Android tune-up: How to boost performance while you wait for Lollipop

Android 5.0 Lollipop has been heralded as the operating system's biggest step forward to date. Improved battery life and performance through changes to Android's core runtime and power management systems are among the most anticipated enhancements among users, given their promise of a faster, more efficient experience."

At least that's the theory. Unfortunately, for the 98 percent of Android devices eagerly awaiting their Lollipop update, there's no way of knowing whether Lollipop will breathe new life into their devices. That's where third-party developers can fill the performance gap, as they have been since Android's earliest days.

For years, developers have been tinkering with tools to prolong your device's battery life and improve its performance, using similar methods to what Google is now implementing. These apps employ a number of tweaks and tricks to squeeze the most out of Android hardware regardless of their age or horsepower.

Here, we put several of the most popular third-party battery and performance management apps to the test to see whether they're worth a download as you wait for Lollipop to land and to find out how they stack up against Android 5.0's improvements.

Android 5.0 battery and performance improvements

Android 5.0 completely changes how devices manage their internal hardware.

Lollipop's transition from Dalvik to ART (Android Runtime) as its primary process virtual machine marks the most significant change. Unlike Dalvik, which compiles an app's bytecode each time it is opened, ART compiles it only once, when the app is first installed on the device. Thanks to this AoT (Ahead of Time) technology, ART conserves battery and processing power, while bringing Android to full 64-bit compatibility, reducing the number of garbage collecting events, and dynamically moving memory, all of which translates into faster, more fluid performance throughout the UI.

Similar improvements have been made to Android's power management systems. New job-scheduling APIs allow a device to postpone certain intensive background tasks, like server syncing and data pulling, until a device is connected to Wi-Fi or, better yet, a power source. Lollipop also keeps more accurate track of how your battery is performing and makes this data available to third-party apps, which in turn can be optimized accordingly.

Those already running Lollipop have likely noticed the improvements. From basic navigation to stock and third-party app performance, Lollipop is snappier and smoother than previous versions, including KitKat. Recent studies have shown that Lollipop now bests iOS 8 in terms of stability, marking the first time Android has come out on top when compared to iOS.

But for those suffering the ills of Android fragmentation and not yet able to take advantage of the OS's latest improvements, a number of apps from Google Play will achieve similar results through similar approaches.

Apps that add life to your battery

Battery-saving tools make up one of the most downloaded categories on Google Play. This app breed claims to improve your device's battery life through a variety of approaches, and believe it or not, some actually work quite well. There's no magic trick, and they don't find extra lithium hiding untapped in your battery -- instead they simply better manage what your device does and when it does it.

Take for example JuiceDefender (free) and JuiceDefender Plus ($1.99) by LateDroid, the free version of which boasts more than 7 million downloads to date. Essentially JuiceDefender employs the same tactics Lollipop does: by scheduling synchronizations and other battery-intensive tasks, automatically managing data connections and CPU performance, and toggling Wi-Fi based on location awareness, Juice Defender is able to improve the performance of your existing hardware. True Battery Saver (free) uses similar techniques to achieve similar results.

Then there are apps like Battery Doctor (free) by Cheetah Mobile, which -- with more than 330 million downloads -- is one of the most popular apps in the category for good reason. Battery Doctor takes it a step further by not only automatically scheduling and killing tasks and activities but also managing the charge cycles of your device. Battery Doctor reminds you when to charge your device and, more important, when to stop charging your device by employing what it calls a "three-charge cycle" designed to let your battery properly rest between cycles. The science behind it says that lithium-ion batteries are negatively affected by improper charging habits, such as charging too often or for too long, which Battery Doctor aims to regulate. DU Battery Saver (free) and GO Battery Saver (free) use similar techniques to improve your battery's performance.

In my informal testing, which involved running one app at a time for one full day of normal usage, I saw a variety of mostly positive results. Scheduling background processes, killing apps, and managing connections indeed had a positive impact on battery life; claims to optimize charging cycles or improve battery "health" had less tangible results. This isn't to say, though, that aging devices with run-down batteries won't see some improvement.

It's worth noting that many of the newest devices on the market today claim to regulate charging cycles on their own, eliminating the need for these apps altogether. However, if you're looking to simply squeeze an extra hour or two out of your day and your device remains in standby for a significant portion of that day, any app that can schedule and regulate background processes is worth investigating.

Apps that give your device more zip

Google Play is also rife with apps aimed at optimizing CPU and memory performance. These apps claim to improve how fast your device feels, how well it handles multitasking, and indirectly, how long your battery lasts.

Despite their various bells and whistles, these apps employ one basic technique to achieve their goal: They kill apps and background processes that don't directly affect the task at hand. The theory is simple: Why let Google Maps pinpoint your location or Google Calendar sync your appointments or Facebook update your feed while you're trying to do something completely unrelated?

These apps aren't quite as effective as Lollipop's complete runtime overhaul, but they make a noticeable difference, especially for devices with a limited amount of RAM. Some, like CCleaner (free), clean your device's cache, browsing history, and other temporary data to free up both RAM and ROM; others, like the excellent Greenify (free), DU Speed Booster (free), and Clean Master (free), add tricks like CPU temperature management and even antivirus protection.

DU Speed Booster Android appDU Speed Booster adds antivirus protection to its array of performance features for speeding up your Android device.

Like all the apps we've looked at, performance-boosting software is largely dependent on your device and your usage habits. The Nexus 6, for example, with its top-shelf Snapdragon processor and 3GB of RAM, probably wouldn't benefit as much as a Galaxy Nexus would with its aging processor and limited 1GB of memory, simply due to its higher performance capacity. However, for aging devices, the math behind these apps is simple: The more background processes you're running, the less RAM you have to devote to other, more important tasks.

The bottom line on battery and performance management apps

Despite the improvements these apps provide, the best thing you can do to tune up your aging hardware is to simply upgrade it to the latest version of Android wherever possible. But for devices that don't yet have the luxury, lackluster battery life and performance aren't unavoidable. While claims of wild improvements and a completely rejuvenated device are largely inflated, these apps aren't entirely bunk. These solutions use tried-and-true methods, some of which have even been incorporated directly into the latest iteration of Android, to achieve tangible improvements --- they're worth a download, even if only to hold your device over until core changes can take effect.

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