Android 4.4 KitKat Review: The Good, The Bad & What’s Still Missing

Reviews Damien McFerran 11:10, 15 Aug 2014

Android 4.4 is here. But was it worth the wait? Damien tests out the new KitKat-branded update aboard the Nexus 5

Google’s Android KitKat update was one of the most significant overhauls the search giant has made to its world-dominating OS in recent history. Launched at Google I/O 2013, Android KitKat was designed with ALL handsets in mind, not just flagship devices.

The updated software, previously very CPU/GPU-intensive, would now run on 512MB of RAM, for instance. That meant older handsets, right down to budget offerings and models from pre-2011, could run the software (providing OEMs shipped builds out, of course). KitKat in this respect was Google’s first attempt at fixing Android’s irksome fragmentation problem. 

A year or so later, we’re now anticipating the commercial release of Android L – yet another HUGE milestone in Google’s Android history. In our Android L Developer Preview Review, we covered off the basics: design changes, performance and new features. For pre-release software, it was ASTOUNDING.

Android KitKat adoption on handsets is growing pretty quickly too compared to previous iterations of the OS. According to the latest Google Developer figures, Android KitKat accounted for around 20% of ALL Android handsets that visited Google Play in August 2014. Jelly Bean remains the big dog, however, more than half of the market at 54.2%.

Not got Android KitKat yet? Here’s what you can expect once it lands. 

Android KitKat: Design

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.

Android 4.4.3 Update Now Rolling Out

The latest addition to Google’s Android KitKat platform, update 4.4.3, is now rolling out to select handsets. Here's the changelog:

  • A tweaked Dialer app with a colored Action bar.
  • People’s app now placeholder images are now similar to that one used by Gmail.
  • Fix for mm-qcamera-daemon bug.
  • The hissing sound while recording videos on the Nexus 5 is fixed. However, there is now a strange echo in the recorded audio.
  • Fix for LTE connection dropping bug.
  • Wi-Fi improvements.
  • Microphone and earphone related changes.
  • Lot of other under-the-hood camera, Bluetooth and other system related bug-fixes.

More recently, Samsung has confirmed it too will be releasing an update for its top-flight handsets very soon. 

For more information about when your handset will get Android 4.4.3 click here

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. 

Android KitKat: Performance

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.

Android KitKat: 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. 

Android KitKat: 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.

Google Confirms Android KitKat Battery Drain Bug

Battery life

If you’ve recently downloaded Android 4.4 and noticed a drop in your handset’s battery performance, well, you’re not alone. KitKat does officially have a battery drain issue. It’s a software processes (mm-qcamera-daemon) that’s causing the problem, and Google is hard at work attempting to implement a fix. 

The issue was first reported by Nexus 5 users but is now said to be affecting Samsung and LG devices, too – basically if you have Android 4.4 on your handset you’ve most likely got this bug. So if you did download 4.4 and watch your handset’s battery performance go south. You now know why!

“The Nexus 5 battery life issue is caused by a software­ process within Android 4.4.2 (KitKat) that gives apps access to the Nexus 5’s camera,” reports suggest. As a work around, Google is suggesting users delete things like Skype and Snapchat, at least until a software patch is pushed out.

“We believe we have fixes for the current high CPU reports on [the Nexus 5] due to mm-qcamera-daemon, and they will be included in the next maintenance update,” a Google project manager wrote.

Google did not detail when the fix would be made available. We’ll update as soon as we know more.  

Android KitKat: What's Missing

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.”

Click over to Page 2 For Android KitKat Tips & Tricks

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