About Android Boredom

October 16th, 2014

It’s been a while since Google had a major Android upgrade, one that merited a full version number increase. After a few years of 4.1, 4.2, 4.3, and 4.4, modest updates all, there’s Android L 5.0, now confirmed to be Android Lollipop. This is said to be the most significant change in Android in quite a while, but what does it offer in the real world?

With iOS 7, Apple made a substantial change in the looks, a flat-style interface with a parallax view to convey dimensionality. Good or bad, it ended up on 91% of all iOS gear until replaced by iOS 8. In passing, adoption of iOS 8 is beginning to surpass iOS 7, though it’s happening at a slower rate than its predecessor. Maybe it just didn’t look different enough. All right, there are other reasons that I’ve covered previously. But let me continue.

Key among the new features in Lollipop is Google’s answer to Apple’s Handoff in the form of improved interaction among devices. So you’ll be able to pick up where you left off when syncing your content on different Android devices, but that sounds similar to what you can do today with iCloud. It’s not the same as starting an email or word processing document and being able to pick up when moving from iOS device to a Mac (at least a Mac with Bluetooth LE hardware) or the other way around. Let’s call Google’s answer a half-baked solution.

As Apple moves to a flatter look, Google’s response is Material Design, which adds shadows and lighting effects to make objects seem as if they are floating on the screen. This also seems similar to what Apple did with the original Aqua look on OS X. So Apple moves in one direction, and Google goes the other way. At least it’s different. As Android smartphones and tablets with Lollipop begin to appear, we’ll see how well it works. Note, though, that if it requires a lot more processor horsepower, as it likely will, lots of older Android gear will be left out of the loop, or perform poorly when upgraded to Lollipop.

Predictably, notification capabilities are enhanced, and the ability to respond to a notice appears similar to what you do with iOS 8.

Yet another feature may create a security problem. You will be able to use Android Smart Lock to open the device when pairing it with a “trusted device” such as a wearable or a car. So if someone steals your wearable, which I presume usually means smartwatch, or your car, they’ll be able to take control of your Android smartphone or tablet too, if my interpretation is correct. That’s appears to be a win-win for thieves, but I await more clarification on the new feature to be sure.

An improved Recent Apps feature supposedly lets you consult a menu to be able to quickly move to those apps, but some suggest it just adds to the screen clutter. App Indexing lets you jump from the Chrome browser to a custom app that supports a feature, such as OpenTable when you are seeking a restaurant. In passing, Safari for iOS already gives you the ability to open a site, such as Yelp, direct from a dedicated app.

A potentially positive development is the promise of improved performance, employing something called the Android Extension Pack that will allow developers of games, for example, to take advantage of improved graphics. At first blush, this comes across as something similar to the Metal feature on iOS, which harnesses the power of Apple’s new generation of 64-bit chips. Despite amazing graphics specs, Android gear hasn’t always been up to the challenge, so one hopes the new features will make games more playable.

There’s also the promise of improved battery life courtesy of something that bears the curious name of Project Volta. It’s supposed to engage a battery saver feature that will, when power runs down, turn down display brightness, reduce CPU load and perform other functions that reduce power drain. It’s just an automated power saver mode apparently.

The long and short of it is that, aside from the interface changes, it’s mostly about the promise of better performance and greater battery life. That certainly augers well for Android users, although the question remains as to just how many existing devices will be able to support the upgrade, or whether it will even be available.

Despite the early release bugs, however, iOS 8 has far more features and better integration, particularly with OS X. The ability to use third-party keyboards is something Android users have long had, but there’s no real match on Google’s platform for the likes of HealthKit and HomeKit. The big advantage to Apple’s platform, aside from reasonably seamless integration, is the relative ease of use.

Reviewers of Android gear may continue to tout more features, but many of those features barely work and, if they do work, are quite often so difficult to use that their actual usefulness in the real world is reduced. Unfortunately some of those reviewers tend to ignore or downplay the negatives. So The New York Times recently posted a rave review of the Samsung Galaxy Note 4, but never seemed to deal with its known shortcomings with graphics performance.

As usual, Android fans will claim that Apple can’t catch up to the new features, but the bill of materials shows there’s really not a whole lot of goodies in Lollipop beyond the new OS theme.

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