Android 5.0 Lollipop (known previously as just L) was the biggest change to Android since Ice Cream Sandwich. Frankly, I’d rank it as the biggest change to Android ever, for a variety of reasons.

Google has ostensibly searched every corner of Android for opportunities to tweak, improve, or completely reimagine the platform, and Lollipop is the result.

The most noticeable change was undoubtedly the addition of material design, the very first time Google has openly, publicly taken on a cohesive and thoughtful design philosophy, making it - in theory - accessible to everyone, and defining its rules clearly. Material design, which I've written about before, is a huge design shift, which can trace its roots all the way back to Matias Duarte's work on Palm's WebOS.

This is the driving force behind many of Android's UI/UX changes, but there’s so much to see in Lollipop, it only seemed right to continue the GTKA series with an entry on Android's L iteration. Since Android 5.1 is now out, this post will focus on a comparison between Android's latest and the previous dessert - KitKat.

A New Motif

Like it or not, part of Google’s sprucing up of the Android aesthetic includes a crisp new white paint job. It’s hard to find a corner of Android that still has a completely dark or gradated background. This may be a pain for those who are prone to after-dark mobile usage, but in the daylight the bright new look, which gives visibility to material's new print-like focus on typography and grids, is a sight for sore eyes.

The real motif behind Lollipop though is design maturity. Google’s design philosophy has grown up and coalesced into a complete, rational, (mostly) consistent, and forward-thinking approach. It finally feels like Google has a cohesive design style, whether all its apps reflect it to the tee or not. Google has shown that change will come in stages, and has been slowly but surely making incremental changes to bring current designs up to speed.

Design in Lollipop isn’t just skin-deep, though. Throughout the OS, more elements and interactions have been reshaped to be "smarter," or more helpful.

Things like sharing and intent pickers have transformed into white bottom sheets, prioritizing your options based on past behavior.

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Google wants to make Android's interactions smarter by - where possible - making choices for the user before the user is actually confronted with a choice. This has manifested itself in areas like the power menu, which lacks any option besides “power off.”

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This is lamentable, but it reflects Google’s new take on smart functionality. The reboot option, if I had to guess, may have been considered redundant since one could simply press the power button one more time to switch the phone back on. Volume options, meanwhile, have migrated to a refreshed volume interface.

Volume controls

For years I longed for more advanced volume control on phones, but the functionality remained available only to tablets or custom ROMs. With Lollipop, Google has attempted to unify the interface across devices with a new philosophy based around “interruptions.”

Users can limit interruptions to apps marked as “priority,” or they can turn them off altogether for an hour or indefinitely.

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The new sound profiles are a divisive topic in the Android community. Many users (myself sometimes included) would prefer the option to resort to a classic "silent" mode, which simply isn't present in the current iteration. Then again, priority mode is actually a pretty cool feature in practice. Before using priority mode to sort which notifications actually interrupted me, I was really unaware of what a relief it would be to filter certain things out.

Another possible negative is that media volume control is limited to times when media is actually playing. In this writer’s opinion, it would be nice to have instant access to that any time - adjusting volume on the fly as media is already playing is a stressful experience. It requires the user to be too quick and alert.

In Android 5.1, Google did make a few adjustments to the new controls based on user feedback. LED notification lights will now blink no matter what profile you use, and the "no interruptions" mode can be set to deactivate at your next alarm (as long as that alarm is the same day). Users can also choose to block all notifications in Down Time now. Alarm volume can be adjusted inside the clock app, and while system volume can be adjusted while playing media, the opposite still isn't true in Lollipop's latest iteration.

Google’s crusade for “smartness” isn’t all negative, though. Besides making your phone smart enough to avoid connecting to unstable WiFi, Google has really made some great leaps in usefulness in many areas of the OS, including the quick settings panel.

As we mentioned just before Lollipop’s announcement at I/O 2014, the QS panel was destined for greatness. With the release of Android 5.1, the quick settings panel has reached that potential.

Users can toggle radios or access their settings by tapping an icon or label respectively, and things like the data control, Bluetooth, or WiFi have an instantly visible interface that doesn’t throw you into a full settings interface. The quick settings panel is also intuitive - if you turn on a toggle-based feature like mobile hotspot, quick settings will pick that up and add a tile to the panel all by itself. That tile will hang around for about a month, and if you haven't used it by then, it will disappear.

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Some functionality in the notification shade that might be considered slightly more advanced has been concealed under almost invisible interactions, like long-pressing a notification to get to the app's notification settings, or long-pressing an app's icon in the overview screen to get to the app info screen.

