How to get Android Lollipop’s new features on older devices

A new release of Android is normally met with equal parts fanfare and disappointment – fanfare for the new features it brings and disappointment for those with older devices most likely to miss out on the update.

We took a look at the Android Lollipop preview a few months ago, but with Lollipop updates now making their OTA debut to a limited number of devices, it’s worth looking at some of the features that have found their way into Android 5.0 – and to see how many of them can be had on older devices.

#1 – Full-time ART

artThe change of run-time engine from Dalvik to Android Run-Time (ART), initiated with KitKat/Android 4.4, is now complete with Lollipop. The change is a fundamental one to the OS that sees newly-installed apps pre-compiled ‘ahead of time’, so that the device CPU (predominantly) deals only with native code. Dalvik’s just-in time (JIT) compilation was designed for CPUs of another era, where CPU clocks were more valuable. But Dalvik’s need to compile every line of code every time the app runs is less efficient on a more valuable mobile resource – battery life.

Get it on older devices:
If your Android 4.4/KitKat device isn’t in line to receive a Lollipop update, you can still give ART a go. Head to ‘Settings’, then ‘About phone’ and tap on the build number entry five times to activate developer options. Back out to Settings, scroll down to and select ‘Developer options’.

Next, scroll down and tap on ‘Select runtime’ and change it from Dalvik to ART. You’ll need a few minutes while your device reboots and begins precompiling your apps, but the result should be slightly faster app loading times. While the theory says battery life should also improve, tests on KitKat’s early ART implementation suggest that might not be the case, but we think it’s still worth trying, particular if you’re running the latest 4.4.4 update.

The downside is that you may run into occasional apps that don’t run correctly under ART – hopefully, app updates fix those issues.

To change back to Dalvik, follow the above, but choose Dalvik instead of ART.

#2 – Better audio

opusMulti-channel audio processing is a major beneficiary of Lollipop with the ability to now real-time mix up to eight audio channels, giving you support for 7.1-channel audio and potential for some serious-grade audio processing apps.

In line with this, audio capture has also had a major overhaul, with new low-latency capture available via a dedicated processing thread to ensure faster response. Low-latency means delay times from the audio being captured to processing and ultimate use are as small as possible.

One of the key additions in line with this is the new audio codec called Opus – it’s a lossy format said to deliver audio quality better than MP3 at the same bitrate but with only a fraction of the latency. It supports bitrates from 6Kbps up to 510Kbps, sample rates from 8 to 48kHz and up to 255 audio channels. Importantly for Android, it’s a royalty-free codec and listening tests suggest it’s better than most other lossy codecs at similar bitrates. Opus is gaining fans in the VoIP industry, thanks to its combination of audio quality at low-bit rates and that low-latency.

But for audio fans, arguably the most useful addition to Lollipop will be new support for standard USB audio devices. You’ll now be able to plug into USB host or USB-OTG ports all manner of headphones, speakers, microphones and audio devices.

Get it on older devices:
It’s highly unlikely you’ll see an update that natively incorporates Opus into earlier Android releases, but you can still play Opus audio files on older devices through the latest version of the excellent VLC for Android Beta from Google Play.

Unlike most other similar players, VLC is happy to play audio-only files, however, your device needs an ARMv7 or Intel x86 CPU for the app to work – but that’s almost every device released in the last three years.

As for native support for USB audio devices in pre-Lollipop phones and tablets, the best you could describe of it is ‘patchy’. If high performance audio is important to you, it may be reason enough to wait for more Lollipop devices to hit the market.

#3 – better camera & video

hevcNew Android releases are always accompanied by many new and improved application programming interfaces (APIs) and Lollipop is no exception. Some of the more than 5000 new APIs that will be most welcome apply improvements to the on-board camera image and video capturing.

It’d be fair to say phone cameras haven’t kept pace with their standalone cousins in terms of genuine image processing, but Lollipop should change that thanks to new API support for capturing raw image data formats including YUV and Bayer RAW. Not only that, you can also capture metadata such as exposure settings, even noise models and lens information. Having this level of detail should enable developers to come up with apps that not only allow you finer-grain control, but importantly, take better pictures.

Video isn’t left out either, with Lollipop gaining the services of highly-anticipated H.265 video encoding/decoding. H.265 or ‘High-Efficiency Video Coding’ is the next-generation video compression standard that’s said to offer the same video quality as H.264 but needing only half the bitrate – that’s quite extraordinary given the battles researchers have had over the years to improve compressed video quality.

Get it on older devices:
Not having the requisite APIs means there’s not much developers can do to improve image quality on older Android-based device cameras. However, again, while HEVC may only be native to Lollipop, you can play HEVC files on older devices through the latest version of the extremely capable MX Player from Google Play. MX Player uses the libavcodec library as its decoding engine (the same one used by FFmpeg and many other video decoders/encoders) and already supports both 4K video and H.265 formats.

Lollipop’s H.265 encoder/decoder comes from Indian multimedia developer Ittiam Systems, but appears to be software-based only. If that’s the case, Lollipop users may see higher CPU usage as a result, compared with hardware-accelerated formats such as H.264. It’s still early days, but it’ll be interesting to see if Lollipop’s H.265 codec is more efficient than MX Player’s alternative.

