Android 5.0 Lollipop preview: Google’s biggest mobile update in years

There’s something magical about the idea that, in the space of a few minutes, your smartphone or tablet can look dramatically different and do some cool new things, to boot. That’s why operating system updates can be oddly exciting, and Android’s latest upgrade — known as version 5.0 or Lollipop — is the firmware equivalent of opening a stack of presents on your birthday. The upcoming release, which is now available on the Nexus 9 and heading to dozens of mobile devices in the coming months, brings a fresh design and no shortage of new features. Join me as I unwrap Google’s latest gift to the wireless community.

Material Design

If you’ve been using Android over the past few months, you may have noticed that several Google apps have been updated with a fresh design — and they all look the same. This is no coincidence: Google’s putting its three-year-old “Holo” design language out to pasture, moving instead toward a look known as “Material Design.” This new aesthetic is featured prominently in Android 5.0 Lollipop, and soon the rest of Google’s ecosystem — desktops, autos, TV and wearables — will be following suit.

If you ask me, this consistency between apps and OS is a good thing, especially since Material Design is cleaner and more colorful than Holo. Google says this kind of cohesiveness breeds visual harmony, and I have to agree: Whether you’re using Google apps and services or a third-party option, a universal design language can ease your frustration of not knowing where anything. Since most apps look similar to each other and the rest of Lollipop, it should be less difficult for people to understand what to look for and how to find what they need.

User interface

Armed with a basic understanding of Material Design, let’s turn to the actual user interface in Lollipop. You’ll certainly see elements of the new design language scattered about the setup process (which I’ll discuss shortly), but your first impression of the home screen likely won’t be too different from what it is now. You still have the same screen of apps and the same status bar, but the Google search bar uses Material Design and is no longer transparent; the soft navigation keys at the bottom now look more like buttons on a PlayStation controller: a sideways triangle for the back button, a circle for home and a square for the new multitasking menu (now known as “Overview”).

Swiping right still takes you to Google Now, which looks almost the same, except the customization options, reminders and settings no longer live on the bottom of the screen, but rather, an overlay menu accessible by another swipe to the right or by pressing the hamburger button on the top-left. This is just one example of Google cleaning up unnecessary clutter and placing it in a location that’s more consistent with the rest of the OS.

The app menu is functionally identical, but has a fresh coat of paint to give it more of a Lollipop look. Icons now sit on top of a sheet of digital paper, rather than a transparent background with the wallpaper underneath.

Notifications

There’s something magical about the idea that, in the space of a few minutes, your smartphone or tablet can look dramatically different and do some cool new things, to boot. That’s why operating system updates can be oddly exciting, and Android’s latest upgrade — known as version 5.0 or Lollipop — is the firmware equivalent of opening a stack of presents on your birthday. The upcoming release, which is now available on the Nexus 9 and heading to dozens of mobile devices in the coming months, brings a fresh design and no shortage of new features. Join me as I unwrap Google’s latest gift to the wireless community.

Gallery | 24 Photos

Nexus 9 Lollipop screenshots

Gallery | 90 Photos

Android 5.0 Dev Preview screens

Material Design

If you’ve been using Android over the past few months, you may have noticed that several Google apps have been updated with a fresh design — and they all look the same. This is no coincidence: Google’s putting its three-year-old “Holo” design language out to pasture, moving instead toward a look known as “Material Design.” This new aesthetic is featured prominently in Android 5.0 Lollipop, and soon the rest of Google’s ecosystem — desktops, autos, TV and wearables — will be following suit.

If you ask me, this consistency between apps and OS is a good thing, especially since Material Design is cleaner and more colorful than Holo. Google says this kind of cohesiveness breeds visual harmony, and I have to agree: Whether you’re using Google apps and services or a third-party option, a universal design language can ease your frustration of not knowing where anything. Since most apps look similar to each other and the rest of Lollipop, it should be less difficult for people to understand what to look for and how to find what they need.

All told, the new design language can be split up into three parts: visual, interaction and motion. Let’s start with the first. Material Design isn’t skeuomorphic, but its inception was based on a concept that is: paper and ink. Using a print-like design with surfaces that appear tactile is easy for our brains to understand. Toolbars act like strips of paper along the top of apps, while cards can come together to form seams and move together as one. Meanwhile, Google creates the illusion of depth by allowing cards, buttons and other elements to be raised over the rest of the page, using shadows and spacing, so it looks like some content is closer to the glass. (The closer it is, the more important that content should be.) Slide a panel out from the side and it slips right over the rest of the app as if you were sliding a piece of paper over another.

