We don’t know what it is called, or even what version number it is, but the new version of Android — Android M — has been unveiled and is ready for testing by users of select Nexus devices.
The Android M Developer Preview is primarily designed for developers to try out new features and ensure their apps are compatible in time for when the consumer rollout begins.
But even if you’re just curious to test out some of the new features for yourself, you can install the Developer Preview today. Here’s how.
Official: Install The Android M Developer Preview
Android M won’t be available to install as an over the air update until it launches officially. It’s expected around Q3.
Instead, you can install the Developer Preview today via a system image. This replaces everything on the device — including all your data — with a factory fresh install of the operating system.
The Android M Developer Preview is available for the Nexus 5, Nexus 6, Nexus 9 and the Nexus Player.
The install process is much more involved than a typical OS update, while still being fairly straightforward for more advanced users. You’ll need to use your laptop or desktop computer to do it, although it doesn’t matter whether you’re running Windows, Mac, or Linux.
What You Need
Before you begin, you’ll need to download and set up a couple of things.
- The system image. Go to the Android developers website and make sure you pick the right version for your device. Download it to your desktop; it’s around 600MB.
- The Fastboot tool. This is part of the Android SDK (Software Development Kit), and can be found on a different page of the developer website. Go to the SDK Tools section of the Android Studio page and download the Tools package for your desktop OS.
Extract the system image to a folder on your desktop. Once you’ve set up Fastboot, you’ll be ready to flash the image.
Using Fastboot On Windows, Mac, And Linux
Before we get started, a quick word about Fastboot. Fastboot is a tool that enables you to send commands from your PC to your phone or tablet via USB without the device being booted into Android. In this instance, we’ll be sending and installing the system image from the desktop to the device.
You need to boot into Fastboot mode on your device. First, enable USB access on the phone by going into Developer Options in Android and tap Enable USB Debugging. Now, turn the device off, then hold the power and both volume keys simultaneously to reach Fastboot mode.
To set up Fastboot on the desktop:
- Locate and unzip the SDK Tools folder you downloaded above
- On Windows, run the SDKManager.exe; on Mac or Linux, double click android in the Tools folder
- When the SDK Manager window opens, click Deselect All
- Now select Android SDK Platform-tools, followed by Install
- Back in the SDK Tools folder you should now see a new folder called platform-tools. Inside here, you’ll find the fastboot app
On the desktop, Fastboot is controlled through the command prompt on Windows or terminal on Mac and Linux.
Each time you use it, you will need to set the terminal or command prompt to use the directory the fastboot app is in. To do this, simply type “cd ” (including the space after “cd”), then drag the folder containing fastboot into the window and hit enter.
All the commands you need will be listed below. On Mac and Linux, the syntax is slightly different — the command fastboot always needs to be preceded by ./ (so, for instance, the command fastboot flash recovery on Windows would be entered as ./fastboot flash recovery on Mac or Linux).
Flash The System Image
Remember, this method will completely wipe all your data, including photos, so make a backup of anything you want to restore before you continue.
- Connect your device to your computer over USB, and then boot into Fastboot mode as described above.
- If your device’s bootloader is locked, which it will be if you haven’t previously unlocked it, you must unlock it. Open a terminal window and type the command fastboot oem unlock. This will wipe your device completely. You can skip this step if the bootloader is already unlocked.
- Now copy the Fastboot file into the unzipped system image folder on your desktop and change the directory to point to it, as described above.
- Enter flash-all.bat to begin.
To summarize, copy the fastboot app to the unzipped system image folder and enter this code at the command prompt:
cd [path to folder where fastboot is saved] oem unlock bootloader fastboot flash-all.bat
Install Android M Without Losing Your Data
If you plan to use or test Android M permanently, then flashing the system image and wiping your device is the preferred approach.
If you just want to give it a quick test to try out some of the new features, then a “dirty flash” is possible. This is where you flash the image without wiping your data. This method is convenient for short term use, but will result in a fair few errors and crashes.
Note that you do still need to have an unlocked bootloader, and unlocking the bootloader will wipe your device completely. If you need to unlocked the bootloader, then follow the official flashing instructions above. If your bootloader is already unlocked, follow along.
The process for a dirty flash is similar to the official method, except we need to manually flash each component in turn.
- Backup all your data, preferably a Nandroid backup, then boot into Fastboot mode as in step 1 above.
- Copy the Fastboot app into the unzipped system image folder. At the command prompt or terminal window change the directory to point to this folder using the cd command.
- Flash the radio .img file using the commands:
fastboot flash radio [radio*.img]
- Unzip the file called image*.zip. Move the fastboot app into that folder and use cd to change to switch to that directory.
- Flash the boot and system images using the commands:
fastboot flash boot boot.img fastboot flash system system.img
Do not flash userdata.img. This will wipe your data.
- Reboot your phone.
To return to Lollipop simply repeat the process you used using a Lollipop system image downloaded from the Android developer website, or restore your Nandroid backup.
Android M: The Features You’ll Love
Now that your phone boots into Android M, you’ll find a host of new features to try, as well as performance and usability enhancements. Remember that the Developer Preview is only a beta, so you are likely to encounter bugs. It’s primarily for testing, not for daily use.
Among the best of the new features are:
Android M has finally addressed the permissions issue. You’re now asked whether you want to allow an app to access your contacts, location or other information. Curiously, internet access is now a permission automatically granted to every app.
Simplified Volume Controls
It’s now easy to adjust the volume for apps, calls, music and so on without needing to delve into the settings.
Improved Copy And Paste
You’ll know longer have to try and decipher those obscure icons when attempting to copy and paste text. A new floating toolbar finally makes the process as simple as it should be.
Google Now on Tap
The standout feature of Android M, Google Now on Tap puts Now functionality into every app. Holding down the Home button gives you context-aware suggestions for apps or searches based on whatever is currently on your screen, no matter what app you’re using. Sadly, this isn’t available in the Preview.
Android Pay launches later this year, giving Google a rival to Apple’s walletless payment system. It even promises a hands-free option, enabling you to pay for things just by speaking to your phone while it is still in your pocket.
Android M also offers things like built-in fingerprint scanning support, although this needs a device with the suitable hardware to test, and numerous under-the-hood enhancements such as Doze, an intelligent power management system that puts apps into standby to prevent them from using resources when they’re not needed.
What Do You Think?
Android M is not the biggest OS update, but in some respects, it is one of the most important.
It completes the process introduced last year with Lollipop, adding a level of polish and refinement to a fresh, cutting edge operating system. With new features like Google Now on Tap, it also shows the direction the OS will be heading in future, narrowing the gap between apps and the Web, and adding greater levels of automation.
If you have a Nexus device, it’s well worth the effort to install the Developer Preview ahead of the rollout of the finished product later in the year.
What are your favorite features of Android M? What are you most looking forward to using when it launches? Let us know in the comments!