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Closer look: Android L preview

updated 09:13 pm EDT, Sat July 26, 2014

Android L focuses on look, feel, performance rather than features

Google's Android L preview has been made available to developers and any other interested users who own a Nexus 5 smartphone or Nexus 7 tablet. It marks the first time that Google has released an early preview of the latest version of its mobile OS, while is also the first major revamp of the Android UI since Android 4.0 'Ice Cream Sandwich,' which was released three years ago. In that time, Android has become the most widely used mobile operating system in the world. However, despite its popularity, it has slipped somewhat on the technology front with Apple iOS making the leap to 64-bit in August last year. Android L seeks to redress this by adding an all-new 64-bit runtime (ART), coupled with other system enhancements designed to improve performance and battery life.

Material Design:
The most notable change to Android L is the way that the software works to create a more 'delightful' and engaging user experience. This is in contrast to the first several years of the Android user experience. Google, which released Android around 1 year after iOS, was in a race to out do Apple iOS by delivering feature enhancements at a rapid pace; however, this often came at the expense of either stability or the overall speed of the user interface which was often criticized as suffering from lag. Since the introduction of Android 4.0 'Ice Cream Sandwich,' and under now under the influence of Matias Duarte, Google has slowed the pace of feature upgrades and started focusing on making Android more stable and speeding up the user interface through initiatives like Project Butter.

Android L builds on the user interface improvements in Android 4.3 'Jelly Bean' and Android 4.4 'KitKat' by bringing with it Google's most comprehensive and cohesive design language yet, which it calls 'Material Design' (pdf). In many ways, Material Design is a direct response to the Jony Ive-inspired complete redesign of the iOS interface and user experience that debuted in iOS 7 last year. iOS 7 is underpinned by a distinctive design language that permeates throughout the entire user experience, helping to reinforce Apple's reputation for design and the slickness of its user experience. According to Android designer Matias Duarte, "unlike real paper, our digital material can expand and reform intelligently. Material has physical surfaces and edges. Seams and shadows provide meaning about what you can touch."

Google has set up documentation in progress that details the Material Design language, directing Android developers on how they can apply the same design principles across their applications. Among the key features of Material Design are the introduction of extensive animation functions, motion concepts, response interactions, consistent choreography and what Google calls 'delightful details.' Coupled with this is a clearly defined and bold color palette along with rules for the application of both the design principle and color palette that combine to make Android L the most cohesive and comprehensively implemented Android 'theme' that Google has ever applied to its mobile operating system. Google has captured the key aspects of Material Design in motion in the video embedded below:

Like iOS 7, the user response to Android L is likely to be mixed. Even though the Android L preview is a work in progress, Google's intent with Material Design is clear and the operating system is definitely more vibrant and interactive. In some ways, it has gone a little animation and transitions crazy, with lots of these now apparent throughout the user experience, but whether these all make it through to the final build remains to be seen. Tapping numbers on the dialler keypad now results in colored animated splashes in response to user input, in addition to haptic feedback and sound. These are purely aesthetic touches that help to liven the user experience and make it arguably more interactive, but some my find them unnecessary adornments and therefore potentially annoying or distracting. Animations have long been a trademark of what makes the iOS user experience so slick, so it is interesting to see Google give this particular emphasis in Android L.

Enhanced Notifications and Notifications Panel:
The way that Android has handled notifications has long been a strength of the platform, however as with anything, there is always the room for improvements. While the argument will rage forever about which company is stealing ideas from which company when it comes to Android and iOS, there is no doubt that the way notification cards in Android L now pop up within apps depending on type and context, that it resembles the way notifications can be set up to work on iOS. Google has also followed the lead of some of its Android partners who have been given users the option to deliver notifications directly to the lockscreen. The type and amount of information displayed via the lockscreen can also be controlled of users have any privacy concerns. In the case where users have paired with a wearable Bluetooth device, these notifications can be directly accessed from the lockscreen without the need to actually unlock your device.

The notifications panel also gets reworked in Android L. Interestingly, users must now individually swipe away notification cards and no longer have the simple ability to dismiss them entirely with one touch. It is possible that Google has done this for at least a couple of reasons; firstly, the old system did make it too easy to dismiss important notifications accidentally; secondly, the new approach forces you to view each notification more completely before dismissing it, increasing the likelihood that users might tap on Google Now-related notifications for example, which they might have otherwise dismissed without so much as a glance. A second pull down of the notifications panel also reveals new system shortcut switches for frequently used settings like Wi-Fi and Airplane Mode including an adjustable brightness bar, very reminiscent of Apple's iOS 7 Control Panel and even Samsung's own approach in TouchWiz.

Other UI tweaks:
Google has updated the Roboto font throughout Android L, again, to help foster a much more cohesive look and feel to the operating system, much like Apple has with its various weights of Helvetica Neue throughout iOS 7 and 8. In Android L, this is particularly apparent in the redesigned Settings application. The look and feel here is particularly reminiscent of the Sense 6.0 UI that is a feature of HTC's current mobile devices including the HTC One (M8) and is a sophisticated expression of the 'flat' UI design language that is a major design element of Material Design.

