Android 4.4 KitKat review

Another year, another version of Google's Android operating system. This time it's version 4.4, better known as Android KitKat. Yup, the Nestle four-finger chocolate wafer bar will have its name aligned with tech as much as it does with casual confectionery. But is the Android version as sweet?

The Android landscape is changing - and changing fast - and the lines between versions perhaps aren't as distinct as we'd all like them to be. The last really big change to Android, we feel, was with the introduction of Jelly Bean with Android 4.1 in July 2012. In the interim, Android has moved many of its applications out to Google Play, meaning more updates on more devices more frequently, and a gradual levelling of the Android version playing field. This deals with some criticism of "fragmentation", in that you can be enjoying many of Android's latest core features without needing your device manufacturer or network to test, approve and issue an update.

With that in mind, what has really changed in Android 4.4 KitKat and what difference will the mobile OS bump make to your daily experience?

Under the hood

Some of the changes that Google has brought about with Android 4.4 KitKat are performance related, but important. They're the changes you don't necessarily see, but will stand Android in good stead moving forward.

One of the boasts is that the touch response is faster and more accurate, although that’s difficult to judge, as KitKat is currently limited to the Nexus 5, which is a powerful handset, so we won't see if it brings an improvement to other devices until updates roll out.

In a quick comparison of Android 4.4 KitKat on the Nexus 5 alongside Android 4.3 Jelly Bean on the Nexus 4, we can't detect a real different in the touch response. We're not saying it isn't there, but the Nexus 4 is nice and responsive as it is. We suspect this new upgrade will only become apparent on lower-spec devices. But for now, we just have to wait.

Elsewhere, Android 4.4 KitKat has been designed to run on entry-level devices with 512MB RAM. Importantly, it's the management of memory that's been targeted, so Android should run more efficiently, on all devices.

READ: Android v4.4 KitKat: When's it coming to my phone or tablet?

Google tells us that this makes multi-tasking better. Doing multiple things at once - the given example is listen to music while browsing the web - is possible, and we can't say that we notice a difference in day-to-day use, and background music has been around for a long time already.

Full screen looks

Set the Nexus 5 and the Nexus 4 side-by-side and there's an instant difference in look between KitKat and the latest version of Jelly Bean. There's a new level of transparency on the home page of KitKat that gives things a lift. The notification bar and the launcher icons now have the wallpaper running behind them.

READ: Nexus 5 hands-on review

It means that the display appears to be larger, because you have the spread of colour across the whole screen. It's a nice effect, as you don't feel like you're sacrificing space to a couple of black bars. Swipe down the notifications tray and there's a touch of transparency, just as there is in the apps tray.

This runs over into Google Now which is a much slicker and more integrated experience than it was before, but that's where this new look more or less stops. Open up core Google apps like Gmail or People and you're back to a solid black bottom bar and the solid notifications bar in the majority of cases.

We like the look of the KitKat home screen, but can't help thinking apps like Google Maps and Chrome would particularly benefit from jumping to this style too. We just want KitKat to go a little further, reach into some of Google's core apps, as it does with Google Now.

Google details that the translucent system UI is available to developers, so we're sure there will be wider use of it in the future, both in Google apps and in third-party apps.

The new Play Books app is one that features it - rolling over the navigation buttons at the bottom so you get more words on the display, in the same way that Play Movies has done for a while. We'd love this to come to other apps, like the Kindle app for example, where the new immersive mode makes perfect sense.

One area where KitKat again gives you a big screen experience is on the lock screen, where music now gets a full background take over. The album art is pulled in and takes over everything and it looks great.

Best of all, it's not restricted to Play Music, as when we fired up Amazon MP3 it worked in exactly the same way. Play Music does have a small advantage: you can quickly scan the track you're playing from the lock screen controls.

A monochrome world

Visually there's been a change to the colours for the status icons used across the top of the home screen too, dropping to white. It's a brilliant white that fills grey outlines, the same as the Google search bar of Android Jelly Bean.

However, these fade to grey when you open apps that revert to the black notifications bar. So, as above, in the Android 4.4 KitKat launcher and Google Now, they're white, but open Maps or Gmail and they fade to grey. Install a third-party launcher and they'll then stay grey as they're on the black bar, rather than the translucent bar of KitKat.

