You may have noticed, that this year with the Nexus 5 release we decided to split up the review. Instead of rolling the review of the Nexus 5 and KitKat all into one review, we decided to do a review on the Nexus 5 and a separate one on Android 4.4 – KitKat. So here's our KitKat review. You're going to get a mega in-depth review here, probably more in-depth than you've ever seen. So let's get started with some background information.
Back in October of 2011, Matias Duarte began the Holo-revolution. That was when Google and Samsung announced Android 4.0 – Ice Cream Sandwich along side the Galaxy Nexus. Since Ice Cream Sandwich, we've seen 4 "major" updates. I say "major" in quotes because while they are just point-releases, they are still kinda major updates. We've seen Android 4.1, 4.2, and 4.3 which were all Jelly Bean. And slowly but surely, Google has been refining their UI and operating system. Instead of rewriting the OS for every update, they do pretty minor changes to the OS, which makes it easier for OEMs to update their existing handsets. Which is why we say HTC release 4.3 so quickly for the One.
Now let's fast forward to October 31st, 2013. Google introduces KitKat. But wait, where did that name come from? Well it's a funny story. Back in September, Google announced that the next version of Android would be named KitKat instead of Key Lime Pie, which we had all figured it would be. Especially since a lot of the leaks shows Key Lime Pie, even after KitKat was announced to be the next name. Basically, Google and Nestle made a deal where KitKat would be the next version of Android while simultaneously helping Nestle sell a boatload of candy bars. Now Google and Nestle say no money changed hands, but I'm not so sure.
KitKat is a semi-huge step for Google. It takes what they've built over the past couple years and made it even better. With a few design tweaks, some performance tweaks and bringing Google Now to your home screen. We're going to talk about many of the features in this review. But the TLDR of KitKat is, it makes Android faster, smoother with an even nicer user interface.
Google Experience Launcher
We had actually heard quite a bit in the leaks about the Google Experience Launcher. This was actually a pretty big deal since the stock Launcher hadn't seen much in terms of changes since Ice Cream Sandwich nearly two years ago. The biggest change was making your left home screen Google Now. Sort of like how on HTC devices Blink Feed is your left home screen. Now of course, you can still get to Google Now from anywhere in the OS by swiping up from Home, as usual. A couple other things include the new app drawer icon, the new folder UI, and now the navigation and status bars are transparent. That's one feature I've been wanting for a while. I love how on the G2 and Samsung devices that they are transparent, and it's nice to see that on the Nexus 5.
Inside the app drawer there are some changes too. For instance the widgets section is no longer there. That is back to long-pressing on the home screen to change the wallpaper and add widgets. They've also made the icons bigger on the home screen and app drawer. Which, I'm not sure how I feel about that. They went from a 5×5 grid in the app drawer to a 4×5 grid on a larger display. I like having more apps on one page, so I'm hoping a mod comes out for that soon.
This was one of the features I was hoping Google would bring over from the Moto X and they did….well sort of. On the Moto X you can say "Ok Google Now, how's the weather?" without unlocking your device. You can even be across the room from it. But with the Nexus 5 and inside KitKat, you actually have to have it on the lockscreen to use the Ok, Google term. Which I don't really like and will probably never use it now. On the Moto X I used it a ton since I didn't have to unlock my device to use it. Of course, It's still as useful as Google Now has always been. And is much better than S Voice, as expected.
Hangouts Gains SMS
In Android 4.4, well really Hangouts v2, Hangouts gains SMS integration. But it's not as good as it could be. Now, I didn't really get to check this one out too much since I use Google Voice and Google Voice isn't integrated unless you're on Sprint. So that kinda sucks. But from what I have seen is that Hangouts is kind of confused with SMS. It'll create a separate thread. So basically if I talk to you via Hangouts and SMS, we'll have two threads going. One that's via SMS and one that's Hangouts, or IM. What's also weird is that it still uses your standard SMS messages to send SMS. You'd think Google would work that out so it just uses data.
