New versions of Android don’t arrive with the same kind of hullabaloo as they used to, nor it would seem the same numerical significance. After Ice Cream Sandwich 4.0 and Jelly Bean 4.1-4.3, the newest kid on the block is KitKat 4.4 so called thanks to a strange deal struck between Google and Nestlé. KitKat 5.0 would’ve fitted in nicely with the Nexus 5, but it wasn’t to be.
With Google choosing to farm out the likes of Gmail and Google Maps as separate apps, partly to minimise the effects of Android fragmentation, there isn’t all that much left in the core code of Android itself in terms of integrated features. Nevertheless, KitKat does bring with it some notable changes that will interest all Android users, and which give some indication of where Google’s mobile operating system will be heading in the future.
First and foremost, there’s Google Now. Technically speaking, Google Now is part of the separate Google Search app, but the integration is tightened up in KitKat 4.4 so that your personalised cards can be reached by one swipe from the central home screen. The old way of accessing Google Now, where you press and hold on the Home button then drag upwards, is still available.
The home screen engine itself has been modified, so any blank home screens simply disappear. If all of your shortcuts are on the central screen, swiping right has no effect, as there’s no home screen to go to. Widgets, meanwhile, have been shunted to the home screen settings together with wallpaper, rather than appearing as an extension of the All Apps screen.
If you’re a serious Android user then no doubt you’ve played around with alternative launcher programs, and KitKat 4.4 makes switching between them easier with a new Home entry in the Settings app. It only appears once you’ve installed at least one third-party launcher on your system, and is a much more straightforward way of changing from one to another.
In fact, as Ars Technica discovered, the Google Search app is now pretty much Android itself. The default launcher is an extension of Google Now, rather than the other way around. That means, somewhere down the line, you’ll be able to install a pure, unmodified version of Android on any device from HTC, Samsung or anyone else.
Also of note is the new Hangouts app, designed to handle SMS text messages as well as instant messenger chats. Again, this is technically a separate app that’s now available for older devices too, but as the latest version debuted with KitKat 4.4, we’re including a mention of it here.
The text messaging integration is very much a work in progress. The old Web chat Hangouts and the new SMS threads are kept in separate conversations, even when they relate to the same contact. What’s more, your text messages aren’t archived to Gmail like Hangout chats are, which would’ve been a nice touch. There’s definitely room for improvement in the future.
The Phone app has been given a facelift in KitKat 4.4, and will now automatically show frequently called contacts so you can get at them more easily. There’s also a new Caller ID feature: if an unknown number rings you, Android KitKat 4.4 scans nearby businesses on Google Maps to see if it can identify who it is. The same technology is coming to personal numbers in 2014, if you agree to link your Google+ profile to your mobile number, though there is the choice to opt-out.
The Camera and Gallery apps are still part of Android, and both get a couple of new features in KitKat 4.4. The headline change in terms of the camera is the new HDR+ mode, which takes a succession of images very quickly, then combines the best lighting, colour and saturation from each one. In most situations, it returns better-looking photos in return for a few milliseconds’ extra lag.
As for the Gallery, it seems certain to be subsumed into the Photos app in the very near future. Nevertheless, for now it includes new editing features that enable you to apply filters and borders, straighten and crop images, and make adjustments to brightness, colour and saturation. It’s a welcome improvement, if you like playing around with images on your phone, and it’s non-destructive too — all of your edits can be undone with one tap.
Apart from a few stylish design tweaks, that’s about it. Other changes ushered in with KitKat 4.4 include a full-screen “Immersive Mode” that works more naturally (for your games and ebooks), the “OK Google” voice shortcut introduced by with the Moto X (though you’ll need to switch from “UK English” to “US English” to use it right now) and the ability to record screen activity as a video (a third-party app is required to do the recording right now, but the capability is there). There’s also improved file handling capabilities available to all apps, with Google Drive integration built in, and native cloud printing support.
Android 4.4 KitKat continues three trends that have been building for some time: more personalisation, tighter integration with Google’s other products, and a move away from integrated apps to separate ones that can be updated independently. It’s undoubtedly the best and most attractive version of Android yet, designed as much to counter the alternative Android versions as iOS.