They're not hugely informative icons, especially as there's no native option for including the battery percentage, or indicating whether you're actually getting the data connection that the full bars are suggesting, as is offered in many manufacturer re-skins of Android.

Open the quick settings menu with the handy two-finger downward swipe and here you'll find that the network and Wi-Fi icons do give you that data traffic information. There's an added locations tile here to toggle on and off, which is most welcome.

Head into the settings menu, and the top bar has been tweaked, giving you a simpler cog settings icon in a grey bar and dropping the blue line, a design update that runs throughout the menus. Otherwise it's pretty much the same, a minor tweaking rather than anything too dramatic.

Anyone getting a phone from Samsung, HTC, Huawei, LG, Motorola or anyone else, will probably never see these aspects, as it's one of the most common areas of manufacturer customisation.

Google Now

Sticking with the visuals for a second, Google Now on KitKat behaves slightly differently from its Jelly Bean equivalent. Although Google Now's content comes from the same place and you get the same features through the latest Google Search update on Android, it's the animation we're intrigued by, as it shows that Android is moving the launcher and Google Now much closer together.

Google Now can be accessed through the old swipe up of the home icon as before, but now lives to the left of the default home page. That means you can swipe across to it, rather than using the upwards gesture.

What we really like about it is how the Google search box from your home page switches text colour as the Google Now page moves in. Someone has thought about how these pages will interact and the result is rather good.

Another small detail is when you touch the Google search bar on the home page, it then opens up search from where you touch with a circular animation, whereas on Jelly Bean the logo just turns blue and you're taken to Google Search.

KitKat also offers some more overt shortcuts for Google Now, as there are icons to set a reminder and customise content at the bottom of the page, which previously hid in the settings menu.

When it comes to Google Now content, this has changed quite a bit. You still get the option to elect your sports team, nominate home and work places, and fill in stocks, but now there's a section called "everything else".

This is a run of questions here where you can opt in or out of other Google Now elements - transit routes, weather, local movies and so on. It's a tidy solution and really easy to run through and change as you like, feeling much more accessible than before.

Google Search

One oddity, perhaps, is that although Google Now was born out of the Google Search app, there's now a separate search function that's not wrapped in Google Now as it is in Jelly Bean.

Open Google Search in KitKat and the opening page is just the keyboard and some of your recent search history, with that translucency so your wallpaper adds a little background hue. In Jelly Bean, you get less of your search history and the top card of Google Now peeping in, usually a fragment of the weather, or a sports fixture.

The search process is thereafter the same, it's now just a little neater going into it.

Ok Google

A lot of internet space has been given over to talking about the phrase "Ok Google". It's an entry point to Google's voice control and on Android 4.4 KitKat, it works from the home screen of your device.

As long as the Nexus 5 is unlocked, you can say "Ok Google" and you can then ask your phone questions, retrieve information, send messages or open apps. It's restricted to US English only at the moment, so if you want the feature elsewhere, you'll have to change the language, but then it works fine.

However, it's only the always-listening part that comes with KitKat on the Nexus 5. If you're sitting in Google Now on the Nexus 4 or the HTC One, you can still say "Ok Google" to get into voice functions in the same way.

There's a whole range of things on offer and you can browse the options by asking Google: say "Ok Google" and then "Ok Google" and it will give you a list of supported commands and examples.

We're not going to dive any deeper, as it's not unique to Android 4.4 KitKat, but its elevation to the home screen of the Nexus 5, and the raising prominence of Google Now, makes it feel like a strong focus for Android moving forward.

Apps icons go big, apps tray less useful

Not only has the launcher button for the apps tray lost the white ring around it, but the app icons have increased in size in KitKit. They're huge. It means that the icons on your launcher look striking. There are still five spaces on the launcher for a normal phone display - and this will scale as KitKat appears on different sized devices - so you don't lose out.

We like to deposit folders on the launcher as it's a much cleaner way of getting quick access to more apps without the mess. Folders have changed visually, again dropping the translucent black background for translucent white, although this makes little real difference.

