It seems like only yesterday we were sinking our teeth into the chocolatey goodness of Android 4.4 KitKat, but now we've got a newer, tastier version of Google's OS in the form of Android 5.0 Lollipop.
It’s one of the most exciting updates in years - new levels of polish, new features and some catching up with iOS make it an essential download.
We’ve been swiping and nudging our way around Android 5.0 on Nexus 5, Nexus 6 and Nexus 9. This is all you need to know - you want this on your phone or tablet asap.
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A fresh new look
Android's new look is called Material Design, and we love it.
Upgrading to Google’s new aesthetic is a surefire way for any older Nexus or Motorola handsets to get their mojo back. For devices with custom skins, such as Sense UI and TouchWiz, the design tweaks from Google will make less of an impact but manufacturers may pick and choose from the new elements.
If you’ve been paying attention to Google’s individual apps of late you’ll have known what was coming. It’s more colourful, with subtle shadows, and the ‘stacked cards’ Overview carousel is slicker. This can now include Chrome tabs (if you want it to - it can get messy) as well as apps.
The Roboto font has been tweaked to be curvier and wider, there’s a lot of clean, white space now (dialler, app drawer) and the navigation buttons have been given a PlayStation controller-style, minimalist makeover.
Our favourite addition is the new floating action button - in each app, Google picks what it thinks is the most useful shortcut and sticks in a colourful circular icon at the bottom. Compose email, keypad etc. It’s fast and it’s obvious.
Just one thing - the animations between apps, menus and screens are nice and ‘fluid’ as intended but they can be a bit jumpy, a bit poppy, a bit distracting. Just as when we first saw iOS 7 we got a bit dizzy, so too Android 5.0 takes a little getting used to.
As ever, Google’s latest release is available out of the box on this year’s Google tablet, the Nexus 9 (which we’ve tested here) and this year’s Google phone, the Nexus 6 (which we'll hav a full review of very shortly). It’s also already rolling out to older Nexus devices such as the Nexus 5 and Nexus 10, the Moto X (2014) and the Nvidia Shield tablet.
Samsung? HTC? LG? The Galaxy S5 and LG G3 will be biting into Lollipop by Christmas and if you have a One (M7) or (M8), expect the update to Sense by February to hit the usual 90-day promise. Whatever smartphone or tablet you own, don’t panic. This time, you shouldn’t be left waiting too long.
Android’s notification system is prettier, smarter and now even more useful. The first stage of the overhaul is that notifications now sit as white ‘cards’ underneath the quick settings panel (which now includes a Cast Screen button for Chromecast users). So far, so standard.
But Lollipop also uses the idea of ‘banners’ really nicely. Notifications now drop in from the top of the screen so that you can carry on playing your game or watcing your movie in relative peace. This even includes phone calls which would typically have taken over the whole smartphone screen. These notification banners are actionable (open, delete, reply etc) as are the new lockscreen notifications, one area where we see Google catching up to iOS 8.
This has been one bugbear around the Stuff office amongst iPhone users who have switched to Android - they’re used to seeing messages on the lockscreen. Well, here they are in Android working nicely - you have to double tap the card, otherwise there would be too many accidents. Lockscreen widgets have been bumped in their place though and this might make a few power users angry.
The last new notifications feature (and another bit of catching up) is Lollipop’s new management of ‘interruptions’ as they are wonderfully titled. This is a version of Do Not Disturb on iOS and Assist on the Moto X (2014). Here, it allows the starring of contacts to let phone calls through, tweaking of the volumes of alerts, the whitelisting of apps to allow notifications onto the lockscreen. Everything can be personalised just so, apart from setting different ‘bedtimes’ for different schedules. But now we’re just being fussy.
READ MORE: iOS 8 review
Welcome tweaks to Google apps
Unlike the new goodies that arrived with iOS 8, there are no new permanent fixtures on the stock Android app screen. There is absolutely no bloatware - you even have to download Chrome, Maps, YouTube and others yourself. It's an opt-in approch, and we like it. And Google makes the set-up and transfer of apps and wallpapers from other Androids easier than ever.
As Google apps have been unshackled from Android update cycles, there’s now plenty of consistency in the Material Design look of the software and also some new features to enjoy. Remember when Google forced Nexus users to keep all their messages in Hangouts? Now there’s a Messenger app pre-installed to avoid being constantly ‘online’ - although Hangouts still supports SMS if that’s what you want.
Gmail now has a two pane view on tablets - your inbox and the currently highlighted message. That sort of multi-tasking view is still rare, though, and we’d like to see more apps taking advantage of this sort of thing. Calendar has a more colourful Agenda view with cards for each appointment. While the Google Camera app, which comes pre-installed, has had a redesign with new icons and a bigger area to press to start snapping or shooting. It all makes sense but some settings, such as the resolution of video, are now slower to get to.
