Why Android N freeform window mode isn’t worth the effort right now

by: Kris CarlonMarch 23, 2016
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Android N freeform windows mode

The presence of freeform window mode in Android N was a great find by the team at Ars Technica, but there’s a reason why it was so thoroughly buried in the first Android N developer preview: it’s buggy and unstable and far from ready for showtime. Nevertheless, I enabled the feature on my trusty Nexus 9 to see how it worked and to find out if it is actually worth recommending.

android n preview logoSee also: Android N features: everything confirmed and still to come275

Full disclosure: I absolutely love the new multitasking and app switching options in the N preview: double-tap to switch, continual tapping to cycle through recent apps, split-screen mode. I’m a big fan of all of it, so I may be slightly more predisposed to like freeform window mode on Android N than others. It has to be noted that there are some that seriously dislike Android N’s new multitasking and recent apps changes.

Android N freeform window mode - overview 2

The pros and cons of freeform window mode

Enabling freeform window mode on Android N isn’t terribly difficult, you simply need to run some ADB shell commands in a terminal window to get it up and running. But there’s a difference between whether you can get it running and whether you should get it running (which is why I’m not sharing those instructions here). I’d suggest you steer clear of it if you need your tablet in any kind of regular way.

There's a difference between whether you can get it running and whether you should get it running.

To give you an example, the first few minutes of playing around with resizable windows enabled on my Nexus 9 was a super buggy affair that led me to reboot a couple times. Some apps simply don’t work at all (like Chrome) and the N preview breaks a few others straight away (like ES File Explorer and TunnelBear, my VPN service). While using freeform windows in their current state you’ll have app crashes, freezes and all kinds of irregular behavior.

Android N freeform window mode - recent apps preview 2

 

Are resizable windows any good?

Moving beyond the obvious and understandable reasons for this unstable performance, what is the feature itself actually like to use? It’s a little weird, to be honest. While dragging and resizing windows on a home screen is a perfectly familiar action from desktop computing, doing it on a phone or tablet is a little odd. Split-screen mode is already too small for some people, so adding multiple other apps makes things even worse.

Android N logo AASee also: What you need to know about Android N updates59

Of course, floating mini apps and resizable windows have been around via apps or manufacturer software additions for ages. The popularity of these apps and features are in some way responsible for the option finally being baked into Android. But its true use-value is debatable. If you’ve already got the option for split-screen with a slidable divider, how much more benefit are you going to get from multiple overlapping apps?

Android N freeform window mode - split screen mode 2

How to use freeform windows

The process itself is simple enough: tap the recent apps button and you’ll see your apps cascaded as normal, but with a new square button on the header bar next to the X. Tap that, and the app will appear on a random wallpaper (not on top of your home screen) and the freeform button will become a maximize button. You can move the app window around using the header bar and drag the edges to resize it (although you can only resize one dimension at a time).

Android N freeform window button closeup

Only the “most active” app will remain live though, so, for example, videos will not continue to play if you’re working in another window. Freeform apps frequently dump their contents at the moment too, so, unlike the app “screenshot” Android takes when you switch apps normally and open the recent apps cascade, freeform apps regularly go blank.

Android N freeform window mode tiles

Of course, this will be ironed out as the feature gets closer to prime time, but there’s no way of telling yet whether multiple apps will be able to remain active at the same time, so you can have videos playing in the background, for example. Drag and drop between freeform windows works just the same as it does with split-screen mode and if you drag a window too close to the edge it will jump into split-screen mode.

Android N freeform window mode - move to split screen

When will freeform windows arrive officially?

The Android N documentation does mention freely resizable app windows, so it’s possible that we will see the feature officially rolled out in the N release, but it’s a long way from being ready yet. So much so that we might not even see it the final Android 7.0 release (or whatever Android N becomes), let alone in a future N preview.

android n logoSee also: How stable is Android N in daily use?48

Compared to the multi-window mode that debuted in the Android M preview, freeform windows are very unstable and glitchy. By comparison, Android M’s multi-window mode was actually pretty good and it still never made it into an official Marshmallow release. It had to be enabled much like freeform windows needs to be now.

We only saw multi-window mode “officially” revealed in the first Android N developer preview, a year after it first appeared. As we all know, preview features are far from set in stone, so it’s possible that freeform windows might not make it into an official build of Android until the Android O release.

Android N freeform window mode - overview 1

Is it worth waiting for?

To my mind, freeform windows seem to be more effort than they’re worth, especially with split-screen mode working so well already. As much as I expected to like the feature, I simply don’t see much added value in being able to float multiple apps at once. Even on a tablet as large as the Nexus 9 it seems pretty useless, and on a phone there’s no point at all. Even when the feature is more polished there’s no getting around the size constraints.

