At last! After months of waiting and more than a few unofficial leaks, Google's latest version of Android -- Android 4.4, a.k.a. KitKat -- is finally here.
Does KitKat look any different from the last version of Android?
Yes, although most of the visual changes aren't drastic. The top-of-screen status bar is now translucent, with white-colored elements instead of blue. The virtual navigation buttons at the bottom of the screen also use a translucent background. The horizontal line separating the home screen Favorites Tray (i.e. the dock) is gone; instead, you now have a multi-dot indicator showing which panel you're currently viewing, similar to what many OEMs had already implemented in their own Android-based UIs.
Curiously, widgets are no longer integrated in with the main app drawer -- a change that was introduced with the Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich release -- and are now accessible via a long-press on the home screen, as they used to be years ago. And taking another cue from Android OEMs, long-pressing the home screen now zooms out to give you a broad view of your various home screen panels from which you can rearrange them.
There's also plenty of poise and polish in Android 4.4 -- seemingly small details that add up to enhance the user experience. I put together a collection of some of the more noteworthy refinements, if you're interested.
What's the deal with Google Now in Android 4.4?
Why, I'm glad you asked. With KitKat, Google Now becomes an even more integral part of the system: In addition to being able to swipe up from the virtual buttons to open Now, as you've been able to do since its inception, you can also now get to Google Now by swiping over to the left of your home screen, where it lives on a dedicated panel. Clearly, Google wants people to find and use this powerful tool.
[UPDATE: Google now says this element of KitKat is exclusive to the Nexus 5 -- for now, at least.]
What about voice activation? Is "Okay, Google" built in system-wide like it is on the Moto X?
Not exactly. KitKat does introduce a new voice command -- "Okay, Google" -- that quickly takes you to Android Voice Search. But the command doesn't wake the phone on demand, as it does with the Moto X; rather, it works only when the phone is awake and you're on your home screen (or in the actual Google Search app).
[UPDATE: Like the Google Now home screen integration, this part of Android 4.4 is evidently only going to appear on the Nexus 5 for the moment.]
What about new features? What does Android 4.4 include that Jelly Bean doesn't?
Quite a bit, actually. As far as user-facing stuff goes, here are the high points:
- A brand new Dialer app with integrated search functionality. That means you can simply type in the name of a business to look it up right then and there. The Dialer also provides caller ID info as available when you receive calls from numbers that aren't in your contacts. And last but not least, it has an auto-populating favorites section that shows your most commonly called numbers.
- A new SMS/MMS/video chat experience. The old Messaging app is gone and replaced completely with a revamped Hangouts app, which incorporates all chat-related functionality into a streamlined cross-platform setup.
- System-wide wireless printing. As of Android 4.4, any app can print wirelessly using services like Google Cloud Print and HP ePrint. No third-party add-ons are required; it's all built in at the OS level.
- Better cloud storage integration. With KitKat, you can access cloud storage seamlessly throughout the OS; any developer can easily add in support for cloud services so you can open, save, and manage remote files within the app as if they were local.
- A new full-screen "immersive mode" option within apps. Android 4.4 gives developers the option to hide all on-screen elements -- both the status bar and virtual navigation buttons -- and deliver an "edge-to-edge" experience. While using an app in immersive mode, you can swipe from the top or bottom of the screen to temporarily reveal the hidden system interface elements.
- A revamped Email app that's more in line with the Gmail-specific application in terms of design and functionality.
- A new location settings area that lets you see exactly what apps are requesting location data and how much battery power their requests are eating up.
- The KitKat lock screen shows full-screen album art while you're listening to music and provides expanded functions for controlling playback.
How 'bout performance, Mr. Wizard? Anything new or improved there?
Man, do we think alike -- that was just what I wanted to talk about next! KitKat has some significant changes under the hood, and though they may not all be immediately obvious when you use the software, they're actually pretty important.
The biggest thing is a new approach to memory management: Unlike other recent Android releases, KitKat is designed to be able to run well on any Android phone -- even those with limited memory. Google made a bunch of modifications to cut back its memory usage so it can work well on devices with as little as 512MB of RAM. The changes stretch from the OS itself into system-level apps like Chrome and YouTube. For folks with lower-level phones, popular especially outside of the U.S., that's huge.
In theory, the optimizations should lead to even better performance on higher-end devices, too. Google says it removed unneeded background services and slimmed down memory use of features across the board. App loading and multitasking in particular are said to be quicker as a result.
What's up with NFC support in Android 4.4? Will Google Wallet actually work for everyone now?
Yes, indeed: KitKat introduces a new way of handling near-field communication, or NFC, that should remove some of the carrier-made roadblocks we've seen to support for services like Google Wallet.
In short, Android 4.4 uses something called Host Card Emulation that lets all sorts of NFC-based services -- Wallet included -- function without needing to access the secure element of the device. That secure element business has been the big holdup with Wallet support in the past, as carriers have to explicitly allow an app to access it in order for it to work.
Take-home message: With KitKat, Google Wallet and other NFC-based payment and access services should work fine on any carrier anywhere.
Now we're talking! What else is new with KitKat under the hood?
There's a lot, much of which is aimed at enabling developers to do more advanced and interesting stuff. Let's hit the most noteworthy items:
- OS-level support for IR blasters. Any device with the right hardware can now control your TV or other electronic equipment as if it were a remote. Previously, such functionality required special software support to be added in by a manufacturer.
- Support for low-power sensors -- specifically step detectors and step counters.
- Support for new Bluetooth profiles -- HOGP, MAP, AVRCP for the tech-savvy among us. In layman's terms, Android devices will be able to interact more efficiently with more types of low-power Bluetooth devices like joysticks, mice, and keyboards. They'll also be able to exchange messages with other devices wirelessly via Bluetooth.
- New developer tools that'll allow for more easily created high-quality animations and transitions within apps.
- A new screen recorder tool that lets you capture high-quality video (screencasting) of an app running on a device.
- A new system-wide captioning mode that lets apps provide closed captions in a user's preferred style.
- A host of added security features geared primarily toward enterprise-level users.
Okay, we get it. So when will KitKit actually come to my phone?
As usual, it's up to each manufacturer to provide the upgrade to its phones and tablets. You can check on the status of your device in my Android 4.4 upgrade list; it contains only confirmed information and is updated regularly as new info becomes available.
I'll be spending a lot more time getting to know both KitKat and the new Nexus 5 over the coming days. Stay tuned for more hands-on coverage and analysis.