This use of depth makes it possible to add new elements that help direct the user to critical actions. One such concept is a Floating Action Button, a small circular icon raised above the rest of the app meant to catch your attention. It represents a single hallmark action — compose emails, the play button in a music app, add files to a cloud service — and is meant to stand out to the user as a signpost for what to do next.

Color and typography are also important here. Material Design features a palette of bold and dynamic colors that stick out in the app bar, located on the top of the screen (these bars typically disappear as you scroll down the page). The choices in the palette are designed to give each app a friendly, welcoming vibe that’s pleasing to the eye; users are much more likely to jump out of an ugly app than a beautiful one, so first impressions are critical. Similarly, the designers also tweaked the Roboto font by making it rounder and wider, giving the text a more pleasant look. This, along with the colors, icons and layouts used in Material Design, is meant to be positive and optimistic. Material Design is also minimalistic in nature, favoring open space and simplicity as often as possible. As you’ll see later in the review, one of Google’s main goals in Lollipop was to get rid of unnecessary junk. The stuff you need should be easy to find so you can get in and get out.

(Credit: Google)

The way you interact with the design is just as important as its layouts and colors. Material Design isn’t dull or boring — on the contrary, it feels alive. When you touch something, it reacts; I never had to worry about whether or not I actually tapped on a button, because I’d see a ripple effect every time I touched it. When I touch and drag a “hamburger button” (the stack of three lines used for sidebars and extra menus) out from the corner, it sometimes does a radial turn and morphs into a back arrow; and in cases where I’m rearranging cards or lists, items appear to lift closer to the screen as I move them, as if they’re magnetically attracted to my finger.

(Credit: Google)

The final part of Material Design is motion, which involves the transition from one visual state to another. These animations, Google says, should abide by the laws of physics (scrolling takes a little while to pick up momentum), be well-choreographed (each element in the transition moves in and out of the screen in a coordinated pattern, like top-left to bottom-right) and refrain from hard, jarring cuts back and forth. Each transition should be gradual and subtle, yet not slow down the user experience. Photographs fade in and out of screens like Polaroid pictures and cards and chips open by expanding out from a central point of origin. While many animations can be distracting, most of the ones I used with Material Design are quick and natural enough that I never felt like they were getting in the way or making the process take longer than it normally would.

User interface

Armed with a basic understanding of Material Design, let’s turn to the actual user interface in Lollipop. You’ll certainly see elements of the new design language scattered about the setup process (which I’ll discuss shortly), but your first impression of the home screen likely won’t be too different from what it is now. You still have the same screen of apps and the same status bar, but the Google search bar uses Material Design and is no longer transparent; the soft navigation keys at the bottom now look more like buttons on a PlayStation controller: a sideways triangle for the back button, a circle for home and a square for the new multitasking menu (now known as “Overview”).

Swiping right still takes you to Google Now, which looks almost the same, except the customization options, reminders and settings no longer live on the bottom of the screen, but rather, an overlay menu accessible by another swipe to the right or by pressing the hamburger button on the top-left. This is just one example of Google cleaning up unnecessary clutter and placing it in a location that’s more consistent with the rest of the OS.

The app menu is functionally identical, but has a fresh coat of paint to give it more of a Lollipop look. Icons now sit on top of a sheet of digital paper, rather than a transparent background with the wallpaper underneath.

What was once a vertically scrolling app-switcher menu is now Overview, a carousel-like list that displays not only your recent apps, but also your Chrome tabs. Instead of going into your browser and having to hunt around for a specific tab, you can now go directly to it in Overview. I can see why this could be convenient to a lot of people, but I actually turned it off in the browser settings after a while for two reasons: First, it gets rid of the tab-switcher button normally found in the top-right corner of Chrome, forcing me instead to go to the app switcher every time. Second, when I have more than a dozen or so tabs open (I often have more than 30!), it means my Overview has a lot more clutter for me to sift through; if I have to scroll through endless thumbnails just to find an app I opened two days ago, it’s easier to go into the app launcher and find it the old-fashioned way. But at least Google gives you the ability to choose how you want to use Overview.

