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

Reviews Damien McFerran 10:51, 21 Mar 2014

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.

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.

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.”

Android KitKat Updates Planned Ahead Of Android 4.5

There's been a fair bit of uncertainty about Google's update plans between its launch of Android 4.4 KitKat and the next expected build, which reports indicate could be version 4.5.

However, the big G may have aims to release further updates to the existing build ahead of a fully new version. According to Myce, Google's Chrome bug tracker showed up a new version of KitKat which has never been seen before.

The build is named KTU65 and was running on a Nexus 5 handset dubbed "Google Restrict View", meaning it was supposed to be only visible by Google staff.

Google builds have been spotted in this manner before, and it's generally accepted that the different letters and numbers stand for specific things.

The U65 component of that name, for example, is thought to be a date code representing a particular quarter of a specific year and the number of days within the quarter - in this case it supposedly signifies March 6 2014.

That's nothing to do with a release date, however, that just means this was the last build issued within Google's internal processes.

But it was recent and it was new, and importantly it signifies Google is working on something. When we'll see it exactly, and what kind of new features are contained within, remains a mystery for now. As always, we'll be sure to keep you posted here when we learn more.

Click over to Page 2 For Android KitKat Tips & Tricks

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4.4 is tat, really a downgrade, Google has clearly rushed something out for the sake of it, though its real purpose is probably more about hype than functionality and presentation. It needs to be widely rubbished by users and media to ensure Google dare not crap on users like this again.

I totally agree with you. iOS 7 was adopted faster than iOS 6 because they made radical changes every update unlike that of Android KitKat. Google should do the same.

If you think imessage on iOS is slick by integrating SMS, then realise its MAJOR flaw where imessage client HIJACKS your SMS phone number if you, for eg, change to an android phone. Friends with iphones will try to txt your number on imessage and it won't get to you as it gets hijecked by imessage!

What exactly was the fail with Honeycomb? It was the precursor to Android 4, showcasing a lot of the features before Ice Cream Sandwich did? Most of the devices ended up getting updated to Android 4 anyway...
It was fit for purpose, functional and useful. No fail, I say.

Purchased my wife a Samsung galaxy Note 3, she had an iphone, she was wondering why some text messages were not coming thru, after figuring out that the one she was not getting were from other iphone users, we found the problem.

FIX:
You must un-register your phone number in itunes to stop the hijacking.

I hate Apple.

if you "press and hold" on the hidden KitKat logo, it will turn into a parody of the Windows 8 infamous "Metro Start Tiles", instead it's filled with tiles of Kit Kat chocolate bars and logos

When are the manufacturers going to make the voice recognition work in 'proper' English? I tried mine last night with as many words as I could think of that americans pronounce differently and they all come up when I put on an american accent...! None of them came up in standard English/RP. ie Jag-ewe-arr - best suggestion- 'shag my car'. (WTF!) Jag-warr - Jaguar - immediately. D'oh! The spelling is rather similar on EVERY dictionary. Some advance...

"no one will have KitKat for quite some time unless they have a Nexus"

Or a Moto G/X. I got the update on my Moto G last week.

I installed KitKat (4.4.2) on my Nexus S (via the Cyanogenmod updater) a few days ago and it has definitely improved the performance considerably. Ok, so there aren't many obvious bells and whistles, but I'd rather have a phone that performs well and is reliable rather than full of buggy, flashy features. Also, I think this upgrade may allow me to squeeze another year of life out of my Nexus S saving me a couple of hundred quid - that's got to be good!

Fail, I say.

your so wrong, as explained there's not much new except the phone is faster, smoother, more precise (yes even faster and smoother then any of the IOS)
check it out on a newer phone (Maxx)

*slow clap* What a great comment. You've given so much evidence to back your claim that I can just hear a judge screaming "GUILTAY".

In all seriousness, I fail to see how 4.4.x is not an improvement to the Android OS lineup in anyway. It is much more refined and responsive than its predecessors. Google has the right idea with their implementations of Project Svelte (and the inclusion of Project Butter): reduce fragmentation. Android 4.4 is their first step in really trying to unify the OS across all Android-powered devices. Sure, they've got a long way to go, but they've made amazing strides.

Honestly, I'm just a fan of open-source projects. I can still customize my device the way I want and that is what is keeping me attracted to these devices.

Well, you also have to keep in mind that Apple has never really changed their mobile OS's aesthetics. Everyone can agree, iOS 6 was really getting stale. Check out a screenshot of the homescreens of every version. iOS 1 looks almost identical to iOS 6.

Fair point--when you are comparing the late versions. But the subject is iOS 7--the latest.

When the US ceases to have 5x the population, O wait..

More specifically, the subject was why iOS 7 was adopted faster than iOS 6. The main reason why iOS 7 is such a radical change is because Apple rarely changes anything. In fact, iOS 7 is the only iteration of Apple's mobile OS that actually has any major visual and functional changes (albeit, many of the functional changes are not really any different than their iOS 6 counterparts). In addition, they coerced (or forced, if you really want to get down to it) their customer base to upgrade by saying that it was superior to the previous version in every way (which it was, for the most part). The iPhone is (for the most part) a unified platform. One update is going to get pushed out to all users, so it's only natural for users to upgrade.

You also forget that the Android ecosystem is fragmented, due to the many types of devices out there. Not every phone is on the same update schedule. This prevents the average consumer from "updating to the latest version".

we must talk about kitkat 4.4 here :P dont v?

I'm running 4.4.2 on my Nook HD

Why there're constant comparisons back to iOS, who cares what iOS can or can't do, if this is an Android review when comparisons should be done with previous versions.

On the Nexus 7 3g and 2013 Lte version SMS is disabled. Overnight we have lost the ability to send SMS messages. This worked on Jelly Bean. So those of us who paid extra to be a to use a sim card and have happily used Sms have had an important feature removed. I can no longer sig up to use a banking service has it requires authentication via a sent and received Sms for example. Sadly Google are ignoring the complaints of many customers and not acknowledging the issue even though it has been raised on the Google product forum. Unless they fix this soon I shall be asking for a refund. Google have soured their reputation by not responding to this issue.

How come I can't update to 4.4 on my HTC One yet?

Moto G is a awesome moblie, but i am
facing an a issue in Sim Network after upgraded to Kitkate 4.4.2.
Please do something to fix this issue

by flash you mean factory reset?

Simple. Google is an American company. + what Singh said. :)

New 4.4 KIT KAT DOWNLOAD IS A RIP OFF. Downloaded it last night and come to find out it won't sync with Microsoft Outlook. Your customer service center is the worst. Couldn't help me but told me to go to the Google play store and buy an application. When asked what application they said Samsung is not allowed to recommend one. Let's see you are the one that sent the update???????????

That is cool. Thanks

What a stupid question. Because if I want to buy a phone and I have to decide between iOS and Android, I like to see the difference between them.

What a moronic reply, if you want to see the differences between them, read iOS vs Android comparison, not an Android review!

Well, the way us Ams speak is just right. I mean not to be openly biased but the American dialect sounds better and more soothing to the ear. I'm talking about Cali NY and those plain vanilla states. Now on the other hand hill billies and the like......well that don't sound too pretty for even the Google ears. When Brits speak good English, it sounds well, but unfortunately the majority don't.

I own an Xperia Z Ultra and got the kitkat notification, after googling on this update I decided to not upgrade, as the Sony UI. Would have changed and the experience lost. Example, the lock screen ripple effect lost.

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