Android’s aging innards are finally getting the overhaul they need to keep up with the high-end 64 bit hardware that’s speeding toward release. Oh, and a ton of new features for users, plus a brand design.
Originally dubbed Android L by the geek patrol in Mountain View, 5.0’s official name is Lollipop. It’s easily the biggest Android release ever. Here’s everything you need to know about what it is, when you’ll get it, and what it will do for you.
When is Android Lollipop coming and who is it for?
Google drops Lollipop on November 3rd, if you have the right device. Supported hardware includes the Nexus 4, 5, 7 (both versions) and 10. Some of these devices will get over-the-air updates starting on November 3rd, others will follow suit later in the month. The recently announced Nexus 6 phone and Nexus 9 tablet will ship around that time with Android 5.0 preinstalled.
It should be interesting to see how the final build runs on older Nexus models. Users with older Nexus devices might want to hold off and let the brave jump in first to see what happens. Don’t worry, we won't judge you.
Maybe you don’t have a Nexus phone or tablet. Well, then the situation gets a little murky. If you have a phone purchased in the last year, odds are good that you’ll get an upgrade to Lollipop…eventually. Manufacturers like Samsung, LG, HTC, and Motorola have promised swift updates (typically within 90 days of release) for top devices, but those have to go to carriers to be tested before release, too. Here’s some info on what the various top Android manufacturers have promised as far as 5.0 upgrades are concerned.
Material Design – Android’s new look and feel
Material Design is the name for a whole new set of design principles and technologies for Android. It is flatter, more iconic, and more three-dimensional.
The multitasking interface in Lollipop (right) operates like a rolodex. KitKat (left) is a static list.
Material Design features simplified navigation icons, blocks of muted color, and a flat, paper-card-style layered interface. The idea marries current naturalistic design trends with 3D elements for task management and adds smooth animation throughout. As long as the hardware can keep up with the demands the OS places on it, this looks like a win for everyone involved. The whole point is to make the operating system visibly react to input in a way that makes it clear exactly why your phone is doing what it’s doing.
All new Android products, from smart TV boxes to automotive media centers, are going to share the new Material Design language and unity of interface. At least until the next design overhaul comes along.
Notifications that work around you
Mobile operating systems live and die based on practicality, and efficient notification handling plays a big part in that. Android took the early lead over iOS here, and 5.0 keeps that distance comfortable. The lockscreen itself is now an animated, tile-based notification window, with a heuristically-derived hierarchy that promises to list your messages by importance. Notifications can be cancelled à la carte with a swipe to the right. Swiping up still unlocks the device and takes you to the home screen. One caveat: lockscreen widgets are no longer available, at least for now.
The lockscreen doubles as a notification system in Lollipop.
In another improvement, important messages will pop up in a small overlay on top of full-screen apps, so you never miss a note or ruin a video game by accidentally talking to a real human. Called “Heads Up Notification,” it allows you to answer or swipe the message away without leaving the full-screen application: perfect for gamers and antisocial people.
Heads-Up notifications tell you when something’s up without taking your eyes off the game.
There’s also a new Do Not Disturb mode that lets you schedule recurring times to not get any notifications (or only ones you designate as critical). So that text in the middle of the night won’t cause your phone to chirp and wake you up.
The new ART runtime
Android’s apps are based on Java, and sort of compiled on the fly by a special runtime environment called Dalvik. While the new Android Runtime (ART) has been available since KitKat, it was always meant as a test environment—Dalvik was set as default. The version of ART that ships as the default runtime in Android Lollipop is far more advanced than the optional ART runtime in KitKat.
The ART runtime, which delivers massive improvements to Android speed, is now enabled by default.
ART’s Ahead of Time (AOT) complier delivers big increases in performance and battery life over Dalvik’s Just-in-Time (JIT) compiler with few downsides, such as larger executables. Google’s been polishing this one for a while, and it’s now ready for prime time. They’ve been working on ART longer than anything else here.
One-touch controls for Quick Settings help you break the law
Smart augmentation to this already popular feature brings quicker access to Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, LED light, rotation, and screen casting controls. Selections no longer require as many taps to activate, making usage on the go a lot easier. Anyone who’s dealt with turning on the GPS for Google maps and managing Bluetooth connections while in a moving car will appreciate this.
The quick settings menu gets single-touch activation controls along with greater customization.