But that's not all that's new in Hangouts. There's also the animated GIF support, along with being able to share your location. Not to mention there are now moods. Oh and my favorite part, you can tell if someone is on mobile or desktop again. That's always nice to see. There's a few subtle interface changes in Hangouts v2, and it's really nice actually.
Phone Dialer Gets Smart
Finally, in Android 4.4 the phone dialer gets a bit more of a brain. Before it was pretty simple. You type a number and it calls it. Pretty simple right? Well now Google has made that even better or smarter. By, guess what, integrating it with other Google Services. I think Sundar Pichai hit the nail on the head in his press release, that Google has basically built the Yellow Pages into the phone dialer.
What I mean by that is if I get a call from a local business, let's say Motz Burgers, and I don't have their phone number saved in my phone. It will show up on my phone as "Motz Burgers" and it might even have a picture of the place. Now that's pretty cool. Because, like many others out there, if a number calls me that I don't recognize I don't answer it.
However, right now this appears to only be available for local businesses. So if Google called me from Mountain View, it probably wouldn't be able to tell me it's Google calling me. I'd love to see this open up to more than just local businesses. Hopefully that does happen soon.
Does anyone actually print anymore? I literally only print when I need to send a review unit back. But hey, in KitKat, Google has made it possible to print straight from your phone. Granted you will need a wireless printer and your phone to be connected to the same network as the printer, but it does work, and it almost works seamlessly. But there's one catch, it seems to only be able to work with HP Printers. I tried it with my Canon printer and it did not work, unfortunately.
Google Drive and Quick Office
You may remember that Google had purchased Quick Office over a year ago and hadn't done much with them until recently. Well now, Quick Office comes pre-installed in KitKat. Not just the Nexus 5, but Android 4.4. So now you are able to create and edit new documents, spreadsheets, presentations and more, all from your Android device. In my opinion, that's freaking awesome. Although I don't generally create or even edit documents on my phone, it's still nice to have a much better UI. Because guess what? Quick Office is using the cards UI now.
I've been using Android 4.4 – KitKat on both the Nexus 4 and Nexus 5. While the Nexus 4 has been just a port, and the Nexus 5 being official Android 4.4, they both ran very nicely. On the Nexus 4, Android 4.4 seemed to breathe new life into the year old handset, which Google has once again added a ton of new features under-the-hood that most of us would never even know existed. The Nexus 5 would have already performed great since it is running a Snapdragon 800 processor inside. But comparing the Nexus 4 on KitKat to the Nexus 5 on KitKat, there's definitely a ton of improvement here.
In KitKat, there is now a few new options in the Location settings. In fact, that whole thing has been revamped and looks pretty nice. In the screens above you can see the list of apps that recently requested your location. Now there is also a new mode setting, which has three different options. There's High accuracy, which uses GPS, Wi-Fi, and Mobile networks to figure out where you are. Then there's battery saving which uses Wi-Fi and mobile networks to figure out your location. Finally there is device only, which only uses GPS to find out your location. Generally, I've been leaving it on Battery saving, but I've found that it really sucks for playing Ingress, and that I've had to switch to High Accuracy to actually play Ingress. So that's something you'll want to be aware of.
This is pretty hard to talk about with a new version of Android on a new phone. But I have installed KitKat (via custom ROM) on my Nexus 4, and the battery life seems to be improved a bit. It's still not the best for battery life, but better is always good. Remember the Nexus 5 has all kinds of things that are exclusive to it, like being able to stream in the background longer than normal, etc.
I'm actually really liking Android 4.4 – KitKat. Not just the new features, but the new design tweaks. I used to always install Paranoid Android so I could change the status bar icon colors to white. Which is what the Android team has done now, which is great. Also making the status bar and navigation bar transparent is pretty cool, that was one of my favorite features from the G2. Glad to see that on the Nexus 5 now.
I've really been enjoying KitKat over the past week, and we've been covering the crap out of it on the site lately. And we're still not done. There's a lot more to cover. While this may have been a .1 update to Jelly Bean, it was definitely worthy of the name change to KitKat. I can't wait to see what the next version of Android has in store for us.