In 2011, Google introduced Android 4.0 "Ice Cream Sandwich," which took some of the design direction it had begun on tablets and moved it to phones. In the intervening two years, we've only seen "point" updates for the platform: some subtle refinements and a few big new features, but never a big 5.0 update. Google sees it as a “mature” operating system — it doesn’t have to reinvent the design or the core features, it just has to make them run faster, better, and prettier. With Android 4.4 "KitKat," that trend continues, but this time around the refinements add up to something more — but not how you might expect.
Google always introduces a new version of Android alongside a new Nexus device — this time it's on the excellent Nexus 5. But where we used to think of the Nexus as simply the device that offers the purest, least skinned version of Android, the Nexus 5 offers a vision of Android that includes more of Google's entire ecosystem than ever before. KitKat may have the most visual polish of any version of Android, but the most important features are unique to the Nexus 5 and uniquely Google.
KitKat is Android's biggest step yet into what Google believes is the future of mobile: ambient information, tied tightly to the company's intelligent cloud services, available on cheap and powerful devices. It's an ambitious plan for the future, but what is it like to use today?
Throughout the entire OS, Android looks cleaner and brighter. It’s also whiter, excising the vast majority of the blue color that once defined Android’s look and feel. Google even switched how it handles translucency throughout the OS, replacing the dark black overlays with a semi-transparent white. The overall effect is an OS that feels less, well, robotic.
Still distinctively android, but finally less robotic
The switch from blue to white applies to the status bar and the button bar more than anywhere else. The status bar and bottom button bar are also translucent in some places, allowing the wallpaper and certain apps to bleed in underneath.
Google will also allow some apps to go full-screen more easily, completely hiding the status bar and button bar. It's something that was possible before, but the behavior now makes a lot more sense. Now it's up to developers to exercise restraint with these new options — but Google has led by example, only using them sparingly itself.
Earlier attempts at polishing up Android never really got into the nooks and crannies of the OS, but this time the effort seems much more comprehensive. There are new rounded pop-over dialogs that look much better than before, a new "Condensed Roboto" that Google sprinkles in appropriate places, and even small things like what a button looks like when pressed have been updated to be more subtle and less in your face.
Strange as it may seem, the Clock app might be the best place to sum up Google's design thinking. It's been updated with a new look, and has the new radial time-picker that was first introduced in the calendar earlier this year. The whole thing still feels distinctively "Android," but with a more balanced layout, an approachable and intuitive interface, and improved fonts.
Ready for launch
While many users will hardly notice KitKat's softened edges and cleaner lines, you can't miss the new Nexus 5 launcher, which is easily the biggest change in Android 4.4. It epitomizes Google's new strategy with the Nexus line: it's all about Google.
It's impossible to say where kitKat ends and Google begins
The new launcher's biggest functional change is that it fully integrates Google Now. It's available on the leftmost screen, just a swipe away from the main home screen, though you can still access it with a swipe up from the home button in any other app. When you're in the Launcher, Now listens for you to say "okay Google" and will jump right into a voice search. It's very similar to what Google-subsidiary Motorola did with the Moto X, but unfortunately it only works within the Launcher and it doesn't appear to be able to customize itself to only respond to your voice commands.
Google Now also is seeing a steady progression of features. Google says it's made a 25 percent improvement in speech recognition, and it shows. Speaking to Google Now results in more accurate text than ever, and if it gets it wrong you can tap on a word to replace it with the right one. Google can also surface web pages it thinks you’ll want to see based on your location.
But the biggest change to Google Now will launch in a few weeks. Google is setting up partnerships with app developers to allow the search company to scan their app's content. That means that Google Now will be able to give you a button to launch an app directly to the information that relevant to your query, not just a web page. It's a small thing to start — there are only 10 launch partners, like restaurant reservations from OpenTable — but extending its search power into the app ecosystem could open up new opportunities for Google.
Google also decided that the big screen-real estate on the Nexus 5 deserved larger icons (in lieu of cramming more of them in a row), and the result is surprisingly accessible. The app drawer is also simpler: it's a grid of app icons and nothing more. To get to widgets, you need to revert back to the old long-press behavior, but once you do you're greeted with an easier-to-understand list of re-arrangeable home screens and shortcuts to add widgets and change your wallpaper.
