Lollipop, the Latest Version of Android, Is Grown
Google has just released its new version of Android, and the company is showing it off on a new slate of Nexus devices: A 9-inch tablet and a coming phone, the Nexus 6.
I tried the tablet version of Android 5.0, code-named Lollipop, on the company's Nexus 9 tablet, which was built by HTC. The operating system includes some welcome improvements, refinements and new features, but the Nexus 9 tablet is a little too expensive to be a good value.
Where previous Nexus tablets have been relatively inexpensive and had less than impressive build quality, the Nexus 9 is being positioned as a 'premium' tablet, with high-end specs and a higher price tag.
The 8.9-inch device costs $400 with 16GB of memory, which is $100 less than an iPad with the same amount of storage. But the 32GB version is $589, whereas a 64GB iPad, the most comparable option, $600. And there's an option for a 128GB iPad, as well.
If you're a fan of downloading lots of apps, movies, music and games, the Nexus 9 will probably feel constrained - even with 32GB, the device could fill up quickly. And there's no way to add more space with an SD card slot, as you can with some Samsung Galaxy tablets.
The Nexus 9 does, however, somewhat justifies its price tag with a fast processor, an extremely high-resolution screen, an 8 megapixel camera on the back and two front-facing speakers that offer noticeably loud sound.
The 9-inch size is easy to hold, especially thanks to the rubber-like back. (The back quickly shows fingerprints and becomes greasy, though, which is unappealing.) And the tablet's light weight makes it a reasonable companion even to a laptop, but still big enough to enjoy videos and other media.
And of course, the tablet runs the latest tablet edition of Android, version 5.0, code-named Lollipop.
The new operating system contains a laundry list of new features, many of which will appear to the casual user as welcome refinements instead of major changes.
The new interface is sophisticated and appealing. Animations abound, like when you open the apps tray and the list of app icons bursts forth. The app-switching interface is now a quickly shuffling deck of cards that you swipe sideways to dismiss.
The calendar is beautiful, with seasonal backgrounds, and Android inserts images based on what you've typed. 'Drinks with Joel' shows up with an image of a martini glass and a cocktail, so the calendar appointment looks like an Evite.
The most noticeable Lollipop change is the way it handles notifications. They're bright, colorful little message cards on the home screen that you can interact with more easily - although those interactions are occasionally a little confusing.
For example, to respond to an incoming email, you swipe downward on the notification card. But you just have to figure that out or read it somewhere. If you press and hold the notification, you'll get either an information screen or settings. Swipe right or left and it will disappear, double tap and the app will open.
The information screen is a handy shortcut to privacy options, in case you're worried about where notifications show up. You can block notifications from a specific app, like email or maybe Hangouts, and you can give certain apps higher priority so they'll always be at the top of the list.
There's also a Priority mode that will reduce on-screen pop-ups other than apps you've given permission to interrupt.
Notifications are still present when you swipe down from the top of the screen, but if you swipe twice you'll see a redesigned shortcuts menu that, much like Apple's swipe-up settings screen, gives access to shortcuts like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, overall settings and a flashlight.
Other niceties in Lollipop include new security elements. Contents of the device are encrypted by default, which is reassuring in the event of losing the tablet.
There's also a new Smart Lock system that lets you use facial recognition to unlock the device instead of a PIN, password or swipe pattern. While this is a fun trick that can make using the tablet fast and easy, I found the recognition a little inconsistent. But the feature is useful when you're looking at home screen notifications: when you want to respond, you don't have to unlock the tablet, because it's already unlocked itself by scanning your face.
The tablet edition also offers a welcome 'guest user' feature, so you can allow a visitor to have full use of your device without poking around in your personal information or logging you out of your accounts.
In the upper right corner, you tap the 'user' icon, and choose 'Add Guest.' The tablet automatically switches to guest mode, and presents the user with a clean interface where they can browse, watch videos, play games or even take photos. But once they log out, the session is erased and you can switch back to your user account with no harm done.
You can also set up multiple accounts on the device, so family members or children can have their own apps and interface, or just 'pin' an app so a user can only access that app and can't exit without a special code.
Ultimately, while Lollipop is filled to the brim with new features, the most welcome changes are those that make its devices more useful. And the software delivers there, with its full-featured notifications and a smooth, attractive interface that feels accessible to almost everyone. Android 5.0 finally feels like an operating system for the masses.