KitKat promises Android for all (hands-on)

Android 4.4 KitKat brings Android to the masses, introduces a minimal design, and puts Google search in your dialer.

Sarah Mitroff Managing Editor
Sarah Mitroff is a Managing Editor for CNET, overseeing our health, fitness and wellness section. Throughout her career, she's written about mobile tech, consumer tech, business and startups for Wired, MacWorld, PCWorld, and VentureBeat.
Expertise Tech, Health, Lifestyle
Sarah Mitroff
15 min read

Editors' note, December 5, 2013: This hands-on was updated to include details on how Android 4.4 KitKat runs on the 2012 Nexus 7.

Google's newest version of its mobile operating system, Android 4.4 KitKat, doesn't deliver a huge list of transformative design and feature changes, like what we saw when Ice Cream Sandwich was introduced. Instead, KitKat's main purpose is to usher in a strategy from Google to get the latest Android version on all Android devices, both premium and low-end.

That's a big deal because every year, lower-end handsets come out running old versions of Android, fueling the argument that Android is fragmented and giving customers an inconsistent Android experience. With KitKat, Google shrank the operating system so that it can run on many more devices, thus helping close the gap between low-end and high-end devices.

This hands-on examines Android 4.4 as it runs on the Nexus 5, as well as a look at the changes KitKat brings to the original Nexus 7 from 2012. Not all of the features mentioned will be available on other devices when they get the update. We'll continue to update this material as we spend time with the operating system on other devices. For an in-depth review of the Nexus 5, read Lynn La's review on CNET.

The newest Android for all
Google's ultimate goal is to get KitKat on all Android devices from this point forward. Every year, we see new devices running the latest flavor of Android, but also some running versions that are, in some cases, years old. That makes cheaper devices seem less appealing even given their low prices, and leaves the budget-minded miffed that they can't get the latest features without a cost.

The problem is that budget devices often have smaller amounts of internal storage and RAM and can often only run an older version of Android. More powerful, and more expensive, phones pack faster processors and more RAM, allowing them to run the most updated version of the OS, previously Jelly Bean. Google fixed this issue in KitKat by shrinking the footprint of the operating system by 16 percent so that it can run on devices with only 512MB of RAM. That means that budget devices and phones aimed at emerging markets, which is exactly what Google is after, can run KitKat, instead of now-outdated Gingerbread (2.3) or Ice Cream Sandwich (4.0).

Google is giving manufacturers and carriers the opportunity to put KitKat on all devices in 2014. However, since there's no pressure or directive to only ship devices with version 4.4, it's up to them to follow through. It remains to be seen if carriers and OEMs will jump at the chance to only go with KitKat, and if the past is any indication, it's likely that we'll continue to see new phones shipping with Jelly Bean for a while.

Fresh, simple design
KitKat on the Nexus 5 has a new, minimalist design that still has remnants of the Holo look introduced in Ice Cream Sandwich. Note that I say on the Nexus 5 -- that's because Google built a special launcher for its latest Nexus phone called the Google Experience Launcher. It changes the look of the home screens and app drawer, and gives you a new way to access Google Now. This launcher is not officially available on any other Android device, including Nexus devices, meaning you won't see it even if your phone gets the 4.4 update.

On other Nexus devices, including the Nexus 4, original Nexus 7, and 2013-edition Nexus 7, there are minor design changes, but overall, the home screens, app drawer, and menus have the same Holo user interface from Ice Cream Sandwich and Jelly Bean.

The app drawer and status bar are transparent with KitKat on the Nexus 5. CNET

Though we are still waiting for 4.4 to make its way onto non-Nexus Android devices, it's safe to say that if your phone has a custom skin, such as HTC Sense or Samsung TouchWiz, and gets upgraded to KitKat, you're not likely to see many design differences.

The follow design changes are exclusive to the Google Experience Launcher on the Nexus 5.

First, the home screens on KitKat look a bit different. Icons are now much larger and the text is condensed. The top status bar is translucent and blends with your wallpaper. Google says that apps can take advantage of this as well. For instance, Twitter could have the blue background on the app's header extend into the status if it so desired.

There are no longer five home screens visible by default; instead there are only two. You can add more by grabbing an app or widget and moving it to the right or left of an existing screen. Just as you can in TouchWiz and other skins, you can now rearrange entire home screens, instead of moving apps and widgets around individually. To do it, you just tap and hold the screen and then tap and hold the screen you want to move.

