Android N’s first beta-quality release gets seamless updates and VR mode

As expected, Google made Android N, the next version of its mobile operating system, a cornerstone of its I/O keynote today.

With Android N, Google moved to a very different release cycle compared to previous releases. While I/O is usually the place for Google to share a first look at new versions of Android, it actually released a first preview of N a few months ago. This was also the first preview of N to arrive as an over-the-air update, so far more people than ever before have tested it already.

android nToday, the company is launching the third Android N preview release and the first one the team considers to be a “beta-quality candidate.” Like before, the new preview is available on the Nexus 6, 9, 5X, 6P, Nexus Player, Pixel C and Android One (General Mobile 4G). If you want to test it, you can sign up here.

The final release data remains unknown, but Google says it expects to final release to hit “later this summer.”

Google’s VP of engineering for Android Dave Burke tells me he believes the operating system is now read for usage on your main phone and tablet. In my experience, even the first preview releases were quite usable already, but Burke argued that while most people were surprised by the quality of these early builds, the team still found plenty of show-stopping bugs to fix.

It’s no surprise then that much of what Google talked about today was already known. This includes Android N’s multi-window support (which finally makes tablets like the Pixel C usable as productivity tools), as well as its updates to the graphics API and the inclusion of a fast just-in-time compiler that should result in significant performance gains. Burke said app installs should now be 75 percent faster and apps will need significantly less space, too.

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It’s also no surprise that Google didn’t show all its cards in the first previews.

New in Android N is a VR mode, for example. This mode gives VR apps priority access to the CPU and GPU on a phone and adds a couple of software techniques for making the latency between your head movements and the time updates to reflect this as short as currently possible. Google claims these changes bring down latency on a Nexus 6P with Cardboard from 100ms to under 20ms, which should result in a far more immersive experience. Here is our more in-depth look at how this works and what it means for Android as a VR platform.

With this update, Google is also introducing a new update process. Android devices will now quietly download an update and set it up on the background so the operating system simply has to switch between the old and new image when you restart your device. Instead of having to wait for a few minutes to finish the update, you now simply have to restart your phone or tablet and the operating system automatically switches to the new version.

This is the way updates on Chrome OS already worked and Burke tells me the two teams worked together on this.

One change now is that the phone won’t immediately prompt you to install and update, though. Instead, it will first wait for you to restart your device. Burke says Google’s research shows that most people restart their phones more than once per month and that using this process on Chrome OS typically results in 99 percent update rates within a few months.

After you’ve restarted your device and the update has been applied, Android also won’t ask you to re-enter your password if you typically use a fingerprint scanner or other means of authenticating.