After calling it the biggest update in Android’s history, Google yesterday announced that it would be making its Android “L” update available, albeit in preview/beta form, to developers today. The files were posted on the company’s official developer website earlier, and since then I’ve installed the preview on my Nexus 5 and been digging through it, seeing what kind of changes I could find, both mentioned and unmentioned by Google…
The first thing you notice when you power up an Android “L” device, aside from the refreshed boot logo and animation, is that the lock screen has been entirely revamped. Along the bottom of the screen you’ll now find three icons. On the far left is a phone icon, while in the middle is an unlock icon, and on the right is a camera. Swiping right will launch you directly into the phone app, while swiping left takes you into the camera. Swiping up will, of course, take you directly into the operating system, wherever you left off before. For some reason, my natural instinct was to swipe right to unlock the phone, probably because you could do that in Android 4.4 and because that’s what you do on iOS. That’s not a huge issue, but does certainly take some getting used to depending on how you used KitKat.
Another thing you’ll notice on the lock screen is that notifications now appear directly on it, as opposed to having to pull down the notification bar to see any. You can tap twice on any notification to launch into the app it pertains to, or swipe left or right to dismiss it. Pulling down on it will expand it and allow you to view a few lines of the content, such as part of an email. iOS handles lock screen notifications in a similar way and it was great to finally have the feature on Android. On KitKat, you had the ability to launch Google Now from the lock screen by swiping up from the very bottom of the lock screen, but with “L” that feature has disappeared and you have to go all the way into the O.S. to access Now. Although once the most recent Google Search update hits all devices that won’t be a problem.
Once you make it past the lock screen you’ll see the new skin that Google touted so heavily at I/O this year. There are, however, some minor discrepancies between what it demoed at I/O and what is in this early developer preview. One discrepancy comes with the status bar icons. The ones Google showed were noticeably cleaner and smoother than what’s shown in the developer preview. Obviously, this will probably change as we progress closer to a consumer release, but this is it for now. The home screen itself doesn’t look all that different when compared to Android 4.4 either at this point. There are some icon tweaks here and there, such as the app drawer icon, but for the most part things are the same.
Swiping to the far left screen will still bring you to Google Now, which is relatively unchanged with “L,” at least for now. The software buttons along the bottom have, however, been tweaked to be a lot simpler. Long pressing on the home screen still brings up the ability to add widgets and change your wallpapers. The only changes here are to the icons at the bottom. The keyboard in “L” has also been revamped, although not nessecareily for the better. The keys are borderless which makes it harder to aim and hit the right one. You can enable the KitKat keyboard, however, by navigating into the settings app, then into input settings, then choosing the option to change the color.
The notification pull down has been entirely reworked with a plethora of visual changes and functionality enhancements. The interface is now very transparent, meaning that—assuming you don’t have a lot of notifications—you see your home screen or whatever app you’re using in the background. Once you’re in the notification center you can pull down from the top again to bring down a panel of quick settings. Previously in Android, you had to pull down with two fingers to open up quick settings. Stylistically, the look of quick settings in Android has a dark blue color scheme. You can toggle WiFi, Bluetooth, Airplane mode, GPS, and auto-rotate in the quick settings. You’ll also find the ability to adjust notification volume and brightness. Notifications are still, of course, actionable, meaning that you can do things like archive an email without launching the email app.
Another change in Android “L” is the multitasking interface. In KitKat, the interface was a simple vertical scrolling list of app names and a live preview of it. Now, the interface is card-based and has a general “tabs” feel to it. I personally am not a huge fan of this change. You see less information without swiping than you do with the old interface and it just looks cluttered. At some point, individual Chrome tabs will also start appearing in the multitasking view, which will clutter it up even further. Although, it’s unclear when Google will launch that feature.
The settings app also has an entirely new design, and in it are a couple of new features. The general color scheme of the new settings app fits in with what you see in other elements of Android “L.” It has blue-green icons and text with a white background. One new setting you’ll notice is in the “Sound and Notifications” interface and allows you to mute all notifications and sounds.
Google calls this feature Do Not Disturb mode and there are variety of aspects you can adjust it by, including the ability to set it to automatically turn itself on. You can also activate do not disturb mode by pressing one of the volume buttons and tapping the circle in the corner From there, you have the ability to set Do Not Disturb mode for a certain number of hours, or until you turn it off. With Do Not Disturb enabled, any notifications on your lock screen will show up as hidden, though you have the ability to show them.
The dialer app has been entirely revamped with Android “L,” as well. When you first open the app you’ll notice that it has a bright blue color scheme and a tabbed interface. There are three tabs along the top, one for speed dial, one for recents, and one for a full list of your contacts. To bring up the actual number pad, you simply tap the floating button at the bottom of the screen. The calculator has been revamped with a new color scheme, as well.
One of Google’s biggest focuses at I/O was animations and making the interface seem like it was performing quicker over. There are certainly quite a few new animations present for simple things like swiping between menus and closing apps. You’ll also notice a new dot that appears when you tap on the screen. While enhancements like these seem small, they really do add to the user experience quite a bit and give it some polish, which Android has notoriously lacked.
Google also talked about how its switch from the Dalvik Runtime to Android Runtime with Android “L.” Doing this, Google says, will improve performance, graphics, and battery life. All three of those qualities are hard to test in such an early preview, so I’ll hold judgement on ART until a far later version of “L,” but if it works like Google intends it to then it should be very beneficial. There are some elements of battery life improvements, however. For instance, once your device hits 15 percent battery, a battery saver mode will kick in and turn off a lot of the animations. You can also now see how long it will be until device is fully charged when plugged in.
A variety of features Google announced at I/O aren’t yet present in this early preview either, including 64-bit support, the ability to unlock your phone when your smartwatch is nearby, and of course the general performance improvements promised. Google also heavily touted its new Material Design theme, and while there are certainly elements of its present in this early build, there’s a lot of room for more change. That’s an important thing to note, too. This is an early preview of Android “L” and a bunch of things are going to change before it’s released to consumers this fall, many of those changes are going to be for the better. Android “L” has the potential to be a huge update for Google and this early developer preview only gives us a peek of what’s to come, but it definitely does excite us.
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