The latest version of Google’s mobile OS has already been accessible to those who’ve had a chance to experience the Nexus 9 tablet by HTC, but the Motorola-made Nexus 6 is the first smartphone to ship with Google’s latest OS.
Lollipop is a visual treat, perhaps more soon the smartphone as compared to the tablet. The animations, layering and simple but bold palette all shine here, and elements like the drop-down notification interface with transparency effects seem to have been designed with smaller screen in mind first, as good as they do manage to look on the larger Nexus 9. On both the smaller-screened 5, and the Nexus 6 (which is well into phablet territory), Android 5.0 represents a huge accomplishment for Google and for mobile design in general.
On the Nexus 6, some of the excellent design touches include the way the notification tray expands and recedes, and the way it can selectively show individual content like screenshots or minimize them to provide a better overview of all your notices at once. A long pull will reveal additional quick settings, replacing the tap away mechanism used in earlier versions of Android.
Another nice touch, in addition to system animations like the app drawer expanding from a bubble into view, which provides a sense of continuity between the home screen and Android’s traditional home for all installed software, are the animations that take effect when any app is opened. Apps now slide up from the bottom of the screen, with a very subtle layering effect that, once again, helps to create a sense of continuity between Android’s home screen and the software that runs on top of it.
Overall, Lollipop’s design, from the new, gapless keys on the software keyboard, to the blooming fields of shading that emanate from taps to show you an input was received, just screams continuity, and it replaces the often cobbled-together (albeit effective) aesthetic of past versions with something much more approaching a cohesive, unified experience. Android is often criticized for fragmentation, but with Lollipop, it feels very much like Google is doing its best to answer those criticisms in the very building blocks of the visual language that makes up its entire mobile OS.
Some of the key features in Lollipop on the Nexus 6 reveal themselves before you even unlock the device. Motorola has some special features in store, like the ambient display that will show you notifications and time in a pale black, white and grey display that consumes very little battery energy. You can wake this to full power when you tap a notification or press the power button, and that’s when you get the new Android 5.0 lock screen, which features at-a-glance notifications.
Android’s native lock screen notifications have taken a long time to arrive, but they’re very well executed now that they are here. Each provides you with a time stamp, a brief description and the icon of the app in question, or else a preview of the content in the case of media files like screenshots. Notifications pop forward and expand in size when tapped once (another of Lollipop’s excellent visual flourishes) and a second tap will open that app or content directly (once you successfully unlock). Some categories of notifications, like those flagging messages, let you respond directly from the lock screen, which is very useful. Screen notifications can also be selectively dialled back for a less visually cluttered experience, or turned off entirely.
Another nice benefit of the new lock screen is that it shows you the time remaining before a full charge when you’re plugged in, without requiring that you add a widget or set up anything else. Lock screen widgets are in fact gone altogether, which might strike some users as a negative, but they simplify the experience overall, and lock screen widgets were never actually that useful in my opinion anyway. Google did the right thing by axing them, because the trade-off is an experience that once again offers more consistency, and in this case the cost in terms of customisability is definitely an easy one to justify.
On the Nexus 6, always-on voice prompts using the trigger phrase “Okay Google” work like a charm, even when the device is unplugged, locked and with the screen inactive. On the Nexus 5, you need to at least activate the display to trigger the “Okay Google” command, as well as enable the option to use it from the lock screen in settings, but it’s still a big help when trying to quickly access services.
Unfortunately, a new version of Android is always accompanied with questions: will existing devices get an update? When will new devices begin shipping with the new OS? As ever, there aren’t clear answers, and as they do become clear, they probably won’t be what you want to hear. It’s possible that this year could be better than usual, as several manufacturers have already announced immediate plans to update their flagship phones.