Google Android 5.0 Lollipop first look review: Gadget Watch

A week ago, Google launched the latest major update to its Android operating system, officially revealing the L version will be known as 5.0 Lollipop.

Google has traditionally labelled each version of Android alphabetically and, in turn, given each of them a confectionery-themed codename beginning with that letter.

Past versions of Android have included 1.5 Cupcake (release C), 1.6 Donut (D), 2.0 Eclair (E), 2.2 Froyo (F), 2.3 Gingerbread (G), 3.0 Honeycomb (H), 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich (I), 4.1–4.3 Jelly Bean (J) and 4.4 KitKat (K).

The official SDK (software development kit) has already been released, ahead of expected rollouts already planned for a number of existing Motorola and Google Nexus devices. Google has also unveiled its latest range of flagship Nexus devices, with Samsung curiously absent as a manufacturing partner.

It opted to keep it sweet for its official (and rather unconventional) launch video.

Already, the first reviews are coming out. So is Lollipop as sweet as it sounds? It’s time to take a first look.

Hardware and features

For end users, the biggest change to expect from Android Lollipop is the introduction of a new design language called “Material”, which Google says will integrate its user interface across Android devices, its Chrome web browser, and online services.

Lollipop also gives users the ability to block notifications from certain apps or people at certain times, and displays notifications directly on the lock screen. It also supports multiple user accounts on the same device, and includes a feature called Project Volta that Google claims can extend a device’s battery life by up to 90 minutes.

However, the biggest changes lie under the hood.

Android Lollipop completely ditches its old app runtime environment, which was known as Dalvik. Dalvik worked by basically translating apps written in the Java programming language into the machine language of a device in real time. In the early days of Android, this allowed for a single set of code to be written for a wide variety of devices running Android.

The downside of this came in terms of speed. To use a metaphor, it’s like a first-language English speaker trying to read an instruction book written in another language – say German – by mentally translating every word before carrying out any of the instructions. You can imagine how trying to translate each word while trying to follow the instructions at the same time is a needlessly slow and laborious process.

In Lollipop, Dalvik is dead. It’s replaced by ART, or the Android Runtime. ART should be compatible with most existing Android code out of the box. But there’s a really important difference in how it works.

Instead of translating the Java into machine language in real time, like Dalvik, ART translates the app into machine language the first time it is downloaded. From then on, each time the app runs, it runs the translated machine language without any real-time translation. This means downloading apps might take a little longer, but they’ll run faster.

To continue the metaphor, it’s like the English book reader picking up a copy of the instruction book that has already been translated into English. It might take longer to find the translated book in the bookstore, but following those instructions is a heck of a lot quicker!

The other big change is that it supports the next generation of processors, known as 64-bit processors. Now, if you really want to dive into the differences between existing 32-bit and 64-bit processors, there’s a good explanation on Wikipedia.

What’s the consensus?

Over at NetworkWorld, Bryan Lunduke is seriously impressed with the latest version of Android:

First of all, it is crazy fast. The speed difference between 4.4 (“Kit Kat”) and 5.0 is huge. I don’t have any FPS or number crunching benchmark to back that statement up (though I’m sure someone will take care of that shortly) but everything is, quite simply, a whole heck of a lot faster. Games that used to stutter a little are now silky smooth. It’s like my N7 just got a major hardware upgrade. That’s not marketing speak, Google doesn’t pay me a dime. The speed improvement truly is instantly noticeable.

Apparently that new Android Runtime (ART) was worth the investment. RAM usage by the system is now a teensy, tiny 134 MB on first boot (I don’t know how big that number was before, but I seem to recall it being larger than that).

An important added feature for Lunduke is the addition of support for USB audio devices:

Android 5.0 has added official support for USB audio devices (both input and output) along with lower-latency audio input and the ability to mix up to eight audio channels. All of which means one, amazing, thing: Android is now a platform that can be seriously considered for professional audio production work.

Granted, this is only the first step. We still need developers to create audio editing software that utilizes these new features, but it’s a really, really big first step.

In his first look at the new flagship Nexus 6, Dieter Bohn of The Verge is impressed with a number of the smaller touches:

Google’s also added other small touches like a feature that redacts certain information from incoming notifications that may include sensitive items, so that someone won’t get the whole story if they glance at your phone. Another feature uses NFC pairing and then Bluetooth to let you transfer the entirety of your old Android device into your new one while they sit side by side. One other hardware trick is Turbo Charging, which will get a nearly dead battery back up to 6 hours of life with 15 minutes of charging at an increasingly higher voltage.

Damien McFerran of Know Your Mobile thinks Google’s new Material design language is a big improvement on 4.4 KitKat:

The big news regarding Android Lollipop is the fresh look, dubbed “Material” by Google. While there are some similarities between Material and the look of “stock” Android KitKat, the designers at Mountain View are clearly forging a new path here, in purely aesthetic terms.

Another big change is that the famous Android “soft” buttons have been given a face lift, and look even more stylish than before – even if they do call to mind the symbols we used to see on our old VCR players. Android Lollipop is clearly an update on the existing KitKat style, but Google is embellishing it with new visual tricks to make things even more alluring. From what we’ve seen, it strikes us as massive improvement over the often flat and uninspiring Android 4.4.

Cory Gunther at Know Your Mobile highlights some of the key features of the new release:

Multi-tasking has been overhauled, and the recent apps menu looks completely different with large and easy to see cards. Going from one app to the other only takes a moment, and as expected, there’s a neat new animation as you go from Gmail to YouTube, or from your messenger apps to Facebook, and more.

Notifications can be interacted with from the lockscreen, expandable like always, and slide away with ease if you’d like to ignore one. Speaking of ignore, Android 5.0 has a new “do not disturb” mode where you can silence notifications. To make it even better, you can shut off notifications completely, or customize them so only important ones (likes friends or family) come through. This is a completely customizable aspect of notifications we’ve wanted for a long time, and is now finally here.

Not only that, but you can have all notifications come through, but not interrupt what you’re doing on the screen. They’ll just be in the pulldown bar, but not popup and distract you from viewing an email. This is all changeable in settings.

Should I get one?

There are a few downsides that are worth mentioning. It remains to be seen whether installing new apps will take longer on this release, and unfortunately not existing Android smartphones and tablets will be able to upgrade. As with any user interface change, it might also feel unfamiliar to some users.

That being said, based on the early reviews, it looks like it will be a worthwhile upgrade.

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