In what appears to be another iOS 7/8 inspired UI tweak, the multitasking view takes on the appearance of a scrolling 3D stack. The look and feel of this function is very reminiscent of how Apple handles open browser tabs in Safari, although Apple's implementation is more sophisticated in that users can actually use a perspective effect to peak further into the stack to get a better look at each tab. This effect is not apparent in the Android L multitasking stack, but similarity is otherwise uncanny. It is unclear exactly why Google chose to drop previous 2D scrolling multitasking snapshot view, which we always found effective, in favor of the new approach - perhaps it looked too 'Holo'? One could argue that you would have to scroll right through the older view before you could see which app you wanted to switch to and that this helps to mitigate against that. However, in practice, we aren't certain that the new approach is that much more functional.

The Android L keyboard has been updated with a similarly flat UI design, that while attractive, has ended up looking very much like one of the themed keyboard implementations the popular Android keyboard app SwiftKey. In terms of functionality, there are no obvious improvements, but it was already a very good software keyboard to begin with. One other notable UI change is the new square multitasking software button, the round Home button and the triangular back button -- the latter is questionable in its current form as depending on your perspective, it can appear to point left, point up slightly to the right or point down slightly to the right.

ART and Android Extension Pack:
The 32-bit Android Dalvik virtual machine has been at the heart of Android since inception, and it has provided the environment in which Android apps are compiled in and run. Android L replaces the Dalvik machine entirely with an all-new environment that Google is calling Android Runtime, or ART for short. For the first time, ART brings 64-bit compatibility to Android and will give OEM's the opportunity to catch up to Apple which made the leap to 64-bit software and hardware in August last year. ART boosts application performance by up to three times, and also helps to improve battery life by reducing hardware overhead because of its new ahead-of-time compiler. ART is also backwards compatible with 32-bit applications and hardware, so older devices will still benefit from its introduction while most apps should still work without need for revision. However, when Android L launches later this year, you can expect it to really shine when the first OEM's start shipping 64-bit Android-compatible hardware (Intel's own Android on x86-64 efforts notwithstanding).

Android L also opens up and additional 5,000 APIs for developers. Chief among the new programming interfaces is the ability for apps to be able to share information between so that information. This will help to reduce the steps it takes when conducting a search, for example. The search engine will be able to talk directly to apps that may be relevant to the search to pull up the appropriate information without having to be pushed away from the device and on to mobile websites, for instance. The new Android Extension Pack also brings with it a number of new graphics-based tools that developers will be able to draw upon to make gaming more console-like and realistic than ever before. Whether it is able match Apple's SpriteKit, SceneKit and Metal remains to be seen, but anything that improves the way developers can take advantage of next-gen mobile GPUs including additional shaders can only be a positive.

Project Volta:
Google's Android team has been also working to boost the role the Android operating system plays in draining battery life in other aspects of the system in addition to the boosts that come with ART. Project Volta comes with new APIs for developers that give them a better insight into how their apps are utilizing the battery and system resources. Battery Historian will allow them to find inefficiencies in their code and further optimize app performance. Additional Project Volta APIs will also allow apps to more intelligently schedule their use of device radios, so that data consuming and battery draining 4G LTE connections can be avoided in favor of connecting only over Wi-Fi points instead. There is now also a new Battery Saver mode that powers down the backlight among the tweaks that reduce performance, but increase battery longevity - it can be switched on continually, or set to come on automatically when the battery drops to 15 percent. Some independent tests have shown a 30 percent improvement in battery life on the Nexus 5 when running Android L over its predecessor.

Final thoughts:
Android L is focused very much around building an iOS-like layer of slickness and refinement to the overall Android user experience. Android has developed reputation as a mobile operating system loaded with features and one that offers users a highly customizable experience. Since Android 4.0 'Ice Cream Sandwich,' Google has been working hard to bring greater consistency and unity to the Android user experience, which has been challenging. With the breadth and diversity of not only the types of devices that run Android, along with manufacturers that have insisted on adding their own look and feel to the core OS, it has been very hard for Google deliver an Apple iOS level of consistency and coherence throughout the Android ecosystem.

Material Design provides a detailed and considered software design playbook that Google plans splash across its entire software and hardware ecosystem. While it is quite likely that many Android app developers will adopt the Material Design look and feel, it remains unclear whether Google's Android hardware partners will play ball or continue down the path of producing heavily skinned Android alternatives. At the very least, Material Design will feature strongly on Google's own hardware, whether it is its Nexus program or any other devices it introduces. Performance and efficiency boosts also mark the Android L release, with a new 64-bit compatibility layer laying the platform for Android OEM's to catch up to Apple's lead in both 64-bit hardware and software. Android L gives Android fans plenty to look forward to on its release later this year and is shaping up as Google's most refined version of Android yet.

By Sanjiv Sathiah

by MacNN Staff



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