Android 5.0 deep-dive review: Exploring Lollipop's many layers

Android 5.0 deep-dive review: Exploring Lollipop's many layers

Google's Android 5.0 Lollipop release brings major changes to the way the operating system looks and works. Here's a detailed tour of what's new and what it's like to use.

Its name may be filled with child-like whimsy, but don't be fooled: Google's Android 5.0 Lollipop release is all about the platform's move into maturity.

Android launched in 2008 as a plain but powerful operating system with plenty of promise. Numerous releases since then have built upon that foundation and pushed the OS forward both visually and functionally -- but they've all felt like pieces from a still-incomplete puzzle.

Lollipop is the culmination of those steps -- the polished and cohesive product the past six years of updates have been building up to. It's the most sweeping and dramatic reimagining of Android we've ever seen, and it's about to usher the platform into an exciting new era.

But before I begin this thorough look into the new OS, I want to make clear that this review is looking at Google's actual Android 5.0 software, which appears on Nexus devices, Moto devices and a handful of other products. As a result of the operating system's open nature, manufacturers can modify the software to give it their own custom "skins" and features -- so depending on what type of device you have and which vendor you bought it from, the software you see may differ in some ways from what's described here.

A whole new Android

As I noted in my first impressions of Google's new Nexus 6 phone, Lollipop feels fresh, modern and comfortable -- like a familiar home that's been thoroughly but tastefully renovated.

Much of that is due to the new design motif implemented all throughout the OS. Known as Material Design, the approach revolves around bold and bright colors, large fonts and flat, paper-like graphics. Animations and transitions are also key -- things move in a way that helps to create a sense of continuity as you navigate the system.

The new app drawer is a perfect example. When you touch the icon to view all of your apps, its white color appears to splash up on the screen and form a square that holds the grid of items. If you then tap the Home button, an animation shrinks the box back down into the small circular icon from which it sprang.

Other touches are subtler. When you tap an item within Lollipop's system settings, for instance, the entire row turns dark -- starting on the exact spot where you pressed your finger and spreading out horizontally in either direction. It usually happens quickly, but if you touch and hold your finger without immediately lifting, you can see it play out in detail.

These sorts of elements may seem insignificant by themselves, but they add up to form a meaningful layer of polish that makes a big difference in what the software's like to use. And unlike past visual makeovers with Android, Lollipop's changes are sweeping and complete; it's the first update that really feels like a whole new OS.

Everything has been recreated to match the Lollipop look, right down to the Contacts (formerly known as "People") and Downloads apps -- although curiously, in the case of the latter, I'm seeing a version of the app on my Nexus 6 review unit that doesn't quite match the one on my Nexus 9. Given that the Nexus 9 received a software update prior to its consumer launch, I'm guessing that the Nexus 6 will soon be brought up to parity.

The visual overhaul isn't just within Android itself, either; it's across Google as a whole. Though the desktop evolution is still underway, Material Design has slowly but surely been creeping into Google's various apps and services for a while. The same style from Lollipop can already be seen in places like the Web-based apps for Google Docs and Sheets. Standalone Android apps like Gmail are being updated bit by bit to reflect the new vibe as well.

The first taste of Lollipop

From the get-go, Lollipop feels warm and inviting. The software's new setup procedure makes the typically tedious process of moving into a new device delightfully simple. Signing into a Google account with two-factor authentication is finally integrated directly into the OS, as are the introduction and opt-in to Google Now -- which makes both features feel like parts of the operating system instead of tacked-on additions, as they did in the past.

And while Android has always given you the option to restore your apps and basic system settings, Lollipop gives you more control over the process and makes it easier to understand. When you start up a new Lollipop device, the system shows you a list of other Android devices that you've recently used. You can select any one of those devices and choose from which you want to pull apps and settings -- and you can then select either to restore all apps that were installed on that device or to cherry-pick only certain titles.

