Google has announced that the latest version of Android, 7.0 Nougat, is rolling out to newer Nexus devices starting today. It’s a good upgrade, but only available if you have a recent Nexus device like the Nexus 6, 6P, 5X, Pixel C, or Nexus 9 tablet — and it will take some time for everybody's devices to receive the over-the-air update. I've been using the various public betas that have been runningsince March of this year and most of the bugs have been worked out.
Nougat isn’t radically different from the last version, Marshmallow, but does add a handful of notable user-facing features. Some of them, like improved multitasking, are long overdue and really useful on tablets. The rest are tweaks around the edges — but there are bigger changes underneath that should make Android faster and more secure, too.
But the story of Nougat isn't really whether it’s any good. Instead, it’s the same old Android tale: unless you have a Nexus, it could be a few months, it could be a year, before it becomes available on your phone. The real story of Nougat isn't happening today, it's going to happen over the next few months as we watch to see which Android phones will actually be updated.
What kind of story is this? For Nexus owners, it’s a heartwarming yarn. For nearly everybody else, it’s a mystery.
With Nougat, Google has added a major feature that's been a long time coming: split-screen support. It's been available on Samsung, Apple, and Windows devices for some time now, and now Google has weighed in with a system-level version of it that will hopefully become well-supported by all apps. It also works on phones instead of just on tablets — which is smart given how big a lot of Android phones are these days.
It works thusly: you long-press the square "Overview" button and your main window slides up to the top or over to the left, depending on whether you are using your Android device in portrait or landscape. In the remaining space, you get the good old multitasking view of your open apps, where you can either pick one or hit the home button to launch something else. You can adjust the size of each window and switch out the bottom / right one the usual way, by tapping the multitasking or home button to choose another app.
Every mobile split-screen system takes a bit of getting used to. The UX for all of them is confusing at first, and so Nougat's variation also takes some time to understand. For me, it clicked when I realized that the core behavior going into split screen is essentially the same as "pinning" the main app to the top or left, and then the other screen can be switched as usual.
Once you get it, there are just the devils in the details to worry about. Theoretically, you can drag and drop text or images in supported apps, but in practice I never got this to work reliably. Some apps don’t fully support split screen, while others work fine but pop up a warning anyway. One nice bit: Chrome now has a menu option called "Move to other window" which does exactly what it says — so you can have two browser windows open side by side.
I find that split screen is essential and useful on a tablet like the Pixel C. Thanks to Nougat, the Pixel C has gone from a device that made next to no sense to a device that makes just enough sense to consider (but really only if you're wholly invested in the Android ecosystem). On a phone it's a little less important than on a tablet, but nevertheless really helpful in a pinch.
There is another multitasking tweak that I found myself using all the time, though. Double tapping the square button immediately switches to the last-used app. I hadn't realized how much of my app switching comprised just toggling between two recent apps, and now that I can do it so easily I can't really imagine going back.
Last and least: Nougat reduces the number of apps that appear in the multitasking view and adds a "clear all" button at the top of it. Google's recommendation has long been that there's no need to quit out of apps to improve Android's performance and I don't see any reason that would be different in Nougat. But if you like getting rid of things, well, have at it.