Android Lollipop review

Android Lollipop review

Lollipop is the fifth version of Android and it's the biggest update yet. Visually, it's much more different than the update from Ice Cream Sandwich to KitKat. Here's our Android Lollipop review.

Along with the new 'Material design language' Google has made quite a few tweaks to the interface and added some genuinely useful features. See also: Android Lollipop release date

We've based this review on a near-final version of Lollipop running on a Google Nexus 5 and the release version running on a Nexus 9, so it covers both smartphones and tablets.

Android Lollipop review: Material Design

Although existing Android users will be right at home with Lollipop, there's a new flatter look which Google calls Material. It isn't just a makeover with some new colours and icons. No, Lollipop represents the biggest Android update ever. Material design offers a much more coherent and consistent experience. Animations start from wherever you tap, and action buttons are highlighted in bold colours. It's exactly the same principle developers use to make their apps feel native on iOS or Windows Phone but from what we've seen so far, Lollipop is the winner in terms of design focus.

Android Lollipop review

Material isn't limited to Android, either. You'll see it in the Google Play store, on Chromebooks and Google Wear smartwatches so if you'll get a consistent, familiar experience if you buy other Google devices.

As well as bright colours, Google talks of 'meaningful transitions' and 'responsive interaction'. Mostly, the changes in interactions are subtle, but even if you barely notice them the new animations and effects do help you feel in control of what’s going on.

Floating buttons mean controls can be ever present in an app, instead of forcing you to go to a different menu to find controls and options.

For example, in the Contacts app there's a floating 'Add new contact' button which stays in the corner even when you swipe between Favourites and All contacts. Similarly, in the Dialler app, the keypad button floats at the bottom of the screen when you switch views between Speed Dial, Recents and Contacts.

The design isn't completely flat. There's judicious use of drop shadows where menus scroll behind titles and to delineate items in a list.

A change that may not be as popular is the redesign of the three 'Android' soft buttons at the bottom of the screen. Not only are the new shape icons meaningless to new users, they're also smaller. Samsung, Sony, HTC and others will likely change these in their overlays but phones and tablets which run plain Android will have to keep them.

Naturally, app developers can use Google's SDK to build their apps with Material design.

Android Lollipop review: Notifications

Notifications have long been a strong point of Android. They now appear as cards on the lock screen and you can now respond directly by double-tapping on them. You can't respond without going to the relevant app, though, which is one of the better features in iOS 8.  

As a brief aside, the lock screen now shows an estimate of how long your phone or tablet will take to fully charge. You can also see roughly how much time is left before you need to recharge in the Battery menu.

You have far better control over notifications in Lollipop than in KitKat. When you adjust the volume None, Priority and All buttons appear below the volume slider. Tapping on None brings up extra options for 'Indefinitely' or for a period you set. This is very handy if you regularly leave your phone in silent mode by accident.

Android Lollipop review

You get the same options for Priority, which effectively means that only notifications from VIPs will get through - the rest will be silenced. It isn't only contacts that can be VIPs: you can choose whether an app is a priority, so you can get notifications from your bank, say, but mute news updates.

In the Interruptions menu you can choose which types of notifications get through: events and reminder, calls or messages. You can enable or disable any of these.

Downtime is Google's version of Do Not Disturb. It lets you schedule days and times when you want only priority notifications to get through. Typically you'll set this to be when you're asleep.

Android Lollipop review

As usual, you can control which apps can display notifications, but with Lollipop phone calls and messages won't disturb you when you're watching a video or playing a game. You'll still see a notification but it doesn't take the focus away from what you're doing.

You'll also start to notice that notifications are ranked by type and who they're from. An email from a priority contact will be shown higher than a non-priority contact for example.

Android Lollipop review: Multiple profiles and guest account

Android tablet owners have had the benefit of multiple user accounts for a while now. Lollipop brings user profiles to smartphones as well.

Having separate accounts means that your email, web bookmarks and other personal stuff can't be seen by someone else.

Android Lollipop review

There's a useful new Guest mode which is for times when you hand your phone over to someone else to make a phone call or check a website, but don't want them seeing any of your private content. In Guest mode, someone can sign into their Google account and access their contacts and bookmarks, or anything else on their account. The idea is that even if someone accidentally leaves their Android device at home, they can still make phone calls and send messages from another Android phone running Lollipop.

To quickly switch to Guest mode, you swipe down from the top of the screen and tap the user profile icon at the top right of the screen.

One feature notably absent here is parental controls. Although you can create restricted accounts, this is more for preventing kids from making phone calls, sending messages and spending money on your Google Play account. There's no way to restrict the content they see, nor a kid-safe mode in the web browser. You can only disable entire apps.