If you want, you can also opt to physically tap another NFC-enabled Android device against the new one and have all the accounts, apps and app data from it copied over that way. It's not entirely clear how useful the "app data" element of that will be in practice -- when I tested it, I still had to sign into each individual app and none of my in-app preferences seemed to carry over -- but it's apparently something that requires developer-enabled support to function, so perhaps it'll become more relevant over time.

The Lollipop lock screen

Android's lock screen serves as your gate into your phone or tablet -- and with Lollipop, it gains a whole new level of power.

When you turn your device on, Lollipop shows you the current time and date in the center of the screen. Basic enough, right? What's different, though, is that you'll also see any pending notifications immediately below that -- in rectangular cards, just like they'd appear in the Android notification panel (more on that in a moment).

This means you can view things like new emails and text messages right then and there -- and you can interact with them, too: Just tap twice on any card to jump directly into its corresponding app or swipe horizontally on it to dismiss it from view. (If you're worried about privacy, there's a setting that lets you hide "sensitive" info -- in other words, the actual contents of messages, reminders and so forth -- or lets you disable lock-screen notifications altogether anytime the device is locked.)

Suffice it to say, having immediate and interactive access to that type of info is quite handy -- and it makes an awful lot of sense. It does, however, come at a cost: First, the customizable lock screen widgets introduced with Android 4.2 are now gone -- though I suspect only a small subset of users actually understood and used those. The notifications seem like a more broadly beneficial use of the space.

Second, and potentially more significant, if you use a security pattern, password or PIN on your device, you now have to swipe away the initial lock screen before inputting your code. It's an unavoidable extra step -- present even if you disable lock screen notifications -- and it's bound to annoy some users.

There are also a few areas where the Lollipop lock screen is just a teensy bit confusing. One is the way the system behaves based on what direction you swipe: If you swipe upward on the lock screen, all of the content is pushed off the top edge of the display and the device unlocks. That seems sensible.

If you swipe downward on the screen, though, you're taken to a full-screen view of all your pending notifications -- essentially the same thing you were already looking at, only without the clock. That strikes me as an unexpected and somewhat odd behavior; there are no visual cues indicating that'll happen, and it took me a few minutes of trial and error to figure it out. (My initial assumption was that a swipe in any direction would simply unlock the device.)

The Lollipop lock screen also has a camera icon in its lower-right corner and -- provided you're using a phone -- a phone icon in its lower left. Based on that visual, my instinct was to try to swipe upwards diagonally from those icons to open their respective apps, but doing so just unlocks the device normally. It turns out you have to swipe horizontally to activate the shortcuts -- something that again took experimentation to understand and wasn't immediately clear.

Last but not least, the Lollipop lock screen shows full-screen still images from multimedia content being played from the device -- so you might see a graphic from a TV show or cover art from an album, depending on what you're streaming. In my experience, however, the images don't seem to clear properly when the content is no longer being played. I frequently saw images from a show I had stopped streaming long ago -- both when something different was being streamed and when the streaming app was no longer even active.

Smart Lock, Ambient Display and other security enhancements

Basics aside, Lollipop introduces some useful new ways to manage and get around the lock screen. Perhaps most notably, the software has a new Smart Lock feature that allows you to set trusted Bluetooth devices for your phone or tablet. The devices then work like magic keys, so to speak: Anytime they're present and paired, you won't have to enter your security pattern or PIN to get into your phone or tablet. If they aren't around, the phone or tablet will automatically lock itself and require a pattern or PIN for access.

You can set a trusted NFC tag as well -- if, say, you want to be able to tap your employee badge or a programmable NFC keychain to the device to unlock it. Smart Lock also incorporates a new version of Android's Face Unlock feature, which works far faster and more reliably than it did in previous OS versions. For the first time, it's actually something you might want to use on a long-term basis.

Beyond that, Lollipop provides a system-level tap-to-wake option, which allows you to double-tap a device's display to activate it without having to press the power button. It's present on the Nexus 9 but not the Nexus 6; it'll be up to each manufacturer to determine if they want to implement it for any given device.

