Test driving Android L preview: World's most popular OS gets a makeover

We were finally able to get our hands on the Android L preview over the weekend, and spent a lot of time seeing the changes aboard. Here's what has changed in the world's most popular mobile OS.


Since this is an early preview, we didn't expect a whole lot of changes in the UI right away, and that was more or less true. Except the Dialler, Calculator, Keyboard and Settings app, no big changes are seen in any apps. The notifications and lock screen have been revamped too.


The first thing that we notice are the new navigation buttons. The previously direct buttons have been replaced with geometric shapes that are less on the nose. And they also look very much like buttons on a gamepad or controller. Other than that the launcher remains unchanged.


There's a lot of talk about Google's Material Design UI, but it's just not possible to appreciate it without using it. For one, there's a hierarchy in the UI, making the most important things front and centre.


Redesign Calculator, Dialler and in-call UI

Redesign Calculator, Dialler and in-call UI


Open the Dialler for example, and the thing that's on top of everything else is the dialpad button. It's not the easiest thing to tell, but start scrolling through your favourites and as you see the top UI elements collapse out of view, the dialpad button remains on top even as you scroll. It makes sense, as it means you can get to the keypad any time, without having to scroll back up or without relinquishing screen estate to a wide action bar.


Even under the dialpad button, the arrangement of UI elements follows a hierarchy: search on top, last-dialled number next and your favourites forming a list below that. Start scrolling and the search bar remains in sight a tad longer than the last-dialled number. Since you are scrolling down you clearly don't intend to dial the last-dialled contact, so it moves out of sight first, and pops up again when you scroll back up.


Few other apps see the big changes hinted at by Google on the I/O stage. The fantastic looking Gmail or Play Music apps are not part of the package. The Calculator app has changed though and there's a dash of colour in the advanced menu, which sits on the right as a very visible top layer. Settings too sees a bright refresh and there's a lot more breathing room for the text. The background is white, with each entry and icon sporting a fresh teal hue. Finally, the keyboard is new and it has an undivided layout with a neat colour gradient as a background. Strangely, Google lets you switch back to the Kitkat or even Jelly Bean look through the advanced settings.


The redesigned Drive app is not present

The redesigned Drive app is not present


Animations are snappier than ever in L. System-wide all apps move out of view when you hit the home button by sliding themselves down. When you touch individual tabs within an app, there's a very brief ripple animation that seems so realistic when you think how you want some touch elements to react. The animation is not necessarily in your face. The tab animation, for example, remains confined to the top part which has the name.


Notification settings

Per-app notification settings


The Rolodex-like animation for the Recents screen is a bit over the top, though it also signifies a hierarchy that was not necessarily present in the older UI. A bonus is that you get to see four apps instead of the earlier three with one tap of the button. One thing that hasn't gone live yet, is multiple Chrome tabs showing as separate entries in Recents. Chrome still throws up just one entry.


The biggest change in terms of what will shock users or pose a challenge to the user is the notifications centre. Now you'll see a tiny picture of the logged-in user on the right corner when the shade is pulled down. Next to it are the direct button to the settings and a battery indicator.


Earlier a pull down would cover the entire screen, but now it's a translucent background below your last notification, which makes it easier to see what's below. Notifications are shown on a white background and can be dismissed with a swipe in either direction. Strangely, there was no clear-all button which meant we spent the first half hour swiping away Google Play install notification after the restore kicked in.


Redesigned Settings in landscape

Redesigned Settings in landscape


A second pull down reveals the quick toggles. The first two (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth) have two buttons. The one on top is a direct toggle, while the bottom button takes you into the dedicated settings page. The rest of the buttons - Do Not Disturb, Cast, Screen Orientation (hallelujah!), Location, Airplane Mode, Mobile Network - are all straight toggles.


After introducing widgets on the lock screen in Android 4.2 Jelly Bean, L sees them being canned. Right now, Google only allows you to get to the Dialler and Camera directly from the lock screen. It works as expected and is rather snappy too, even in this preview stage. The lock screen now shows you notifications directly on the screen instead of in the usual notification area only. You can get to the app directly with a double-tap or swipe the alert away. It also follows a UI action that's so familiar to smartphone users. The display can be unlocked by swiping up on the lock screen.


The lockscreen intelligently arranges your notifications. So even if you got a hangouts message after a missed call, it will show the missed call first as that's a higher priority according to Google. It also hides certain undismissable notifications such as when you are connected to a PC.


Lockscreen notifications, quick toggles and no name for Android L

Lockscreen notifications, quick toggles and no name for Android L


Once again, the Material Design UI and the hierarchical structure to elements is very evident on the lock screen. When you stash the notifications away (when viewing the quick toggles), they slide down neatly and arrange themselves in a stack at the bottom, with the most urgent one clearly visible for your immediate action.


This being a developer preview, a lot of apps are broken. Big apps such as Twitter, Firefox and HBO Go are not working, while force closes are frequent for some others. What was a big surprise was that the device only crashed completely twice and both were a result of apps frequently force-closing. So at the moment, despite the preview tag, you can use the L as a daily driver, just don't expect all apps to work flawlessly. Developers are not obliged to make changes to their apps as this is just a preview version, so don't be surprised if the apps don't work till closer to the official launch.


Speaking of surprises, Google has packed in a few in the new easter egg for Android L. Hitting the Android version number in the About Phone screen will throw up the Webdriver Torso videos that Google had silently uploaded to YouTube recently. Long-pressing the constantly changing combination of red and blue shapes throws you into the dessert rack that first showed up with KitKat. Here the colours are less fluorescent than in KitKat and we spotted a few new desserts that Google has thrown in just to mock all those Android L detectives. We spotted what looked like a Layer Cake and what was quite clearly a Lemon Pie (Meringue or not is a hot newsroom debate). Another image showed some kind of a custard or pudding with (what we guess is) caramel dripping down, and another showed what look like a bagel with a slice of cheese, which is not any kind of dessert we've had before. So yeah, Google is just trolling, and we fell for it too. I spent an unhealthy amount of time seeing the dessert rack switch desserts this weekend, and it didn't get me any closer to solving the mystery of L.


So many new desserts in the easter egg

Four new desserts in the easter egg


It's pretty clear that Android L is still a work in progress. Some things feel unfinished, while parts of the OS still throw you into the older UI, that's total contrast to the light, airy L UI. So yes, there's a whole lot that has to change yet. We will see the pieces fall into place as Google starts rolling out updates to its own apps. For now, we get a taste and it has left us wanting more.


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