Android L: in-depth look at Google's latest Android update
As Google's Sundar Pichai noted at the very beginning of the Google I/O keynote, Android L is one of the most comprehensive Android updates in the mobile platform's history. Having refused to take our eyes off the scene for even a split second, we have to agree that the update, at least so far, appears to be quite extensive, and there's a whole bunch of goodies we'll be talking about now, and in the coming months. Here's what we know so far.
New "Material Design" interface that transcends the ultra mobile form factor
One of the biggest news as far as Android L is concerned, is the sizable redesign it'll put Google's mobile OS through. In fact, Android won't be the only platform on the receiving end of this new look -- pretty much everything that hails from Google will sport the new interface, including Chrome OS, Android Wear, and Android TV.
So what's new here? Put in most simple terms -- no design element has been spared, and even the software navigation keys have gone through a redesign (now a triangle, circle, and square). What's more, the new look, apart from being seamless across all Google platforms, has also been simplified down to the basics, and is now flatter, more colorful, and quite a bit more likable.
That last bit is, in a big way, a feeling influenced by the the inclusion of rich animation feedback to actions, which, in plain speak, means that essential operations, like clicking a button, switching a tab, flipping through recents, etc, will all be animated. Thankfully, all of this has been done tastefully from what we've seen so far, and is not overwhelming or overly flashy.
Enhancements to functionality
But design is just one side of the coin that Android L is, as the user experience has also been improved in a few major ways. Let's take a moment and talk about each of those in turn.
Search is more powerful than ever
Search is Google's bread & butter, so none should be surprised to find out that Android L will bring some additions and improvements in that field.
For example, Google has put an emphasis on 'rediscovery', meaning that Google Search will now be better aware of what you were doing immediately before looking for something online. One primer Google demo'd is Search's knowledge of a user's previous Google Earth search for a location. This query, which was performed in an app separate from Search, is then incorporated in the results you get for the same or similar searches, and you'll be able to jump right into a given app and start right where you left off. What's more, this new API will be made available to developers, so third-party apps will also be in a position to take advantage of this new functionality -- it doesn't have to be a Google app. This opens up a number of possible use case scenarios, and hopefully devs will utilize this new-found power well.
The recent apps menu has been redesigned
With Android L, Google is also changing things up when it comes to what we usually refer to as the 'recents' menu. Apart from sporting a different design, the new recents tab will now decouple existing Chrome tabs into separate, clickable, entities. What's more, Google is again opening up this API to developers, so if that kind of functionality makes sense for a particular app, devs will be able to take advantage of it.
Quite frankly, we're a bit split on the new recents bar -- it looks less organized, and it definitely has a much bigger potential to become absolutely overwhelming, especially if you browse the web on multiple tabs. With that said, we'll wait and see how this particular new feature pans out in reality.
Sizable improvements to notification handling
Another area Android L will touch on are notifications. Here, Google is improving the existing notifications functionality in two ways.
First, notifications are now even more interactive, and this holds true even when looking at those from your lockscreen. In Android L, you can expand or discard those (and more), and Google promised that algorithms will try and curate what you get served, in an attempt to keep it relevant. What's more, double-tapping a notification from your lockscreen will immediately redirect you to the app that triggered it.
Second, Android L will introduce what the community has come to recognize as heads-up notifications. This means that notifications can now be displayed in a much larger box, and will go beyond just notifying you through the tiny status bar strip. If you have an LG or Samsung phone, these are very much alike to their respective 'floating caller' functionality, which introduces a small box when a call is patched through, allowing you to continue whatever it is you're doing, instead of forcibly hijacking your experience. Finally!
Android L will be contextually-aware
Another important piece of information revealed during the Google I/O keynote presentation is the fact that Google is more serious about contextual awareness than ever, and, more specifically, how to conquer the interconnected home of the future.
We could extract just a few important bits, but we're sure more info is on the way. Anyway, first off, your Android L-powered smartphone will now be able to tell when its owner is nearby by virtue of its Bluetooth tether with a wearable, like a smartwatch. One practical application of this new-found power is that your smartphone will automatically bypass a PIN/Patter-secured lockscreen whenever it detects your (smart)watch. If you're not wearing your smartwatch, you'll still have to go through the standard, input-your-pass-code procedure -- an operation that Google claims too many people are wasting too much time on. Obviously, this kind of functionality, while liberating, could pose some security risks.