While all of these changes are welcome, what’s most notable about them is they’re all exclusive to the Nexus 5 — at least for now. KitKat’s best features are, for better or worse, only available on the Nexus 5. If ever there was a "Google Phone," this is it.
Hangouts also gets a big update with KitKat — finally integrating SMS and MMS with everything else it offers. In fact, it replaces the default Messaging app from the core of Android entirely, although you can still download a third-party SMS app and use that instead.
And you might want to, since the SMS integration in Hangouts isn't all that great. Google makes you "tie" SMS messages to one Google account — if you have two, you'll need to remember which account they live in. What's worse, SMS messages do not appear in the same conversation thread as your Hangouts messages — they're cordoned off in their own thread. Many other smartphone operating systems get this right: iMessages on iOS both auto-detects and threads SMS, and hell, webOS got this right from the start. Google did tell me that it's working on it, writing, "initially, we're focused on the core SMS experience on Hangouts for Android. We're working hard to make the SMS experience on Hangouts even better over time."
Hangouts needs to decide what it wants to be when it grows up
Honestly, it's not clear yet just what Google wants to do with Hangouts. It could be positioned as an iMessage competitor, but Google is still shying away from auto-detecting whether your recipient uses Hangouts. With Hangouts On Air, it also weirdly mixes live video broadcasting into your private messaging client. Last but not least, there's Google Voice to contend with. Currently, you can't send text messages from your Google Voice number within Hangouts, though the company promises that is coming. That's quite a lot for a single app.
On top of all that, Google has Hangouts on multiple platforms — many of which it doesn’t directly control. That makes creating something that works like iMessage especially difficult, and could go some way towards explaining (but not excusing) why Google made the choice to not thread SMS. On the bright side, you can change your notification sound for SMS so they don't sound like incoming Hangouts messages, and there are new little icons indicating whether or not the person you're talking to is on a phone.
All that said, having SMS within Hangouts is at least a step forward, even though it's hard to know what direction Google is walking in and easy to see that there are many more steps ahead. For me, I'm just happy to have one less icon I'm trying to cram into my home screen.
With core apps like the Launcher and SMS getting Googlified, it makes perfect sense that the phone app would get the same treatment. Instead of presenting you with a simple number pad, the main screen is now a listing of the people you call most often — or who call you most often. Google says it determines who is up top algorithmically, and in my testing it did a pretty good job of that. Since version 4.3, the number pad itself is smart too — it will use T9 to let you search your contacts instead of just dialing, something I've been waiting for on a Nexus device for a very long time.
The other big feature in the dialer is the ability to search businesses directly. Google uses its extensive Maps database to search for local businesses, so when you call, it shows a photo associated with the business and names it appropriately in your call log — so when a business calls you, you know who's calling.
"Productivity" has been the watchword in mobile of late — thanks to the back and forth between Microsoft and Apple on their respective tablets. Google is still part of that discussion, however, especially now that QuickOffice is preinstalled on KitKat. The new version has a cleaner look that's more in line with the rest of the OS, but still isn’t quite as feature-rich as Apple’s iWork suite. There's still a strange divide between QuickOffice and Google Docs on Android, unfortunately — QuickOffice can't open Google Docs from Google Drive, to say nothing of the strangeness of having both Drive and QuickOffice offer similar document functionality.
There are other utilitarian touches to note. There's a new Downloads app that's much better looking and easier to navigate. The File Picker, which you use to open files and attach them, now has a cleaner and easier to understand interface. It also integrates with cloud services — Google Drive, Dropbox, and others — so you can add files from any service within any app.
There's new printing functionality — it's easy to print to Google Print services or some HP printers, and there's even an option to print to PDF locally. That last feature is the kind of thing that I use on a regular basis on my desktop and never thought to wish for on a mobile OS, but it shows that Google is serious about making KitKat a full-featured OS that doesn't need to be thought of as a second-class OS citizen — especially on tablets.
The stock email app has long felt ignored on Android, but with KitKat it has finally received a big update. Essentially, it looks and acts exactly like Google's Gmail app — including the sliding panels, swipe to delete, and everything else — but for Exchange and IMAP users. Although it doesn't seem to intelligently thread emails, having an email app that doesn't feel hobbled compared to the main Gmail app is a big deal.