The new home screen menu in KitKat on the Nexus 5. Screenshot by Sarah Mitroff/CNET

There's a new menu where you can change your wallpaper and add widgets that pops up when you press and hold the screen. There's also an option called Settings in that menu, but it takes you to Google search settings, not your phone's settings menu, which is strange and unexpected. When you select wallpapers, a row of thumbnails of new wallpapers designed for KitKat appears. On the far left, there's an option to choose photos from your gallery. When you choose your own photo, it will show a full-screen preview of what it will look like as a wallpaper, instead of forcing you to crop the photo with a box, which is a welcome change. It reminds me a lot of how you set the backgrounds on an iOS device.

If you select widgets from that home screen menu, you'll get a grid of available widgets that you can add to your screens.

The app drawer also got a makeover. There is no longer a section for widgets and no icon for Google Play in the top-right corner; all you see is a grid of your phone's apps. It also has a translucent background that shows your home screen wallpaper.

What hasn't changed is the notifications menu, though Google did add a new location tile in the quick-settings panel. Lastly, the persistent Google search bar that popped up in Android 4.0 and stays at the top of your home screens is still there. You still can't remove it unless you use a launcher or install a new ROM.

Next up is the lock screen. Though it doesn't look much different from in 4.2 and 4.3, there's a new music widget that lets you control audio playback from the lock screen without unlocking your phone. When you play music from the Google Music app, the lock screen will show the song's album art full-screen. Additionally, if you're playing a video on a Chromecast from your phone, the lock screen will show the video or movie's art and give you an option to pause or play the video. Unlike the earlier mentioned design updates, these two widgets showed up on my Nexus 7 when I upgraded to 4.4.

With third-party music apps, there's no album art, but the app's icon, song title, and artist will show up on the lock screen, right above the playback controls. Apps like Spotify and Pandora and most podcast players have had lock screen controls for a while, but the new widget gives them a much cleaner look.

You can still add other widgets to the lock screen, for Gmail or other apps, just make sure you check the box in the security settings that says "Enable widgets."

Google introduced a new immersive experience for some apps in KitKat. The idea is that when you're watching a video, reading a book, or playing a game, the status bar and onscreen buttons will fade away so there aren't distractions. In the Google Books app, that means each page takes up the entire screen. This feature is also available on devices running Android KitKat, not just the Nexus 5.

Google Now at your fingertips
With Google Now, Google is aiming to bring you all the information you could possibly need in one place. There are cards for your upcoming appointments with travel times to help you plan your journey, weather cards to tell you the forecast, and sports scores that help you stay on top of your favorite team. In KitKat, Google Now gets more robust.

As I mentioned before, the Google Experience Launcher, which is only officially available for the Nexus 5, changes the way you access Google Now. You can still swipe up from the home button (as you could in Jelly Bean), but now you can also swipe all the way to the left from your home screen to access Google Now. Additionally, if unlock your phone and stay on one of your home screens, you can say, "OK, Google" to activate voice search without needing to tap anywhere on the display.

Though voice-activated search is exclusive to KitKat on the Nexus 5, that phone isn't the only device that allows you to use voice commands to launch Google Search. Motorola's Moto X, Droid Ultra, Droid Maxx, and Droid Mini all sport Touchless Control, which means you can say, "OK, Google" to start a search without needing to touch the phone at all.

Google Nexus 5 (Google Now)
With KitKat on the Nexus 5, Google Now lives to the left of your home screen (left), and voice search (right) is integrated more deeply into the user experience. Lynn La/CNET

When the Nexus 5 was first announced, Google talked about upcoming changes it had in store for Google Now. With a recent update in November, Google Search (which includes Now) got new cards that bring more at-a-glance information to the app. One card alerts you when your favorite Web sites publish a new article, but, given that I haven't see this card in action yet, I don't know how, exactly, Google figures out which Web sites are your favorites. It could be if you search for that site often, or if you visit it frequently in Google Chrome and the browser is signed into the same account you use for Now. I'll update this as soon as I have more information on this particular card.

Additional new Google Now cards include an updated traffic card with incident reports from Waze, movie and TV recommendations, and alerts for when an item you ordered is ready for in-store pickup.

Another major change in Google Now shows up when you actually search for something. Google hinted during the Nexus 5 announcement that it will start to dive deeper into your phone and show you search results from your installed apps. A December Google blog post shed more light on that search feature.

