Nexus rumor roundup: The “Nexus Launcher” and other exclusive features

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Android Police’s mockup of the new Nexus devices, based on inside information.

With Android 7.0 Nougat and the new Nexus devices fast approaching, Google is no doubt hard at work developing and testing the latest wave of features coming to the Android ecosystem. The Android N Developer Preview has given us a look at the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) side of things, and it looks like the coming Nexus devices will be the launch point for the proprietary “Google” side of Android.

These could trickle down to other devices someday, but for now it seems like Google is developing a suite of Nexus-exclusive features to further differentiate the Nexus line from regular phones. There has been a never-ending string of rumors and reports about the new Nexus devices and their accompanying software, so here’s a roundup of the latest rumors we’re monitoring from reliable sources.

The Nexus Launcher and Google Wallpapers

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Google’s current home screen is the “Google Now Launcher,” which started as an exclusive Nexus feature and eventually made its way to the Play Store. For 2016, there is apparently a new Google home screen called the “Nexus Launcher,” which re-imagines what an Android home screen should look like. We’ve actually heard about this app from two different sources: the app’s existence was first revealed by Android Police and then a full APK was later leaked by Nate Benis.

The Nexus Launcher brings two obvious layout changes to the home screen. First is the complete lack of an app drawer button. The app drawer still exists—it’s now opened with a swipe up gesture, as the small “up” arrow in the bottom third of the screen is supposed to indicate. The bottom row of icons is still a sticky “dock” that exists on every home screen, and the dock is differentiated with a frosted background. With the app drawer icon out of the way, the dock can now fit five app icons instead of four.

The other major change is the removal of the Google Search bar. There’s now a “G” tab on the left side of the main home screen, which is meant to indicate that you can swipe over to the left screen to access Google Now. Tapping on the “G” tab opens Google Search, just like the old search bar. The “G” tab doesn’t persist across home screens the way the Google Search bar did—it only lives on the main home screen. With no full-width search bar, the right side of the screen is now free to show a date widget.

The Nexus Launcher brings major under-the-hood changes, too. Today on Nexus devices, the Google Search app handles home screen duties, and while there is a “Google Now Launcher” app in the Play Store, it only unlocks the functionality present in the Google Search app. The Nexus Launcher is a standalone APK, which would pull the home screen out of the Google Search app. It’s probably no coincidence that Google has been quietly developing a Google Search API that allows Search to communicate with launchers, and here we see a separation of Google Search and the launcher.

How the “G” tab works depends on how your phone is set up. As a user-installed app, it’s a circle widget that only opens a Google search. In order to get the tab that swipes over to the Google Now page, it needs to be installed as a system app. As Android Police rightly cautions, the way the G tab works now might not be what Google intends, since no one has a “2016 Nexus” Google Search app.

The different package name of the Nexus Launcher (“com.google.android.apps.nexuslauncher,” if you’re wondering) means it will not be an upgrade of the Google Now Launcher. We’re looking at a totally new app, and judging by the name, it’s exclusive to Nexus devices.

As it stands right now, the launcher seems very unfinished. There’s a whopping three settings, and the Google button and month widget are permanent. It might look significantly different when it comes out, or it might not come out at all. It’s definitely from Google, though.

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As part of Nate Benis’ leak, there was a second APK of note that we’re going to call “Google Wallpapers” (the package name is “com.google.android.apps.wallpaper,” but it’s generically called “wallpapers” in the app list). The Nexus Launcher will actually crash if you try to change the wallpaper without this app installed, so the two are closely linked.

Google Wallpapers provides a new large thumbnail interface for picking wallpapers, and it features a load of images from the 500px photo community. There’s an option to subscribe to a category and automatically switch wallpapers every day. Inside the app there are also references to live wallpapers called “Live Earth” and “Live Data,” but no one has seen them in action.

“Google System UI” could put a big chunk of the OS in the Play Store

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In Android, the System UI is a huge deal since it’s responsible for much of the base operating system. It handles the bottom navigation bar, the top status bar, the notification panel, Quick Settings, Recent Apps, the lock screen, the volume controls, and the power button long-press menu. The new Nexus devices are apparently going to replace the open source System UI with a proprietary APK called the “Google System UI.”

Android Police has been tracking the new system UI over the past few weeks. So far the supposed changes include a move from outlined buttons to pure white buttons plus a Google-y animation when you long-press on the home button.

For a while, Google has tried various methods of tying a home button long-press to Google search. In Jelly Bean you could long-press on the home button and swipe up for Google Search, and in Marshmallow this became Google Now on Tap—a “search for everything on the current screen” feature. Now it seems Google is switching from a plug-in system to a fully integrated system UI.

In the leaked version, long-pressing on the home button launches a set of four Google colored balls (red, green, yellow, and blue) that dance around in the system UI and launch… something. No one is sure exactly what happens yet. Android Police currently says this launches Google Now on Tap, but in the future the action will mostly likely be linked to the “Google Assistant,” a revamp of Google’s voice command system. Like the Nexus Launcher home screen, everything hinges on the Google Search app, which no one has an advanced copy of.

Other fun features

  • Android Police and Benis are both claiming a “Google Settings” replacement for the AOSP settings is going to exist. Like the Google System UI, Google Settings could possibly result in another big un-updatable part of the OS hitting the Play Store and becoming updatable.
  • That same Android Police article says the Google Settings will include a “Night Light” feature (AKA a F.lux-style brown mode), a fancy blue-highlighted theme, and a tab for a specialscreen-sharing support tool.
  • Additionally, Ambient Display (a dark version of the lock screen) is getting double-tap-to-wake instead of being based on a janky motion detection system according to Android Police.
  • A separate Android Police article says the Nexus devices are adding a swipe down gesture to the rear fingerprint sensor that would open the notification panel. This exists today on Huawei devices, and it’s a nice way to lazily reach the top of the screen.

We still have no idea when this phone is actually going to come out (other than “October” for the Verizon version). But with Android 7.0 due to be finished any day now, these new Nexus devices can’t be too far away.