Finally, a 64-bit OS for 64-bit hardware
The Apple-envious message board battalion will be pleased to know that full 64-bit support is built into Lollipop from the ground up, so no more arguments will be lost over the Strategic Bit Gap that’s existed since the iOS 7 campaigns. ARM-, x86- and MIPS-based 64-bit cores are supported, and native apps like Chrome feature updated code to take advantage of the speed boost and improved memory handling. All pure Java apps will automatically take advantage of these enhancements through the ART runtime as well.
Multi-user logins for phones
Secretive people with kids and nosy friends will be pleased to know that multiple user profile support has finally spread from tablets to phones. No reason to worry about those racy Snapchat pictures now, right? It’s also handy for business users, but that’s boring to talk about, so who cares?
Project Volta boosts the juice
Mediocre power efficiency on Android devices has always been balanced by phones with removable batteries and and specialty models that pack huge power cells. These days, the call for better industrial design has made removable batteries increasingly rare. Something had to be done to improve the situation and Project Volta is it.
Project Volta’s battery life optimizations are shown off in the new battery meter app, which now displays remaining time.
By implementing a series of efficiencies in the way Android manages tasks, recovers from sleep, and implements housekeeping functions, battery use improves by a claimed 35% over KitKat, a number that have been verified outside of Google. There’s also a handy new battery-saver mode that extends usage time even more when your battery gets really low, although it cuts performance and screen brightness noticeably.
Battery Saver mode can boost uptime by over an hour when a charger is far away.
Voice commands and automatic waking
The current Nexus makers at Motorola have contributed some of the features rolling out with Lollipop, including voice commands that work while the device is asleep with the screen locked, and automatic waking triggered by lifting the handset or tapping twice on the screen, features Moto-X owners already enjoy.
While special hardware is required for some of these features, both the Nexus 6 and 9 will support them out of the box; Google claims any Android with a low-power Digital Signal Processor for voice sensing will be able to handle the new while-sleeping “OK Google.” What will happen in a room full of these phones when someone yells out a command is anyone’s guess, but there’s sure to be a video on YouTube of someone trying it before the year is out.
Default encryption, tinfoil hat sold separately
Much to the consternation of the DOJ, Android encryption is now turned on by default (in new phones and tablets that ship with Android Lollipop). Even stronger security measure are available including location and Bluetooth locking. This means your device is secure and unlockable unless it’s at a preselected location along with you, your paired wearable and even your thumbprint, if it sports a finger scanner. Note that these security measures can be circumvented if enemy agents take your limb along with your phone. Tough break, bro.
OpenGL ES 3.1 and the Android Extension Pack
This one is more important than it sounds, since OpenGL ES 3.1 and the Android Extension Pack are at the heart of how Lollipop handles 3D graphics. This updated version of OpenGL ES, along with a standard set of extensions, will improve 3D game performance and open up a bag of visual effects previously reserved for PCs with beefy graphics cards. In short, anyone doing anything with 3D on Android will have a whole new bag of tricks to play with. Google’s large industry footprint means this implementation will give them some pull with the OpenGL standards community.
OpenGL ES 1.3 and the Android extension pack bring new graphics capabilities, now developers just have to step up and use them.
Updated Audio features
Google’s pretty good about fine tuning Android devices as flexible media players, and Lollipop hides a few new tricks up its sleeve for musicians and audio enthusiasts. Music and communication software now features lower latency, and multiple audio channels can finally be mixed, including 5.1 and 7.1 streams. USB audio devices also get some love, with microphones, speakers, mixers, and amps now supported in an attempt to steal a bit of action from the iOS hipster house party monopoly.
Photography and Video
While camera apps are bound to vary from device to device, Lollipop provides access to new features for photography and video enthusiasts seeking more control over their shots. Burst photography up to a whopping 30 shots per second at full sensor resolution, raw image formats (including YUV and Bayer RAW), and advanced metadata information are now available along with frame individualized settings for the sensor, lens, and flash controls. Hardware-accelerated 4K video playback support is built into the OS now, as well as support for the new H.265/HEVC codec.
Google’s on a roll
From quiet retirement of the “Google+ or Die” policy to Chrome’s rediscovered competitiveness, Google is definitely on a roll these days. The last round of Nexus devices was well received and the new ones look even better. With Lollipop, the last piece of the new Android ecosystem slips into place, and it’s not a bad place to be.