What's inside Android 4.4 KitKat and why you should care
Thank goodness—we can finally put to rest to all of the rumors and speculation. Google pulled the curtain on Android 4.4 KitKat Thursday, announcing the new mobile OS will appear first in the forthcoming Nexus 5 handset, which goes on sale for $349.
While we weren’t expecting a hefty update, some of the features announced in KitKat—like the newly revamped interface and new messaging features in the Hangouts app—were on our wish list. Other features, like optimization updates to help KitKat run on low-end phones, simply remind us that Google is still battling all the issues that lead to device fragmentation.
Regardless, let’s walk through some of the key features of KitKat and what you can expect when you finally get your hands on the new OS (whenever that is, because as we know, Android updates can take a long time to roll out).
A better phone dialer
You wouldn’t expect an overhaul of a dialer application to be a marquee feature, but Google has achieved the near impossible. When you’re in the dialer interface, now you can type just the first few letters of who or what you’re looking for—whether it’s a business or a friend—and the dialer will immediately bring it up. You won’t have to venture into Contacts for this essential information.
If this search functionality sounds familiar, that’s because some manufacturers already offer this feature in their own version of the Android dialer. Samsung’s TouchWiz UI, for example, helps you find the name of the person you want to call by letting you key in the first few letters of his or her name on the number pad. So perhaps the bigger news isn’t that Google overhauled its dialer applications, but that it’s looking to what third-parties are doing to give consumers what they want.
KitKat also provides a novel form of caller ID, fetching the location information of unknown numbers that call you to provide a better glimpse into who might be calling and where they’re located. This is an especially helpful addition when you consider the number of telemarketer calls that aren’t routed through an 800 number.
Fabulous interface makeover
Stock Android doesn’t have to be plain and simple. As some developers posited in our Android retrospective, KitKat includes a slightly revamped interface design. You’ll see better use of screen real-estate in applications that utilize the new “immersive” full-screen abilities, like Google Music and Books. And the new navigation bar is now translucent, so your wallpaper won’t be cropped by a colored menu bar. KitKat also sports a new condensed font.
Unfortunately, these interface changes won’t necessarily be exposed on non Nexus devices—meaning pretty much the entire universe of Android hardware. You’ll still be held hostage to whatever interface the manufacturer wants you to look at if you’re not using the developer edition of a phone.
It’s unclear how these design changes could affect interfaces like HTC’s Sense or Samsung’s TouchWiz UI, but we’re not holding our breath for substantial KitKat additions to those UIs. Third-party manufacturers will likely continue to push interfaces that match their brand, and for companies like Samsung that means gaudy icons and blue everything.
Never carry cash again
As leaks suggested, Android 4.4. KitKat will enable Google Wallet right off the bat—without the need for your carrier’s approval. And because Android is actually storing your payment information within KitKat, you won’t have to rely on NFC security elements to make a transaction.
But that’s not all: Not only will you be able to manage your credit card information from within the Settings panel and more easily pay for items anywhere NFC and Wallet is supported, but you’ll also be able to send money to friends without annoying transaction fees.
Google enabled the payment settings from within the OS to help people on Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T take advantage of its Wallet offerings, as those three carriers have banded together to use Isis as the default NFC-payment platform. We won’t know more about how Wallet works in KitKat until we physically have an Android 4.4 device in our hands, but at first glance the update looks like a win.
Okay, Google Now
How you access Google Now varies from phone to phone. Do you hold down the home button? Do you swipe up from the bottom of the screen? Do you shake your phone vigorously while shouting at it? Hoping to simplify things a bit, Google has put Google Now front and center by adding it to the Home screen. Now, instead of entering in some variable command, you can just swipe from left to right to quickly access Google’s handy service.
The new OS also supports launching Google Now by saying, “Ok Google” while on the homescreen. It should be a helpful feature if your hands are tied up, or you would rather dictate than type. It’s kind of like the Touchless Controls on the Moto X, but with a few more hoops to jump through. Unfortunately the functionality is currently limited to the Nexus 5, so your current phone probably won’t get the feature. (But your next phone might!)
Also, Google Now can now access apps when it exposes information in its search results. Let's say you're looking for a particular restaraunt. Not only will you get the usual Google results, you could also get an invitation to book a reservation via, say, the OpenTable app. This function has to be supported on the app level, but suggests an exciting new expansion of Google's digital assistant.
Indeed, by enabling easier access to Google Now, third-party manufacturers like Samsung won’t be able to hide it behind its own proprietary services. (Ever try to get to Google Now on a Galaxy S 4, only to be defaulted to S-Voice?) Google just wants you to stick with it for all of your queries.
Finally! A few days ago, Google updated its Hangouts app to let you send both SMS, MMS, and chat messages from one application. It’s the right idea, but Google is merely playing catch-up, since Apple released the all-encompassing Messages application in iOS 6 over a year ago. Google wrote in its official blog post that its intention for combining all the communication functionality into one was for added convenience.
Faster Android for aging phones
Okay, so maybe your hardware isn’t exactly top tier compared to the ones running quad-core Snapdragon processors and massive amounts of memory. Google understands your plight and has introduced a new way for manufacturers to take advantage of all the latest Android features without the typical slow downs that plague most aging hardware.
It’s called Project Svelte and it’s designed to make KitKat run smoothly and efficiently even on low-end devices with as little as 512MB of RAM. As a result, Kit Kat uses 16 percent less memory than its predecessor, Jelly Bean, and there are additional features that allow developer to disable any features that use up more memory than needed.
This may help developers make apps for low-end devices, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that all old hardware will be able to run KitKat. Not even the Galaxy Nexus will be eligible for an update, and that device is barely a year and a half old. However, the under-the-hood improvements should help the current generation of devices handle applications a bit better, like the now-aging Nexus 7 and Nexus 4. This means an overall smoother Android experience if you’re running those devices.
You may not reap the benefits of some of the other features just yet, but that’s because they’re intended for developers to embed into applications.
If you walk to work everyday, you might appreciate that Google introduced a nifty new low-power step detector that enables you to track the number of steps you walk in a day without having to leave the screen on. Developers can also take advantage of system-wide captioning abilities that can display closed captions for various content, which is a nice enhancement for the hearing impaired—and when you want to watch a video but don’t headphones nearby.
As for that printer collecting dust in the corner, if it’s Google Print-compatible you can now send documents directly to it with the built-in cloud print functionality. Android apps can print anything over Wi-Fi or from cloud-hosted services. You can also discover any available printers, change paper sizes, and choose specific pages to print.