Android 7.1 Nougat review: Subtle but super-sweet OS update

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Android 7.1 Nougat is the latest version of Google’s mobile operating system. It makes its debut on the Google Pixel and Pixel XL, the company’s first home-made phones, and will soon make its way to other devices.

While the pre-Pixel version of Nougat was a fairly subtle update from Android Marshmallow, when it comes to noticeable user interface changes, Android 7.1 changes a lot.

So, does version 7.1 turn Android into a sticky mess, or is it sweet refinement all the way?

Android 7.1 Nougat review: Sweet tweaks

New round icons
Snappy quick-action shortcuts
Notification redesign and quick reply
Settings menu revamped

Unlike Android 7.0 Nougat, 7.1 has introduced a notable visual change to the operating system, meaning there’s definitely enough to please those who like new things.

The most obvious change in design is in seen on the Pixel’s home screen, which is now littered with round icons, not square or freeform ones. This is about more than just changing for change’s sake.

First and foremost, when developers follow suit, it’ll mean that all app icons have a uniform design and size. You won’t need to install something like Nova Launcher just to get all your app icons to be the same size.

Secondly, it’s impossible to confuse with iOS, and differentiates it from all the third party Android skins out there. Unless you have a third party launcher and round icon packs installed on your device, this looks different.

Another big change, at least in the Google Pixel’s launcher, is that the app drawer is no longer accessed by tapping a dedicated icon on the screen. Instead, you pull it upwards from the app dock which – because the app drawer icon is no longer there – has space for a fifth app.

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It’s also worth noting that some of these app icons have built in shortcuts, so you can tap and hold them and bring up various quick actions. Maps has the ability to quickly navigate home, messenger lets you get straight to your frequent conversation and camera lets you take a selfie. Of course, there are more than just those. 

A major change from Android 6.0 is also seen when notifications pop-up on screen. Where Marshmallow had cards on screen that sort-of floated on top of everything and had drop shadows, Nougat’s cards spread across the entire screen.

There’s still a clear element of what Google calls “Material Design”, but the cards feel more part of the existing screen, rather than being an attention-hogging card that just pops up awkwardly into an empty space.

More importantly, all the animations in Nougat – like swiping away cards, or down from the top of the screen – feel more fluid and smooth. It’s particularly noticeable when dropping down the Quick Settings options from the top, when the quick toggles all work their way in to position.

On the subject of the Quick Settings drop-down menu, Nougat adds the ability to edit, rearrange and add to the visible tiles. While Marshmallow sort-of allowed this through some fiddly process and a downloadable app, Nougat has it built-in as standard.

We found it very helpful to only have the tiles we wanted to see in the drop-down screen, and in the order we wanted to see them. No more hunting around for an option that isn’t there, or getting frustrated because it’s full of settings and options that you never use.

The Settings screen has had a bit of a makeover too. As a Google Pixel owner, your settings menu is split in two. The right side is a dedicated hub for device support. You can call or chat with a dedicated support team if you’re needing help with your phone.

With its smart suggestions at the top of the main settings menu list, it’s easy to see when you have features like Do Not Disturb or Data Saver switched on. The space is also utilised to give you suggestions on any settings you may want to take a look at, but haven’t yet.

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For the first time it also has a sidebar menu for when you’ve gone to a secondary settings screen but want to quickly jump to another main category.

Dig into the settings and you’ll find another new addition: the ability to adjust the size of content on the screen. The display size option in the display settings menu has a slider which adjusts the size of everything you see on screen.

That means app icons, conversation bubbles in Messenger and even the settings menu itself change to allow more or less space. It’s similar to adjusting a computer display’s resolution and making things appear magnified. That, combined with the ability to change font size, ensures you have the setup that you like. You’re no longer left with a one-size fits-all scenario.

Android 7.1 Nougat review: Split-screen multitasking

Have two apps running on the same screen
Works in landscape and portrait

While manufacturers including Samsung and LG have added split-screen multi-tasking into their re-skins of Android for a little while now, Google has never built the feature into Android itself. Nougat changes that.

Android Nougat allows you run two windows side-by-side on the same screen. It’s activated, and deactivated, simply by pressing-and-holding the recent apps button. We find it very useful, particularly on larger screens – although full-screen apps, such as games, are exempt, with only compatible apps part of this Nougat party.

However, using split-screen is something of a learning curve if you’re not used to it. With years of switching between apps by simply heading to recent apps, picking one, and switching back and forth, it takes time to remember this new feature. Like anything, building that way of working in to a habitual pattern takes repetition, over days. Plus, Android N has also improved on the “old” method of switching between apps: you can switch instantly between your most recent apps just by double-tapping the recent apps key, which is great.

