Android Lollipop makes a splash

Android Lollipop - Main Pic

…or perhaps “A sweet new take on Android”.

Fortunately, there are no clichéd candy or lollipop related headlines here. Instead, just a succinct overview of the most important update that Android has ever had – Android Lollipop.

Android L as it’s known is the latest incarnation of Google’s highly successful mobile operating system, which started development around 2007 mainly in response to Apple’s iOS (then known as iPhone OS) as an advanced, multi-touch OS for modern smartphones. The latest release (version 5.0) has been available to developers since the Google I/O developers’ conference in June, but the final version is now available to (at least some) Android users.

So is Android L a worthy upgrade to Kit Kat, and how has it been received by smartphone users in general?

We take a brief look at some of its highlight features, try and nail down which devices it’s available on, and comment on its critical reception by the technology press. But before we do so, it’s worth highlighting that Android is now the dominant mobile OS in terms of sales, being used by nearly 60% of UK smartphones in July. So while iOS’ share has held steady, any update to Android will undoubtedly be of interest to many of those people.

Android Lollipop - Sales

Android is the dominant mobile OS in the UK. But do unit sales mean much?

 

The standout features of Android Lollipop

It is often said that Android is preferred by people who love to tinker with their smartphone, as it provides endless means to customise nearly every aspect of the OS. Even though iOS 8 has started to add some of the missing pieces (such as custom keyboards), it’s fair to say that Android L still has the upper hand when it comes to customisability and extensibility; we’re not saying one OS is better than the other – it’s just a matter of personal taste.

Android Lollipop - Google IO

Android Lollipop was demonstrated earlier in the year at the Google I/O conference.

 

We won’t cover every one of the hundreds of new features – there are already enough detailed reviews on the Internet, but here’s a brief rundown of some of the best new features in Android Lollipop:

Enhanced notifications

Even though notifications have been around since Android 1.0, they are much more useful in Android L. Swipe down from the top of the screen to display the interface which floats above the home screen. Notifications are shown in priority order, with the highest priority (called “heads up notifications”) appearing even when you’re in a fullscreen game or app – a great way not to miss important alerts such as an incoming call.

Android Lollipop - Enhanced Notifications

Improved lock screen

In Android Lollipop, the lock screen and notification panel are slowly coming together in terms of functionality. Turning on the phone eventually displays the lock screen with the clock and status icons along the top and important notifications beneath – very similar to the notification panel.

You can also use a couple of basic gestures on the lock screen – swipe down to expand the notifications to a more full list. A quick swipe up takes you to the home screen, and a swipe to the left launches the camera, or to the right to bring up the dial pad.

Android Lollipop - Lock Screen

Multi-tasking card layout

Android has always been good at multi-tasking, something that iOS has often been criticised for. In Android L there is quite a significant change, in that now there’s a scrollable list of cards that doesn’t represent apps, but tasks. This means that some apps will display multiple cards – such as Chrome, where each browser tab is shown as a separate card.

Android Lollipop - Multitasking

Security – personal unlock

It’s all very well having a smartphone, but it’s quite unnecessary (and inconvenient) to have to unlock it when it’s sat next to you on the desk. Surely there’s a better way? Thankfully, Android L now lets you unlock your phone automatically when you’re close by using paired devices, or even based on your location.

For example, when connected to a Bluetooth-enabled wearable (e.g. a smart watch or fitness band), you won’t be prompted to enter a passcode just to unlock the phone. It’s also possible to set a secure location based on GPS (such as home or work) to bypass the lock screen entirely.

Location-based security is an especially useful feature, and it’s something that Apple was even awarded a patent for this November. It seems that all our smartphones are about to become much smarter, adapting to our location and proximity to other devices.

Android Lollipop - Personal Unlocking

Battery saver mode

Google claims the new battery saver mode can extend your smartphone’s battery by around 90 minutes. When activated, the status bar turns orange and remains constantly visible even when other apps are open. Battery saver automatically reduces the display brightness and turns off other features such as animations, as well as disabling some background processes and vibration.

This sounds like an awesome feature, one which would have helped preserve the 3,000 mAh battery on Ewan’s LG G3 becoming toast after just 5 hours!!

Android Lollipop - Battery Saver

Better performance

Ever since Apple surprised the mobile industry in 2013 by releasing its 64-bit A7 chip, other silicon manufacturers (such as Qualcomm and Samsung) have been clamouring to catch up. Despite the arguable merits of 64-bit support in smartphones, at least in the short term, it also requires support in the OS itself, something that Google has now added to Android L. Any smartphone with a 64-bit CPU should now be able to tap into the full power of the chip.

Besides 64-bit support, Google has replaced Dalvik (the virtual machine that Android’s Java code runs on) with a brand new system called Android Run Time (ART). Does it achieve any real world performance improvements? According to AnandTech’s assessment back in July it’s nearly twice as fast, but more recent tests have found there’s really not that much difference in terms of speed and performance in Android L.