Where there is a difference, however, is in the apps tray itself. Open it up and you get those big icons and now you only get 20 apps per page. In Jelly Bean you'd get 25 apps, plus a shortcut to Google Play and access to your widgets, none of which are in the KitKat apps tray.

The result is a cleaner look: the apps are the focus, but it feels like a large bin full of colourful icons and not hugely useful. You can't change their size, you can't change the order, you can't make folders, you just end up with pages and pages of apps.

Widgets, wallpapers and home screens

With the widgets whipped out of the apps tray, they can now be found following a long press on the home screen wallpaper. As before, this is where you'd go to change the wallpaper, rearrange pages, and now add widgets too.

New pages appear as you add widgets or install apps and they automatically disappear as you delete those home screen elements, so you never find yourself with lots of empty spare pages.

It's a minor rearrangement which we don't think will confuse too many, but it's also here that you'll find a settings menu. Open it up and you'll find it's the Google Search settings menu, where you can set preferences for search parameters and voice control.

We said that Google Now and the launcher had moved closer together, but it seems that they're really now the same thing in Android 4.4 KitKat.

Multiple launchers

With Android being so customisable, installing a different launcher is a common choice. There's extra support for alternative launchers, or "homes" in KitKat. When you install a new launcher, you get a Home settings menu option.

From this option you can switch launcher quickly, or delete one that you've installed. This addition will make launchers perhaps seem less daunting to those who don't know Android so well, and it's certainly easy to play around with alternatives.

If you want your phone to have a different character at the weekend, perhaps this is how to do it with minimal fuss.

However, doing so currently means you miss out on that slick Google Now integration, as well as the Ok Google activation from the home screen. So as Google gives you easy control of launchers, it also gives you a compelling reason to stick to the default.

Hello, this is…

With an eye on calling, KitKit introduces a couple of new features that makes use of Google's mass of information it has on businesses. When you get a call from someone not in your contacts, Google will pull in business information it has so you have some clue of who the caller is.

That means that you get better caller ID, in theory, although we can see that many calls will slip through the net. In the time we've been using KitKat we've received a number of calls and only one was identified with a company name. It was correct, and it's useful, but we can see that only main switchboard numbers will work and we know that many company phone networks aren't identified, so it may not be hugely useful, in the UK at least.

Additionally, Google wants to take the pain out of finding businesses too. Rather than Googling somewhere local, or finding the number from Maps, you just type the name. Want the number for your local pizza place? Just type pizza and the number and address will appear. You can then go on and look them up in Maps or Google+ by opening the contact card as you would with a person. It's very clever, as long as businesses are listed in Google.

Sticking in the same area, there's been a change to the dialler: it opens up with a frequent callers list and favourites, so it's faster to get to those regular contacts.

In the number pad itself, things are much improved too. The visuals are cleaner, contacts are shown with images as you dial, making for an enhanced experience over the Jelly Bean offering.

It's still not as advanced as your average third-party offering, as you can't delete calls from the list individually to get rid of those irritating spam callers and cultivate a useful call history, and the handling of contacts isn't as sophisticated as anything you get in HTC Sense or TouchWiz.

Messaging is dead, long live Hangouts!

Not only is KitKat looking to push voice searching and elevate Google Now, but Hangouts also gets a boost. By default, it's the SMS app in KitKat. This is more about the removal of the old Messaging app, as the update to Hangouts across Android means you can set it as your default SMS app, regardless of the version of Android you're using.

So while it isn't KitKat specific, like many of the changes that KitKat ushers in, it's another strong statement of intent from Google. In many ways it rivals the SMS/iMessage position of Apple.

As an SMS app it works well enough, but in Hangouts you'll now have a mixed stream of Hangout messages and SMS or MMS messages. Once you're using it, there's no problem with this arrangement: SMS messages come and go as normal.

There's potential for confusion, however, because you now have a range of messaging options for your contacts in the one app and you have to select how you want to contact them.

It's a drop-down box, but if you want to send an SMS, you'll have to make sure you select the phone number, otherwise you might be sending a Hangout message into the dark that will never arrive on someone's mobile phone. Not everyone uses Hangouts, or has a device that will deliver messages from the service.