And then there's Lollipop's new Ambient Display feature, which is Google's take on the Moto Display system seen in Motorola's 2014 Moto X. If a manufacturer opts to offer the feature, it'll cause your screen to light up with a black-and-white view of the time and any pending notifications -- in other words, the lock screen -- whenever you pick up the device. If you touch the screen, it then moves into its regular full-color state and you can interact with it normally.

The feature works reasonably well, though it does have its quirks: Unlike Moto Display, the Lollipop version of the system doesn't "pulse" and continue to flash notifications on the screen every few seconds to ensure you'll see them. That makes it harder to know at a glance when something needs your attention, especially if you're using a device that doesn't have an LED notifier (something Ambient Display is intended to replace).

The Moto X's feature employs a variety of sensors to light up anytime you touch the device or even move your hand over its screen; meanwhile, Ambient Display is designed to function with more standard and basic phone hardware. As a result, it's less sensitive and works far less consistently than Motorola's implementation (on the Nexus 6, at least -- where I've been able to test it).

The data shown on Ambient Display is also much more info-dense than what's shown on Moto Display, which has its pros and cons. On the one hand, you see more information at a glance, without having to touch the screen -- but on the other hand, that information is also less easy to digest at a glance.

Lollipop includes several less exciting but equally important improvements to security, which you can read about here.

The new face of notifications

We've talked about notifications as they appear on the lock screen, but Lollipop brings about significant changes to the way notifications work throughout the operating system.

First of all, some notifications now show up in a new "heads-up" format and appear as floating cards at the top of your screen when they arrive. I've seen it happen with calendar events, incoming calls and text messages, but it's possible more apps could tap into the possibility over time. The idea is that you can view a notification quickly without interrupting what you're doing; then you can either tap it to open it, swipe it away to dismiss it or simply ignore it and do nothing at all -- in which case it'll disappear after a few seconds and move into your regular notification panel like any other alert.

The notification panel, meanwhile -- what you see when you swipe down from the top of the screen anywhere in the OS -- no longer takes up the entire display; instead, it's a series of card-like rectangles presented in order of priority. The system ranks notifications automatically, but you can also set specific apps to always be high priority.

The notifications themselves work just like they have in the past: You can swipe down on them to expand them, tap to open them or swipe horizontally to dismiss them. An improved Quick Settings area is now built right into the main panel as well: You can get to it either by swiping down a second time, after you've opened the main pull-down menu, or by using a two-finger swipe-down gesture to jump to it directly.

Taking control of alerts

The most transformative shift in notifications comes with Lollipop's newly added controls over how and when alerts appear. If you're listening to audio and the device's screen is off, pressing either volume key will only raise or lower the volume. If the screen is on, however -- regardless of what you're doing -- pressing either volume key will bring up a panel on which you see the volume (of the ringer or audio, depending on what you're doing) along with the new notification controls.

You can then touch the notification controls to adjust them. They give you the option to toggle between a normal notification mode, a priority-only notification mode and a mode in which no notifications are delivered.

If you select either of the latter two, you're then given the choice to stay in that mode indefinitely or to set a specific amount of time for it to last. Think of it as a "do not disturb" option with the ability either to go fully silent or to allow certain high-priority interruptions through. By default, a high-priority notification includes any alarm, event or reminder; you can expand it to include calls and messages as well -- either from anyone or from specifically approved contacts -- and you can whitelist entire apps so their notifications are always allowed through.

You can also define recurring periods of time when your phone will automatically shift into priority-only mode -- if, for example, you want to keep your phone quiet except for emergency calls or messages overnight.

All in all, the system is powerful but somewhat complex, with lots of settings in different places. Some of it is a little confusing, too, like the fact that the only way to silence your phone in Lollipop is to select the mode in which no notifications are delivered; simply turning the volume down all the way will put your device in a vibrate-only state but won't set it to silent.

If you take the time to learn the system and figure out its nuances, it has a lot of potential -- but I do worry it'll be a bit overwhelming at first, particularly for casual users.

Multilayered multitasking

App switching has always been one of Android's strengths -- and with Lollipop, the way you multitask gains even more muscle.

