Android 5.0 Lollipop review: a sweet new flavor


Back in June, Google gave us a chance to see the future of Android as a mobile operating system. The tech giant introduced us to Android 5.0 Lollipop, which was boldly described as Android's most significant release to date. An overstatement? Well, we don't think so. We're several months into the future now and we're holding Android 5.0 in our hands, running on our Google Nexus 5 smartphone in its nearly finalized state. To put it briefly, Lollipop rocks, and if you want to know why, here's what we have to say about the platform's new, sweet flavor.

Before we proceed, though, we'd just like to make a disclaimer of sorts: what we're dealing with here is the stock, vanilla version of Android 5.0 Lollipop, as seen on Nexus and more recent Motorola devices, but not on smartphones by popular brands such as Samsung, HTC, or LG. Handsets that use custom user interfaces will most probably get most functional improvements from 5.0 Lollipop, along with some of the visual enhancements, but we expect those UIs, such as TouchWiz and Sense, to preserve their custom look and feel to a large extent.

Introducing Material Design


Since its commercial debut six years ago, Android has undergone a number of major visual overhauls. None of them, however, has had an effect as pronounced as the move to Material Design in Android 5.0 Lollipop. This is what Google calls its current UI philosophy, which is governed by the principles of flatness and minimalism. But unlike other UIs based on the same ideas, Google's solution is also sprinkled with a hint of depth that can be felt throughout the user interface – while switching between apps, while interacting with notifications, while scrolling through the contacts list, for example. This effect has been achieved through clever uses of shadows under objects and by layering elements as if they're stacked on top of each other. All of this graphical goodness is accompanied by smooth animations and elegant transition effects. Seriously, even the error messages are pretty.

So by now you've probably figured out that we're happy with Android's new look. Material Design adds personality to Android – personality that was mostly lacking in previous releases. The platform feels familiar, yet fresh. It is engaging, but does not distract you from whatever it is that you're doing. And no less importantly, it is consistent in its visual presentation. You won't really find a menu or screen that feels out of place (save for the apps that have not had their UIs updated yet). 

Functionality boost


But of course, the changes brought by Android 5.0 Lollipop aren't merely superficial. New features have been added, while ones we knew from 4.4 KitKat have been improved. The lock screen, for example, now holds a shortcut to the dialer in addition to the one for the camera application. Lock screen notifications are displayed at a glance, in their own space in the middle of the screen, so you don't have to swipe down to see what you've missed anymore. Tapping on a notification launches the respective app, and a swipe to the side dismisses it. On the downside, lock screen widgets have been scrapped, but these were kind of confusing anyway, so their loss isn't that big of a deal. 

As for the Android 5.0 home screens, nothing much has been altered. As before, you're free to personalize your space with app shortcuts, folders, and widgets, backed by a static or a live wallpaper. What's changed, however, is the multitasking screen. It is one of the things that you'll either like or hate – recent apps are listed as cards stacked on top of each other, and you scroll through with a swipe up or down. On one hand, the design looks great with its large app snapshots, but on the other, the old solution could fit more app snapshots on the screen. Nevertheless, it shouldn't take long for your brain to re-wire itself and adjust to the redesigned recent apps list. 

In a typical Android fashion, swiping down from the top of the screen displays a list of notifications. These are now listed by priority, not in a chronological order, with the most important notifications at the top of the list and the least important ones pushed to the bottom. For example, email notifications have a higher priority than those letting you know that a new app has been installed. The button for dismissing all notifications is still present. 

Swipe again (or use the two-finger swipe-down gesture from any screen) and you'll be taken to the redesigned quick settings menu. We're glad to see that the toggle buttons for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth make more sense now – tapping one of the icons toggles the feature on or off and tapping on its label shows the list of available networks or devices. We're also happy to welcome dedicated buttons for locking the screen orientation and a flashlight shortcut. 

Now, you might notice that your personal profile picture is displayed in the UI's upper right-hand corner. That's neat, but it gets even neater when you tap on the icon itself. You're taken to a screen letting you switch between users. Yes – with Android 5.0, multi-user support is enabled on phones as well! Each user has their own personal space and home screens customized to their preferences. What's more, you can easily switch to a guest account at the tap of a few buttons. This should come in handy in case somebody wants to borrow your phone, and you don't want them messing with your personal stuff.