This potential confusion runs a little further when it comes to searching for contacts to start new messages. The Hangouts app returns contacts from your phone, then makes suggestions from Google+, based on name.

Essentially, these are just random people pulled from the pot that you might end up starting a Hangout with, which feels a little like spam. Worse, some might take offence, as within a few taps we had contact images appearing with girls in their underwear, naked ripped male torsos and a whole lot more.

This random integration of Google+ seems to only happen on KitKat, our Jelly Bean Nexus 4 only suggests contacts we already have.

Productivity: Quickoffice and Google Drive

There's a new Quickoffice app that comes with KitKat and a glance at it will reveal why we've bundled it together with Google Drive. It's available to download in Google Play for other Android versions, but in KitKat it's different, presumably thanks to the new storage access framework.

The new storage framework is designed to give standard method of finding files to use, be that from your internal storage or from an online source, like Google Drive. Although it needs to be implemented by developers, it should mean that adding attachments to emails or opening files uses a uniform interface, rather than each app having a different file navigation system as is currently the case.

Returning to Google Drive, it focuses on showing what you've got in the cloud - docs, spreadsheets, and so on - but also gives you options for creation of files.

Quickoffice, on the other hand, starts up offering you recent files and options to create, but then you can open documents from Google Drive or other sources like downloads. Ultimately, you can open documents and edit them from both ends, so it feels like they're almost the same thing, but with slightly different layouts.

In addition to a new Quickoffice and tweaks around file handling, Android 4.4 KitKat also provides a new native printing framework. This incorporates Google Cloud Print, and there's support for HP printers in KitKat from the off. We'd imagine that other printer manufacturers will add support plugins too, so you can easily print from your devices without problems. Fingers crossed.

Additional settings

KitKat offers more chocolaty goodness too. You can now set a data limit cut-off, so once you reach your allowance, your data connection will shut off to avoid incurring further costs.

Location access has had a revamp, detailing which apps are requesting your location for better management, as well as telling you if they have high battery consumption. In the same settings menu, you can choose what type of location mode you want - so if battery is a concern, you can pick a more economical solution.

Getting set for the future

When Apple launched the iPhone 5S it talked about the M7 coprocessor, a low-power processor to handle motion detection, for things like fitness apps. KitKat offers support for similar applications, with native software support if the hardware is present.

READ: Apple iPhone 5S review

NFC payments get a boost, with native support through the new tap & pay feature. It supports Google Wallet - which is currently limited to the US - but should lead to wider proliferation of payment apps in a consistent manner.

KitKat also brings native support for IR blasters. That means that there can potentially be wider support for those devices, like the HTC One which offers the hardware, so you'll be seeing more apps that control your TV.

With all these things it feels like we're waiting to see where they go, how developers get to grips with them and what the results are. But it's positive.

Verdict

Android 4.4 KitKat makes some important changes under the hood and introduces lots of new features, including some we've not mentioned here. We like the premise of the latest update from Google. The translucent user interface and the move towards getting more out of your display are welcomed, although they're only small changes at the moment, like the sowing of a seed that will grow into something more impressive.

The deeper integration of Google Now we like too, because we've found that Now is becoming more and more useful, especially if you use a lot of Google apps and services. Despite sounding like something of a gimmick, the touch-free option of "Ok Google" has seen us talking to our phone much more than with previous devices and we hope to see more of it elsewhere.

We think that the bundling of SMS into Hangouts is an ugly solution, though, especially with all those outsiders appearing as you search. On the other hand, we welcome Google trying to identify those who are calling us and giving a direct way to find local businesses through the dialer.

Many aspects of Android 4.4 KitKat, however, provide potential for the future. The tweaks to accommodate lower-spec devices, the provision of support for features we're yet to see and the first steps we're seeing on the Nexus 5 feel like Android is being positioned for the next year of exciting launches.

In many ways, KitKat doesn't bring a huge swathe of features you'll be desperate to get your hands on, but it feels like it's laying the foundation for some really impressive stuff to come over the next 12 months. Improved visuals, full screen apps, translucent elements, and better storage handling means that the KitKat future of your current Android device has the potential to be much refined and we're excited to see how it's embraced by manufacturers. For now, the fruits of some of that we'll have to wait on.



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