Notifications and quick settings have been merged into one big menu. This is a cleaner, easier setup than keeping these things separate. When you pull down the status bar, you first see notifications in dark text on a white, paper-like canvas; keep pulling and you’ll get to quick settings. (The two-finger pull gesture is still there, however, so you can bypass notifications and go straight to your quick settings if you prefer.) Here, you’ll see a slider to adjust brightness, along with toggles for WiFi, Bluetooth, flashlight, rotation preferences, airplane mode and screen casting; date and time show up in their own section along the top, next to battery percentage and buttons for the full settings menu and user modes (more on this soon). And instead of appearing over a black background, the new menus lie over whatever screen you were already working in (that screen dims down bit so it doesn’t become visually distracting). I prefer this design because it no longer feels like I’m leaving my current task just to see who emailed a few minutes ago.

So much of Lollipop is focused on making things more efficient and streamlining apps. I’ll discuss many features that prove this throughout my review, but there’s no better example than the new Gmail app, which now comes with support for non-Gmail and Exchange accounts. I was elated about this because I have a Yahoo account and I’ve always been frustrated that I couldn’t just merge the two of them into one single app. Finally, this Material Design-ified app eliminates the need for a separate “Email” application.

Setup

Lollipop turns what was once a frustrating setup experience into a faster, more pleasant one. If you’ve ever tried to switch from one Android device to another, you’ve likely noticed that the OS wasn’t particularly adept at restoring apps, settings or personal preferences. Now, there’s a setup feature called Tap and Go that lets your old phone tell your new one which apps to install, what wallpaper and screen layout you’d like (provided you’ve been using the Google Now launcher) and other setup information like WiFi, location prefs and more. Every app is still downloaded through the Play Store, so you’ll need to re-enter your logins, but at least everything is exactly where you want it. This transfer is done through Bluetooth, but both devices need to have NFC in order to pair with each other.

Even if you don’t have NFC, not all is lost; you just have to get through a manual restore option. Here, you’ll first sign into your Google account, and then choose which of your previous Android devices you want to restore. Then, you select which apps you want to install from that phone or tablet. Sadly, this option doesn’t include your home screen layout or wallpaper, so you’ll need to rearrange things how you see fit. Either way, both restore options are better than what Android offered before: a hodgepodge process that didn’t allow you to pick and choose which apps to restore. This always meant I had to waste time uninstalling several apps that I’d deleted on my older devices long ago.

A couple of other things take place behind the scenes as you set up your new device. One of the first things the phone or tablet does once it gets connected through WiFi or cellular is search for updates; Lollipop has an OTA function built into the setup process itself, in case it needs to push quick system updates or any other emergency fixes as early as possible.

One of the quietest additions to Android in Lollipop addresses one of the biggest shortcomings in the platform: preloaded carrier bloatware. The feature, called Play Auto Installs, makes it possible to uninstall apps that mobile operators like Verizon and AT&T require on their devices. During setup, when the system detects a carrier SIM has been inserted, it automatically downloads apps from that carrier. (Before, those apps were already preinstalled on the phone.) This move makes those apps part of Google Play, which means they can easily be uninstalled at any time.

Notifications

The notifications menu has mostly changed in design, not function, but that’s only a small part of the story. In reality, Lollipop fundamentally enhances the way we interact with Android notifications entirely. A key goal in Android 5.0 is to eliminate (or at least lessen) distractions to our daily workflow and make multitasking more efficient, and improving notifications goes a long way toward satisfying that goal.

When you receive a call, you no longer have a new screen suddenly popping up in place of what you’re currently doing; now it appears as a heads-up notification (a banner) on the top of the screen with the option of answering or ignoring the call. Messages, alarms and low-battery alerts will also appear the same way, as well as other notifications deemed a priority.

Notifications also now appear on the lock screen. These pop-up alerts have been on iOS for years, and although previous versions of Android made it possible to access the notification panel from the lock screen (if you chose not to lock your device), it was still an extra, unnecessary step. The new notifications are also actionable: When you get a new email, you can delete it without leaving the lock screen or you can hit reply and go directly into an email compose screen. (As an aside, lock screen widgets have disappeared. I rarely use them, but I know a few people who’ll be sad to see them go.)

