Android 5.0 Lollipop review: The green robot grows up
Android 5.0 Lollipop has finally begun to arrive on millions of devices worldwide, in addition to the new Nexus devices that also began shipping this month. With this upgrade, Android takes a big step to become a more mature mobile operating system, as does the entire mobile world with it.
I've spent some time with Lollipop on the new Nexus 9 tablet, and can confirm that it's a welcome breath of fresh air for an operating system that's grown a little stale – and even generic – since we first met the last major release, Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, over three years ago.
The most obvious changes are in aesthetics. Lollipop is brighter, flatter and generally more pleasant to look at thanks to a fresh makeover in the style of Google's Material design.
On our loaner Nexus 9, animations are everywhere in Lollipop. Open your app drawer and it "pops" up in a rapidly expanding bubble thing. Open Chrome and your tabs are laid before you like a hand of cards at a casino. Groups of apps, icons, images and everything else seems to constantly be sliding in from the side, top, bottom or elsewhere. Add this to the ubiquitous use of shading throughout the experience to add some depth to Material's flat approach, and it's a completely new and modern look for Android.
Multitasking also benefits from some added depth. Rather than a straightforward, static list of recent apps, there are now stacked cards similar to the cool but little known "aero" feature in Windows. It's a nice touch.
The settings pull-down and menu has also had a thoughtful rehashing, adding controls for a flashlight, hotspot and Casting your screen to a compatible bigger screen device like a ChromeCast.
New versions of heavily-used apps like Calendar have borrowed some style cues from Google Now that make it look less like lists of colored boxes and more like an actual calendar that you might have hung on your wall in a distant, more analog past.
Gmail in KitKat and earlier versions of Android had grown increasingly cluttered yet also boring at the same time, but the more colorful, sleek and smart interface found in Lollipop (and in the new sister app, Inbox) almost makes email fun again. Almost.
When you use Gmail in landscape mode on the Nexus 9 you get a super-useful message preview pane on the right-hand side and swiping menus and messages in and out of view is simple and intuitive. If you use Inbox on Lollipop, you don't get the preview pane, but if you use Gmail, you don't have the more visual approach of Inbox, which surfaces things like videos, images, attachments and key details right in your message listing.
The inability to have all the best features Google has at its disposal in a single, clean package is a big point of frustration with Android for me. The presence of two different photo gallery apps in KitKat, not to mention the odd forced integration of Hangouts and messaging have shown this to be something of a pattern within Android. In the lead-up to Lollipop, I was hoping Inbox would be the official e-mail app, but now it seems that's not the case and to make things worse, it's lacking a key feature of Gmail's Material design upgrade.
Competing in-house email apps aside, Material design goes a long way towards unifying the look of Android across devices and platforms, from Android Wear to Android TV and the whole galaxy of other gadgets running some variation of the mobile OS.
Old notifications put on notice
There's no real new killer features in Lollipop, but there are a few killer iterations, particularly with how notifications are handled. Detailed notifications now appear on the lock screen and you can tap to actions directly from there as well. This is one of the concepts that we first saw on Motorola handsets that Google is now baking right into Android.
Lollipop also offers unparalleled control over notifications, starting with what shows up on that lock screen. It's possible in settings to restrict potentially sensitive information from popping up on the lock screen where anyone might come across it. The notifications settings also introduce some new language, namely "interruptions." You can set your device to let all interruptions (notifications, calls, messages, events and reminders) through, no interruptions, or only priority interruptions that you define. You can also specify "downtime" hours during which only priority interruptions will come through.
When a call or event comes through in Lollipop, it's also less imposing than in KitKat. That call from your mom won't take over your phone's entire screen; instead you'll get a banner laid across whatever it is you're working on, giving you the option of easily ignoring the call because you're an ungrateful child or taking that call because you love your mother.
Another Motorola feature that has become native in Android is the ability to access Google Now with the "Ok, Google" command even when the screen is locked or off. The ability to customize that trigger phrase as in the new Moto X isn't yet available however.
More sharing and security
Motorola carryovers can also be found in the security department. What's called "Smart Lock" in Lollipop is basically Moto's "Trusted Devices" feature, which allows you to skip your lock screen when you are connected to a trusted Bluetooth device like a smartwatch; NFC tags can work too.
If you have face unlock setup in Lollipop, that's another way to use Smart Lock, and the feature is much improved – the system tries to get a positive ID on your face when you start looking at the screen, so that by the time you go to actually unlock the device it's already confirmed your mug and you can pass right through.
New devices also come with encryption turned on by default and there's been some tweaks to better protect against malware.
In Lollipop, it's now possible to setup multiple user profiles in both smartphones and tablets and a "Guest Mode" lets you hand your device to somebody to use without exposing your personal data. When the guest is done, all their activity is discarded. There's also the ability to "pin" a screen or app so that it's the only thing another user can access on your phone or tablet, something that could be especially useful for parents.
All this sharing capability can work the other way, too. If you lose your phone, you can still access your messages, contacts and other data by logging into another phone running Lollipop.
Each new version of Android tends to bring tons of tiny changes to the operating system. Here are a few of the more notable adds and changes:
Google claims that the battery saver mode in Lollipop adds 90 minutes of life to your charge by reducing background data, vibrations and CPU activity among other restrictions.
You can now plug USB audio devices like microphones, speakers and mixers directly into your phone, potentially a big deal for Android-toting audio professionals on the go.
Photography and video geeks also get more power out of Lollipop, with the ability to capture full resolution frames around 30 frames per second, support for raw image formats and control capture settings for the sensor, lens, and flash per individual frame.
When upgrading from one Android phone to another, you can now transfer settings from the old phone to the new one with a quick NFC tap and Google Play still allows you to easily bring over all your previously downloaded apps.
Lollipop builds in support for some familiar motion-sensing features. If your phone has the needed hardware, it will automatically wake up when you pick up the device (similar to the Moto X) or tap it twice (like on the HTC One M8 and LG G3).
Android 5.0 Lollipop is available right now on Nexus devices, but that's about all I can say for sure. When it makes it to other devices is up to carriers and the manufacturers of those devices.
The Moto X, Moto G and LG G3 are reportedly among the first devices to get the upgrade, as some users have already received it. We should expect that roll-out to continue over the coming months. But for now, if you want to get your hands on a Lollipop device right away, the best way to do it is to buy a new Nexus 6 or Nexus 9.
Just like most past releases, Lollipop is the best version of Android yet. It's more attractive to work with, strengthens Google's ecosystem across multiple screens and devices while boosting security and user control over the whole system.
The comparisons between iOS 8 and Lollipop are obvious, and Google has done a nice job here creating an environment that's just as welcoming as iOS, but there's also the feeling that the Android world you're stepping into through Lollipop is much more vast than Apple's (gorgeous) walled garden.
Whether it's Android Wear, Android TV, or little things like the new sharing features, Google's ethos is clear here: the device is not the thing, rather it is the information, the data, the digital representation of your life that is stored in the cloud and accessed via Android. Lollipop makes that process more efficient and enjoyable than ever.