Major design changes in Android necessitate an all-new suite of Google apps, and that's exactly what Lollipop brings.
Major design changes in Android necessitate an all-new suite of Google apps, and in recent weeks we've witnessed a gradual rollout of new apps on the Play Store. The Material updates to apps like Gmail, Google Calendar, Play Music and the Play Store itself have given Android owners on KitKat and Jelly Bean the opportunity to experience Google's new design language, albeit without some of the new animations and transitions. On Lollipop, however, these apps are right at home, giving the whole Nexus software experience a cohesion that it's perhaps lacked in previous years.
If we were to nit-pick, there are small inconsistencies to be found. The go-to complaint is that the slide-out menu bars — and the buttons that control them — look and behave slightly differently between apps. And at the OS level, we have a few niggling complaints with the new lock screen shortcuts for the camera and dialer, which seem to want you to drag them towards the center of the screen, but only activate if you pull left or right.
Regardless, these are minor and fairly pedantic complaints, and many Google apps have taken a quantum leap forward. The Gmail app, last overhauled in 2011, has been completely revamped with eye-catching red accents, sharper typography and fresh new animations. Google Calendar is smarter than ever, including events from your Gmail if you allow it, while sprucing up your events with photography and maps from Google's vast archives. Elsewhere, the Google Play apps — Music, Movies & TV, Books, etc. — also get a light splash of Material-inspired color, with new icons and animations to boot.
It's the little things that make Material Design and Lollipop such a joy to use.
Arguably though, it's the little things that make Material Design and Lollipop such a joy to use — the attention to minor details that most users will, in all likelihood, barely notice. The new screen-off effect, for instance, not only fades out the display, but shrinks it back and desaturates as it disappears from view. The three-line "hamburger" menu icon folds in on itself to form an arrow, and back again, when opening menu panels. And the background color of the Clock app slowly changes as day turns to night. Such attention to detail is unprecedented in earlier Google products, and evidence of the company's commitment to its new design language.
So Android 5.0 brings about some pretty huge design changes, resulting in the platform's biggest visual refresh in years. However that's not the only reason we're jumping a full version number this time around.
Lollipop continues a trend that started back in KitKat, bringing important new features that make vanilla Android more useful to normal people, not just tech enthusiasts.
First and foremost is the re-vamped setup experience you'll see when you power on a Lollipop device for the first time. Not only does it look prettier, with new graphics and a lighter, more welcoming personality, it also makes things a whole lot simpler if you're moving from an older Android device. The easiest way to do this, provided both support NFC, is to use the new Tap & Go feature — hold both phones back-to-back when prompted, and then Google's cloud magic takes over, restoring your apps and preferences to your new phone.
Alternatively, you can choose to restore from a backup of a previous device, and if you do this you now get much more control than before. Lollipop's setup assistant lets you pick a specific device to restore from, and even tag selectively restore apps.
That's a big, much-needed improvement to the out-of-box experience, and we’d implore the other manufacturers and wireless operators to not destroy it. What's still not so great (or pretty horrendous, if we're honest) is the experience of updating apps and getting set up once you're dumped to the home screen. Even on the very latest version of Android, there's a maze of app updates and Google Play Services upgrades to worry about, and these are handled in a way that's often slow and error message-prone.
Maybe that's something for the next version of Android to tackle.
Android's rich notification system has always been one of its strengths, and Lollipop introduces some of the biggest notification changes in the platform's history. For starters, notifications now appear as floating, Material-style cards, in keeping with the new design language, and they pop into view and expand with pleasing animations that match the rest of the OS.
At a more functional level, though, the big news is that notifications now live on your lock screen, making it easier to see important stuff with fewer taps. On the Nexus 6 there's also an Ambient Display mode, similar to the Moto X's Moto Display, that lets you see a preview of notifications while your phone is locked. For the privacy-conscious, there's the option to hide the contents of sensitive notifications like emails or messages from the lock screen if lock screen security is enabled. It's unclear which other devices will get Ambient Display, as it's somewhat dependent on the Nexus 6's AMOLED display, which uses very little power when displaying text on a black background.
The new heads-up notifications let you see more information, and act upon it, without interrupting what you're doing. For example, if you're playing a full-screen game and you receive a call, a heads-up notification will let you see who's calling, and let you accept or dismiss the call then and there. Some Android phone makers have incorporated similar features for calls and texts, but not this functionality is available for all apps to use.
Android's rich notification system gets some hugely important improvements.
Lollipop also brings more control over when you'll see your notifications. Priority mode lets you choose to only be interrupted by the important stuff — calls and messages from particular people, or apps that you specify under Settings > Sound & notification > App notifications. And you can also specify periods of "downtime," during which only priority notifications will be shown.
All of these improvements make one of Android's key features even better and more useful for busy working people. But there's one nagging part of Lollipop's notification setup that seems bizarrely over-thought to us. The normal mute function is gone. If you want your phone to stop making a sound at all, you need to switch notifications to "None," which blocks absolutely everything, including alarms. If you think about it, it kind of makes sense. But it also lacks the simplicity and familiarity of a big ol' mute button, and that's going to lead to some confusion. It feels like an overengineered solution for an everyday problem.
Multi-user support has been part of Android on tablets since version 4.2, and in Lollipop it's come to phones as well. In addition to your main account, you can create additional users by tapping the profile icon in the notification shade. That's all well and good, but what's more useful is the new Guest mode, which lets you hand your phone to a friend without also giving them the keys to your digital life. Guests get a limited selection of apps, and they can't see your stuff without knowing your lock screen PIN or pattern, if you have one.
Google has focused on security at all levels, from app pinning and guest mode, to SELinux and device encryption.
Similarly, the new "app pinning" feature lets you lock your device to a single app, with a long-press of the back and task-switching keys required to unlock it again. It's not going to stop a determined friend (or frenemy) from breaking out and messing with your stuff, but it might just be enough to keep your kids in an app of your choosing.
Google's also gotten serious about other areas of security in Lollipop. Another feature borrowed from Motorola is Smart Lock, which can use a trusted Bluetooth accessory or NFC tag to unlock your phone automatically. As we've seen using Moto's Trusted Bluetooth feature — and the handful of apps that mimic it — this is a great way to keep your device relatively secure without having to constantly enter an unlock code. If you use a smartwatch, fitness band or any other kind of accessory, it's really a no-brainer. Every phone should have this.