Last month, we talked about the improvements in Android Lollipop. This time we continue the story on what’s still missing in the latest edition of Android OS.
1. Lacklustre security improvements
Much like the `Kids’ mode introduced in Windows Phone 8, Android Lollipop allows you to share your device safely using the `guest’ mode, restricting access to the rest of your device. That doesn’t appear very innovative. You can now create multiple user accounts to allow others to use your device. However, this was possible with tablets earlier as well, now it includes phones. The only great innovation in this front comes from the fact that you can now use something called as `Android Smart Lock’ to secure your device by pairing it with another known device, be it your wearable (smartwatch, Google Glass, etc.) or even your car.
But, in the end, even the success of this in India relies largely on how do such wearables and Android enabled cars take off in India. The improvements certainly will not impact the typical user as much as the 5 other improvements discussed in the previous edition. New devices are also said to come with encryption automatically turned on. However, given the astronomical pricing of Nexus 6 as well as Lollipop not being particularly good for large tablets such as the Nexus 9 (a topic which is covered later in this article), this too is likely to have a limited impact.
As a silver lining to the cloud, SELinux is now enforced for all applications. That should be important in a country like India where shops commercially sell their side loading services for installing apps on your device without you knowing where was the content obtained from.
2. Bigger may not be better
The new release of Android comes at a time when Google has extended its reach beyond phones and tablets in both directions, on the smaller side with smartwatches (and other wearables including Google Glass) and on the larger side with Android TVs and Android Auto (for cars). But Google doesn’t appear to have realized the practical problems in using the same UI on large tablets. On the other hand, a lot of efforts are seen to be going into pushing smartwatches as `the next big thing’.
Windows Phone’s `modern’ UI can be scaled up very well for touch optimized applications on full-size desktop PCs but as far as large tablets and their usability is concerned, Google seems to have gone a step backwards. Please note that here we are comparing stock Android versions and not skinned versions built by OEMs (e.g. HTC Sense UI).
For instance, take a look at this screenshot of a Nexus 10 running Android 5.0 (in Hindi) with the notifications being pulled down from the top . In most of the recent releases prior to Lollipop (in tablets), the notifications were placed near the left edge of the screen, and the `Quick settings’ menu was placed near the right edge of the screen, all accessible from swiping down from the top near the respective edges.
That made it pretty comfortable to use a large tablet, to the extent that single-handed operation was practically possible. Now since these two pull-downs have been combined into the centre, one really needs to stretch the thumb to reach the menu from either of the left/right sides, and the only way one-handed operation can be deemed to be practical is if the tablet is not in your hands but lying flat down on some surface and you are controlling it from the top (like a table-top touch-screen).
However, smaller screens and smartphones shouldn’t have this problem (and even among large tablets, one can always use the tablet in a portrait orientation instead of a landscape orientation to make the menu more `accessible’).
The point is, Google appears to have `undid’ it’s design change which made Honeycomb ideal for tablets (wherein UI elements were focused on being close to the borders, within easy reach when dealing with a large screen). With Ice Cream Sandwich, Jelly Bean and KitKat, things were still practically usable. However, now this is a big chink in the armor for large screens, in the name of convergence and `providing a similar experience across all devices’.
And do note that the menu is still at the same central location if you access it from the lock screen. It will be worth seeing how the next iteration of popular large-screen tablets like Samsung Galaxy Tab handle this, since the Nexus 9 which has already released, runs stock Android.
3. Good for some, bad for others
The new feature of notifications to be dismissed from the lockscreen might be good for some but not all. There has always been a trade-off between ease-of-use and security, and here that trade-off shows. While many may prefer to be able to dismiss a notification from a locked screen, others may want to prevent any accidental dismissals of notifications when they are standing in a crowded bus/train and have just tucked in their phones into their pockets after quickly ending a call (meaning that the screen might still be`awake’ for a few seconds and hence vulnerable to a notification being dismissed because of any accidental push/jerk).
There are also privacy concerns, such as the possibility of your colleague sitting next to your desk being able to actually read notifications on your tablet (and worse, be able to dismiss them) while you go to the water cooler leaving the tablet behind. In the end, these preferences can certainly be customized (including the amount of information that can be shown on the lockscreen). However, given Android’s mass user-base, it is natural that users would want something that suits them out-of-the-box. Google has taken the risk of doing the balancing act here by throwing it open to tinkering.
4. Not-so-quick `quick settings’
We have indeed come a long way from the full-keypad BlackBerrys, HTCs and Nokia feature phones of yesteryears which had dedicated hardware keys for one-touch access to BBM, Facebook, FM radio, etc. without caring for what is on the screen. How many tangible actions would you like to perform if you want to switch BlueTooth on? In Lollipop, it becomes slightly complicated. You obviously do need o (at the bare minimum, let’s say step 0) wake up the screen in case it is not already.
