Android fanboy” and that’s why I’m saying all of this, but regardless of that, this is all true. It really is difficult to find things that are noticeably wrong with Android at this mature point in the OS’s life and that’s a very good thing.
So would I recommend purchasing one device over another solely because it comes out of the box running Marshmallow? Yes, I honestly would because it has so many benefits. Despite all of this praising of Marshmallow though, it does have a couple of glaring things wrong with it, especially when compared to its main competitor, iOS. First off, the lack of any sort of split-screen mode, even for tablets. This is a very useful feature that could really up the productivity level that Android devices could offer users. This is a feature that Google really has no excuse for not incorporating into at least Android tablets. You could argue that some manufacturers have taken it upon themselves to develop their own split-screen mode into their own device’s software, but all of those implementations are clunky and support a very limited number of apps. Without a feature like this, Android is falling more and more behind in the productivity department. Then there is the other issue that I take with Marshmallow, the one in which I mentioned above, arguably the biggest issue with Android. The update system is a mess. In fact, I could sit here and write up an entire article with thousands of words just covering the horrible state of Android updates. While it has gotten slightly better over time, Google has still not figured out a good way to update devices to the newest version of Android without users having to wait months and months on most devices.
Overall Android Marshmallow is a great update to Android and it deserves to be praised for that. Sure there are still a couple issues that Google needs to figure out a solution to, but the great news is that they almost certainly will at some point. Let’s just hope that Google finds solutions to those issues sooner than later. Maybe in Android N?