First look: Android Lollipop

Google's revamped Android operating system Lollipop has started to roll out in Australia and if you have a recent Android phone or tablet, upgrading to it will bring significant changes to your device.

If your phone uses modified Android versions such as HTC Sense, you may have to wait long

If your phone uses modified Android versions such as HTC Sense, you may have to wait longer for a compatible version of Lollipop. Source: Supplied

Google's revamped Android operating system Lollipop has started to roll out in Australia. ­Initially it will be confined to the phablet-sized Nexus 6 and Nexus 9 tablet. But if you have a recent Android phone or tablet, upgrading to Lollipop, also known as Android 5.0, will bring significant changes to your device.

The most important and useful is likely to be Google’s overhaul of its notifications system, which has seriously lagged behind Apple’s equivalent. Notifications are the bread and butter of what a smartphone offers. You’re alerted to new emails, text messages, missed calls and Facebook messages as they arrive. Many apps can generate notifications and the number you receive can get out of hand.

With Lollipop, it becomes a user’s job to decide which of these display on the phone’s lock screen — the screen you see before entering your PIN or password to unlock the device.

The more information you show, the more useful your phone is whenever you pick it up, say, in the middle of the night or take it from your pocket when out and about. The danger is that anyone, including a thief, can read your notifications if they’re left on the lock screen.

The good news is that you’re in control. You can choose which apps will show notifications and block others.

A new priority mode lets you choose which people and notifications can make it through 24/7. You can schedule regular downtime such as 10pm to 8am, when only priority notifications are displayed. Google says Lollipop will rank notifications based on their type and who they are from.

If notifications from any app are set as “sensitive”, details won’t appear on the lock screen, just that you’ve received a message. For example, you could block the details of personally targeted text messages and emails from appearing on the lock screen but let through tweets in full.

If you enable lock-screen messages, you can respond to them from the lock screen, but you’ll need to enter your PIN or password for obvious security reasons.

The exception is when you use another Lollipop innovation, Smart Lock. You first establish your secure credentials using a wearable device, Bluetooth, NFC-connected device or connected car, and from then on the phone will unlock automatically if your smartwatch is in range.

Google’s Lollipop also has introduced multiple user support — useful for families that share a phone. More than one person can log in with their particular credentials and use the phone while accessing their apps, wallpapers and data. This was available on tablets with Android 4.4 but is being extended to phones now.

If you forget your phone, you can access your contacts using another Android phone running Lollipop by logging into it and calling from there.

The biggest change to the architecture is 64-bit support. It’s a long story, but it means Lollipop can support the more modern computer chips that offer faster performance. This means a more responsive phone and tablet, less latency between when you press a key and when an app starts, and improved audio and video synchronisation.

Lollipop’s 64-bit architecture will also improve playback of new ultra high resolution or 4K video content on quad-HD screens. It’s a stunning visual experience. This 64-bit architecture has been available on Apple devices since iPhone 5S.

Other flagged improvements include a feature similar to Apple Handoff, where you can start an app, video and music on one device and swap to using it on another from where you left off.

Google says its battery saver feature will improve battery life by up to 90 minutes. We’d need to test this with different phones and tablets to understand what the actual saving is. The estimated time left to fully charge your device is shown when it is plugged in, and you’ll be able to see an estimate of the time left on your device before you’ll need to charge it.

The Calendar and Gmail apps have been overhauled and Gmail will now handle email from providers other than Google, although there are reports it doesn’t support Apple mail and has problems with Microsoft Exchange email.

Security, connectivity, camera software capability and an improved ability to work with audio mixing are other new features. Notification improvements will spill over into other Google-operated devices such as wear­ables, Google Play and info­tainment systems in cars.

The icing on the cake is “material design” — Google’s new flat operating system design that gives Lollipop its distinctive look.

It promises simpler shapes, flat icons, clearer typography and ­effects such as lighting and ­shadows.

A cleaner, less-cluttered look is something that Apple prom­oted with iOS7. Before that, iPhone and iPad software design tended to feature “skeuo­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­morphism”, where on-screen design mimicked functionality in the physical world: wood veneer bookshelves in the iBooks app, leather stitching on calendars and notes.

Steve Jobs was passionate about skeuomorphism, but since his death Apple’s design guru Jony Ive has been dissembling it at a rate of knots in favour of the flat look.

So the mobile operating system world will now predominantly be flat. When will Lollipop be coming to your device? We don’t know exactly, but we do know that if your phone or tablet uses what’s termed vanilla Android, where the operating system hasn’t been altered by manufacturers such as Samsung, LG, HTC or others, you’ll see it sooner rather than later.

But if your phone uses modified Android versions such as Samsung’s TouchWiz or HTC Sense, you’ll need to wait until those manufacturers modify their operating systems and offer Lollipop variants.

That could take time.

This story was first published in The Australian.