Screenshot_20160521-111253I’ve been using Android N on my Nexus 6 for the last couple of days, and I rather like it. The vast majority of changes are the minor sort of thing you wouldn’t even notice if you weren’t looking for them. One I particularly like is that you can now access a slim-line, most-important-icons-only version of the pull-down options windowshade. It’s right there at the top of notifications, with icons for Wi-Fi, cell signal, battery, do-not-disturb, and flashlight. Pulling down again produces the whole thing. The notifications panel has a slightly different display style, too.

Screenshot_20160521-110508The biggest change I personally noticed was that my phone suddenly became usable again. In recent weeks, my Nexus 6 under Marshmallow had been getting really slow, choking up, and requiring multiple daily restarts. But as soon as I installed a whole new version of the operating system, suddenly everything was back to normal. Of course, I probably could have gotten the same performance increase by factory-resetting and reinstalling Marshmallow, but then I’d have had to reconfigure all my launcher folders. I’m sure N will booger itself up again in the same way, but I guess I’ll know what to do when that starts happening.

But the change you’ve all been wanting to know about is the new splitscreen mode. How well does it work for reading? It turns out that it’s a bit of a mixed bag, and may prove to be more of a gimmick than a useful feature. It’s definitely immature compared to the windowing capability of Microsoft Windows. But it could be better than nothing. So here’s how it works.

First of all, split-screen isn’t available by default. After you’ve installed the Android N beta, you have to enable it. To do that, pull down the full version of the options windowshade, and hold down on the “Settings” gear icon at the top right for a second. You may feel a little vibration, or it may not do anything. Either way, it should have granted you the System UI Tuner. (For whatever reason, you don’t get a pop-up message when you add it, but you do when you try to remove it. So if nothing seemed to happen, try it again, then if you get a pop-up asking if you want to remove the System UI Tuner, just tap “Cancel”.)

Once you’ve done that, just tap on the gear icon to open “Settings.” Scroll most of the way down to the bottom of the screen, and you should get a “System UI Tuner” option. Tap on it, then tap through the warning message saying these features are experimental. Next, tap on “Other” and flick the toggle “Enable split-screen swipe-up gesture” so that it shows green. Once you’ve done that, you’re all set.

Screenshot_20160521-101925To use split-screen mode, first launch the app you want to keep in the upper half of the screen. You won’t be able to change this app without disabling split-screen mode and launching split-screen from another app—your upper half always stays fixed. So if you’re mainly reading an e-book while switching off between engaging in email, instant messaging, or looking stuff up in Wikipedia, you want to launch it from your e-reader. (Note that not all e-reader apps I’ve tried work properly with it, but both Google Play Books and Kindle definitely do.) You can’t launch it from the home screen.

Screenshot_20160521-101935Once you’re in the app you want, swipe up from the previous-apps icon in the lower right—just as if you were launching Google Now On Tap by swiping up from the home button (though in Marshmallow and N, that’s been replaced by holding down on the home button). The screen will split and in the lower half you’ll get a swipe-through display of other apps you’ve launched recently. You can pick one of them for the lower half, or tap the “Home” icon and launch another app for the lower half instead. The previous-apps icon will change from a square to two rectangles to indicate you’re in split-screen mode.

You can tap the previous-apps icon at any time to cycle between different apps in the bottom half of the screen, but the top half stays fixed. Note that not all apps support split screen mode, though it will tell you if one you want to switch in doesn’t before you launch it. (If an app says it may not support split-screen mode, it’ll let you try it—many of them do still work; if it says it doesn’t, it simply won’t work.)

You can also drag the handle on the divider between screen halves to change how much of the screen is taken up by each app. You can flip your device on its side to switch from a vertical to a horizontal stack—which may be useful for apps that are meant to be used in portrait rather than landscape.

You can exit split-screen mode either by holding down on the previous-apps icon, or by dragging the split-screen handle all the way to one end or the other of the screen. Note that once you exit, the app you’re in may still be displaying in smaller-than-normal font size or screen layout, but you can force it back to normal by flipping the orientation between portrait and landscape to force it to redraw the screen.

Not all apps work properly with it just yet. Generally, you can be sure most of Google’s own apps will, and other apps from big companies with active IT divisions—Kindle, for instance—are more likely than not to know what to do with it. Whether other apps do is somewhat hit or miss, and sometimes even the same app doesn’t work consistently. I’m sure the first time I tried UB Reader, it only showed part of a page, but I tried again and it seems all right now. it’s also possible apps that work properly in the lower half won’t work in the upper, or vice versa.

So, now that you can try it, what’s it good for? Not a whole lot, really, at least on a screen the size of a smartphone. I could see it being much more useful on a tablet, where I might actually be able to split it into screen halves that are actually large enough to be useful—I could actually read stuff in one screen while writing in the other, for example, if I was writing with research. For example, it could be useful for blogging an article for TeleRead. At the moment, if I’m blogging in mobile I’ll generally use one tablet or my phone for reading the article while I write with another (and none of my tablets will be capable of running N).

You could certainly keep one e-book open in Play Books and another open in Kindle, if you wanted to try reading two e-books at the same time—great for indecisive readers! (Or, perhaps more usefully, you could directly compare a MOBI and EPUB e-book you just made by viewing both at the same time.) But I just don’t see that much use for it in ordinary circumstances. As it is right now, it’s simple enough to answer an instant message just by swapping screens back and forth—there’s no really useful purpose to splitting them like that.

But I could be wrong—if you see a useful purpose, let me know!


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