Another year, another Google I/O and another major announcement that makes everyone immersed in the Android and Google universe stop and listen. This year it wasn’t about Google+, wasn’t about a new Nexus but it more so about Android’s new generation. Android’s new direction. Android L.
Since the revolutionary update Ice Cream Sandwich in the Galaxy Nexus in November 2011, Android has only seen incremental upgrades. While very necessary and most cases the updates to Jelly Bean and most recently Kit Kat have been much welcomed but we haven’t really seen any major changes since then. Well, at Google I/O this year… that changed. Android L doesn’t totally flip Android on its head and change everything that we know to come out with something completely new and off wall but more to refine even more what Android has become. What Google is trying to do is make stock Android more appealing the masses, not the core fan base that has only been using Nexus devices since the beginning. If Android L is any indication, which is should be since it’s a preview build, they have made a huge push to making stock Android likeable to everyone, not just the core Android fan.
Disclaimer – I have always been a stock Android guy. Since the Galaxy Nexus I have wanted nothing more than stock vanilla Google on my devices. I have used many other devices that have run Sense, Touch Wiz and other skins but nothing has come close to what I love about stock Google… the purity of the OS. Android L has come out with something that can be easily usable everyone.
So you just went through the process of flashing the preview build of Android L and the first thing that you notice is the new boot animation. 4 swirling dots of blue, green, red and yellow that eventually come together to form the new Android logo and then your off to the races. Setup remains for the most part the same as we have seen from Kit Kat and then everything seems status quo on the desktop.
Google Experience Launcher (GEL) pretty much remains the same (which is a good thing) except for the new App Drawer icon and soft keys. You have Google search bar up top that is still activated by the “Ok Google” hot word as well as the basic system applications that come loaded up with any Nexus device. Everything remains pretty much the same from the launcher standpoint and that’s a good thing. GEL has been very smooth and a pleasure to use since Kit Kat, especially with swiping to the left to access Google now which I have now become accustomed to using on a Daily basis. Once you start to get more in depth with the OS you start to find the new changes between Kit Kat and L.
The first thing that you will notice if you go into the settings is the new drop down notification shade. You will see that there is some more color to the shade, more of a grey/blue blend. The clock moves to the left hand side and in its place is a picture of your contact card. This picture will automatically populate if you have a Google+ profile active. The most change that you see though is the way each notification is handled. Each one has its own “card” that is white/grey and separate from each other. The ways these cards are displayed give them a much cleaner and overall distinguished look. The Google Now card on the bottom is also separated by a faint line which I would assume is there to break up from user/system notifications from Google Now’s persistent card. Clicking anywhere on the top status bar will show the drop down with your quick toggles.
Quick toggles are a pretty standard affair here but Google has changed it up for the better. In previous generations, the quick toggles were mainly quick buttons to go to the settings that you had to long press to toggle the actual function. Now, if you click on the WiFi or Bluetooth icon, it will turn them on/off and if you click the text under the icon it will bring you to the settings menu for that function. If you want to access the main settings menu, you just click the gear icon between the battery and contact card icon in the main status bar.
The new feature that I find very intriguing is the way auto-brightness is handled. With auto-brightness on, you can see the slider to a maximum level for the brightness to automatically adjust. Of course you can go into the settings and manually set the brightness if you so wish but the fact that we can now max the level of brightness for auto could be a huge battery saver. I always found that the auto-brightness feature would ramp up the brightness too much in certain light situations, but hopefully have the max level capped, this might be a solution. The only time that I notice this becoming an issue is in direct sunlight. This might be the time you would need to set the brightness cap to the max setting.
Speaking of settings… if you go into the settings menu, it pretty much is the same dealings here as with Kit Kat. Only changes here would be the colors that you see. Take a peek:
From what you can see, there is no official Android number, just version L, build number LPV79. Tapping the build number multiple times will unlock developer options like usual and the only change here from Kit Kat that is readily noticeable is that there is no option to change the runtime. Android L runs on ART 24/7 with no option for change. Based on the data shown at Google I/O, it is a no brainer for Google to use ART as their primary runtime environment.
Most of the settings for the most part remain the same, but there was really no need for change here so kudos on Google for not changes things for the sake of changing. There are a couple of settings that have changed for the better. For example, there is now a do not disturb mode for notification instead of silence. I am not sure I am a fan of replacing silence mode completely with DND since with DND no notifications will be displayed unless you have set up favorites or specific contacts. I liked having a dedicated silence function that blinked the LED and lit up for phone calls without making noise and not just having DND, that’s just my preference though.
When DND is on, you will see that notification cards on the lock screen (YAY ANDROID FINALLY) will block out the content and only show the icon for what application has a notification and how many notifications are waiting. This is the same case if you use the PIN setting for security based on your settings as well. This is another place that has one of the biggest changes, the lock screen. You will see that you have notification cards and no longer the circle lock icon that you can slide to unlock in any 360 degree direction. To unlock, now you swipe up (if you have a pin/password this will activate the prompt for input) to unlock, swipe left to right for access to the dialer and swipe right to left for the camera. There does not appear to be any option in the settings for lock screen widgets, whether that is product of the preview build or the Android phasing them out all together remains to be seen.
You will notice that when your phone is plugged in charging, it will give an estimated time until fully charged. This appears to only be working right now with wired charging, not wireless charging. As far as the lock screen goes, that’s pretty much it for changing.