Android Lollipop review: Quick settings and multitasking

Lollipop adds many of the features which other manufacturers tend to add via overlays, making a smartphone running 'plain' Lollipop much more usable. Quick settings is a good example. When you swipe down from the top of the screen you first see notifications. Keep scrolling and Quick Settings appears. There are toggles for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Aeroplane mode, auto-rotate, torch (if your device has an LED flash) and cast screen.

Android Lollipop review

We particularly like that Android displays the name of the Wi-Fi network to which it's connected on this screen, unlike iOS 8 which forces you into the main settings.

If you want to delve deeper into Lollipop's settings you can tap the cog icon at the top of the Quick Settings screen. Another advantage here over iOS is that you can search for a particular setting using the magnifying glass icon.

Android Lollipop review

The multitasking screen (accessed by pressing the square soft button) has been updated to use the card approach. Instead of individual apps being displayed in a list, a carousel of 'tasks' lets you close or switch to individual tabs, say, of a web browser, or a certain document in Google Docs.

Android Lollipop review

Android Lollipop review: Performance and battery life

Changes in the background won't be noticed by many people but everyone will benefit from the extra responsiveness of apps. The new ART runtime is said to be up to four times as fast as the previous version, Dalvik.

Lollipop also brings support for 64-bit processors as in the Nexus 9, and this will also enable 64-bit Android smartphones which are set to launch in just a few months.

Google says Lollipop is lighter on battery life compared to KitKat, and we've certainly noticed the improvement in our Nexus 5's battery life over the last few months of testing Android L. The new battery saver mode (part of Project Volta) brings an extra 90 minutes or so between charges.

Android Lollipop review

When the battery drops to 15 percent a message pops up asking if you want to enable it, but you can switch it on at any time, or choose to have it kick in automatically at 15 percent or 5 percent.

As you'd expect, it reduces screen brightness to save power, but also restricts background data and vibration alerts. It also stops apps synching, so you'll have to manually check for email and messages.

Android Lollipop review: Security

Security has been improved in Lollipop, although we've already talked about the main changes: Guest mode and user profiles which stop others seeing your stuff.

One other feature is Smart Lock which lets you pair your Android phone or tablet with a trusted device such as a Google Wear smartwatch or even your car (via Android Auto).

Bluetooth and NFC-enabled devices can also be used to unlock the device, and when the phone or tablet moves out of range, it automatically locks.

Android Lollipop review: release date and compatibility

The Nexus 9 tablet is on sale now and comes with Lollipop pre-installed. Google has promised older Nexus devices will get Lollipop, but so far we're yet to see any activity on Twitter to suggest the roll-out has begun.

The Nexus 4, 5 and 7 (2013 model) and 10 will definitely get Lollipop, as will the Moto X (2nd generation). In fact Motorola appears to have started over-the-air updates for some Moto X owners already.

There's also good news for first-gen Moto X owners, as for all three Moto G models. The Moto E will also get Lollipop.

Other manufacturers may take longer to provide updates to Lollipop as their overlays will take time to prepare. HTC has said that it will release it as soon as possible for the 'One' family, which means the One M8 and M7 followed the other One devices such as the One Mini and One Mini 2.

Sony has promised Lollipop to the entire Xperia Z range, but rollouts won't start until 2015 and will start with the Z3 and Z2 flagships.

LG has said G3 owners can expect Lollipop from late November onwards. At the time of writing, there's no news on other LG models.

Samsung has said exactly nothing about when owners can expect to get Lollipop, which might well make some decide to choose another brand next time they upgrade.

Android Lollipop review: verdict

We've been using Lollipop for several months now and we certainly wouldn't go back to KitKat. The new design looks great, works well and is undoubtedly a big improvement.

In terms of performance, Lollipop feels slick and responsive on the hardware we've tested. It's too early to talk about app performance, but it's still clear there's a way to go until we get a full range of tablet apps that don't feel like they were designed for phones.

Thanks to better battery management, Lollipop is less demanding than KitKat and should lead to slightly longer times between charges.

We still want to see better parental and privacy controls, but having user profiles on smartphones is a step in the right direction.

Overall, Android 5.0 is very impressive and you should certainly download it when an update is available for your device. More than ever, it's a viable alternative for hardened iOS fans who are fed up with Apple's restrictions.

OUR VERDICT

Overall, Android 5.0 is very impressive and you should certainly download it when an update is available for your device. More than ever, it's a viable alternative for hardened iOS fans who are fed up with Apple's restrictions.