Android L still doesn’t have an official name, but there is an official developer preview build of the OS that can be installed on the Nexus 5 and WiFi Nexus 7 (2013). Being a pre-release version of the software, it’s a bit rough around the edges. There are bugs and incompatibilities, but it might be worth trying just to see how Android is going to look in a few months — there’s definitely something magical going on here. You can watch my early hands-on impressions of Android L in the video below.
The most striking thing when you start using Android L is the way everything has a new animation attached. Each time your finger comes in contact with the screen, Google’s redesigned apps and system UI spring forth with movement and subtle color changes. It feels much more inviting, and everything is very snappy. In fact, I have yet to see any stuttering in the animations. Perhaps this is the result of getting used to Android’s Holo UI effects for so long (almost three years), but Android L feels alive in a way I wasn’t prepared for.
During the keynote I was a little concerned that some of the screens Google showed off looked a little too colorful — almost a “Playskool” vibe. The more I look at and use it, the more Material Design grows on me. It elevates the interface in a meaningful way and gives developers much more to work with. Holo (Android’s last official design language) was an important first step in unifying the look and feel of the software, but it was a bit plain. So many apps ended up looking like cookie cutter copies of the design patterns. After seeing the way the Material Design parts fit together, I believe developers are going to be able to make apps that look like part of the updated platform, but that also look great on their own.
Sadly, most of Google’s apps are still done in the old style. As a demo of Material Design, the dialer and calculator have been updated with Android’s new, bold colors. The rest will come later, but for now these ones stand out. Google’s Android L dev preview is also missing a number of features and UI elements that were demoed on stage at I/O 2014, but the core of the new experience is here, and it’s impressive even with the bugs.
Notifications, and a farewell to lock screen widgets
Notifications are another big area of interest in Android L. This interface has been almost unchanged since Android 4.0 way back in 2011. In L, Google has moved to a card-style layout, and also tied notifications to the lock screen. It looks much more modern, and the stacking is great for times when you’ve got a bunch of stuff backed up in there. Android L almost tricks me into unlocking the phone sometimes. I see a notification on the lock screen, tap on it, and then realize I’m a single swipe away from unlocking the phone — I might as well. Putting these elements together was a very good idea, but it might mean the end of lock screen widgets. I don’t see those anywhere in the dev preview.
This is definitely not ready for use on your main phone — if a Nexus 5 lives in your pocket every day, do yourself a favor and pass on this first developer preview. The OS itself is stable enough, but there are plenty of early bugs to go around. WiFi is flaky, Google Now times out too often, and multitasking cards sometimes don’t render correctly. Since this version of Android has also switched to ART as the runtime environment, many apps simply won’t work. That’s on top of any API compatibility issues that might arise from any new version of Android.
It makes a lot of sense that Google would choose this cycle to offer a developer preview, which it has never done before. The tools and interface of Android are changing so dramatically that app developers need some lead time. We don’t know if more developer previews will come before the final release this fall, but Google already has something awesome here. Having used this initial build, I’m sold on Material Design and Android L’s big feature improvements.