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The lock screen is also an area on which Google has taken a sharp focus with Lollipop - lock screen widgets may be in the rear-view mirror, but now Android users can enjoy (or loathe?) lockscreen notifications with a simple up or down swipe to interact, and multiple other touches that make it easier to get to - and past - the lock screen when you need to.

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Ambient Mode

Ambient Mode is Google’s answer to Motorola’s “Active Display,” but - in this writer’s opinion - it’s even better. Ambient Mode is just a grayscale version of the lock screen, and it reacts to touch input instantly. Users can see all their notifications before the screen is even activated. It’s not available for all devices, but as a feature built into Lollipop it’s smart, helpful, and nice to look at.

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Google has also implemented lift-to-wake and double-tap-to-wake, two more actions that make it easier to access your device. Lift-to-wake (again only on certain devices) activates ambient mode when the device moves, while double-tap is just what it sounds like. These two features almost obviate the power button altogether, though any sort of tap-to-sleep feature is still missing.

Many Ways to Unlock

There are also a handful of ways in which Google has attempted to keep a user from even needing to think about lock screen security.

Users can pair trusted devices to unlock the phone without security when a trusted device is near. Users can also rely on trusted places or even on-body detection, which is pretty good at knowing whether your device is actually on you.

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Face unlock (now trusted face) has also gotten a facelift (sorry) - Google has made the actual face detection on the lock screen nearly invisible, as the phone automatically looks at the user and silently removes security if a match is found. This is a small touch on top of under-the-hood improvements, but it makes the whole process seem ten times smarter.

If a user has smart lock active but wants a temporary security boost, he or she needs only to press the icon at the bottom of the lock screen to require a manual unlock next time the device wakes up.

Recents Becomes Overview

The recents menu in stock Android has gone largely unchanged for a long time now. It’s been a predictable lineup of small thumbnails, plus and app name and icon.

Google has reimagined recents as a new space in the OS called “overview,” which provides a beautiful cascading stack of color-coded cards, each with a screenshot of the task at hand.

Whether overview will become more prominent on Android or lead to new functionality (as we'd heard before) remains to be seen, but it’s obvious that the new overview is more visually appealing and useful than the old recents screen.

The stack can hold tons of cards (Google mandates a capacity of at least 40), even integrating Chrome tabs, and plays a part in Android’s new (and - in 5.1 - improved) “screen pinning” feature, meant to keep prying eyes from venturing outside the prescribed activity.

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By the way, overview has another new trick for those using Chrome's integrated options. If you are browsing a page and long press a link to "open in a new tab," that tab will show up grouped with the first tab in the overview menu, as seen above. Overview will also persist through a reboot, so you can pick up where you left off after restarting your device. This can be a good or a bad thing - if you like keeping the overview screen tidy, you may get annoyed with 20+ entries still stacked up.

In 5.0 Lollipop, Google introduced heads-up notifications. These notifications pop in on top of the screen, with a rather ample scrim behind them. Users could slide them away to dismiss or simply wait till they disappeared, but neither were really great options - swiping got rid of a notification you might want to see later, and waiting around meant having a giant chunk of the screen occupied by a notification you might not want to deal with at the moment. In 5.1 Google at least partially fixed this, adding the ability to swipe upward to get rid of the notification temporarily, shoving it back where it belongs in the shade.

First-run Doesn’t Suck

Google’s also attacked Android’s first-run process, making it a whole lot better. A while ago, we predicted that Google would be adding per-device app restoration, with more options for users who didn’t necessarily want every app they’d ever used to be restored.

This feature is now live, but if you have a device nearby, you won’t even have to press any buttons. Google’s added a contact-based transfer of apps, home screen layouts, etc. to the first-run process for super easy migration to a new device. If you choose this route, your home screen will populate with familiar apps, and any apps that aren't installed yet will simply present as gray icons.

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Another pain-point of first-run setup was two-factor login. Google has added some behind-the-scenes magic to automatically shoot a message to your phone when setting up to verify your identity, but even on tablets the process is much better. The webview previously required for login is firmly planted in the dust.

Google’s Scrapbook

Even as more and more Google apps shift to the Play Store, Google has a stash of apps that come loaded on Android devices that are worth taking a look at. Things like the dialer, calculator, and even the downloads app are all worth taking a look at as a point of comparison to Android’s previous iteration.

In the interest of word economy, I'll be focusing primarily on the apps Google builds in that aren't available through the Play Store, though the number of apps to which that applies is shrinking all the time. That said, there are a few things that live on the Play Store that are still worth pointing out in this post.

As I said in my overview of material design, Google is turning Android into a beautiful, colorful scrapbook, and these apps really show off the new aesthetic.