On another, much vaguer note, Google made mention of its desire for the smart connected home (that runs on Android, of course) to allow for seamless transition between form factors. This means that the game you were playing on your Android L-based smartphone or tablet will be seamlessly available for play on your Android TV or perhaps even your Chromebook.
Android L will deliver a number of performance improvements
Google chose to talk about the many performance improvements incorporated in Android L last, but we certainly wouldn't consider those least important. There are a few noteworthy changes here. One, Android is finally making its transition to the ART runtime official. Two, with the so-called "Android Extension Pack", Google is bringing a number of improvements to GPU performance, which it hopes will now trail console-grade graphics. And three, with Project Volta Google is finally cracking down on power-hungry apps by giving developers the instrumentation needed to debug their code, and find battery drainers more easily.
Android L is 64-bit ready, courtesy of its new ART runtime
We won't indulge in technicalities, so here's what's going on in practice. Initially introduced as an experimental feature with Android 4.4 KitKat, the new ART runtime is finally ready for prime time, and will replace the existing Dalvik RT. In the simplest terms possible, ART will bring Ahead-Of-Time execution of apps, so their code will be assimilated by the system upon install, which will bring notable improvements in performance over Dalvik, which uses JIT (Just-In-Time, meaning that code is executed when you start the app).
In practice, Google is reporting at least a 2x increase in performance, so apps will be now more readily available and also perform better. In fact, certain benchmarking suites (Chessbench, for example) indicate an improvement transcending 400%. ART is also completely 64-bit ready, meaning that devices with obscene amounts of RAM are no longer impossible, not to mention that 64-bit chip architectures will also be supported.
Console-grade graphics on their way?
Mobile graphics have long lagged behind desktop, and even console graphics. The reason is pretty simple -- there's much less space available in a handheld, which severely limits how much silicon manufacturers can do in terms of performance, which is inversely related with power efficiency. With Android L, and the so-called Android Extension Pack, Google is hoping to close some of that gap, and get Android devices closer to consoles in terms of the visual candy they can produce.
So what's the Android Extension Pack? Essentially, it's a set of features that includes things like tessellation, geometry shaders, and others, which should help to arrive at more realistic environments, characters, and sophisticated lightning and reflections.
Android L brings Project Volta and Battery Saver mode
Keeping with tradition, Android L will serve as the proving grounds for yet another performance project, courtesy of Google. After Project Butter (Jelly Bean) and Project Svelte (KitKat), both of which were aimed at improving performance for both low and high end devices, we're now saying hello to Project Volta, which hopes to improve battery life.
Project Volta will mainly concerns itself with the various subsystems of Android, so stuff like Wi-Fi and cell radios, GPS, etc. will be more competently handled through new power-saving APIs. What's more, Google is adding a more sophisticated instrumentation to help identify power leaks called Battery Historian. This is mainly a tool for developers, but it should hopefully help them produce better-optimized code.
Lastly, and this one is rather big, Android L will finally bring a special Battery Saver mode to stock Android. Battery Saver can be configured to work only when your charge drops under a certain percentage (say <15%), or you can turn it on manually. What the energy-efficient mode does is simply limit your handset's performance by lowering processor clock speed and the display's refresh rate. According to Google, a Nexus 5 gets extra 90 minutes of juice with the new mode on. Not bad, though it should be noted that pretty much every manufacturer has implemented such a mode in their device by now. Google is a bit late to the party.
Bring your own device to work initiatives rejoice: Android L is both for work and play
Google was expected to address the enterprise market at Google I/O, and it did not disappoint. One way it's doing that is through Android L, which will now be a much better-suited device for enterprise users. Essentially, what happened is that Samsung contributed quite some of its KNOX security suite code to Android, and Google immediately implemented it into L.
In practice, this means that users with the latest Android software will be able to better separate their personal and work lives on their smartphones, as data will be separate between the two modes. Information beyond that is scarce at this point, so we're unaware if further security enhancements will be a part of this special new mode (probably).
In terms of its scale, Android L definitely proves to be one of the biggest updates to the mobile OS in its 6-year history. Even beyond the so-called Material Design overhaul, Google has managed to implement a plethora of tweaks and improvements to performance that will better position the platform for the second part of 2014 and onwards.
Quite frankly, we were intrigued, not least because further optimizations and additions will likely arrive before it's prime time in the fall. Yes, the fall -- though developers will get their hands on the preview version of the new software tomorrow (June 26), consumers will have to sit tight and wait a few months longer. That said, so far Android L is definitely looking like it's deserving the wait.