If there is a likely limitation of playing HEVC video on older devices, it will simply be a lack of CPU performance. Devices with a multi-core CPU should have greater success.

#4 – Screen capture

screenScreen capturing has spawned an entire education sector on Windows PCs, but Lollipop now enables software developers to incorporate the feature into new apps – even share the screen live over a network (with user permission). Already apps supporting the new APIs are appearing on Google Play – and because they use native APIs, there’s no need for root access. You can try it out with Lollipop Screen Recorder.

Get it on older devices:
Without the native APIs, older devices typically need root access to enable capturing of screen contents. You won’t be able to live-share screens over a network with pre-Lollipop gear, but you can capture them to storage using a number of apps on Google Play. The only drawback, again, will likely be with older devices running single-core CPUs struggling to keep up with the load, but multi-core CPU devices should fare better.

There are a number of screen recording apps available on Google Play – Rec needs at least Android 4.4, but trialware SCR Screen Recorder Free should work with rooted devices going back to ICS/Android 4.0.3.

#5 – New sensors

hrThe wearable computing market is going nuts over optical heart rate monitors at the moment. It’s as if everyone’s just figured out how to make green LEDs and sensors talk to low-power 32-bit ARM CPUs and they’re beginning to appear in everything from new fitness band to next-generation smartwatches.

Lollipop isn’t missing out either with new support for heart rate sensors, plus new tilt detection sensors. It also includes new ‘interactive composite sensors’ that are able to detect different gestures including wake up, pick up and glance.

Get it on older devices:
Details are sketchy on just what the new interactive composite sensors include, but pre-Lollipop, Android already makes use of composite sensor reading, using combinations of accelerometer, gyroscope and magnetometer to measure everything from linear acceleration, step counting and gravity.

Optical heart rate monitoring uses green LEDs to flash light onto the skin that is reflected into photo-diodes to indicate blood-oxygenation and flow. While not impossible to do on older Android devices, new APIs will make development under Lollipop much easier. So, for now, it might only be Lollipop that gets access to built-in heart-rate monitoring – but you could always just go and buy a Fitbit Charge HR.

#6 – Better power management

setcpuEach time Google sets up for a new major update of Android, the search giant gets a bee in its bonnet about one particular area and goes at it, hell for leather, seeking improvements – think ‘Project Butter’ from Android 4.1/Jelly Bean. For Lollipop, it’s called ‘Project Volta’ with its aim to improve overall power management and battery life.

One of those improvements it now offers is the ability to auto-activate a battery saver mode that reduces some functionality once the battery level drops to either 15% or 5%, respectively. The new feature is fairly rudimentary in terms of tweaks, but like many other new Lollipop extras, developers can incorporate it into new apps through new APIs.

Get it on older devices:
Somewhat surprisingly, this is an area where Google is playing a bit of ‘catch-up’, given software developers have been delivering battery-monitoring performance management apps for a number of years. SetCPU and Go Battery Saver & Power Widget are just two examples that allow you to activate power saving modes once a certain level of battery capacity remaining is reached. They work on almost all Android devices from Froyo/Android 2.2 up, although SetCPU requires root access. Lollipop’s ability to enable battery saving automatically within apps is something new however.

#7 – BYOD management

mxBut if there’s one area where Android has struggled to respond to the likes of Blackberry and Apple, it’s enterprise security. The ‘Bring Your Own Device’ (BYOD) movement has been a boon for users wanting the convenience of using their own tech in their work environment. It’s also a boon for business that doesn’t have to pay for the devices. But the people who suffer most from it are the system administrators struggling to get an ever-increasing variety of devices all talking happily on the corporate intranet without introducing a nightmare of security issues that could bring down the whole thing in a jiffy.

A key aim of Lollipop is to boost Android’s reputation in the enterprise market as a serious alternative to Blackberry and Apple. To that end, Lollipop introduces what it calls a ‘managed provisioning process’ that sets up a separate profile or container within the device to control corporate-installed apps. These apps appear alongside your personal apps on the launcher but have a work badge attached to the app icon to indicate their separate profile.

Get it on older devices:
While Samsung’s Knox has been a nuisance to those wanting to gain root access and flash custom ROMs onto their Galaxy devices, it’s just about the best solution available for providing enterprise-grade security and protection for Android devices. So it’s not surprising that many of Lollipop’s gains in this area have come from Knox itself.

The combination of Knox with popular mobile device management (MDM) platform, MobileIron, has made it easier for enterprises to allow Samsung Galaxy devices access to corporate networks, giving an advantage to the Korean giant over its Android competitors. That said, MobileIron is a popular MDM solution for Android, full stop.
For pre-KitKat/Android 4.4 and non-Samsung devices, chip giant Intel put out a short white paper on how it handled BYOD management for some 20,000 Android devices. In short, Intel IT developed a five-level trust quotient that determined just how far up the corporate data chain a device was allowed to play with. It’s well worth a quick read.