But from here things branch out. If the screen is locked, (1) one single swipe from the center of the top edge will bring down the `quick settings’ menu, and then (2) a normal tap on the BlueTooth icon will do the job.
However, doing step 1 itself is difficult because of the repositioned menu mentioned earlier if you have a landscape-oriented screen. Further, step 2 will only apply after your second attempt (and onwards) at activating BlueTooth. (In the first attempt, the screen will unlock itself and present you the BlueTooth settings screen).
What is worse, if your screen is unlocked already, you will need to make 2 swipes instead of just 1 in step 1, in addition to actually unlocking the screen.
So much for the convenience of a touchscreen versus a keypad. Similar is the case with Wi-Fi, flight mode, etc. And at least by default, there is no way you can toggle location sharing on/off from the lock screen. You will need to mandatorily make 4 actions(unlock, swipe, swipe, tap) from there onwards for any toggling. This in spite of the fact that for a mobile user, location is supposed to change much frequently in a day than the state of BlueTooth/WiFi. The only positive side to this is that you now have `Flashlight’, `Hotspot’ and `Screen cast’ controls present in `Quick settings’.
5. Graphics advancements at the risk of fragmentation
For those who can afford to, one of the main reasons one would prefer to play games on a console instead of on a PC is because of the lack of fragmentation. You don’t need to keep on upgrading your graphics card/RAM, etc. in a console regularly, there is going to be exactly one model called as `PlayStation 3’, exactly one model called as the `XBox One’, and unless you are referring to playback standards such as NTSC/PAL or a DVD’s region-locked codes, a console that is available outside India will work practically the same way in India, so will it’s gamepad/joystick, and so will the actual game title that you plan to play, barring instances when the concerned console/game title wouldn’t have been released itself in India. With Android 5.0, Google is aiming to become the console-equivalent of mobile gaming and amazing graphics, without addressing the fundamental underlying issues.
For instance, it is no doubt that today’s Android devices have screens packing in many more pixels per inch compared to iPads and iPhones. So purely in terms of numbers, yes, that amounts to becoming superior to the Retina display. Frankly speaking, at that scale, the difference between two adjacent pixels is imperceptible to the untrained human eye. However, it is ironic that because of Android’s fragmentation, Google’s own Nexus devices are falling behind, just because of the race in numbers without addressing the underlying problem.
Take the absolutely new Nexus 6 for instance, which, as of the time of going to press, doesnt even have a confirmed availability date in India. At nearly 6 inches of screen space, it offers a resolution of 2560×1440. Now, since it is after all, a `Nexus’ (and also because of the astronomical pricing compared to earlier Nexus models), one would assume that this is the best what Android can do (in a smartphone/phablet). Wrong.
The same resolution is available in a marginally smaller screen in the form of the Samsung Galaxy Note 4, and ironically, the LG G3 (which is not so new) beats both of them by offering the same resolution with just about 5.5 inches of screen space, in spite of being cheaper than the other two!
The point is, marginal improvements are being made in terms of pure numbers, the screens (and GPUs) are becoming more power-hungry to drive that many pixels, and as a result, resource-intensive games which have console quality graphics (e.g. Real Racing 3) look `less amazing’ on a Nexus 10 than they do on an iPad 3, even though the iPad 3 has less in terms of pure number of pixels.
One of the logical reasons? iOS developers know precisely what the underlying hardware will be for their apps and don’t need to `compromise’, doesn’t matter if in terms of pure numbers it packs less of a punch than it’s counterpart Android hardware.
Android Lollipop brings with it OpenGL ES 3.1 and Android extension pack. Google claims that this will `bring Android to the forefront of mobile graphics putting it on par with desktop and console class performance’. However, in India, we instead have Google pushing Android One as a common minimum level of experience on low-cost devices’ and as a result, developers wanting to take advantage of new improvements in Lollipop have to bring down their `targets’ in order to accomodate such a broad spectrum, regardless of whether they are building a console-quality game or a multimedia player wanting to take advantage of the new support for UHD 4K video playback in Lollipop (since all Android One devices are also supposed to be eligible for an update to Lollipop).
There is much more to Android 5.0 than the changes described here, especially under-the-hood changes made to networking, the new Android runtime, 64-bit support, USB audio, a host of camera features, etc. However, as far as first impressions are concerned, the above ones seem to be what can make-or-break the user experience of Android 5.0 in India.
The broad range of changes made in this version leave no doubt that this is indeed the biggest update to Android so far, and it’s too difficult to point a single `killer’ change which can turn the tables either way on it’s own for Lollipop to succeed or fail. Yes, the Lollipop is sweet, but some people will still want to add artificial sweeteners!
Note: Each of the pros and cons mentioned here are applicable to Android 5.0.1 as well, which is a tiny bugfix update that was released in early December. In fact, devices like the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 are reported to be heading straight for the 5.0.1 update, instead of being updated to 5.0 first.