Performance enhancements

It wasn’t a problem on the Nexus 5, but non-Nexus devices running KitKat (excepting the Moto X, of course) couldn’t use “OK Google” voice activation, which lets you dictate commands to your phone hands-free. Lollipop is taking the feature one step further by letting you do it when the screen is turned off and the phone is locked. Technically, Google says that any phone with a capable digital signal processor should be able to take advantage of the functionality now; unlike the new Moto X, however, you’re still unable to use your own hotwords to activate the device.

There are quite a few other features embedded into the OS that will improve the performance of your Android device. First, Lollipop is optimized to support 64-bit apps and architecture (such as some versions of ARM, x86 and MIPS). While this won’t make much of a difference to you if your phone doesn’t have the hardware to support it — the Nexus 9 comes with a 64-bit chipset, while the Nexus 6 does not — it’s going to become increasingly important as more apps and more phones become compatible with it. Google says the native Android apps (Gmail, Calendar, etc.) now have 64-bit, as well as pure Java language apps.

Not that this is going to mean a whole lot at first; it’s going to take a while for the development community to switch gears and code their apps with this support. And as is widely reported, one benefit of this next-gen computing is the higher ceiling of device memory so you can fit more than 4GB of RAM in phones and tablets; that’s still a ways out, so it seems pointless right now to make a fuss about 64-bit since no mobile device even comes with that much memory, but when they do, Android will be ready for it. However, there’s more to 64-bit support than that. For one, it increases the amount of data that chips can process per cycle, and it’s inspiring chipset makers (like NVIDIA and Qualcomm) to not only upgrade their silicon to the higher capacity, but also find new ways to make these chips more powerful and energy-efficient. In other words, the 64-bit support is great news, but it’s just one piece of the puzzle.

Even if you aren’t enjoying a 64-bit chip, you’ll still see an increase in overall performance through the new Android Runtime (ART). In short, the runtime is what Android uses to convert developer code into an actual running app, and until now, this was done through an older option called Dalvik. ART could be accessed in KitKat in test form, but it’s now the default in Lollipop, and Google says it’s made it even more advanced this time around. By switching to ART, Google promises a four-fold increase in performance: Apps will run faster and more responsively and they’ll conserve more battery, although the programs will take up a little extra space on your mobile device.

Security

With each new release of Android, Google adds more security features to its mobile OS. Many of them might seem insignificant because they’re meant to be backend enhancements, which are added to keep the system at least one step ahead of malicious attackers. Lollipop comes with plenty of these behind-the-scenes patches as well; one of them is SELinux Enforcing mode, which continuously monitors the system and apps to ensure nothing’s wrong on your device. Your Lollipop phone or tablet is also automatically encrypted by default. However, these kinds of features are accompanied by a few clever user-facing features that I found incredibly useful.

The first is Smart Lock, which lets a trusted Bluetooth device — smartwatch, earpiece, speaker system and so on — act as a form of authentication. When the phone and accessory are within range of each other (roughly 30 feet, or 10 meters), you won’t need to put in your password or PIN code to unlock your phone. If you’re already on the fence about buying a smartwatch, something like this is certainly a good reason for getting one.

Lollipop also comes with Guest mode for phones and tablets, so if for some reason your friend wants to use your device, they can do so without being able to see your personal information. In addition, phones also have multi-user support, something that, until now, was only available on tablets. As an admin, you can disable phone calls and messages for other users — especially helpful when you’re handing off the device to your kids — and even delete their accounts. (Curiously, you can only have restricted profiles on Lollipop tablets, and there’s no way to manage or delete apps installed by other users.) Although each user can manage their own space, download their own apps and even lock their profile with a password, the settings you change will also affect everyone else; if you connect to a WiFi network, you’ll stay connected to it even when you switch users.

Wrap-up

It’s hard not to be impressed by Google’s efforts in building Android 5.0. It not only introduced a completely new design, but it also managed to squeeze in a boatload of great features that improve the Android experience. Lollipop brings more intuitive notifications, improvements to performance and battery life, clever security features and developer tools for better apps. It’s one of the biggest upgrades Android has seen yet, and it’s definitely worth making the jump when your device eventually gets it.

(Editor’s note: Since we only had access to a final build of Lollipop on the Nexus 9, we won’t publish a full review with performance tests, impressions and a score until we test the official firmware on a phone as well. We’ll update this post when that time comes.)

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