Unwrapping Android 4.4 KitKat: Here’s what it will do for you

It may have had enough false starts to get disqualified, and it’s certainly been leaking all over the place, but Google’s Android update, version 4.4 KitKat, has finally found its way out of the snack drawer. Here’s what KitKat brings to the table (aside from diabetes).

What’s with the name?

kitkat-android-wrapperUntil now, Google’s Android versions have been named after generic dessert-related snacks, such as Ice Cream Sandwich and Donut, making 4.4 KitKat the first to adopt the name of an actual product. So has Google sold out? According to a report by the BBC, no money changed hands at Google and KitKat company Nestle. Instead, Google execs wanted to do something, “Fun and unexpected,” and found inspiration after seeing the eponymous chocolate bars in a Google refrigerator, and the deal was finalized after a single phone call. 

KitKat’s confirmation revealed that Key Lime Pie, the name previously associated with the K release of Android, was used internally up to the last moment, so as not to ruin the surprise. Love it or hate it, there’s no denying it has attracted plenty of attention, right down to Nestle’s geeky, cheeky commercial, and using an Android robot on its KitKat packaging. No money may have technically changed hands, but make no mistake, this is a marketing/advertising deal between Google and Nestle.

Headline features

Keep your expectations in check. This is another small update to Android Jelly Bean (the fourth such update), and not Android 5.0, which could reasonably be expected to bring a more radical change. The focus here is on making the Android platform smoother, introducing subtle tweaks and new functionality – it’s a coating of silky chocolate to cover those layers of wafer and help the whole thing go down more easily.

  • Vanishing status bar: The status bar is now translucent and, along with the navigation buttons, it will melt away to give your content maximum screen space. Swipe the edge of the screen to bring it all back.dial-pad
  • Phone app updates: The new phone app bumps your favorite contacts to the top, and features new search capabilities so you can find a person or business and call directly from the app. You’ll also find smarter caller ID that can potentially identify callers, even if they aren’t a listed contact.
  • More Google Now: It’s easier than ever before to use Google Now. Swipe left to right from the home screen, or say “OK Google” and it will begin listening, eager to deliver your directions, or send a text. It can also lead you directly into apps now, not just websites.
  • Hangouts adds SMS: Hangouts is now your one-stop message shop, like a combination of FaceTime and iMessage.
  • Emojis: Emoji characters are available in the Google Keyboard. You have the option of setting a different default texting app if you don’t like Hangouts.
  • Works on older phones: Optimized memory means faster multitasking and a more responsive touchscreen. This should make general skipping around on your phone faster than ever, but also means that older phones with as little as 512MB of RAM can now run Android smoothly … if they ever get the update to 4.4.
  • Chromecast: Chromecast support allows you to project movies and music to your big screen (if you have Chromecast) and when your device is locked it will now display full screen related album and movie art. 

Productivity boost

KitKat brings a few extras for working stiffs, so, before you take a break, consider these shiny new abilities:

  • You can print files directly from your Android device to supported printers.print
  • The new Quickoffice app lets you create and edit documents, including spreadsheets and presentations.
  • You can open and save files from Quickoffice on Google Drive, other cloud services, or locally on the device. There’s also a recently used files menu that makes it super easy to share whatever you were working on by email, or just find it again in a hurry.

Let’s not forget

There are a lot of other features included in KitKat. Some of them offer developers and manufacturers exciting new APIs to play with. Here’s a quick run through of some good stuff we haven’t covered yet:

  • HDR+ photography support.
  • Infrared blasting for remote control functionality (for device with IR blasters).
  • Android Device Manager can find and wipe your device if you lose it.
  • Close captioning and subtitles now supported for video.
  • Bluetooth MAP support for Bluetooth-enabled cars.
  • Open architecture for NFC to encourage more mobile payments.
  • A built-in pedometer feature.

You can find an in-depth look at KitKat’s developer features at the Android site. These features will begin to pop up inside apps as soon as developers integrate them.

Enhanced performance

A theme that runs through a lot of KitKat’s refinements is the idea of making existing things run better. This is one way to tackle the thorny old issue of fragmentation. KitKat and Google’s delectable menu of apps have been optimized to run on older and entry-level smartphones and tablets, so 512MB of RAM is not necessarily going to be a barrier anymore.

There’s also been a lot of thought about another major annoyance: battery drain. Google has worked out a number of ways of extending your battery life. The location tracking supports a battery-saving mode, so you can trade accuracy for extra stamina. There’s new low-power audio playback (only on the Nexus 5 for now) which allows up to 60 hours of music. This should come to other devices with dedicated audio processors. Other general improvements in efficiency should help you squeeze a little more out of that battery.

When can I get it?

Order a Nexus 5 (you’ll have to be quick) and you could be playing around with Android 4.4 KitKat within a few days. Units are set to ship November 8.

KitKat will roll out to the Nexus 4, 7, and 10, as well as the Google Play Editions of the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4 “in the coming weeks.” We’d guess within a month. It definitely isn’t coming to the Galaxy Nexus.

As for everyone else, HTC’s U.S. president, Jason Mackenzie, told Engadget that all HTC One units in North America will get the update within 90 days. That’s probably a realistic timescale for most of the Android flagships on the market right now.

Let us know when you get yours and what you think of it in the comments.

Updated on 10/17/2013 by Simon: Rewritten after KitKat release, new intro, details added on headline features, productivity boost, extra features, enhanced performance, and release schedule.

Article originally published on 09/10/2013

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