Lollipop's Recent Apps command brings a whole new look to multitasking on phones and tablets. When you tap the Recent Apps button -- the square icon directly to the right of the Home key -- you're now presented with a series of large cards, each of which contains a live thumbnail of a recently used app or process. You can scroll through them and tap one to quickly jump between tasks.

There's a lot more going on here than initially meets the eye, though -- namely the fact that Lollipop's Recent Apps tool splits apps apart into numerous standalone pieces, all of which appear individually in the list.

It's a strange concept to wrap your head around, so let me provide a couple of examples. Say you start up Google Drive and open a document to edit within the app. If you tap the Recent Apps key after that, you'll see two new cards -- one for Drive and one for the document itself. So you can jump directly to either step.

Similarly, if you open Gmail and then start to compose a new message, you'll see a card in the Recent Apps list for both Gmail itself and for the individual message.

The weirdest one for me is Chrome, where instead of switching between tabs within the browser itself, every tab now shows up as an individual card within the Recent Apps list and you use it to move between them. (That one's actually optional -- for now at least: There's a setting within Chrome that allows you to disable it and stick with a more traditional browser-based tab management setup, if you prefer.)

The goal is to make multitasking more robust: In addition to being able to switch between Gmail and Drive, you can now switch between your inbox and the message you're composing or your file list and the document you're editing. In those sorts of scenarios, the newly expanded approach makes a lot of sense.

But like the notification control system, it can be somewhat confusing in practice. The Recent Apps list quickly turns into an enormous mess of overlapping items that's more overwhelming than useful. On my Nexus 6 review unit right now, there are 60 cards in my Recent Apps list. Sixty cards! Twenty-two of them are various instances of a Google search process -- either a search I'd completed or a blank search screen from the Google app. What good is that going to do me? And how am I supposed to navigate the Recent Apps list effectively with all that silliness cluttering it up?

Part of the problem is that too many processes are being split apart and saved as their own cards -- like all those blank Google search prompts I'm seeing. And part of the problem is that the list never seems to clear itself, even when you turn the device off, so it just keeps growing longer and longer to the point where it becomes unmanageable and counterproductive.

(You can swipe away items one by one to dismiss them -- but that isn't really a scalable solution, and you as the user shouldn't have to worry about playing custodian throughout the day.)

In addition, the breaking apart of in-app processes occasionally leads to commands not working as they should. I'll use the Google Drive situation as an example: Normally, if you open a document from Drive, you can then tap the left-facing arrow at the top-left of the screen to go back into your main file list. If you use the Recent Apps list to jump into an already opened Drive document, however, and then tap that same arrow, you're dumped out onto your home screen -- since the process was separated from the app, the "back" function no longer works as you'd expect.

All considered, the new multitasking system is one of those things that's great in theory but not quite there yet in reality. It's also surprising that Android still doesn't include any native system for viewing multiple apps on-screen at the same time, as we've seen some third-party manufacturers offer. While that's not something most folks would likely use too often, there are certainly times when it'd be handy -- like when you want to continue playing a video while answering a text or actively reference a document while composing an email.

Voice control

One of Lollipop's most noteworthy additions is support for always-listening voice control, much like what we've seen on Motorola's recent devices.

If your device has the hardware to support it -- and if your manufacturer opts to enable the feature -- you can now wake a phone or tablet and give it commands by saying "Okay, Google," even when the screen is off.

As you can imagine, there are plenty of occasions when that can be useful -- like when you want to send a text while driving or get a quick answer to a question while your phone's out of reach. The system is a few seconds faster than Motorola's, since it interfaces directly with the Google Search app without any third-party intermediary, but it's also less robust in a couple of ways.

First, while Lollipop's voice control can be trained to recognize and respond only to your voice -- a feature that actually works with the aid of Motorola's technology -- it doesn't allow you to set your own custom launch phrase, as Motorola's newest version does. That becomes an issue when you have multiple devices nearby: If I say "Okay, Google" in my office right now, the Nexus 6 and Nexus 9 will both light up and start listening, as will my Android Wear watch (if it's awake). Given the nature of the system, there's no real way around that.

