First look: Lenovo's new Moto-inspired Android UI, coming soon to a tablet near you

Lenovo New Android UI

Lenovo and Moto are growing closer together in their approaches to Android -- but not in the way some feared that might happen.

When news first broke that Lenovo was buying Motorola, plenty of people worried the company might push its heavy-handed approach to Android onto Motorola's devices. 

Well, surprise, surprise: Here we are, more than a year later -- and it appears the exact opposite is happening.

Motorola execs have repeated emphatically that the company has no plans to change its "stock-plus" approach to Android software. And now, Lenovo is the one taking a cue from Moto and rethinking the way it handles the operating system.

Up till now, Lenovo's own Android devices have best been described as bizarre. Tablets like the Yoga Tablet 2 boasted clever designs and solid build quality, but all of that was eclipsed by software that was a clunky and confusing mess -- something that combined classic Android elements with iOS-like touches and baffling blasts from the past.

As I put it in my Yoga Tablet 2 review:

The software feels like it was created in a vacuum with no awareness of current design trends or standards. Lenovo's attempt at creating an Android-iOS hybrid results in an amateurish and inelegant environment that's going to leave both Android and iOS users scratching their heads.

Not exactly a glowing endorsement, I realize.

That type of criticism, though -- combined with the example set by Lenovo's now-colleagues at Motorola -- has led the company to rethink its philosophy on Android, a Lenovo spokesperson explained to me recently. As such, Lenovo is unveiling a new, dramatically scaled-back Android-based user interface that the manufacturer describes as the start of a much-needed software cleanup process.

Before

For context, here's what the home screen looked like on last year's Lenovo Yoga Tablet 2:

Lenovo Old Android UI

Yup, that's the home screen -- not the app drawer. Lenovo actually eliminated the app drawer altogether and instead, in iOS-like fashion, forced all apps, shortcuts, and widgets to exist solely on the home screen. The only way to get an app off your home screen was to uninstall it -- something you did by long-pressing the icon, which caused a blatantly iOS-lifted effect where all icons would wiggle and get small x's in their corners.

And yes, that's a Gingerbread-level overflow-menu icon you spy alongside the system buttons. It was a permanent fixture and would pop up periodically as a placeholder for hidden options elsewhere in the OS, too.

The notification panel, meanwhile, was weirdly split into two parts: a dated-looking panel for notifications at the top of the screen and a separate hidden panel for settings that appeared when you swiped up from the bottom.

Lenovo Old Android UI: Notifications

After

Now, in comparison, the home screen from Lenovo's new Android UI:

Lenovo New Android UI (1)

Suffice it to say, the changes are pretty dramatic. The interface now actually looks and works like Android -- and it's quite usable as a result. There's a real app drawer, a Lollipop-level app-switching interface, and -- hallelujah! -- the legacy overflow-menu icon is gone, gone, gone:

Lenovo New Android UI (2)

Despite all the progress, the new setup has its share of lingering issues. Lenovo's iOS-inspired icon designs are still present for many preinstalled apps and system functions, for instance -- an out-of-place touch that creates inconsistencies with the rest of the Android platform and app ecosystem. Some silly preloaded apps also remain, like a version of the long-outdated (and no longer secure) Android Browser app that -- for reasons beyond my understanding -- is baked into the operating system.

Lenovo has made a handful of arbitrary visual tweaks, too, some of which are more noticeable than others. Change for the sake of change, as I like to say -- which rarely serves the design or the user well. But most of it is relatively inconsequential and pretty tolerable, and the more bothersome bits are generally surface-level enough that you could cover them up with a custom Android launcher.

Lenovo New Android UI (3)

That added transparency to the folder display (left) is unfortunate -- yikes! -- but at least you can cover it up easily with a custom launcher. Other tweaks, like the subtle reskinning of the system settings menu (right), are far less consequential

All in all, it's a strong first step and a night and day difference from Lenovo's previous Android efforts. It's not a truly "pure" Android UI on the level of what Motorola provides, but it's far closer to that ideal than what Lenovo produced in the past -- and it's really quite decent to use.

The device I've been using to check out the new UI is the Lenovo Tab 2 A8, by the way -- a fairly run-of-the-mill budget tablet on which Lenovo is launching its revamped software. The updated UI will also appear on the tablet's 10-in. sibling, and Lenovo tells me it'll be making its way to last year's Yoga Tablet 2 devices via an over-the-air Lollipop update sometime in the near future.

A step worth watching

In reviewing previous Lenovo devices, I've said that the company makes some fantastic hardware and has some wonderful ideas -- and if/when it goes back to square one and gets the basics right, its tablets could be nothing short of incredible.

Make no mistake about it: This is a step in that direction. It's going to be very interesting to see what Lenovo does next.

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