Hands-On with the Android 7.1 Developer Preview – What’s new & what you need to know

As a custom ROM user, I’m not always chomping at the bit to install the latest Android Developer Preview when Google releases it, but the 7.1 preview is unique in that Nexus devices don’t get all the goodies Google is endowing their shiny new Pixel phones with. I wanted to see for myself whether it’s worth the effort to kick the tires on Google’s latest and greatest despite the lack of more than a few Pixel features.

After spending most of the day with it, I’m inclined to say it’s definitely worth taking for a spin, as it still has a number of compelling new features over even 7.0. Coming from a custom ROM means using a custom recovery (the latest TWRP in my case), so the upgrade process is somewhat different than what Google instructs users to do for OTA files. I simply downloaded the OTA (over-the-air) update file from Google’s Android Developers site directly to my phone and flashed it in TWRP. No PC or ADB required. A word of caution though: when you do it this way you’ll lose your TWRP Recovery and you’ll have to flash it manually with your PC if you want to go back to your custom ROMs. For those of you coming from stock Android, there are a variety of approaches you can use to upgrade, all described in Ben’s article from Wednesday night.



What’s New in Android 7.1

The most significant new features I tried out with the 7.1 preview are as follows:

  • Reboot button on the power menu
  • App shortcuts in Google Now Launcher (no need for the Pixel launcher, at least for this feature)
  • Smart Storage removes your old photos and videos after backing them up to Google Photos
  • Quick Toggles adds a sixth toggle and the settings button appears right away on first swipe
  • Image-enabled Google Keyboard – search and post Gif images in Google Messenger directly from Google Keyboard
  • Live chat support from Settings menu during Google’s business hours (8am to 11pm CST) UPDATE: Google has since disabled this feature on my Nexus 6P, evidently on their end with a server-side switch.

Reboot button

wp-1476994656104.pngOne of the most compelling incentives for Android enthusiasts to use custom ROMs over the years has been Google’s bizarre decision to limit the power menu to powering the phone off. The lack of a reboot button has long been a source of consternation to many stock Android users. That has finally changed with Android 7.1, though it would be nice if they included the option to boot to recovery or to the bootloader. Of course those reboot options are probably irrelevant for the average user, but power users like to be able to reboot to recovery without having to connect the phone to their PCs and use ADB (Android Debug Bridge) commands.

App Shortcuts in Google Now Launcher

App shortcuts allow users to launch apps that support this feature directly into specific activities rather than the app’s main screen. For example, long-pressing on the Play Store icon will display a shortcut button that takes you directly to “My Apps” which is where we go to manually check for app updates and view apps we have installed in the past in case we want to reinstall them. Another example is the Play Movies icon, which lets you go directly to “My Movies”, “My TV Shows” or “My Wishlist”.

As most who follow Android news closely know, app shortcuts were previously exclusive to the Pixel Launcher (meaning exclusive to Google’s new Pixel phones). With the Android 7.1 preview, Nexus users can enjoy this feature in Google Now Launcher. Only a limited selection of apps (mainly Google apps at this point) support App Shortcuts but Google has released an API (Application Programming Interface) so any app developer can add shortcuts to specific activities. Consequently the number of apps that support this will only expand over time.

Smart Storage

Smart Storage allows you to conserve storage by backing photos and videos over 30 days old to Google Photos and deleting them from the phone. It can also uninstall unused apps and delete files in your Downloads folder for you. To get to this feature, go to Settings/Storage, tap on the 3-dot menu on the upper-right corner of the app window and tap on “Free up space”. Now you can choose whether to remove old photos and videos, which files you want to delete in your Downloads folder and which apps to remove that you haven’t used in the last 90 days. Then tap the “Free up x.x GB” on the bottom right (or cancel to back out). Afterwards you’ll see a prompt that lets you choose whether you want Smart Storage to automatically remove old photos and videos for you (again, it’ll first back them up to Google Photos) as your phone starts to get full.

Quick Toggles Adds A sixth toggle, makes Settings button easier to access

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Quick Toggles, a longtime CyanogenMod (and other custom ROMs) feature, finally made it into stock Android with 7.0 Nougat. New to 7.1 is an additional Quick Toggle (7.0 had 5 toggles while 7.1 moves the overflow button to the top of the status bar so it can show 6 toggles). Also, you can access the Settings button with just one swipe from the status bar next to the overflow button above the Quick Toggles. In 7.0 you had to swipe down again to the full Quick Settings panel to see the Settings button.

Search for and Insert Gifs in your text messages directly from Google Keyboard

One of the coolest features of 7.1 is the ability to search for and insert Gif images into your text messages directly from Google Keyboard. First you’ll need Google Messenger (no love for Allo yet, but it does also work on my new favorite third-party messenger app as seen in the screenshots above). Just tap on Google Keyboard’s emoji button while you’re typing your message and it’ll change to show your emoji selection and you’ll see a “GIF” button to the right of the space bar. Once you tap on it, the keyboard will show you a dedicated Gif panel from which you can search from a variety of Gif catalogs and insert the image without having to leave the keyboard.

Live Chat Support directly in Settings

UPDATE: in what appears to be a switch on the server end, Google has disabled this feature on my phone some hours after I got to try it out.

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In the 7.1 preview the Settings screen has two tabs at the top: “All” and “Support”. In the Support tab are buttons for “Phone” and “Chat” support (chat is available from 8am to 11pm Central Standard Time, otherwise the chat button is grayed out and inactive). Also are the “Search help & send feedback” and “Explore tips & tricks” options on the bottom. The killer feature, though, is the live chat support. In the Pixel phones you can share screenshots in the chat window but not in the preview on the Nexus. Nevertheless, it’s still helpful (you see what I did there) to be able to get live chat support even without screenshot sharing. When I used it there was one issue I encountered (it’s a beta after all). After the support representative ends the chat you’ll see a “Take Survey” link at the bottom of the chat window but the survey never loaded for me.

Odds and Ends


How To Turn LED Notifications Back On 

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Bizarrely, the notification LED on my Nexus 6P is turned off by default on 7.1. To turn it back on, go to Settings/Notifications, tap the Advanced settings icon on the top right and toggle “Pulse notification light”.

Buzzkill Alerts

Night Light’s method was changed by Google in the 7.1 preview, and only the Pixel phones have the hardware drivers to support it. Night Light changes the display to a reddish hue at night at night (studies show blue light apparently interferes with the sleep cycle, hence this feature which eliminates blue light on your screen). Unfortunately, Nexus users won’t be seeing this new implementation of Night Light unless third-party options are employed.

Another feature Nexus users won’t be seeing in 7.1 is the fingerprint-scanner-swipe gesture to show the notification shade without having to swipe down on the display. Again, hardware support is lacking in Nexus devices so this will also be exclusive to Pixel phones.

Conclusion

Even though many Android 7.1 features are exclusive to Pixel phones, there are still compelling features available in the Developer Preview for the Nexus 6P, 5X and Pixel C tablet, especially (in my opinion) app shortcuts in the stock 7.1 launcher (aka Google Now Launcher). There are also a host of other more minor features I haven’t had the opportunity to review. Nexus 6 and 9 users will join the fun in November’s second Developer Preview build, and I imagine I’ll be taking that build for a spin on my Nexus 6P as well.