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

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

Lenovo New Android UI

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.


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


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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Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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