Lollipop is the biggest update to the Android OS since Ice Cream Sandwich, and the best version of Android to date. It’s packed with new features and apps, and has a completely refreshed way of doing pretty much everything. It ties all your Android devices together, as well as all your Google services, and promises to even one day tackle the platform’s fragmentation problem.
Some of the changes are right up front—such as notifications on the lock screen, a reworked multitasking system and revamped Quick Settings options, as well as new versions of all of the main Google apps.
But some of the most important changes are under the hood. They won’t necessarily be apparent at first, but they change the way Android works and gives developers even more power to work with.
Here’s our pick of the five most important features in Lollipop.
The biggest and most obvious change in Lollipop is the new UI framework, Material Design.
Material Design is a fluid, layered and heavily touch optimised interface. It increasingly replaces buttons with natural gestures like swipes, while the use of layers gives the elements in apps a natural hierarchy, make apps easier to navigate than ever. Not to mention the bright colours, flat style and heavy use of white-space gives it a friendlier, warmer feel than Android 4’s Holo ever managed.
If you’re running Android 5.0 on a device that is unskinned, such as a Nexus or a Motorola, then Material Design will be at the heart of your entire interaction with that device.
But even if you’re using a heavily skinned device like the Galaxy S5, with Samsung’s own UI style on top, you’ll still be seeing Material Design everywhere. It is the design language Google uses for all of its products now, from Android apps like Gmail and Google Maps to its desktop services. Even Google’s iOS apps are styled using Material Design.
It will also be adopted by many, if not most app developers. Many apps have already been updated to the Material Design style, and countless more will be following suit in the coming months.
RAW shooting and the new camera API
The camera enhancements in Android won’t be noticed right away, but they are massive. They have the potential to give every camera running on an Android 5 phone an upgrade.
This is down to the introduction of a new camera API, which includes support for shooting RAW, and gives third party apps direct access to the sensor.
On pre-Lollipop devices all photos taken on a device would be taken by the built-in camera software, even if you were using a third party camera app. This meant that even the best camera app could only ever be as good as the device manufacturer’s software running on it.
In Lollipop third party apps can directly access the camera sensor, and shoot their own images. In time we’d expect pro-level Android camera apps to give users control over settings including ISO and shutter speed, and to decide how much noise reduction to apply and what quality level to save images at. Furthermore, they will be able to shot in RAW.
The Lollipop camera can shoot in the DNG format, for raw, uncompressed and unprocessed images straight from the camera’s sensor. Taking these images into a desktop app like Lightroom will enable more ambitious Android photographers to gain an unrivalled level of control over their images.
Shooting RAW won’t overcome the limitations of the hardware, of course. Smartphone camera sensors are still relatively small and have limited dynamic range. But RAW will enable the dynamic range and the amount of detail saved in a image to be stretched to the absolute limits of the hardware.
After several years of lagging behind the iPhone in photography, Android might be about to catch up in a big way.
Read our test of the new camera API in action.
Low latency audio
Another area where Android has trailed iOS is in serious audio production work. To be honest, it’s probably too late for Android to catch up now—the iPad is pretty much established as the default tool for mobile music making.
But Lollipop at least gives the platform a fighting chance with the introduction of low latency audio.
Audio latency refers to the amount of time between an interaction and a sound—such as pressing a piano key within a piano app, and hearing the note that it plays. On iOS this time has been essentially non-existent, meaning user can play musical instrument apps in real time. Latency of just a few milliseconds on Android may not seem like much, but it renders real-time playing impossible.
The last few versions of Android have targeted audio latency with limited success. The introduction—finally—of low latency audio in Lollipop should encourage developers to start bringing their professional quality audio apps to Android for the first time. Android tablets in particular will be a major beneficiary of a growth in creative apps.
ART was first introduced with KitKat as an experimental app runtime. With Lollipop it is ready for prime time.
The runtime is the environment in which apps are executed, and ART promises a performance improvement of 2-3 times compared to Dalvik, the runtime used in all versions of Android up to Lollipop.
As explained in this Wikipedia article:
Unlike Dalvik, which since Android 2.2 “Froyo” uses just-in-time (JIT) compilation to compile the bytecode every time an application is launched, ART introduces use of ahead-of-time (AOT) compilation by performing it upon the installation of an application. By reducing the overall amount of compilation that needs to be performed across the operation of an application, a mobile device’s processor usage is reduced and battery runtime is improved. At the same time, ART brings improvements in performance, garbage collection, applications debugging and profiling.
The downsides are few. Apps take up marginally more space on the device, and some may need to be updated to support ART (although most will be fully compatible without updating). Also some hacks are only compatible with Dalvik, including the popular Xposed Framework.
For the most part this is a major win for Android. Apps will launch quicker, they will be more repsonsive and animations will be smoother. Any perceived differences in performance of Android apps versus iOS or even Windows Phone apps will now be gone.
Multiuser support and improved security
A raft of security and privacy enhancements are a huge step forward for Android.
Two stand out in particular. The first is a new idea called Screen Pinning. This is a different take on multi-user support, which is also included. Screen Pinning enables you to ‘pin’ an app to the screen, meaning you can hand your phone to someone else so that they can play a game or watch a video, and they won’t be able to switch away from that app to look at anything else on your device.
It’s a simple solution to an old problem, and means you’ll be able to share your device with your kids or friends without the danger of them inadvertently reading your text messages or browsing through your photo library.
The other major security enhancement is one that most users won’t even be aware of: encryption is now turned on by default. So long as your device is protected by a password or other security method your data will not be accessible by anyone.