Android Lollipop - Performance

Interruptions and priority mode

Similar to the “Do Not Disturb” mode on iOS, Lollipop’s Interruptions feature is a welcome improvement that allows you to disable sounds and notifications for all but the highest priority, either indefinitely or for a specific duration.

Android Lollipop - Priority Mode

Guest mode and pinning apps

As Google says, Guest Mode is designed for “more flexible sharing with family and friends” and it’s a great way to share a single device with someone else. You can now log into any Android phone running Lollipop and get access to your contacts, messages, calendar and photos.

Similarly, it’s possible to prevent users from leaving a specific app without entering a passcode. For example, by opening Chrome and pinning the app, anyone can still use Chrome, but nothing else.

Android Lollipop - Guest Mode

A new design ethos – ‘Material Design’

Called “a comprehensive guide for visual, motion, and interaction design across platforms and devices”, Material Design is a new design language that is Google’s attempt to completely overhaul the look-and-feel of Android, bringing it right up to date and making it much more consistent throughout.

Android Lollipop - Material Design

Google shows off how Material Design looks consistent across devices.

 

In brief, some of the changes include:

  • A new material theme (in both dark and light versions)
  • New widgets for “complex views”
  • New custom shadows with customisable depth
  • New custom animations (such as reveal animations, touch animations, etc.)
  • Shadows and light sources affect user interface elements in real time
  • App UI has touches of colour automatically generated based on the content

On the whole, it has to be said that Material Design is quite gorgeous – user interface elements have depth, and animations are fluid and brilliantly augment the experience. The reception to the new look has also been very positive, with the new design coming across as fresh and easy to use.

We challenged ourselves to create a visual language for our users that synthesizes the classic principles of good design with the innovation and possibility of technology and science. This is material design – Google

Google is now slowly adopting the same design principles across all of its services (even those on the web), bringing much more consistency to its various applications. It will now be interesting to see how Apple responds to Material Design in future versions of iOS.

Android L availability and rollout

For the moment, even though Android Lollipop has been released, it’s not yet available on every device. It takes smartphone manufacturers months to test and certify new versions of Android on their respective devices, with the whole process taking months in some cases, or even not at all.

Here is what we currently know about the availability of Android Lollipop on some of the most popular devices:

  • Nexus 6 / Nexus 9: released on November 3rd
  • Nexus 5, 7 and 10: confirmed and being rolling out already
  • Motorola G / X / E: later this year, though in U.S. available immediately
  • Sony Xperia Z (all models): starting at the beginning of 2015
  • HTC One M7 / M8: February 2015, with all other devices later
  • LG G2 / G3: the end of 2014
  • Samsung: no official statement yet but based on a leaked document:
    • January 2015: Galaxy Note 4, Galaxy S5, Galaxy Alpha
    • February 2015: Galaxy Note 3, Galaxy Note 3 LTE
    • March 2015: Galaxy S4, Galaxy S4 LTE, Galaxy Note 3 Neo
  • Nokia N1 Android tablet (announced Nov 18): early in 2015

Adoption rates

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that the roll out of Android L will happen very quickly. Many users are currently running the older Android 4.4 (30.2%) according to Google, followed by Android 4.1 Jelly Bean (although Jelly Bean versions in total make up 50.9% of Android versions in use today).

It’s a shame that by the time most Android users have upgraded to Lollipop, it will already be out of date…

Here are the latest figures from Google ending November 3rd – the launch date for Lollipop. It’s likely that adoption levels for the new release will follow a similar trajectory – in other words, slow…

Android Lollipop - Adoption Rates

Most users are still on Android 4.4. Google doesn’t have any data yet for Android Lollipop.

 

Final words on Android Lollipop

There is no doubt that Lollipop is a fresh, bold new design that most users will love. It’s cohesive and presents a slick, unified experience across nearly every aspect of the OS.

Android designer Matias Duarte at Google has built the Emerald City. Lollipop has more skeuomorphism than ever before, except the reality being imitated here isn’t real at all. It’s like waking up in Kansas and discovering that everything is still in color and your slippers are still very much a deep shade of ruby red – The Verge

Despite this, some major bugs and issues still persist. As The Verge notes: “Moments of pure speed and smoothness are interrupted by inexplicable pauses”, and many consider it still very much a work in progress:

Lollipop is not really a finished product; it’s a foundation for the future. It’s easy to expect that everything should be done on launch day, but that’s not really how Google—or Android—works. Lollipop is the start of an Android revamp – Ars Technica

On the whole though, Lollipop is a huge leap forward for Android and one that most users will find extremely satisfying.

Have you upgraded to Lollipop yet? What do you think of the new Material Design, and the new features and usability improvements? Let us know in the comments below.

For all this and much more, make sure you listen to our Android special in a future episode of the 361 degrees podcast.

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