Android 5.0 Lollipop: A Deeper Look

It’s always an exciting time when a new OS comes around and even more so when we’ve been waiting for this long. Android 5.0 Lollipop is the next iteration of Google’s mobile OS and it’s such a major step forward I couldn’t help taking the developer preview for a spin. Here’s an overview of the changes that mattered most to me. Take a breath, this is a long one…

If you haven’t got time to read the full overview then the quicky verdict is as simple as these two words: Game Changer.

Lets delve a little deeper into whats makes Android 5.0 Lollipop so different, and why it definitely made sense to hold out bumping previous versions to the mythical 5.0 until now.

Getting Started

For as long as I care to remember the initial setup process on Android has been the same, somewhat awkward, experience. This all changes in Lollipop as Google has given the whole process a makeover.

The new design ethos from Google is immediately apparent from the moment you switch on. Setup is a breeze and fully supports the use of two-step authentication on your Google account which makes a huge difference. No more in and out of browsers and web views to get things sorted!

android-5.0-setup

It also includes a new ‘Tap & Go’ migration tool that uses Android Beam to restore all your apps and settings from an old device – assuming you have it handy and it has NFC. I did a clean install so have not played with this yet but from what I hear its pretty solid and will be very useful moving forwards.

If you can’t use Tap & Go for any reason then you can now restore just the actual apps that you want from Google’s cloud-based backup of your account. It no longer automatically starts downloading all the apps you have ever used (even if they were from a different device format – argh!) but just updates the ones currently installed and those you ask it to – you even get to pick the device you want to backup from! So no more rushing to the Play Store ‘My Apps’ section to stop the downloading chaos before it begins…

The New Look

It seems to have produced a bit of a love-it or hate-it situation but Google’s new ‘Material Design’ approach certainly does change things up a bit. Personally I’m a fan because it makes things simpler but at the same time much more fluid and reactive… and I never really did like the old ‘Holo’ look.

There is far too many design changes to go through in one blog post but there is one thing you will notice pretty quickly. Animations are everywhere! They’re pretty gorgeous too and really help you keep track of whats going on and the effect your inputs are having. For example the old CRT TV effect when the screen turns off is finally gone, replaced with a much more subtle and fitting fade-away animation. Lollipop is all about the little touches though so the screen also desaturates as it fades away – it’s pretty subtle so you may not notice it at first but its a cute little touch.

For those of us who still prefer a custom launcher over the stock version the best method of accessing Google Now is by swiping up from the home button in the navigation bar. This action hasn’t changed but there’s now a much more fluid animation that leads your focus from the button right up into the new app. Its a great example of how the new animations on Lollipop really enhance the general feel of the OS, but do so in a pleasingly subtle way.

android-5.0-navbar

There is one other change that you’re going to notice straight away, and it takes a while to get used to – the main navigation bar has new icons. The back button becomes a triangle, the home button a circle and the ‘recents apps’ button gets a square. I must admit I’m still not completely sold on this change but the similar sized geometric shapes do at least make things look a bit more consistent than before. A very subjective thing I suppose…

Day-to-day

Now all the pretties are out of the way lets get down to the core features you’ll actually use on your daily driver.

Enhanced Notifications

Top of the bill for me has to be the notifications system which has undergone a well needed cleanup. Notifications now appear on the lock screen (if you allow it) and for the more security conscious among us you can also choose to hide the contents of messages or emails. This has been possible for a while now with third-party apps but it’s nice to see Google are catching up with the idea.

To go along with the lock-screen updates is a new “Ambient Display” feature which turns the display on when you get notifications or pick up the device. This makes perfect sense so you can get your updates at a glance without having to stop what you are doing. It’s something that iOS has done for a long while now so it’s about time Android had something similar.

Unfortunately the Ambient Display feature is not available on the Nexus 5 or Nexus 7 so I haven’t been able to test it out but it has been seen on the final builds for the Nexus 6 and some others, so I hope it will come to as many phones as possible when the full release builds go out – and that it doesn’t kill all our battery life!

There is also a new ‘Heads up’ notification feature that displays alerts on top of the app you are currently using when they arrive. Allowing you to action or dismiss them straight away without interrupting what you are doing.