Second, the system lacks some of the more advanced voice commands that Motorola has built into its devices -- like those to snap a photo from afar or to launch a hands-free mode in which all incoming calls and texts are read aloud.

While it may not be quite at the level of Motorola's implementation, though, it's still an excellent addition and one that'll add a meaningful amount of value to a lot of devices. I do wish Google had made it easier to find -- the option is off by default and buried five layers deep within the "Language and Input" area of the system settings, where most users are never going to notice it -- but if you know it's there, it's well worth enabling.

All sorts of sharing

Just a few more features to cover before we wrap things up -- and they're all related to the subject of sharing.

The biggest is multiuser support, which gains a few new tricks with the Lollipop release. Multiuser support has actually been available for Android tablets since 2012, but with Lollipop, it spreads to phones as well. That means you can allow your significant other, child or friends to have their own separate home screens, apps, settings and data within a single device, which is a wonderful option to have.

With phones, you can choose whether secondary users will be able to make calls and send texts -- via your number -- or, in what seems like a more likely scenario, be limited to using the phone only as an Internet device.

(I should note that the feature has been pretty glitchy on my Nexus 6 review unit; I'm able to test the basic functionality, which works as promised, but the phone often acts erratically when I'm adding a secondary account or switching between accounts. This is pretty clearly the result of a bug and something I have to imagine will be fixed in short order -- Google is aware of the issue and has confirmed that the phone will be receiving a software update of some sort within the coming days -- but as of now, it does feel somewhat unfinished on the phone front.)

In addition to the full-on multiuser support, Lollipop offers a new "guest mode" that allows you to create a temporary space so that someone can use your device without signing in or gaining access to any of your stuff.

And if you want something a little less involved, Lollipop provides a third option called "screen pinning." Once you've enabled it in the system settings, you just tap the Recent Apps key and then tap a pushpin icon that appears on the most recent card in the list. That'll lock that app to your screen so that anyone using your phone can use that app and nothing else (which is most effective, of course, if you set a pattern, PIN or password to secure the device).

One final sharing-oriented feature that warrants a mention is an expanded version of Android Beam. In addition to being able to share links and contacts by touching two devices together back-to-back, as has been available in Android for quite some time, you can now share any type of file -- an image, a document or practically anything else imaginable -- simply by using the standard system Share command and then selecting "Android Beam" from the list of options. Once you've done that, you just tap your device to the back of another Android device and a wireless transfer will instantly begin.

Under-the-hood improvements

Whew -- lots to look forward to, right? But wait: There's more. You might not notice them right away, but Lollipop delivers some important improvements to the Android engine room that should bring a boost to both performance and stamina.

There's a new runtime, for one -- the system that allows apps to operate on your phone or tablet. The details get pretty technical, but what matters is that the revamped runtime is supposed to let apps run as much as four times faster than what was previously possible. Google says it'll pave the way for smoother graphics and animations as well (you know, like the ones peppered all throughout Lollipop) and will provide a better foundation for background services that don't bog things down.

Lollipop introduces support for 64-bit devices, too, and it has a host of enhancements aimed at increasing battery life and improving stamina. As part of those efforts, the OS now offers a battery saver mode that can scale back your device's horsepower and background data syncing to help you eke out an extra 90 minutes of use when your battery's low (similar to what many manufacturers have already been providing).

Bottom line

Google's Android 5.0 Lollipop release brings a fresh and attractive new look to the platform that makes it feel more polished and mature than ever.

In addition to all the aesthetic improvements, it introduces a number of new features that add meaningful value to the experience -- like a revamped and more customizable notifications system, expanded options for security and the ability to use always-listening voice control.

And there are all the under-the-hood improvements mentioned above. It's too soon to have perspective on how much any of those items will mean for day-to-day use, but they certainly seem to strengthen the software's core.

To be sure, Lollipop isn't perfect; for all of its graphical polish, some of its features still feel a little rough around the edges. But it's a brand new start for Android -- and by and large, it's an absolute pleasure to use.

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