It's called App Indexing and it works like this: Say you search for "Star Wars Episode V" on Google Now and have the IMDb app installed on your phone. In the search results, you'll see a hit for IMDb.com, and, below that, an option to "Open in app." Tap that, and your phone will launch the IMDb app and immediately show the page for "The Empire Strikes Back."

Google says this will work with apps from AllTrails, Allthecooks, Beautylish, Etsy, Expedia, Flixster, HealthTap, IMDb, Moviefone, Newegg, OpenTable, Trulia, and Wikipedia, with more titles to come. Once you download one of these apps, it can take a few days for them to show up in search results. Additionally, Google will include links to apps in the Play Store in search results, when relevant.

Lastly, Google gave us a vague promise of future cards that will provide context when you're near a certain event or attraction that is getting a lot of search hits. For example, there's a parade in your city and there are a lot of people searching for information on what's happening. Google would display a card about the event's time, location, and other important information when you're near the event. The company hasn't yet revealed more details about how these cards would work or when we can expect to see them.

Google, place my call
KitKat includes a brand-new dialer, which remembers who you call the most and keeps those people front and center. When you open the dialer, the dial pad is hidden away and you'll see a list of frequently called contacts.

One of the biggest changes is that you can now search for businesses from the dialer and call them with one tap. That means instead of opening Google Search or Google Maps and looking for a business, finding its number, and then placing the call, you can just start typing in the dialer and select the correct result, and your phone will start dialing. You can get specific by typing "Starbucks" to find nearby locations, for example, or just type "coffee" for broader results.

Google Nexus 5 (dialer)
You can search for businesses right from the new dialer. Lynn La/CNET

Also, you can type a vanity number -- such as 1-800-Flowers or 1-888-Wait-Wait -- into the search bar, and the dialer will translate it into a numerical phone number. It's a small touch that makes the actual phone part of your phone much more user-friendly.

Another major feature is Caller ID. When a business that's not in your contacts calls you, its name will show up on the screen, helping you figure out who's calling. This only works if the business has a listing in Google Maps (most do) and the number that's calling you is the same number in that listing. If someone calls from an extension, it won't work.

For now, this updated search-enabled dialer is only available on the Nexus 5.

Hangouts meets texting
It's long been rumored that Google would fold the stock SMS text messaging into the IM, voice, and video calling app Hangouts. Though Google first made that a reality with KitKat's release, the Hangouts app got an update on November 7 that allows anyone to send text and picture messages. Hangouts is only compatible with phones running with Android 4.0 and higher.

If you already use Hangouts on your Android phone to IM with your friends, the experience hasn't changed much. You can still search for contacts by e-mail address or Google account name and send them IMs. What has changed is that, at least for the Nexus devices, there is no longer a separate dedicated SMS app. You now send and receive text messages and photos from the Hangouts app.

Google Nexus 5 (Hangouts and SMS)
Hangouts consolidates your chats and texts together (left), and serves as your default SMS app. Lynn La/CNET

Hangouts separates your SMS conversations and Google Chat conversations into individual threads on the main screen, even if you're communicating with one contact. You can, however, switch between those two conversations when you're in the message thread by tapping the person's name at the top.

While Hangouts is easy to use, it doesn't bring anything else to the...tablet that any other SMS client doesn't. I'll stick with a separate app on my Android phone, mostly because I've never been a fan of Hangouts for its original purpose and I can customize the look of my text-messaging app. If you'd rather use something else too, I recommend Textra.

Extra features
Even though emoji were available in earlier versions of Android, they officially come to Android in KitKat. Emoji are part of the stock Google keyboard now and can be used anywhere you input text. Luckily, if you send a message with emoji to a friend with an iOS or non-KitKat device, your friend will still be able to see the tiny pictures, as they can translate to other emoji protocols. I, for one, am a big fan of the new emoji, especially since that's one of the few features from iOS that I was hoping would someday turn up in Android.

You can now print photos from the Gallery app with Google Cloud Print. If you have a cloud-enabled printer, you need to register it with its cloud e-mail address. For non-cloud printers, you need to use a USB cable to connect it to your computer and register it on Google Cloud Print.