Calculator

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Let’s start with Calculator. An unassuming app, Calculator has the buttons you’d expect, and implements a sliding sheet (that peeks out from the right edge of the screen) for scientific keys. The real beauty is in the app’s animations, with colors washing the calculation area and status bar based on your actions, providing brief, striking transitions that make ordinary math operations fun.

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Clock

The Clock app has retained many of its characteristic interface elements, but has gained new materialized action buttons, new iconography (which animates as the user tabs through the interface), and a dynamic background that changes between shades of blue or purple throughout the day.

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The alarm interface has also improved, adding a calming animation, the same color-shifting as the clock app, and a post-reaction screen to let the user know what decision they've just made about the alarm at hand. Personally I'm never awake enough to pay attention to the post-reaction screen, but it's there for the more alert among us.

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Downloads

The downloads app has likewise undergone some changes - it's got a revised launcher icon (a welcome change), and a new toolbar in the app, along with consistent iconography for files that don't generate a nice thumbnail.

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Email

This is an interesting change in Lollipop. The stock Email app, which previously handled all your corporate/exchange or other email accounts, is now just a dummy app that redirects users to Gmail. Before Lollipop's official release, it had an actual interface, but post-launch, it's no more than a stub.

Dialer

Google's dialer is probably my second favorite stock app in Lollipop. It's kept the smart features of its KitKat iteration, but received some major aesthetic and experience-centered changes. The front screen has a built-in search bar and last call card (which can be dismissed with a swipe), and familiar tabs for speed dial, recents, and contacts. Call history has been deemphasized, migrating to the overflow embedded in the dialer's search bar, while the dialer gets its own screen just as before, but triggered by a FAB rather than a button on a bar that previously took quite a bit of space away from the speed dial view.

The FAB transitions between speed dial and the dialer gracefully by scaling out and then scaling back in, and pressing it elicits a pleasing ripple animation. Google is actually using an interesting trick here - as it does in a few of its other apps - implementing a FAB that has its own tinted and shaded edges to make it look more dimensional.

Tapping in the open white space above the dial pad dismisses the activity and takes the user back to speed dial.

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Contacts

If I had to choose, I think I'd say that Contacts, the dialer's partner in crime, is my favorite stock app in Android's latest iteration. It's still a basic list with integration into the dialer, but it's become more vibrant, playful, and interesting in this latest version.

The app makes really smart use of palette, a new API in Lollipop that allows for quick and easy theming based on bitmap assets. For contacts with photos, the API chooses a vibrant hue from the photo and themes icons, the status bar, and the neat "fade" effect that happens as you scroll down, along with the ink bubble over-scroll effect.

The way each contact's activity works is also really interesting - they're treated as sheets that overlay the interface, meaning the user can swipe down to get rid of them. This plays well into the dialer app, as the sheet slides partially up the screen when one taps the contact's overflow icon in speed dial. It's a small effect, but one that adds a lot to the overall experience of the app.

In Lollipop 5.1 Contacts got even better with a new contact-creation screen, losing its last vestiges of holo.

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Google and the Google Now Launcher

This app is technically available in the Play Store, but it's still worth talking about in this post because it is so heavily integrated into Lollipop, and the Google Now Launcher is the default on Lollipop.

Like so many other elements in Lollipop, the launcher makes more use of white - the persistent search widget is white, the app drawer icon is white, and the app drawer itself is even a series of white cards.

The app drawer also animates, using the initial white circle as an origin point for a quick transformation into crisp white sheets of paper.

drawer searchbar

The Search widget has a revised animation too - no longer relying on the circular expansion introduced in KitKat, the new search widget simply expands downward to reveal search suggestions and summon the keyboard.

The actual Google app makes smarter use of its space, has revised cards, and even has a hamburger menu which helps to organize the app's growing functionality far better than the old overflow that used to live at the bottom of the interface.

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The Google app has also learned some new tricks in Lollipop (as we predicted it would). On supported hardware, voice search/actions can be launched not just on any screen, but also when the screen is off, even when the device isn't on the charger.

Apps can also add a simple six lines of code to their app's manifest to allow per-app searching before a user even enters the app. This is particularly exciting because it's the first step toward the modular, app-specific actions we saw in the past. With Google's long-anticipated API for Google Now cards apparently on the horizon, the future looks bright.

At some point in the future, I think the Google app aspires to work with every app, making smart predictions and suggestions based on what you're looking at, doing, or planning inside those apps. That dream may still be a way off, though.

