We all thought Android 4.4 KitKat was a major change when it came out late last year, but the still unnamed L release of Android puts that to shame. Despite not telling us the codename (Lollipop?) or the version number (5.0?), Google demoed an updated UI called Material Design and a plethora of new features. You won’t be able to get your hands on the final version of L until this fall, but Apple is going to have its work cut out for it competing with the new Android, even after its lauded iOS 8 announcement. Here’s how Android is evolving and what that means for the iOS vs. Android matchup coming later this year.
Material Design is the name of Google’s new interface guidelines — much like Microsoft and Metro — and it’s a radical departure from Android of the past. It adopts the color palette from Google Now with blues, muted greens, and red, but white is still the dominant color. It provides a more lively tapestry on which to paint the updated Android interface.
Android is still adhering to flat design, which is the trend, but it’s layered flatness. Google describes this as a take on stacks of paper, but a digital paper that can shift and morph into different shapes. The new SDK will allow developers to describe the way UI elements are layered (an elevation value), which can be used to render parts of an app as if they are floating just above another. Android L renders subtle shadows on the edges that give a feeling of depth without cluttering the screen. Every little change in the new Android UI also comes with some sort of animation, even if it’s fast. Ideally, there won’t be any more hard transitions.
How does this compare to Apple? Cupertino has taken a lot of heat for its iOS 7 redesign, but it’s slowly winning people over. iOS 8 continues the trend of flat design with the transparent glass effect. Design is a pretty subjective thing, but you have to admit Google is doing some very interesting things with Material Design.
Apple made a big fuss about the new Metal graphics API included in iOS 8, which will allow developers to design games that run considerably faster. The Swift programming language was also rolled out for iOS devs to create more streamlined apps. It all adds up to faster apps. Android response? A new runtime and the Android Extension Pack (AEP).
Google developed the AEP in partnership with Nvidia. It was demoed on the Nvidia Tegra K1 at I/O, but it should run on all ARM chips. AEP is a collection of extensions for OpenGL ES that adds features like tessellation and compute shaders that close the gap between mobile graphics and DirectX 11 on PCs. Google didn’t list any performance numbers, but Mountain View has another trick up its sleeve in this department.
Android L is the end of the line for Dalvik, the virtual machine in Android that compiles Java from apps into native code. Dalvik is what’s called a “just in time” compiler — you run an app, and it compiles the code as you go. The replacement for Dalvik was included in KitKat as a beta feature — the Android Runtime or ART. A device using ART compiles Java into native code upon installation and caches it, which makes all apps and games faster, piping the bits right to the hardware. Apple’s famous responsiveness advantage might be going away.
In all these years, Google has neglected to create a basic battery saving mode for Android. A number of OEMs have done it on their own, like Samsung with its Ultra Power Saver Mode on the Galaxy S5. However, Android L is going to have Project Volta. This is a major change to the way Android manages battery life.
Project Volta will include an easy-to-use setting that users can flip on to down-clock the CPU, disable background data, and tweak other settings to save power. Google claims this feature can add another 90 minutes of life to a Nexus 5, which lasts about a day as it currently stands. That’s not a huge difference, and Apple has always been able to tout its superior battery life thanks to a more restricted app model.
Android L will at least make it easier to avoid power draining apps and services with an enhanced Battery Historian feature. It’s no secret the battery management screen in current builds of Android is junk. The new one lists detailed information about device wakeup alarms and wakelocks. This is long overdue, but iOS will probably still win in overall battery life.