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A closer look at Android 4.4 KitKat: The most important Android update in a long time

A couple of months ago, Google shocked everyone with the announcement that Key Lime Pie was merely a cover name for the next version of Android as it planned the unveiling of the KitKat partnership. Although Mountain View neglected to tell us anything of substance about the new OS at the time. Now, the Nexus 5 and Android 4.4 are official, and this is clearly the most significant update Android has seen in years. From the interface to the low-level APIs, this is going to be a big change for Android users.

Android for everyone

One of the longstanding issues with Android is that of version fragmentation. Very few of the Android devices in existence are actually running the newest version of the platform – they are spread out over three or four different builds of Android most of the time. That makes it harder for developers to design apps that will be compatible with all the devices out there. It also prevents users from experiencing the latest and greatest features from Google.

We often hear about the angst of waiting on device updates with flagship phones from the likes of Samsung and HTC, but that’s just a small part of the problem. Much of the fragmentation in Android comes from the low-end and mid-range. These phones often lack the muscle to properly run newer versions of Android at launch, so the OEMs reach back into the archives and pull out a platform that is several versions older and more suited to slower hardware. Android 4.4 is supposed to change that with “Project Svelte.”

Beginning with this release, Android will have streamlined support for devices with as little as 512MB of RAM. Google is implementing developer features like Dalvik JIT code cache tuning, kernel samepage merging, and swap to zRAM in order to make apps more responsive in a resource-constrained environment. Android itself will also aggressively protect memory to keep things running smoothly.

This means more inexpensive phones could launch with fully updated software and stay up to date longer. Additionally, these same low-memory features could be a boon when it comes to wearable devices like watches and Google Glass.

Sticking it to carriers with NFC

Google has been trying to make the NFC payment system known as Google Wallet work for the last few years, but carriers in the US have prevented the app from being bundled with phones. That’s a problem because Wallet has thus far always needed access to the NFC chip’s secure element. That can’t happen without bundling the app with a ROM.

This means that Google can – and almost certainly will – roll out a new version of Google Wallet that supports wireless payments on all KitKat phones with NFC, whether the carriers like it or not. HCE also allows Android devices to act as NFC readers for other cards, which could be very interesting for mobile commerce apps.

New UI styling

There are a few big UI changes in Android 4.4 that become evident from the moment you look at the home screen. The status and navigation bars (on devices with on-screen buttons) are transparent on the home screen. This makes for a much cleaner look, but in most apps they will revert to being black. The exception is when apps specifically invoke the translucent system UI, which should make for some attractive interfaces.

Google has also added a new full-screen mode for devices that use on-screen buttons. Previously, the closest non-video player apps could come to full-screen was to dim the system navigation buttons. Now there is true full screen support for all apps. If a developer requests full screen in an app – for example, a game or eBook reader – the content takes up the full panel. An edge gesture is used to bring back the navigation and status bar when needed.

Android 4.4 also makes Google Now more prominent on the home screen – just swipe to the left and it’s right there like an additional panel. The trigger phrase “Okay Google” should also work at all times while in the search app or on the home screen (Nexus 5 only for now). Doing a voice search from the home screen won’t boot you into the search app, either – instead, the voice interface will appear as an overlay on the screen.

Screen recording

Google added native screenshots to Android way back in version 4.0 two years ago, but with Android 4.4 the search giant is including full screen recording. This is aimed mainly at developers who want to easily create demo videos of their apps, but I’d wager a great many users will be playing with it too. Previous user-focused root solutions accomplishing the same feat were often broken and poorly supported, but demand has been high for this functionality.

Video streaming apps that have copyrighted content won’t suddenly become easy avenues for piracy, though. Developers can use the SurfaceView.setSecure flag to prevent the screen recorder from capturing video within that app.

There will reportedly be a bundled app that can be used to capture the screen and export the video as an MP4, but Google hasn’t provided any details on that yet. Developers will also be able to access screen recording functionality through the Android SDK tools.

Smarter calls

Calls have been given a Google Now-style makeover in 4.4 with automatic organisation of your contacts based on who you call the most. The entire UI has also received a card-based revamp to look more like Now. Google’s local search data is tied into the new phone app, so you can easily find the phone number of a business you forgot to save.

When a call comes in, Android 4.4 will employ a smart Caller ID system to identify the phone numbers of local businesses from Google Maps. It’s a small thing, but it could be very useful when you’re waiting for a particular call.

Storage and printer frameworks

There are a huge number of cloud storage platforms available, not the least of which is Google’s own Drive service. As users continue to disseminate their files to the four corners of the Internet, it can be a hassle to get at them when they’re needed in one app or another. Android 4.4 addresses that by adding a standard storage access framework that ties together local and cloud storage into a unified browsing UI.

Developers will be able to use the storage APIs in a similar way to the sharing APIs Google has long supported on Android. If a cloud storage app includes the new APIs, all the apps that use the storage framework will be able to pull up the file list without any additional configuration from the user. So you could grab a text file from your Google Drive and an image from Dropbox, all while never leaving the QuickOffice app.

Your documents, be they cloud-based or local, can also be printed more easily in Android 4.4 with the new printer framework. By implementing the printer service, developers can create apps that discover local Wi-Fi printers and send documents directly from the phone or tablet.

It shouldn’t require huge changes to make an app capable of this because Android uses PDF files as a standard for printing. The app simply needs to generate a paginated PDF of the content and pull up a UI for configuring the printer – the Android framework does the rest.

Low power sensors and IR

Smartphones contain a ton of sensors that can be useful for tracking your activity, but running them constantly will keep your phone awake and drain the battery. Android 4.4 supports sensor batching, which is a way for a device’s motion sensors to deliver data in blocks rather than as a constant stream. This approach lets the device stay asleep most of the time and conserve battery life. There is also support for dedicated step detection and counter sensors, which you will find in the Nexus 5.

Last but not least is a blast from the past with native IR support in Android 4.4. Yes, devices that have that retro favourite IR port will now work with stock Android. Apps will be able to use IR ports like the ones on the Galaxy S4 and HTC One to send out IR signals to control devices, but won’t be able to read IR signals to learn the code.

Who’s getting it?

If you buy a Nexus 5, you’ll get Android 4.4 out of the box. Updates are also coming soon for the Nexus 4, Nexus 7 (2012 and 2013 versions), and the Nexus 10. It turns out that 4.3 was the swan song for the Galaxy Nexus – it won’t be receiving Android 4.4 or any future official updates.

If you’re on a different device, wait times will vary. It will take OEMs at least a few months to develop new ROMs based on Android 4.4, but even then companies are only going to go to the trouble for devices that are still fairly new. Lower-end devices could be part of the gradual rollout this time, though, given version 4.4’s “Project Svelte” help for less powerful handsets. As always, however, you can guarantee that some folks are going to be waiting a long time for Android 4.4…