Leanback and Android TV

Google's Nexus hardware for Android TV might have underwhelmed, but in this writer's opinion, Google didn't skip out on interface design for the big screen. The focal point of Android TV is undoubtedly the "leanback" UX, a philosophy tangential to Google's approach for phones and tablets that focuses more on how users actually interact and perceive information from the comfort of a couch. Google puts the spotlight on big, modular cards and vivid, readable menus to help users get to the content they want as fast as possible. There aren't a lot of frills (besides the gratuitous blurred imagery serving as the UI's canvas), ostensibly owing to Google's rumored goal of getting users to their content in just three clicks.

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There's still a long way to go before this writer will see the TV box as a must-have device, but Google's latest bid for the living room is certainly worth a look from a design perspective.

Bits and pieces

Expanding beyond blocks of functionality, broad-sweeping design motifs, and revisions, Google has a new focus on details, fixing lots of small interface issues and building in details that, in Google’s words, “delight.”

Status iconography

One such example is the new set of status bar icons. Back in the days of Jelly Bean, status bar icons were colorful. If an icon were blue, you’d know you were connected to Google’s services. If it went grey, you were in trouble.

With Kitkat, the icons were all colored white, retaining their same shapes. “Trouble” indicators were hidden in the QS panel, upsetting some users.

With Lollipop, Google has fixed this problem, adding icons with small exclamation marks to indicate connection issues, while solid white (goodbye bar-based icons) icons give a refreshed, less distracting look to the bar.

The nav bar

The other half of Android's system UI, the nav bar, has also gotten a makeover. Rather than the downright readable back, home, and multitask icons of KitKat and below, Lollipop offers a triangle, circle, and square. The icons may not be quite as literal as the previous set, but they do shave just a little more distraction off the nav bar, a system element that should get out of the way as much as possible. For its part, 5.1 updated the nav bar yet again, squeezing the buttons just a little bit closer together. See 5.0 on top of 5.1 below.

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Subtle animation

There are also clever interaction changes throughout the interface. Besides the ubiquitous ripple animation (which appears on every "selectable" item), there are other touches, like new press animations for navigation buttons, and small animations everywhere that highlight Lollipop’s fluidity.

Swiping up to access Google Now inflates a small balloon signaling what you’re about to do, and once you let go, the bubble pops as the Google logo slides up and out of sight.

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The same “balloon” animation is found on the lock screen, where a swipe to the left or right will trigger the camera or dialer respectively.

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Even tiny things like the “clear all” icon in the notification tray are animated to give little visual treats to users as they perform common tasks. In Lollipop 5.0 the divider line also resisted the user's swipe to note that it couldn't be dismissed. This is missed in 5.1, but worth looking at anyway.

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The "screen-off" animation has changed too. Ditching the fun CRT animation of Androids past, Google has implemented a new grayscale/fading animation, which is actually just a reversed version of the new "image loading" animation Google recommends in the material design spec. Here it is in slow-mo.

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5.1 also saw some changes to some of Android's toggles - in the Settings app, toggles have a fun little bounce animation when pressed. The effect is almost invisible when your finger is in the way, but it's a nice addition.

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In the Android L developer preview, the auto-rotate quick settings tile had a fun animation, which was ultimately removed from the public 5.0 release. In 5.1 it's back and it brought friends - auto-rotate, airplane mode, location, and others have their own animations that react to user input.

Oh, and secure lock screens are a little more enjoyable too. 5.1 sees the number pad and pattern lock animate in and out in a subtle, elegant way.

Fast scroll revision

The fast scroll bar, which was previously an oblong shape on top of a thin wire, has also gotten a facelift as of Android 5.1. The fast scroll bar now has an ample touch target and a chunkier, rectangular track and indicator.

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Left: 5.0 Right: 5.1

New Bugdroid Icons

Android Beam's icon in the share menu got a new, more cohesive icon in Android 5.1, while the default launcher icon (given to apps without a specified icon of their own) also got a facelift. Developers using Android Studio will probably recognize the new bugdroid icon, which was added as the default some time ago.

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Battery saver

With Lollipop, Google introduced a lot of new interface chrome, including plenty of animations. But battery life will always trump all for many smartphone users. Acknowledging this, Google implemented a new "battery saver" mode, which switches off most transition animations and makes your status and nav bars bright orange, so you definitely won't forget just how low your battery is.

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New emoji

As we noted in one of the Feature Spotlight posts right after Lollipop's debut, Google has updated its keyboard with a number of redesigned and new emojis, including support for over 200 flags. The new set of emojis even includes a jolly Santa!

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Everything else

Web view gets unbundled

Much discussion has been had in recent memory about Google's new habit of unbundling apps from the Android operating system, opting for quick, painless updates through the Play Store instead of waiting for the next OS bump.

