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Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Hands on: Android 5.0 Lollipop review

Android Lollipop has been a long time coming. There were worries this would be an iterative update, but this is a new level for Google's OS. One that was needed.
This is Android 5, and it feels like a really big step up from Android 4.4.
The key messaging here from the search giant is not that it's just 'a bit better' – it's that it's been overhauled visually and combines well with more than phones and tablets, with watches taking centre stage too.
Note: I'm writing this as a hands on review of the software as I've not had a chance to fully test it with a phone as well, just the Nexus 9. Once I've run it through some tests there, I'll be in a position to score this OS properly.


This is arguably one of the most important releases of Android yet for Google, as it struggles to keep a leash on the myriad manufacturers trying to create something that doesn't look a thing like the stock operating system.
To that end, new Android Lollipop is slicker, faster, more beautiful and, importantly, kinder on the battery than ever.

The new interface is clean and simple, and the whole platform is designed with little flourishes that make it seem premium and useful, which is something that Google will be hoping entices the manufacturers to bring in more rerecognizably elements of it when they upgrade their handsets to the new platform.
The other important thing here is to make Android 5.0 a really simple tool to build on top of, thus enabling faster upgrades for users.
Apple delights in showing how many of its users are on the latest version of the software compared to the forked Android playground, so if Lollipop appears quickly for all consumers then the platform will become a lot more appealing to developers too.
On top of that you've got the new abilities baked in to compete directly with Apple while improving the experience for users. Running a 64-bit architecture might seem a little redundant now, given there's no phone with enough RAM to support it (although it does lead to slight performance enhancements in some apps), but Google knows what it's doing here and it wants to – like Apple – future proof its platform.
But enough of the strategy – is this new platform actually any good? You're probably going to upgrade no matter what happens, and if you're using a Nexus device you should already have that opportunity, but will the two dimensional interface flatter to deceive?

 Interface

It's a tough call when reviewing operating systems: is it more important how something looks, or what it can actually do?
I'd argue that the former is the most important (as long as it's not dog slow under the finger) as the way something looks creates an emotional connection with the user that can help make or break the desire to play with a new tablet or phone.
With that in mind, Google has done a great job with Android Lollipop, flattening down all the menus and widgets and giving everything a much more two-dimensional effect.
That's not to say there's not the odd drop shadow here and there, but mostly everything looks like some sort of papery jigsaw, fitting together nicely.
There are loads of design flourishes that really delight as well: for instance, the settings icon will do a little roll as you drag down the Notifications zone from the top of any screen. It's things like this that make you feel like the device you're using has the power to not let you down, and has the grunt to really do whatever you need it to.
I'm not saying this is a radical overhaul of the way Android works, as the same grid of icons is present and the widgets are still available for the main home screen.
But everything has been polished, which is testament to how simple the Android system has grown to be over the years. It's still the most complicated to learn, thanks to having the 'sub menu' grid of apps, but this also makes it the most customisable, the most rewarding and personal if you spend time putting it together just how you like.