Google Now is still accessed by swiping right and is much the same as ever - nice to swipe through and occasionally brilliant - especially for frequent travellers. It also now has the power to launch any installed apps relevant to your search e.g IMDb for movie queries. Also tied into Google Now is voice commands: now more Android phones will be able to respond to the ‘OK Google’ command when the screen is off. That means the Moto X loses a little of its advantage over the Android crowd then, but it’s still the only smartphone that lets you personalise the command.
Street Smart Security
Android 5.0 includes lots of behind-the-scenes changes that you won’t be able to try out or show off, but that doesn't mean they're not important or useful.
They include security with encryption that's turned on by default on new devices, and SELinux enforcing for all apps - this just means your phone is constantly checking that there’s no malware lurking and doing damage.
So what can you try out? Android Lollipop devices can remove pins or passcode patterns when they’re in range of a secure Bluetooth device such as a smartwatch, car or home speaker. We’re not sure this is a feature for everyone (what if the mugger pinches both?) but we tried it with a Moto 360 and it’s undoubtedly a cool feature. Trusted Face (aka Face Unlock, made-over) comes with warnings about people aping your face but now works quicker, using the camera even as you look at notifications on the lockscreen.
Finally, it’s not just your apps and messages you want to keep intact, there’s your dignity to think of too. Android 5.0 adds a guest mode functionality that’s seriously simple to use. In fact, it adds user profiles for the first time on smartphones too (it’s already been around on tablets). You can add and switch between multiple users and the guest session via the icon at the top right of the notification pulldown. One user can also function as a kids mode quite easily.
Smartphones such as the LG G3 do already have this feature with the bonus of a secret lockscreen pattern that jumps into guest mode, but it’s a welcome addition for stock Android and with switching in a matter of seconds, it may actually get used.
READ MORE: LG G3 review
All Hail Project Volta
There are two sides to Google’s efforts around battery life - one you’ll notice and one you probably won’t. The first is under-the-hood efficiency optimisations, to increase stamina as part of Project Volta. This includes apps conserving more battery, the OS doing more tracking and minimising wasteful, routine network tasks. What does that mean? Well, in the Nexus 5 we’ve been running Lollipop on, we have noticed a slight increase in the day-to-day battery life. It’s not huge but for a phone like this which can struggle to last the day, Android 5.0 is worth the update for this alone.
We say this alone - we mean this and the new battery saver mode. This has been around on Samsungs, LGs and HTCs for years and finally makes its way to pure Android. It can kick in automatically at 5 or 15%: orange bars appear top and bottom so you don’t forget and Google claims it can stretch battery life by 90 minutes. In our testing, that’s been about right on the Nexus 5. As usual, it achieves this by reducing background data, vibrations and performance.
Performance Boost, In Time
There's every reason to be excited about all the boosts Google has made to the performance of Android 5.0, thanks to ART. Not familiar? This is the new default runtime, and while that won’t mean a lot to most people, it essentially means that the engine running behind the scenes has been completely renewed. Apps and animations run at a much more fluid 60fps, and ART offers over twice the speed of its previous runtime, Dalvik.
Other tweaks include an improvement in graphics performance, and Google has worked with the likes of Nvidia and Qualcomm to further improve optimisations within their own processors.
Impressive stuff, but with a few bits of lag still hanging around, we're not entirely blown away. Like Usain Bolt with a crazed fan clinging onto his ankles, it’s lovely and fast but is bound to occasionally trip up.
Lollipop also supports 64-bit processing, as found on the Nexus 9 - this isn’t so much something to get giddy about this year but could lead to apps and games which are more powerful and more efficient in future. Win win.
READ MORE: Nexus 9 review
Android 5.0 Lollipop Verdict
Some of the most interesting aspects of Lollipop are probably still to be seen - new features and compatibility for Android Wear, plus Android TV and Android Auto coming in 2015.
But right now Android 5.0 really shows that Android updates have grown up.
This OS will be on most popular Android phones and tablets very quickly indeed, and we hope everyone makes that teensy bit of effort to update. The new, fresh Material Design might not be as precise and delightful as iOS 8 but it’s lively, it’s colourful and it’s easier and more fluid to navigate.
There are plenty of features here that iPhone, Samsung and LG users have long enjoyed - from lockscreen notifications to battery saver mode to user profiles. But that these are now native is still cause for celebration. And all this on top of Google Now, Google Voice and an excellent (if still not iOS-beating) selection of apps and games in the Play Store.
Fans of pure Android no longer have to choose between fast, clutter-free performance and really, really useful features, and that is a Very Good Thing.
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