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Review: Is Lollipop the best version of Android yet?

The new update sports a fresh look and a plethora of new features, but what is it like in practice?
Nov 23rd 2014, 4:30 PM 19,164 34

OS UPDATES ARE strange things. Coming around practically every year, each one promises to be better than before while not delivering much.

This is a little bit different and there are some very good reasons as to why so many Android users eagerly awaited for Lollipop to arrive. Sporting a fresh look and a large number of new features, it certainly looked like it was a step forward on first glance, but what’s it like in practice?

(Note: For this review, we’re testing out Lollipop on the Nexus 5)

Look and feel

The first thing that will strike you is that it’s more vibrant. The darker colours that were used for KitKat and previous versions have been replaced with a brighter design.

The style that’s pushing Lollipop forward is one called Material Design, and if you have been using Android recently, it’s very likely that you’ve seen this style emerge through Google’s own apps.

The design is Google’s stylistic change making graphics appear flatter, like paper and ink, and the use of bold colours as well as shadows and depth, while subtle, does make cards and other features pop out and more noticeable.

Android Lollipop

That approach also extends to the animations and actions. Sliding cards looks like you’re sliding physical paper (visually, that is) away from the screen, and it’s more satisfying. 

The end result is a delight to go through and it certainly feels more alive and fun to use in comparison to previous versions of Android. Even the animations have improved like when you hold down your finger on a card, tap an option or even bring up an app menu. Everything is smooth and simple to manage, and when you combine them all, it results in a playful interface that’s just fun to use.

That extends to the three main buttons: back, home, and overview. They’ve been replaced with shapes instead of icons, which does remind you of the control scheme you get for the Playstation, but more importantly, it fits in with the simple and visual ethos that Lollipop brings.

Lock & Home screen

The lock screen has been redesigned so that notifications are also displayed on the home screen – that in itself a welcome change since it was always annoying that you had to unlock to view them – and are actionable as well by double tapping them. The trade-off is you can no longer place widgets on the lock screen, but for the most part, it’s worth it.

While on the subject, drop-down notifications have been redesigned with the purpose of not interrupting what you’re doing, and allowing you to take quick actions.

If you’re busy writing an email or playing a game and get a call, it doesn’t take over the screen, but alerts you to it. And you can modify it so you only get specific notification settings or turn them off entirely if necessary, the latter is incredibly handy for games that bombard you with reminders. Inversely, you can give certain ones priority so they appear at the top of the notification list or whitelist them when you’re in Do Not Disturb mode (more on that later).

Lollipop Lock + Google Now Source: Android

The usual swipe down notification centre has been redesigned as well. Instead of changing menu by tapping a button, it’s done by two swipes, the first to bring notifications and the second to bring options. It’s a small but useful change which makes it a lot easier and faster to access what you want.

So too are elements like emergency calls and camera access, although activating them does take a bit of getting used to. Instead of swiping sideways to unlock, you have to swipe up, but for calls or camera access, you have to swipe left (or right) to centre. There’s no signposting for this, and it’s likely new users will go through a trial and error process before realising how they’re activated (on a side note, the camera bootup time is great and only takes a second to get ready).

Other problems emerge with the change of Overview, which now open apps with Chrome tabs. While this is handy in a sense, it can become easily cluttered even if you’re not switching between apps often. It also comes at the price of switching between tabs in Chrome itself, which is more annoying. Hopefully, a future update to Chrome will fix that but for now, it’s something you will just have to live with.

Lollipop Options + Overview

Speed & Battery Power

In general, the performance of Lollipop has been greatly improved, and there’s a lot more zip to it. That in itself was expected but surprisingly, it doesn’t seem to have come at the price of battery life, instead the trade-off is that apps now take up a little more space than usual to accommodate.

Even with heavy use, there’s very little change between KitKat and Lollipop, which will be a relief for those with older devices. When you’re charging, it will tell you how long it will take to reach a full charge, which is a nice touch.

Content and Apps

One of the main aims of Lollipop was to not only simplify Android for all users, but also get rid of the unnecessary clutter with certain services.

In some cases like Google Now, there’s a greater difference made, but other areas will leave you scratching your head like the Overview tab mentioned earlier.

For one, Android now has Hangouts and Messenger, two apps which effectively serve the same purpose (the latter dealing solely with SMS/MMS) and this extends to other apps like Calendar only present what you have scheduled, presented either as a list, day planner or in five-day segments, instead of the actual calendar.

Month view is presented as a drop-down screen, but only shows you have something scheduled by using a circle. It was probably too much to include some form of colour-coding here to give you an idea of the type of event coming up, but what it means is you’re only going to be thinking a week ahead at best.

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Lollipop Gmail + Calendar Source: Android

Features

To be honest, there are far too many additions and changes to list here but we’ll quickly go through the most noticeable ones.

Multiple users is a positive step in the right direction. Granted it would have more use for a tablet than a smartphone, but at the very least, you can lend your phone to someone and ensure that everything is kept private. There’s also a guest mode should you have to lend it to someone very quickly and don’t have time to create a new profile for them.

Security has also seen an improvement, most of which are backend improvements such as automatic encryption for new devices – Those who own a Nexus 5 or 7 will have to do it manually but it’s easier to find this time – but there are some for the use like Smart Lock, which uses a trusted Bluetooth device (which can be anything really) to unlock your phone. When you’re within its vicinity, you won’t need to put in a PIN or password to unlock and really comes into play if you have a device like a smartwatch.

As mentioned earlier, Lollipop has its own Do Not Disturb mode, which is called Interruptions here. Basically activated once you hit the volume button, you can set a recurring schedule, how long you want it to last, decide what calls or notifications to allow. There’s an impressive level of customisation available here and it will certainly come in useful for a number of areas.

Google Now+Interrput Source: Android

Summary

Make no mistake, Lollipop is a fantastic update. While previous updates worked on functionality and performance, then Lollipop is the moment it comes of age.

Probably the biggest pity about this is while it will be rolled out to other devices eventually, they won’t get to experience Android in its purest form, and how these versions of Android turn out will be anyone’s guess, but at the core of it, you can see that the Android team has put much thought into not only how it works for the user, but what happens behind the scenes.

The rollout is going to take a bit of time depending on what device you have, but when it does arrive, definitely upgrade when you get the chance. You won’t be disappointed.

Pros
- Better performance without sacrificing battery life
- Great redesign
- Smart security features like multiple users/Smart Lock

Cons
- Some features can be confusing to use
- No lock screen widgets
- Overview gets crowded very quickly

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Quinton O'Reilly

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