The Android 5.0 Lollipop update for Nvidia's Shield Tablet starts rolling out today. The 16GB Wi-Fi version has first dibs, but its 32GB LTE twin won't get a taste until "a little later." Carriers have to certify the update before Nvidia can push it to devices. Our 16GB review unit was updated early, and I've spent some of the past few days poking around the new OS to see what it's like on Nvidia's flagship slate.
The most noticeable difference is easily "material design," a new interface doctrine that permeates the OS in addition to most of Google's key applications, such as Gmail, Inbox, Calendar, and Keep. Material design is all about simplified graphics and layered surfaces. Lighting and shadows are used to project a subtle sense of depth onto the otherwise flat aesthetic.
The revamped design looks a little barren for my tastes, especially given the stark white backgrounds and extra white space that dominate the UI. The worst offender is probably the default keyboard, whose borders have been erased in favor of a naked character array:
While the borderless design doesn't seem to affect my accuracy, I still don't feel confident using it. Mercifully, the old keyboard theme can be resurrected via the settings menu.
To Google's credit, material design looks great in motion. The animations seem even faster and more fluid than with Android's previous Kit Kat iteration, which wasn't exactly a slouch in the smoothness department. Quicker visual transitions may explain why the Shield Tablet feels a little more responsive with Lollipop installed.
Android multitasking is now handled by an "overview" interface that resembles a stack of cards. Swiping cards to either side removes them from the list, just like on Kit Kat. Applications can also be closed by clicking the "X" in the upper-right corner. In another fresh twist, the overview remembers which apps were running prior to a reboot, so users can pick up where they left off.
Scrolling through active applications is incredibly smooth even when traversing a full deck at high speed. Some of that silkiness can probably be attributed to each card being a static shot of the last time the app was used—the contents aren't updated in real time. Selected apps quickly fill the screen, but it sometimes takes a moment for them to display the latest content. The duration of that delay seems somewhat dependent on the individual application and how much time has passed since it was in the foreground. Most recently run apps respond to input instantly after switching, even if they're still waiting for content updates.
Changes to the notification system are another big-ticket item in Android 5.0. Instead of being confined to the main drawer, notifications can now be displayed on the lock screen. Lollipop can strip "sensitive" content from these lock-screen alerts automatically, which is probably a good idea for folks with nosy spouses, siblings, or roommates.
Notification preferences are controlled on a per-application basis. Users can block apps from pushing notifications to the lock screen or providing alerts anywhere in the OS. They can also dictate whether notifications are allowed to interrupt Android 5.0's do-not-disturb mode, which only permits alerts from "priority" apps. A shortcut in the volume UI invokes the interruption-free mode manually, while a scheduling system activates the filter during user-defined time windows. The scheme is pretty slick, but I wish it could filter notifications by contacts instead of just applications.
Lollipop's settings shortcuts are integrated into the main notification drawer, an arrangement that's much more convenient than the separate pull-down menus on Kit Kat. Nvidia's Shield-specific shortcuts are joined by a screen-casting option of Google's creation. This feature should work with Chromecast dongles and Android TV devices, but it's not functional in the preview build loaded onto our Shield sample. Nvidia tells us screen casting requires the Shield's public Lollipop build to work properly.
Like notifications, the settings shortcuts are accessible on the lock screen. Android's old lock-screen widgets are nowhere to be found, though. My Google Now scoreboard will be missed.
Android 5.0 includes a couple of built-in sandboxes that should prevent other users from messing with your setup. The first is a temporary guest session that can be launched with just a few taps on the shortcut menu. This session provides a clean-slate Android environment that's completely compartmentalized. It doesn't have access to the data, accounts, or applications associated with other profiles.
Guest sessions take several seconds to initiate, but Lollipop's second sandbox is much quicker to access. The overview interface includes a "pinning" option that instantly locks the device to the selected application. Holding the back and multitasking buttons simultaneously releases the application lock, returning the system to normal. The exit mechanism is simple enough action for mischievious children to imitate, so it's a good thing releasing the lock requires the device's unlock code (if one is set).
Speaking of security, encryption is arguably one of the most important and controversial features in Android 5.0. Scrambling the contents of our Shield sample took less than 15 minutes with the automated conversion routine. We haven't run any tests to see if there's an associated performance hit, but the tablet certainly doesn't feel any slower in day-to-day use. The only baggage associated with the encrypted config seems to be a slightly longer cold boot time.
Lollipop's support for 64-bit hardware isn't applicable to the Shield Tablet, which is based on the 32-bit version of Nvidia's Tegra K1 SoC. However, Android 5.0's new runtime environment should be an improvement on all devices. Dubbed Android Runtime, or ART, the environment relies on pre-compiled code rather than the just-in-time compiling favored by the old Dalvik VM. Google expects ART to perform better in most cases. It also says the runtime's new garbage collection routine reduces UI lag and stuttering. Perhaps ART deserves some of the credit for Lollipop's lightning-fast interface transitions.
Outside of Google's own stable, the Shield Tablet is one of the first devices to be upgraded to Lollipop. Credit Nvidia's virtually stock Android install for the timely update. The tablet's smattering of custom OS tweaks remain, and the pre-loaded Dabbler painting app and Shield Hub game library have been given interface makeovers to match the material theme. Shield Tablet owners in North America (and with a good enough connection to Nvidia's servers) also have access to a preview of Nvidia's Grid game streaming service, which has previously been restricted to a closed beta test.
Before signing off, I should mention that the palm rejection algorithms tied to the Shield Tablet's integrated stylus seem improved since the tablet's initial release. The touchscreen's propensity to register unwanted and double taps has been reduced, too, but the changes don't appear to be related to the latest Android release. Instead, they seem to be products of the string of incremental patches released before Lollipop. Those updates demonstrate Nvidia's tendency to support its Shield devices with frequent software patches even between major OS revisions, which is a lot more than can be said for most Android device makers.