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Once split-screen use becomes a habit, though, it’s a very useful one. Whether you’re reading something and want to share a phrase with a friend, or you want to quickly look up an address in Google Maps while keeping the written address on the screen in Notepad, it can be convenient. That said, it still feels a little cramped on smartphones, regardless of size. And unlike Samsung’s Note devices, which offer sharing directly between some apps, Android N is restricted to viewing the apps individually without any direct interaction.

It’s clear split-screen is aimed predominantly at tablets, where multi-tasking is much more essential, especially if you’re looking at buying a tablet to replace a laptop. Although many manufacturers that make Android-based laptop-like devices already add their own adjustments, such as taskbars and multi-screen options – the new Lenovo Yoga Book being one example.

Android 7.1 Nougat review: Google Assistant

Chat-like interface
Can answer most questions and remembers context
Adapts to you the more you use it

In years gone by, Google has included its smart, intuitive assistant in Android. Called Google Now, it would filter your email and bring you up to date notifications for expected flights and parcels, tell you what calendar appointments you have coming up and keep you up to date on weather and anything else you’re interested in.

You could also ask it questions using your voice, and it could either tell you the answer directly, or point you towards a web search.

With 7.1 in the Pixel, Google Now has been replaced by Google Assistant. A smarter, learning version of Google Now in a chat interface. Pressing and holding the home button launches a chat with Assistant, and you can ask it much of what you asked Google Now.

If you want to, you can play games with it, including a fun and pointless trivia game. Just say “Ok Google, I’m feeling lucky”, and you’re transported in to a glorious five-round quiz.

It learns as you use it, and you can use it to book tables at restaurants, find specific photos from your gallery, set reminders, add calendar events, and so on. It’s pretty smart, and undoubtedly one of the better digital assistants out there.

Android 7.1 Nougat review: Notifications

Set app notification priority
Quick reply from any supported app
Expand multiple threads from the same app

We’ve touched on notifications already, but only from a design perspective. As well as changing visually, their functionality has been further improved too.

Notifications from the same app now all group together in a cluster that can be opened up like a conversation thread. With so many apps demanding attention with constant ringing and pinging, it’s about time we got more fine-tuned control over when they should alert, and which apps are the most important.

Android N lets you set a priority level for any app’s notifications. This requires a little digging in to settings, but it can be achieved. It’s similar to the app permissions you’ll find in Huawei’s EMUI, again with a bit of digging.

On a more basic level, when you press-and-hold a notification, you can silence all future alerts from that app. This can be particularly useful when you’re sick of an game demanding that you come back and play, or any other app that continues to send endless streams of notifications through which you don’t want.

Android 7.1 Nougat review: Battery enhancements

Doze mode now works when you’re carrying the phone
Battery saver keeps power consumption down in use

Android Marshmallow introduced Doze in 2015, which helps devices conserve battery life when not in use and lying still on a surface of some kind for a given period of time. It’s like letting the phone go to sleep, without needing to intervene – and it means exemplary standby battery performance.

In Android Nougat, that’s been improved upon further with “Doze on the Go”, which kicks the battery optimisations into gear even when the phone is moving around in a pocket. In short: if you’re not using your phone, it’s not going to use much of your battery – and certainly less than it did before.

For devices like our Nexus 6 (which we’ve used to test out Nougat), that means it soon turns into a device which can last a full day on a single charge without breaking a sweat. And that’s an improvement over where it used to be.

Android 7.1 Nougat review: Pixel camera

New slow motion feature
Quickly change white balance
Add a grid to the screen easily

As well as some other features currently exclusive to the Pixel phones, there’s the enhanced camera app. While it looks virtually identical to the app found in stock Android 7.0, it does have some added features.

Running along the top of the screen are a number of different toggles that give you access to a few manual controls. You can add grid lines to help framing your photos, select a white balance preset, activate HDR+, change the flash option and set a timer.

It may not be quite as granular or capable of fine-tuning as camera apps from the likes of Huawei, LG and Samsung, but it’s a good selection of the basics.

Within the camera settings menu you’ll find the usual selection of shooting options, including panorama, photo sphere and lens blur. The one major difference this time is that there’s a new slow motion option, which records in either 120 or 240 frames per second.

Android 7.1 Nougat review: Software updates and Direct Boot

“Optimising apps” screen is gone
Software updates in the background

One of the things that you may have noticed (and been excruciatingly frustrated with) in older versions of Android is that whenever your software receives an update, regardless of how small, you spend ages waiting for all the apps to be “optimised”. With Android Nougat, that is no more.

Software doesn’t just download and update seamlessly in the background, it also boots up almost instantly when your phone restarts. There’s no more “your apps are optimising” screen, just power up and go. Yay.

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