Joining that list is an app that many users don't often think about - Android's WebView. The WebView allows developers to show web content inside an app without directing users to an actual browser. With Lollipop, Google has separated it from the main OS, and will provide updates automatically through the Play Store.

The status screen goes on a diet

As of Android 5.1, Google has done a bit of housekeeping for the About > Status screen in Android, trimming it down and using new sub-sections to organize information.

Dual-SIM dialer colors

Dual-SIM users will be glad to know (if they don't already) that dual-SIM devices running Android 5.1 can set different dialer colors for each SIM card. See the video below for a demo.

Multi-user on phones

Android 5.0 saw the introduction of multi-user functionality on phones. The feature had been a resident of Android tablets since Android 4.2, but Google took its time figuring out exactly how it should work on phones before adding it to the (sometimes) smaller form factor. Google's concerns specifically centered around handling phone calls and SMS - as Dan Morrill explained, handling a phone call requires some thought if a child is busy playing Angry Birds while the boss is trying to get through. Multi-user on phones specifically allows for guests and other users, and the owner of the device can decide who gets to make or receive phone calls or SMS messages.

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Of course multi-user has also become the basis for Android for Work, Google's take on dual-persona device management, which gives users two entries for each work-approved app: one dedicated to work info, and one for personal use.

SD card concessions

It's no secret that Android hasn't always played nice with apps that want to use the SD card to manage files. Cody explained the state of SD cards much better than I could back before I/O14, but this is the gist of things on KitKat (from this post).

  • An app without any permissions:
  • Automatic read and write for designated private folders on the primary and secondary storage
  • With WRITE_EXTERNAL_STORAGE, they also have:
    • Read and write for any public folder on the primary (built-in) storage
    • Read (not write) for any public folder on the secondary (SD card) storage

As of Android 5.0, this changed. Basically, apps can be granted access to directories at the user's discretion, and apps can generate folders that are tied to the specific app while still remaining otherwise available. From the post:

Posted by Jeff Sharkey:

Richer access to secondary shared storage devices

In KitKat we introduced APIs that let apps read/write file in app-specific directories on secondary storage devices, such as SD cards.

We heard loud and clear that developers wanted richer access beyond these directories, so in Lollipop we added the new ACTION_OPEN_DOCUMENT_TREE intent.  Apps can launch this intent to pick and return a directory from any supported DocumentProvider, including any of the shared storage supported by the device.  Apps can then create, update, and delete files and directories anywhere under the picked tree without any additional user interaction.  Just like the other document intents, apps can persist this access across reboots.

This gives apps broad, powerful access to manage files while still involving the user in the initial selection process.  Users may choose to give your app access to a narrow directory like “My Vacation Photos,” or they could pick the top-level of an entire SD card; the choice is theirs.

and

Posted by Dianne Hackborn:

Also worth noting is the new getExternalMediaDirs() method that gives you a place for your own files on any available secondary storage, without needing to request read/write permissions:https://developer.android.com/reference/android/content/Context.html#getExternalMediaDirs()

VPN clients can bar certain apps

As of Android 5.0, VPN clients now have the ability to let the user choose which apps can or cannot use the VPN connection. As Cody explained in his post on the subject, it's up to VPN developers to integrate this functionality - it unfortunately doesn't live in the settings app - but it's a welcomed addition.

A flappy Easter egg

It wouldn't be a proper Android update without an Easter egg. For 5.0, Google played on the popularity of Flappy Bird (and its happy, snappy, clappy, and crappy clone counterparts) by delivering a version starring bugdroid as he dodges giant lollipops with a material-inspired cityscape lazily scrolling by in the distance. Even within the game Google has hidden a few treats, like the "disconnected" cloud icon floating through the evening sky below.

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I'm seriously terrible at this game.

Final thoughts

We've discussed a lot of positive aspects of Android Lollipop in this post - there are tons of overhauled designs, reimagined spaces in the OS, and awesome little treats around every corner. As explained earlier in the post, it's clear that Lollipop is a major milestone for Android and for Google. Material design and the hallmarks of interaction, ease of use, design thinking, and animation it endorses form an immensely ambitious move. It's manifested beautifully in Lollipop already, but - being where it is in its life cycle - things still aren't 100% perfect (is anything ever perfected in design?).

That's where "Stock Android Isn't Perfect" comes in. As has become tradition, we'll have another post some time soon picking apart some of the things Lollipop hasn't gotten right yet. Have any suggestions? Notice anything I missed in this post? Let me know in the comments below.