Another feature we find highly useful is the built-in interruptions filter. It works like a Do Not Disturb mode, muting beeps and boops that shouldn't go off at the inappropriate time – during sleepytime hours, or during meetings. Activating the mode couldn't be any easier. Pressing the volume down button gives you the option to filter out non-priority notifications or to mute all interruptions, either indefinitely or for a given period of time. What makes the feature even better is that you can set your own schedule and have the filter activate itself automatically at a specified time.

While we're at it, we have to mention Android 5.0's battery saver. It can be set to activate automatically when the battery reaches a critical level. It works by disabling most data connectivity, limiting the device's performance, and turning synchronisation off. And while your phone or tablet is charging, a timer indicates the time left until the process is complete. 

Under the hood


So far we've been commenting solely on Android 5.0 Lollipop features that we can see and experience. But the fact of the matter is that the OS' new version has also undergone some serious changes under the hood. We won't be going over each and every tweak as the list is a lengthy one. We will, however, highlight the most notable ones among them.

Project Volta is what Google calls its new set of tools and APIs made to enable apps to run efficiently, thus using less battery power. Among these APIs is the Job Scheduler which allows a developer to optimize the power use of their apps while running in the background. And with Battery Historian, devs can get a visual representation of when and how their software is using energy.

Android 5.0 is the release that makes ART (Android RunTime) the system's default, thus replacing Dalvik. ART takes advantage of ahead-of-time (AOT) compilation, effective garbage collection, and improved development and debugging features. Switching to ART should result in improved device performance without that requiring any app modifications.

Another improvement in Lollipop that is projected to boost performance is the added 64-bit support. Java apps will run immediately on 64-bit architectures with no need for developers to modify them. In addition, the extra address space will allow RAM capacity in Android to reach the 4GB milestone.

And game developers can benefit from the added support for OpenGL ES 3.1. This would give them the option to use new shader and texture tools while making their games' visuals. Plus, there's the new Android Extension Pack (AEP), which is a new set of extensions to OpenGL ES that promise to bring desktop-class graphics to Android. Games will be able to take advantage of tessellation and geometry shaders, and use ASTC texture compression across multiple GPU technologies.

Conclusion


Good things come to those who wait – so goes the age-old saying. This applies to Lollipop's launch as well, as the wait for it has been worth it. Trust us, you'll agree once you take Android 5.0 for a spin. 

From the very start, Lollipop treats us to a visual experience that's fresh, engaging, and fun to use. But more importantly, Material Design carries a sense of uniqueness. It doesn't simply build upon the look and feel established by KitKat – it catapults us into a brand new chapter in the evolution of Google's design language. The result is a platform that does a great job at separating itself from the competition's offerings with its welcoming character and distinct personality. Once again, we have to note that it's yet to be seen what part of these enhancements will find a place in other manufacturers' custom user interfaces - hopefully, they will adopt as much of Lollipop's look and feel as possible, though something tells us the likes of TouchWiz and Sense aren't going anywhere for the time being.

Feature-wise, we know that many of Lollipop's features have existed for a while on other platforms or custom Android releases. Lock screen shortcuts, battery savers, Do-Not-Disturb solutions, and lock screen notifications have been around for some time. But we're not complaining. In fact, we're glad to see that third-party apps won't be required to enjoy these features – it is all now built into the OS. So in a way, Android 5.0 is a package more complete than ever before, requiring less intervention and software augmentation to do its job effectively. 

And if you're a developer, you should already know that the move to Android 5.0 is a huge leap forward. Android apps are about to get faster, more efficient, and less power hungry thanks to all under-the-hood improvements brought by Lollipop. What's more, support for 64-bit hardware makes Android's latest flavor future-proof, ready to power the upcoming Android flagships. 

So that's Android 5.0 Lollipop in a nutshell – a culmination of Google's efforts to create a modern, versatile, and open mobile operating system. It is something all mobile users should experience to get a sense of what a top-notch mobile platform should feel like. Thankfully, it won't be long until Lollipop sweetens the smartphones and tablets of millions. The OS will launch in its final state in early November, first on Nexus and GPE devices, then on other recent devices in the form of a software update. As usual, we can expect flagship products to be updated in a timely manner, while mid-range offerings will probably have to wait a bit. Hopefully, there won't be that many models left without an update to Android 5.0, because it's a fundamental update that should not be missed.

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