Google latest: Android and Nexus updates

Swav Kulinski
By Swav Kulinski under Engineering, Insights 17 October 2014

Last Wednesday, Google got to work confirming (or denying) the latest gossip, predictions and downright wild guesses that have been in circulation since the end of June about a pre-Christmas release of new hardware – and the newest Android system version. Here’s a round-up of what we now know, and what’s still on the horizon.

So what’s the gossip on Android L?

For a start, most of us were wondering what Android ‘L’ stands for.

We were expecting something sweet, something cake-based perhaps, following the pattern of Froyo, Gingerbread, Honeycomb, Ice Cream Sandwich, Jelly Bean and KitKat. The Google advert released yesterday morning dropped hints and fed the rumour-mill. In the advert, all the much-speculated candidates were present, except one – Lollipop. Some commentators quickly spotted that, and it’s where I put my money, too.

And lo – the newest Android version bearing the important version number jump to 5.0 bears the name Lollipop. It’s sweet and it’s pink. It’s got around 5000 new APIs; support for 64-bit devices, and material design, which starts it’s progress into web app and website territory, too, as a Polymer framework. It also gives support for customising Android Wear faces (skins), opening up a whole new playground for our user experience (UX) friends.

And the Nexus 6?

Initial leaks were spotted very early thanks to benchmarking apps. These recorded a suspicious new device using 2560×1440 pixels (at an insane 493 ppi), quad-core 805 Snapdragon processor and 3GB of RAM.

The picture then started to form, unveiling more of the Nexus 6’s features. These include a full spread of connectivity interfaces with wireless charging on top of it. A 13MP back camera with optical stabilisation, accompanied by 2MP selfie camera. All made by Motorola, and enough to think of it as a super-charged Moto X.

Now, you’re probably asking why you’d pack an almost 500ppi screen while at the same time giving you (just) 32GB/64GB of storage. To answer this, you need to understand what the Nexus really is. For a start, it’s not a flagship product that is supposed to beat all other devices out there. It is pretty capable in this, but most of the features won’t even go noticed by the average consumer. Ultimately, Nexus is a developer’s device: it shows the directions to go, the technologies to explore.

With this in mind, I already start to think about VR kits like the funny Google Cardboard we wrote about previously, or the more polished approach such as Carl Zeiss VR One. My initial trials with Nexus 4 and 5 showed that resolutions around 1400×700 pixels are just not enough to make it immersive and fun. For 3D, we need better resolutions. And you’ll certainly find that on the Nexus 6.

When it comes to programming and testing on any mobile device, a crucial question every programmer and tester will ask is how long it is going to last, today. In the Nexus 6, we have a 3200 mAh battery with Volta technology (thanks to Android L) to extend it’s life. You can charge this device from dead battery to 6h of work in just 15 minutes. If this is not enough, you can charge it wirelessly and use USB only for debugging.

So, with the Nexus 6 we have better resolutions and better power.

What about the Nexus 9?

This was definitely overdue, as the Nexus 10 was getting older and relatively slower, with fewer upgrades and some KitKat features dropped due to hardware constraints. Android was in dire need of something faster and far more powerful than a Samsung-built tablet. This time, however, the ultimate target wasn’t just to overpower through sheer device specification.

It’s interesting, for example, that the Nexus 9 has a lower resolution than the Nexus 6. Only 2048×1536 pixels. That’s a step backwards in comparison to 2560×1600 on the Nexus 10. Why on earth would you do that?

The rationale soon becomes clear: those front-facing HTC BoomSound™ speakers, and that 64-bit NVIDIA Tegra K1 CPU accompanied by Kepler DX1. The K1 Kepler combo brings 192 NVIDIA CUDA® cores and raises OpenGL to 4.4. This is the same amount of cores as in the GeForce GT 720 PC card. So what you see in the Nexus 9 is a portable gaming console. Lower resolution than expected provides a faster refresh rate. If we add LTE to the picture, we have a powerful device for gaming addicts on the move.

The Nexus Player – say what now?

During Google I/O, some lucky developers were given prototype Android TV devices. Buried beneath an entire raft of new system upgrades and emerging projects, this one was very easy to overlook.

Yesterday, however, it was unveiled that we have do in fact have a new Nexus. I want to say ‘baby’, but let’s be honest – it looks like a hockey puck. It is a TV box like Apple TV, priced the same way, with just an extra gaming hint to it. Admittedly, the hardware isn’t mind blowing, so it’s not exactly Origin Titan.

Instead, it’s just a simple way to play your games, streaming (also from iOS and MacOS X) in one place and nicely tied to your TV.

But this is just a first generation device. It has some GPU, but don’t expect Destiny running on it any time soon. Build by ASUS, it comes with a game controller. And again, what I largely see here is a prototype: during Google I/O, for example, Sundar Pichai mentioned that they are currently working with Sony to make Bravia TV sets with Android TV in it. The Nexus Player is a stepping stone towards this.

Anything else?

Well, we’re still waiting for other Google projects to release their SDKs and devices.

Managing personal health and sport related data being a hot topic, we’re looking at the Google Fit SDK becoming reality in the first quarter of 2015. This platform will provide the framework for managing an ever-increasing number of sensors, with tiers of security and access privileges to store such intimate data securely.

Yet another example of the Internet of Things, Android Auto is also still awaiting its release. Integrated into a car’s sensors, we will soon be able to monitor a driver’s health, level of fatigue, and request assistance if needed.

However, perhaps one of the most interesting projects started by Google is Project Ara. We’re expecting its results in the first half of 2015. It’s goal is to build a modular mobile phone. Imagine a phone you can personalise yourself based on your own preferences; a phone in which you can hot-swap most of the components, excluding only the processor and display. And in fact, it doesn’t mean you can’t even change those: you just need to switch off device to do it. It’s a bold plan, and one we’re watching with interest.

And that’s it: your comprehensive round-up of the latest Google news.