The actual notifications themselves have not changed all that much apart from a new lick of paint, but there are a couple of functional updates to help speed you along your way. You can press and hold each notification to find out which app it’s from and get a quick shortcut to its app settings (to mute the app for example) – very useful. There is also a ‘dismiss all’ button again to save your fingers when swiping all twenty of those pesky notifications out of the way, and obviously more pretty animations.

android-5.0-notifications

The quick settings menu has undergone a change too and it’s now more reminiscent of Samsung’s TouchWiz or HTC’s Sense versions. It’s no longer hidden away in a separate panel and you can access it either by swiping down a second time within the open drawer or the classic two finger swipe still works to get you there straight from the home screen.

It includes direct control of screen brightness, a battery icon that actually has a percentage value and finally has a torch function! Something I am sure many devs will be loosing money over. Other than that it’s pretty much the same as before, save some pretty animations… naturally.

Android 5.0 not only changes what your notifications look like but gives you much more control over if/when they get through. What used to be done with separate ‘profiles’ back in the Nokia 3210 days, and has been strangely absent from core Android until now, is handled by priority notifications and the concept of ‘Interruptions’.

In a nutshell this means that you define what you consider to be priority notifications, either by their type or by who they are from, and then you put the phone into ‘priority mode’ (or silence it completely) at any time from the volume dialog. So it basically acts as a semi-silent mode that only lets through the things you really cannot miss.

If you need priority mode to be activated automatically at any given time you can do this in the system settings by choosing the required days and times in the ‘Interruptions’ section. It’s pretty basic functionality at the moment but that will be all most people need to get them by, and its not hard to believe that Google will integrate this with your Calendar entries and geo-location moving forwards. A good start.

The ‘Recent Apps’ switcher gets all pretty

The ‘recent apps’ menu now shows the apps in a stacked card arrangement instead of the vertical list it was before. You can still remove them by swiping left or right, or by clicking the close button, but there is still no “clear all” function. I’m starting to think there will never be one in stock Android because you are meant to let the OS decide when to clear apps if it needs to – which I suppose makes sense for those of us who aren’t OCD about this sort of thing.

android-5.0-recent-apps

The list also contains a separate card for each of your Chrome tabs (and I assume any other views an app dev chooses to put there) which could be useful. I turned it off after a while because it takes too long to get the tab you are looking for and all the cards tend to blend into each other making it very hard to quickly fire between apps. All open cards do persist through a reboot of the OS now however, so you can always pick up where you left off, which is a nice touch.

Finally, you can also ‘pin’ the current user to only one app (if enabled) by touching the pin icon at the bottom of the current card. With a password in place this is a very useful way to let someone you don’t quite trust borrow your phone for a quick second.

If you really don’t trust the person your handing your phone to then the phone version of Android Lollipop now includes the same user switching functionality that the tablets have had for a while. But really just keep your phone to yourself if it’s going to be that much effort!

Quicker Sharing

Android Beam has been updated work with any file type and is included in the ever-growing sharing menu, which itself gets a bit of a rework to put your most used services at the top. Personally this has been a Godsend for me because I use a URL Shortener which is always at the bottom of an alphabetical list!

I have found that while the main OS version of the share list is now sorted some of the Google apps ones are not updated yet – for example the Google+ ‘Photos’ app uses the old version of the menu – so the experience is a little disjointed for the time being.

Updated audio, photo and video features

Android has rounded out its multimedia support in this release with lower latency audio, multi-channel mixing (inc. 5.1 and 7.1) and now supports USB microphones, mixers, amps and speakers so you can finally have a tablet run your studio(?!) – just like all the professionals do!

The camera API now makes the RAW image files available to apps so some serious post-production can happen, as well as adding support for burst shots of up to 30 fps at full resolution which is pretty cool. It includes updated support for the latest video specs too including hardware-accelerated 4K video and the new H.265/HEVC codec – which should keep users happy for the next 12 months or so.

Behind the Scenes

A lot of the updates wont be noticeable to the average user and they should be able to just enjoy nice mobile experience, but there are a few new tidbits that should not go unmentioned – even if you don’t notice them on a daily basis.