 With that in mind, Google's changes are strong. The home, back and open apps buttons are on-screen as before, but now geometric shapes which will spin depending on what the app needs them for.
The notifications are much less obtrusive now - for instance, when asked which default app you'd like to use the option will quietly pop up from the bottom of the screen rather than slapping itself right across what you're doing.
So while the interface hasn't radically changed, Google has slimmed down and refined nearly every element of Android 5 to make it a more attractive OS.
Calls
While I was testing Android Lollipop out on the Nexus 9 tablet, I was still able to check out a flavor of what the calling capabilities of the new operating system will look like.
For instance, Hangouts now has a dialler option, meaning you can make calls through Google's messaging system for cheaper, but this won't be replacing the main phone system.
The caller now works with tablets too
The big change here is that call notifications won't destroy whatever you're doing with a full screen overlay (thus ruining the game you're playing) - instead you'll get a little notification that you can choose to take or reject the call from.
I'll be testing the final Android Lollipop version on an actual phone soon, so have a look to see how that works - I'm going to guess a bit phone-like.
Messaging and keyboard
Messaging on Android Lollipop is once again routed through the Hangouts app as the main way to chat to your buddies - this allows you to control SMS, video calling and other audio too, along with the new ability to let you bring calls through as well.
I'm guessing that most phone manufacturers won't ditch their messaging app to jump to this, as it's still a little messy and doesn't make the general messaging experience any
 better. Then again, the extra functionality means that stock Android users do at least have a more powerful option for chatting with friends that can be seen as a rival to iMessage.
The keyboard has been overhauled as well, and on the tablet it's pretty good to use. It's not easy to use in portrait mode, but that's to do with the wider dimensions of the Nexus 9.
In landscape it's a little better, but it's not got the fluidity of the iPad in terms of being able to get up some typing speed in the same way as a physical keyboard.
I do like that all the punctuation (exclamation and question marks, for example) are there by default, and I hope that continues to the phone keyboard with its smaller space.
With Android 4.4's Project Svelte, the OS got a big boost for the lower-powered devices, and with Android 5 that's been shown to be the case again.
It's hard to properly test this out, as I'm using the ultra-powerful Nexus 9 tablet, but it's so slippery smooth to use that it would come as no surprise to me if even the phones with only 512MB of RAM (the new Nexus only have 2GB of RAM, which doesn't really test the 64-bit chip) were able to really work well with the new version of Android.
I'll be testing the system on the Nexus 7, Nexus 5 and Nexus 6 as they become imbued with the new level of Android, and others too when manufacturers bestow the power upon them, but the signs are that the new animations and stripped down experience on Android Lollipop is going to be pretty kind on most devices.

Notifications

The notifications centre and lockscreen have been given a thorough going over too, meaning it's now easier than ever to actually get to what you want to see.
The lockscreen is one of the more impressive updates, offering a pseudo-fusion with the notifications centre if you give it a little tug down, where it leaps upwards and joins the notifications bar if you don't want to interact with it there.
A double tap opens you straight into the relevant app (be it a local Wi-Fi network, a game or a message) where a swipe takes it off the lockscreen altogether – all very simple and another example of an OS getting it right in terms of blending together functionality and simplicity.
The virtual tactility of the lockscreen was something that I liked throughout Android 5: the ability to interact with nearly everything. Pull, push, prod and swipe and most things will react in some way, making it feel like a really interactive OS.
The new functionality isn't anything mind blowing, as you can't respond to an email from the lockscreen or notifications centre without opening up the main app (it would have been intuitive to do so - perhaps SMS will allow that function) but it's cool to be able to archive stuff without unlocking your device.
The notifications centre that pervades throughout the device seems to have undergone another change of heart. Where Google was pushing to a grid of quick settings, one that was separate from the main list of updates, the two are now combined into an extendable list that comes down from the centre of the screen.
It can get a bit cluttered up there quite easily with settings and notifications all together (although you do have to pull thrice to see all of them there), and I'm intrigued to see on whether Google will follow this thinking for phones or come up with a simpler way of doing things.
Another feature Google has finally built into the tablet core is the choice for manufacturers to let the phone unlock just by picking it up, or double tapping the screen.
LG, Sony and HTC will probably be miffed that their clever feature will be open to all, but then again, Nokia came up with it in the first place so it's only a matter of time until it rolled out to all.

Priority mode

One of the cleverer functions here is the priority mode, allowing Android Lollipop users to have control beyond the simple 'Do not disturb' option to block calls and texts at certain times.
The new system lets you choose priority senders (nothing new there) but also wider control over which apps can make sounds and vibrate, and which can't. This extends to notifications, and if you choose 'Priority' then things like alarms will always fire, where some other notification sounds won't.
This mode is also cleverly placed with the volume control, meaning just putting your phone or tablet on silent just became a whole lot more intuitive.

Source: techradar


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