One of the biggest changes that I am noticing, and loving for that matter, is the new dialer application. Google has brought some color and much better fluidity to the dialer application. It looks like they have taken the dialer from Kit Kat 4.4.3 and did a visual overhaul and made it look much more user friendly and aesthetically pleasing.
Immediately you see colors, a lot of colors. Bright blues and crisp whites followed by contact cards for speed dial contacts. You have the standard search bar on top and the last phone call listed right below followed by the tabs for each dialer screen. All the screens show the same bright colors and have a much nicer feel and overall look over Kit Kat’s dialer application. The dial pad icon on the bottom moves to the left as you swipe around and becomes centered only on the speed dial tab. Once you actually go and make a phone call it looks the same with the bright colors. All the phone call options (speaker, mute, number pad, pause and add person) are listed under the contact you are calling. The end button is now a nice little circle on the bottom of the screen. Overall, this is one of the nicest and more welcome changes.
One of the final changes that is most noticeable from the Kit Kat will happen when you go to type. You will notice a new keyboard. Google keyboard has always been my second favorite keyboard behind SwiftKey and this new keyboard may have shrunk that gap between second and first place.
The theme that comes activated out of the box is called “material” and it complements the new color scheme of Android L rather well. Sizing of the keys are on the slightly smaller side but overall it is a very easy keyboard to type on, especially if you like to use the flow keyboard function which is present here. You can change the theme to “white” or “blue” which switches your keyboard back to the traditional Google keyboard theme from Kit Kat but the colors white or blue will be the Kit Kat white or Ice Cream Sandwich/Jelly Bean Holo blue for the tracing trail when using flow.
Some other minor tweaks I noticed while playing around with the preview build was that Google tweaked the calculator colors to blend more with the new color schemes that appears to be the new direction for Android.
While Google announced the new cast screen function that allows you to cast the screen of your Android devices to your TV via your Chromecast or Android TV I have not been able to get it to work with my Chromecast, but I have been able to cast Netflix, YouTube and Google Play Music to my Chromecast without issue. Point here though is that Google is trying to bring all your technology together to form one harmonious environment.
Finally, the big question most people will be asking about is how is the battery life? I know that was my main concern when flashing this preview build and I have been pleased so far. With Project Volta, Google is attempting to optimize every subsystem within Android to get the most out of your battery without sacrificing performance. Seems like a fantastic idea and from what I have seen so far, it appears that they have done a great job optimizing battery life without sacrificing the speed of stock Android that I have come to love.
Overall I have been very impressed with the battery life from the L preview build. I have gotten the same battery life, if not slightly better than on 4.4.4. I notice that I can squeeze out a little more screen on time and idle time with the new battery optimizations as a result of project Volta. What those are, I can’t necessarily tell being that there has been no speed decreases on day to day performance. The Nexus 5 was never going to win any awards for stellar battery life when it came out and it still won’t now. What I can say without questions is that based on average, medium usage throughout the day (about 2 – 2.5 hours of screen on time), depending on your service and signal strength through the day you should get through the day.
What I think was a very smart idea was that Google finally added a battery saver function to stock Android, a very welcome addition. You can set when battery savers turns on, the default is set to 15% but it can be changes to 25% or 10%. When battery saver turns on, all animations disable, the speed is noticeably slower but the drain on your battery is significantly less. Based on my usage, on battery saver mode with 15% it was estimating another 4 hours before the phone would fully die. This is finally a good backup feature just in case you forget to charge your phone and can’t get to a charger for a couple hours.
Now this is a preview build… you should expect to see some bugs and glitches along the way. To start, I used full stock experience (GEL launcher, unrooted and no modifications). All the stock Google features work as they should and all the other applications I use on a daily basis have no issues including other social media like Instagram, Snapchat, Starbucks, DigiCal and Life Time Alarm. Over time I did find some issues that had forced me to flash back to 4.4.4. First, some apps have issues with transparency such as Facebook and Facebook messenger. This is minor, but still an inconvenience that needs to be addressed.
One other issues that I noticed was with Google Play Music, this will affect everyone who uses it and wishes to cache music. I had an issue where I could not download music for offline playback if I had the boxes checked in the settings menu for “Only stream using WiFi” and “Only download using WiFi”. Sounds perfectly fine if you are on data… however it would not stream or download songs if those boxes were checked even if you are connected to a WiFi network. If you uncheck both of those, you can download via WiFi or data without issue, but for some reason GPM does not recognize you are connected to a WFi network. GPM will use your WiFi to download if you are connected to one, but for some reason the app does not recognize your WiFi network when those specific settings are checked off.
Finally, the biggest issue that I encountered that actually caused me to flash back to 4.4.4 was when I experienced a massive amount of redraw issues. I don’t use a PIN or secure lock screen, just swipe to unlock and I heard from a few people also using Android L that unlocking with a PIN had redraw issues. That being said, after a week or so of running L with the stock launcher, I noticed redraw issues with just swipe to unlock. First time I noticed it, I rebooted my phone and it was fine. 24 hours later, it happened again and rebooted again that fixed the issue. 24 hours later…again… the redraw issues came back. This time when I rebooted my phone, it took a good 5 minutes to reboot and when the phone booted back up, it was wiped clean as if it was a brand new phone. That was the final straw for me that forced me to flash back to 4.4.4. I am not sure what caused this issue since I didn’t change anything aside from downloading one or two new apps but something like that is a serious issue that degrades this from a daily driver for me.
Overall, Android L preview build is showing some serious promise. If this is the future of Android, I cannot wait to install whatever build Google has next for us. You want to see the future of Android? Go flash Android L and see it for yourself.