Taken from our Nexus 5 review, which includes thoughts on KitKat.Performance
It's difficult to separate out any operating system's performance from the hardware it's running on. That goes doubly for Android, which can vary widely from device to device. That said, KitKat absolutely screams on the Nexus 5. I played Asphalt 8: Airborne and, yes, many rounds of Dots and rarely felt like they weren't as good as their iOS counterparts — for Android gaming, that's high praise.
Project Svelte and a fast processor make KitKat absolutely scream on the Nexus 5
There are other performance enhancements that may not make as much of a difference on a device like the Nexus 5. One of the biggest changes in KitKat is what Google calls "Project Svelte," which makes Android 4.4 capable of running on lower-end hardware. It marks the first time since Gingerbread that Android can run reliably and well on devices with only 512MB of RAM. In addition to shrinking down the size of the OS and the apps on it, Google says it improved Android's memory management. App developers can enable a "low-memory" mode when they detect that they're on lower-spec devices, improving performance by reducing graphical flourishes like those seen on Chrome's tab screen.
Google made some enhancements to how the touchscreen and the OS interact, and they're immediately obvious. I found the keyboard to be much more accurate than it was before — normally I install SwiftKey on Android devices, but here I never felt the need. For whatever reason, scrolling in Chrome is still not quite as good as it ought to be — but it's way better in that app and wildly better outside it.
We'll have wait for other devices to upgrade to 4.4 before we'll know for sure if these speed improvements are due to KitKat or to the super-fast Snapdragon 800 processor on the Nexus 5. In the meantime, KitKat feels fast and fluid, more so than any previous version of Android.
The many other features in KitKat are the kind of bullet-point items that are easy to skip over, but in some cases are a bigger deal than they appear. First among them is that the default web engine is now based on Chromium instead of the old WebKit engine. It's a nerdy thing, but until now Android was split between the good Chrome browser and the lesser WebKit engine for all other apps. That's changed, finally, and it means that the many third-party apps that use web view are instantly better.
Google Wallet also got a potentially important refresh. Anything involving mobile payments and NFC is complicated, but Google has separated out some of the secure bits in NFC that were previously tied to hardware and put them in software. That theoretically means that Google could try again to spread the adoption of tap-to-pay without interference from the carriers.
There's more. The gallery app has an updated photo editor — it looks largely the same on a phone but is radically better on tablets. It's more powerful, non-destructive, and offers granular controls across a wide array of photo filters and tools. The camera app offers a new HDR+ mode on the Nexus 5 (to middling effect, for now). The stock Android keyboard now offers access to Emoji in any app by long-pressing the enter key and the OS supports Chromecast streaming at a deeper level. There's built-in support for IR blasters, a new step-counter tool that third-party apps can plug into, a new "lower power audio" feature that turns off the main CPU if all you're doing is playing music, and better support for Bluetooth devices. Location settings and services has been cleaned up to be easier to manage and more informative.
They're the kind of features and improvements that you see on a mature platform. When a company doesn't need to overhaul the core of what an operating system is and does, it frees up the ability to fill out the edges. With KitKat, Google has clearly done just that.
With Android 4.4 KitKat, the catchwords to remember are "refine" and "polish," and there's plenty of both on display in KitKat. From the launcher to the apps, everything looks better and feels more approachable. But underneath all that, Google has filled in a powerful feature set and established a platform good enough to dismiss any complaints that this is just a "point" update.
If you were to say that Android 4.4 KitKat was the biggest change to Android in two years, you'd be right — but maybe not in the way that you think. KitKat on the Nexus 5 is not KitKat as you'll see it on other devices. The Launcher and other parts of this OS are exclusive to the Nexus 5. The big change is one that's been a long time coming: there's Google's Android and there's everybody else's. Google's Android finds its apotheosis in the Nexus 5.
Right now, you can't separate out Google from KitKat and vice versa. How it will play out on other devices is still an open question. But if you don't particularly care about that question, if you're fully invested in Google's ecosystem and services, KitKat is simply a stunningly good operating system that feels every bit as up-to-date and modern as iOS 7, if not more so.