Android 4.4 KitKat review: The Good, The Bad and What’s Still Missing
Android 4.4 is here. But was it worth the wait? Damien tests out the new KitKat-branded update aboard the Nexus 5
With the Nexus 5 now firmly in the sweaty palms of thousands of Android lovers all over the world, Android 4.4 is no longer the mythical confectionery-branded software update it once was. It's finally hard reality, and we're here to break down what's so great about it, as well as touch upon the things we wish had been included but, sadly, weren't.
For the first time since its inception over five years ago, Android finally feels like it has found its visual identity. As a result, those expecting sweeping aesthetic alterations in 4.4 will be sorely disappointed. In fact, to the untrained eye there's very little difference between 4.4 and 4.3.
What we have here is an incremental improvement, with subtle visual upgrades that enrich the experience without being glaringly obvious. The removal of the black background on the notification bar is one such example.
And everything is white. Well, not everything – just all the status icons, things like Wi-Fi, Battery, and Data. The switch from blue to white is most evident at the top of the display, where the time and battery icons live. It’s not a big change in the grand scheme of things, but it is change nonetheless. And the thinking behind the switch is explained below:
“Aesthetic concerns definitely factored into this (as has been mentioned elsewhere, a more neutral SystemUI allows apps to manage their own color palettes a bit better), but also keep in mind that with the new translucent bars feature, the color became a usability problem. Good old 33b5e5 doesn't pop as well on top of random wallpapers, even with the background protection,” wrote Google’s Dan Sandler in a Google+ post.
The application dock at the bottom of the screen now feels less like a walled-off part of the home screen and more inclusive, all thanks to the simple fact that the horizontal line which cut it off in 4.3 has been removed.
Another change is the slow but sure transition from the Tron-like blue text introduced in Android 3.0 to predominantly white lettering. Android feels warmer, friendly and less nerdy as a result – very much like Apple's revised iOS 7, in fact. Certainly, in purely visual terms, there's precious little to choose between the two rivals right now.
How to access core Google services has changed in 4.4, as well. Google Now – the company's much-hyped Siri-beater – can now be accessed on the Nexus 5 by swiping from left to right on the home screen. By making it more easily accessible, Google has cleverly increased the number of times you'll use it on a daily basis. It’s just odd this feature is only available on the Nexus 5.
Google Now's functionality continues to improve, too, alerting you to important emails, such as shipping confirmations, and offers plenty of other info based on your web activity.
One of Google's key objectives with Android 4.4 was to make an OS that would run on devices with 512MB of RAM. On a phone like the Nexus 5, which is blessed with almost four times that amount of memory, the performance is predictably butter-smooth.
Android can finally boast the same responsiveness as Apple's iOS, with navigation and movement between applications being fast and largely lag-free. Of course, there are moments when things do become a little jerky, hardly a shock when you consider how much Android is doing behind the scenes, but these are less common than they were in Ice Cream Sandwich and Jelly Bean.
Messaging and phone
With WhatsApp, Skype and BlackBerry Messenger all available on the Google Play store, Google's own messaging client Hangouts faces stiff competition. To force adoption, Google has taken the rather extreme step of sacrificing the default Android messaging app and totally replacing it with Hangouts.
This makes sense on one level. Conversations over SMS and IM are both found in the same app, but it does cause some issues. Even though you can tie a contact to a phone number and a Google account, Hangouts keeps them separate should you be involved in both a text and online conversation with that particular person.
Contrast this with the way iOS handles communication in iMessage, and it feels clunky and backwards. Surely Hangouts is capable enough to know that you're talking to the same person, and merge the chat accordingly? Thankfully, if this system gets on your nerves you can switch to another SMS messaging client and retain Hangouts purely for IM chats.
Although the Android 4.4 phone app might seem the same, there are changes afoot here, too. Firstly, the new menu system helpfully highlights your three most-contacted people, complete with a photo for quick reference. Secondly, Android 4.4 will use online records to tell you who is calling. So, if you get an unscheduled phone call from a retailer trying to get business out of you, you can decline the call before it even begins. This is one of those improvements, which seems minor at first, but could be a massive help. Expect rivals to copy this in the not-too-distant future.
Image and video capture
Not a great deal has changed in Android 4.4 when it comes to taking photos and recording videos, which is actually a bad thing – the performance of Android's stock camera app is lacklustre at best and downright infuriating at worst. The camera takes too long to boot up, is slow to focus and is often guilty of producing over-processed images.
These issues blighted the Nexus 4 and are present in Android 4.4, but the good news is that Google is aware of this and is rolling out 4.4.1 (and 4.4.2) as we speak. This update reduces the waiting time when you fire up the camera app and apparently strikes a more agreeable balance between image quality and capture speed.
Our Nexus 5 recieved the update recently and we can confirm that the camera performance is vastly improved: it no longer takes an age to actually capture a shot, and the annoying motion blur is reduced. Having said that, the Nexus 5 still can't match the iPhone 5s when it comes to camera speed and image quality, so Google has a little bit more work to do in this regard.
Whenever a new version of an OS is released, it's tempting to dream about all the cool features you want to see. The fact that 4.4 is more of a refinement than an upgrade means that some users could come away disappointed. Google has massaged Android and created something stronger and better, but it hasn't reinvented the wheel with KitKat.
The camera is possibly the biggest letdown, but Google has already moved to address that. Those transitioning from Samsung's TouchWiz UI will miss the various "smart" features which come by default; although stock Android is cleaner and in many respects more powerful, it does seem rather bare in comparison to some of the third-party skins on the market.
Of course, with a store full of apps, widgets and other goodies to download, you could argue that Google is giving you a blank canvas, rather than forcing things upon you like Samsung, Sony and HTC. Even so, we'd have liked to have seen some extras, such as the "Assist" app which is included on the Motorola Moto G. Clearly designed by Google, this app works in a similar fashion to the "Do Not Disturb" function on iOS 7, and will surely make its way to stock Android sooner rather than later.
Android 4.4: An Evolution, Not A Revolution
The fact that very little has changed in Android 4.4 over 4.3 isn't a sign that Google is getting lazy, but instead illustrates just how good Android is right now. After years of flux and one or two failed experiments (Honeycomb, anyone?), Google's mobile operating system has finally found its feet, and looks and performs better than ever.
In fact, there's an excellent case for this being the best mobile OS on the market right now. Android offers power, flexibility, customisation and much more besides. Version 4.4 may not have the headline-grabbing upgrades that previous iterations have boasted, but that matters little, because what we have here is a world-leading platform, and the subtle tweaks performed by Google prove that the company has finally gotten the hang of creating a good OS and evolving it, rather than needlessly tearing up the rulebook with each update.
And beyond this there’s plenty else to get excited about. Things like KitKat’s ability to run on fumes – 512MB of RAM and 1GHz CPUs, for instance – is a huge boon for OEMs and consumers alike. From now on there’s no excuse for new handsets not to run on the latest iteration of Google’s Android software.
What’s more Google has apparently passed down a new Android Bull, which specifically decrees that all new Android devices MUST run on the latest build of Android. And if OEMs don’t play ball they’re likely to get more than a slap on the wrist, too:
“Starting February 2014, Google will no longer approve GMS distribution on new Android products that ship older platform releases. Each platform release will have a “GMS approval window” that typically closes nine months after the next Android platform release is publicly available. (In other words, we all have nine months to get new products on the latest platform after its public release.) The policy could only mean good things, especially for the smartphone user.”