Google’s approach for rolling out the latest version of Android, Lollipop, is a little different. There are the usual things we see every year — a new Nexus phone and a new Nexus tablet — but instead of a big event, the company is posting details in blog posts and on the main Android site. So if you’re tracking the rollout closely, you probably have a sense of what’s new and what’s cool in the OS. If you’re not, though, getting a sense of what Lollipop is actually like and what it actually does isn’t easy.
Luckily, we got a chance to sit down with some Google execs last week to get a walkthrough of the coolest features. We won’t know everything until we actually have a chance to use the final version, but there are some clever additions we saw last week. Here are some of our favorites.
Tap and Go: Android has never been particularly good at transferring your settings and apps from an old phone to a new one. It’s always been a crap shoot as to whether all your apps would actually be downloaded from the Play store, to say nothing of your home screen and wallpaper. That’s partially Google’s fault, but it’s also a difficult problem to solve because of the diversity of hardware and software in the Android ecosystem. "Tap and Go" is a small step towards resolving that. You can pair them with NFC and your old Android phone will then use Bluetooth to send over all the details of what your phone should have installed over to the new phone.
Ok Google: Several of the enhancements on Lollipop were inspired by Motorola. The first is the ability to say "Ok Google" even if your phone is in standby mode. Your phone will wake and then you can use voice to search, send texts, and more. It requires compatible hardware, though, and so far we only know for sure that the Nexus 6 and Nexus 9 support it.
Double tap to wake: Speaking of waking up your Android device, you can just double tap the screen of the Nexus 9 tablet to wake it up. Like the advanced "Ok Google" command, it requires compatible hardware. We also hear it works on the Nexus 6.
Nexus gets some of the best features from the Moto X
Ambient Display: Another feature that’s made it over from the Moto X is the idea of displaying bits of information on your screen as it comes in without turning the whole thing on. On the Nexus 6, it’s much more advanced — basically you get black and white versions of what would normally be on the lock screen anyway. It requires an OLED screen to work, so for now it seems like this is going to be a Nexus 6-specific feature.
Face unlock: Android’s face unlock feature has never really worked all that well. It’s kind of magical that it can recognize your face, but it’s often slow and usually needs really good lighting conditions to work. In Lollipop, Google has tweaked it so that it starts running silently as soon as you turn on your screen. Since you can interact with notifications on the lock screen now (see below), the idea is that you’d power it on, mess with a few notifications, and by the time you’re done Face Unlock has already kicked in and unlocked the phone.
Lock screen notifications: As with the iPhone, Android Lollipop will put notifications right on your lock screen. But on Android, the notifications on your screen are basically the same as those that appear in the drop-down notification shade. Why does that matter? Because on Android, you get a lot of control built-in to those notifications. You can archive email, tap reply, expand notifications to see more information, and so on. Now, you can do it directly on your lock screen. As a small bonus, if you have apps with sensitive information that you want to see notifications from but don’t want to display their contents, you can set them to be "redacted" when they show up on the lock screen.
Priority Mode: But the best notification enhancement in Lollipop is something Google calls "Priority Mode." It’s a little bit like "Do Not Disturb" on iOS but it seems much smarter here. You can easily choose which apps can still disturb you when in Priority Mode (the rest won’t bug you). Even better, when you set it, Android gives you the option to set a duration before it goes back into normal notifications. That way, you won’t forget to switch it off. There’s also a total silence mode that will turn everything off — including alarms.
Guest Mode: Android has allowed multiple user accounts on tablets for awhile, but in Lollipop there’s a new option called Guest Mode that works on both phones and tablets. The idea is that it creates a clean, safe, and disposable workspace that anybody can use. Your guest can even quickly log in to their account to check email. You or your guest can get rid of the data inside the guest account at any time.
The Nexus 9 is easy to hand to your kids
Pin Apps: Sometimes Guest Mode is too much work, and all you really want to do is launch a game and hand your phone to your kid — but not let them leave that game to mess with your email. Lollipop has a new feature (enabled in settings) that adds a pin to each card in the mulititasking view. When you tap it, that app won’t let you leave without entering a passcode. It’s similar to the "Guided Access" feature in iOS, but a little easier to use.
Improved Quick Settings: Quick Settings have been reorganized again, and they’re a bit easier to figure out now. Plus, the brightness slider you’ll find there is a little bit smarter: by default it responds correctly to ambient light at any brightness level. Speaking of sliders, the volume slider that pops up when you hit the volume key is also smarter: it has the buttons for the various Priority Notification modes right there.
Overview: The multitasking view now has a new name, Overview, and a new Material Design look. Each app is a big card, stacked up, and you can scroll through many more recent apps than you used to be able to. But the best feature is that any app can create multiple "cards." So, for example, when you compose a new email your inbox is still in the overview, so you can switch back and forth between tasks in a single app.
Material Design: The best and most obvious feature in Lollipop comes last. It’s a complete redesign that we already got a good look at this past summer, but there are new designs pretty much everywhere. One example: the contact card. Android adds a dynamically-created color overlay to each photo based on an accent color from the photo itself. Red lipstick, red overlay. Orange sweater, orange overlay. It’s a nice touch.
This article was updated to reflect that double tap to wake reportedly works just fine on the Nexus 6. We regret the original error.