More efficient battery usage

It appears that Google have listened to users complaining about battery life issues (not you Samsung users – that’s TouchWiz – deal with it) and have come up with “Project Volta”, which is said to update the way Android deals with tasks, sleep recovery and implements better cleanup functions to try and get the most out of your devices tiny battery.

Apparently it works too with up to a 35% improvement over KitKat being claimed. While I cannot quantify the difference with a figure I can definitely say that the battery life has improved since I left KitKat, and I no longer have to charger my phone on the way home form work to make it last the day, which is always a great thing to see in a new OS.

android-5.0-battery-saver

Android 5.0 also includes the ‘Battery Saver’ setting that turns off all animations, under-clocks the processor and generally makes the battery last longer at the expense of performance. It’s a very noticeable drop in performance too and gets all sorts of laggly – but when you just need an extra hour it can be a lifesaver. The UI even gets a horrible orange colour scheme just in case you forget its enabled… lovely!

Android Runtime (ART)

Lollipop finally drops the Dalvik runtime for the shiny new version of Android Runtime (ART) which apparently is a big step forward from the beta build put into KitKat last year. If this turns out to be true it should be a huge performance boast because the KitKat version was pretty awesome in itself.

Network Detection

It used to always be that if you were connected to a WiFi hotspot you were always connected to a WiFi hotspot, even if it did not have internet access. I remember many-a-time getting no notifications for hours when I got home only to find my router had had a ‘senior moment’ and the phone didn’t think to fallback to the network data connection.

“Not anymore!” they cry as Android 5.0 now checks your connection periodically to see if its working, and switches to the next best thing if it is not. This sounds perfect but seems a little hit-and-miss at the moment (at least on the Nexus 5), hopefully any kinks will be smoothed out in some further minor updates.

Updated Security

Every new OS improves upon its predecessors security and the new version of Android is no different. Encrypting user data is all over the news at the moment so Lollipop turns this on by default to keep people happy and the authorities sad. The encryption feature has been available in Android for a few years now but hidden away in the settings so this just means everyone gets a go – not just those looking for it!

‘Smart Lock’ is a new security system that allows you to link trusted bluetooth devices to your phone or tablet. It allows the OS to lighten the security when a bluetooth device is in range but beef it up again when it disconnects and is ideal when linked to a smart watch or car. I must admit I thought this was going to be a bit useless because bluetooth has quite a large range nowadays but it seems to do the job for most situations. You can always force-lock the device with a double tap on the power button if you get scared.

Finally, and something you will hopefully never need, is a new factory reset protection that apparently links to your Google account to prevent the device being wiped without authorisation from you. Admittedly this wont help you get your device back but it does mean its more likely to get dumped in the bin than raided for your credit card details – which can only be a good thing.

WebView moves out, goes to live in the Play Store

Until now any apps that used the WebView feature would only be able to use APIs that were present at the time of the last firmware update. Meaning that the latest features of Chrome wouldn’t be available, and for some OEM versions of Android (I’m looking at you again Samsung) would not get updated for many years, causing huge headaches for developers having to put fixes in place just for those devices.

No longer! The WebView component has been removed from the shackles of the OS to go live in the Play Store and therefore can be auto-updated – this is huge! At least if you are in any way geeky about your phone… or a developer.

64-bit Support

And last but not least is native 64-bit support at the OS level. Whether you sing its praises or not it’s a fact that 64-bit hardware is becoming the norm and the move to ARMv8 chips is happening now so Android needed to keep up. Luckily Lollipop has done that and introduces full 64-bit support… just in time!

Final thoughts

All-in-all it’s a pretty major overhaul of the OS at almost every level. I haven’t even scratched the surface yet and we’re still hearing of new functionality and APIs being discovered almost every day – even without all the full release builds being delivered yet.

I went with the quicky overview of “Game changer” mainly because I think Android 5.0 Lollipop finally brings together a full experience for the mainstream user – from setup to surfing to productivity and phone calls. All the things I love about Android are still there but they are now more accessible to the average user because everything just works as you expect. It’s pretty, fluid and intuitive – and a lot of users require that in a daily driver.

Is it possible that 5.0 Lollipop is what Android always promised to be?

Good night…