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Perhaps it’s just because multi-window mode works so well that freeform windows seem unnecessary to me. The only way I can see it being useful is on even larger-screened tablets and ChromeOS devices, but I still can’t see it being more popular than split screen. For phones and smaller tablets it doesn’t make much sense at all in its current form. But, like multi-window mode, the final version of freeform windows might be very different from its first appearance, so I’ll reserve final judgement until it’s fully cooked.

What do you think about freeform windows? Do you see it being useful?

  • Syukri Lajin

    windows 10, is that you?! lol

    • Chris

      You blind?

  • Steven Fox

    They will sort it out in three-four months when N finally arrives, but I think it will take it`s toll on performance.

    • Chris

      Like widgets?

  • So you are complaining on a feature that wasn’t supposed to be on an android PREVIEW and saying that it has bugs? PLEASE take a moment to analyze this and see how ridiculous you sound.

    • Andrew

      Well said that man.

      I was reading the article trying to gather if the writer understood that this is Developer Preview 1.

      He did, but continued anyway.

  • 3165dwayne

    Boo!
    Worth the effort! Worth the effort!

  • Chris

    Mean while my note already has it. Google playing catchup as always

    • Kawshik Ahmed

      Yes and No. Samsung uses their own Custom API to achieve because it is not a part of the actual Android OS and only supported by some flagship Samsung phones the developer adaptation is lower. But when Google will do it it will be Universal Android API almost any OEM and developer can use it and more app will support the feature.

      Actually it will benefir Samsung also because more apps will be able to handle Windowed Mode.

      • Ellis Tiu

        yup but he stated his samsung

        • Andrew

          Yes, and Kawshik Ahmed explained why it’s not at it’s full potential yet on Samsung, less developer uptake.

          Your comment is pointless and makes you looks like a bridge dweller and should join the rest of the trolls.

      • saksham

        samsung has already perfected the multi window mode

  • Patrick Pulfer

    Not worth it? Really?

    As a tablet user, I can’t wait to see this implemented. My Galaxy Tab S does similar atm, which is amazing for productivity set-ups. One of the very strong reasons why I went to Samsung. Look at the Pixel C… great tablet but not really amazing to actually work with it. This could be the my switch to go from Samsung to Google.

    — Pat

  • Christopher Woodhouse

    I imagine the only reason for freeform would be a good idea would be in reference to Android desktops/notebooks that are swimming around the water cooler. I think I agree that for phones and tablets split would be more than enough.

    • stfu

      try the freeform window of the note 4. once you start using it habitually, you can’t go back to split screen.

  • Thomas Waznis

    Have you used the Note Pro 12.2? They have gotten cheaper since they are 2 years old now. A comparison to N would be helpful. It is my main tablet. With updates the way they are I’m not likely to see M or N for a few years.

  • ichuck7

    Good review of the feature. I liked how you stated that the feature is not really worth the trouble. It’s good to know that Google is working on it. It’s just crazy that this is something samsung has already had for a while, and it works really well.

  • stfu

    i wonder how samsung will improve upon this feature knowing that they’ve been sporting this in their note line since the note 4.

  • hansip

    For a mobile device, standard split size window is enough. Make it Windows like just doesn’t make any sense when Android is supposedly killing your app without telling you when. With split screen at least only two activities that should be retained as a foreground activity. with multiple floating window, limited RAM on devices is concerning. There’s a reason why Microsoft doesn’t give standard window system to Tablet mode.

  • Artem Smaznov

    I don’t thing that this feature is meant for phones and tablets at all. To me it seem that this is the next step for PC running Android instead of Mac/Windows. The main question is will Android N be the cross platform OS or we only gonna see it next year with Android O

  • Anant

    I tried to like the post cause I love AA but this was useless. Obviously, the feature is buggy. U required ADB to get it working on DEVELOPER PREVIEW 1.
    + It’s probably worth it because Google has added new APIs for split screen and might add more for multi since the app blank prob should be fixed with the split screen compatibility. And this feature is most probably a nod to remix OS. U can do a ton of thinhs on Remix OS. So, I wouldn’t hesitate to say that if Remix OS could make it seem nice, Google cn as well. Stop judging EXPERIMENTAL software.

  • As longoing as it’s an option to make em free it seems like a good thing. But only if I as a user will get to use the feature as I want.

  • Choda Boy

    I would expect there are other owners of Note products (I have the Note 4 and Note Pro 12.2) who use freeform and splitscreen windows frequently.