An emoji option is now part of the stock Android keyboard in 4.4. Screenshot by Sarah Mitroff/CNET

For my Wi-Fi-connected HP all-in-one, which doesn't have a cloud print option, that meant I had to connect it to my laptop and sign into Google Cloud Print in my Chrome browser's settings menu. Once that was set up, I could go to the Gallery app, choose a photo, select print from the menu, and find my correct printer.

You can now open files in Google's productivity suite Quickoffice from any cloud apps you have installed on your phone, such as Google Drive or Dropbox. You can easily save them back to the cloud when you're finished.

Android is making it easier to manage your launchers with a settings option called Home. There you can switch between the stock launcher and any that you have installed, such as Apex or Nova. This is a personal favorite feature of mine, since I like to use launchers and this makes it really easy to switch back and forth. As far as I can tell, this feature is only available on the Nexus 5, thanks to the Google Experience Launcher.

Other smaller changes introduced in KitKat include faster multitasking, improved touch-screen performance, low-power audio playback, and a battery-saving lower-accuracy location mode.

Here's a full list of the changes:

  • The revamped phone dialer app will evaluate which contacts you talk to most and automatically prioritize your phone book accordingly. Also, integration with more Google apps such as Maps will let you search for nearby places and businesses right in the phone dialer.
  • Caller ID gets a boost, as well. For incoming calls that don't match a phone number not in your contacts, Google apps will scan and display any matches from local businesses listed in Google Maps.
  • The immersive mode clears up clutter on your screen by automatically hiding everything except the one thing you're viewing (like a photo, map, or game). In other words, you'll be in full-screen mode without status and navigation bars. When you're ready to move on, you can bring back your status bar and navigation buttons by swiping the edge of the screen.
  • A new Hangouts app consolidates all of your text and multimedia messages, conversations, and video calls in one place.
  • You'll be able to print photos, documents, and Web pages from your phone or tablet. Any printer connected to Google Cloud Print will be compatible, along with HP ePrint printers and other printers with Google Play apps.
  • If you have an Android device with an IR blaster, you'll be able to use applications that make it function as a TV remote.
  • Capable devices will now support Chromecast.
  • When you reach the bottom of a menu, there's a faint white glow instead of the earlier, brighter blue glow.
  • Support for the Message Access Profile (MAP) will let drivers exchange messages between their Bluetooth-enabled cars and devices.
  • Closed captioning comes to most applications.
  • A new look for the e-mail app brings nested folders, contact photos, and revamped navigation.
  • NFC features now will work with more wireless carriers.
  • App developers can take advantage of new step detection and counting composite sensors.
  • Smaller details range from a uniform color for status bars to a new condensed font.

When will I get it?
KitKat debuted on October 31 with the Nexus 5, which is on sale at the Google Play store starting at $349. Since then, Google has started to roll out updates to the Nexus 4, the Samsung Galaxy S4 Google Play Edition, the HTC One Google Play Edition, the Moto X, and the Nexus 7 and Nexus 10 tablets. For its part, HTC has confirmed that the HTC One Max and One Mini will also get the update. Other smartphones, including Motorola's Droid Ultra, Droid Maxx, and Droid Mini and Sony's Xperia Z and Xperia Z1, are all slated to get bumped to 4.4, according to each company's device support pages. For a full list of devices that are rumored or confirmed to be getting KitKat, check out our Android 4.4 update coverage here.

If you're itching to get your hands on the update now, there are plenty of ROMs out there that can deliver the KitKat experience to your phone. And if you don't want to root your phone and flash a ROM, you can install the Google Experience Launcher in a few easy steps. I have it running on my Samsung Note 2 and it makes my phone look almost identical to the Nexus 5, save for notification bar and phone menus.

What we think
Though many Android fans expected Android 5.0 to replace 4.3, and perhaps usher in bigger changes, Android 4.4 KitKat introduced the beginnings of a new strategy for Google of getting Android on more devices and injecting more of Google search into the operating system.

By shrinking the size of the OS, Google opened up the possibility for many more devices to get the latest version of Android, which helps beef up the value of low-end phones. It's also a significant step toward minimizing fragmentation, a problem that has cropped up because there is a wide variety of Android devices on the market running different versions of the operating system.

Google is putting search front and center with a redesigned phone dialer, smarter caller ID, and the Nexus 5's Google Now-centric launcher. All those changes also indicate that from now on, Google search will likely be even more integrated into every part of Android. And from a company that dominates the world of search, that strategy comes as no surprise.