Thursday, 31 October 2013

Android KitKat 4.4 is here!

Google finally revealed the full details for Android 4.4 KitKat, the next version of its mobile operating system. But instead of delivering a raft of flashy new features to advance the mobile OS arms race, KitKat's most notable promise is to really fix the age-old Android problem of fragmentation.

The new mobile OS is based on efficiency that brings smartphones to "the next billion people," according to Android Senior VP Sundar Pichai. Google's own apps use less memory, and the interface will automatically scale back to fit on devices with only 512MB of RAM.

Most immediately obvious are a handful of design tweaks to the OS, which make Android cleaner and simpler than ever before. The status and notification bar are now translucent, and they disappear completely when you're in a fullscreen app; there's less chrome across the entire OS, and more space on the Nexus 5's five-inch display for whatever you're doing. There's a new launcher, a new condensed version of Google's Roboto font, and a generally lighter and cleaner look to Android. It's not nearly as stark a change as iOS 7 was, and generally speaking KitKat still looks a lot like Jelly Bean, but the design directions feel very similar.

Much of the interface has been streamlined. There's now a camera shortcut and more immersive "now playing" content on the lock screen, and there's an option to rearrange home screens. The navigation interface disappears when you're inside of supporting apps, giving back real estate on devices without hardware keys. The dialer and Hangouts make it easy to search for nearby addresses; fans of self-expression will be glad to hear that emoji icons are available in the keyboard. New frameworks bring both AirPrint-like wireless printing and support for third-party cloud storage in the Gallery app. Behind the scenes, Google is improving battery life through sensor batching, which cuts back on data requests. Developers can write apps that support infrared control, pedometer-like step counting and a carrier-independent NFC payment architecture.

Hangouts is one of the key features of Android 4.4, far more integrated into the operating system than ever before. Where there was once a Messages icon, there is now only Hangouts — the app was just updated to integrate SMS, and work better for voice calling, and it's now part of the way you'll talk to other people on Android. Texting, instant messaging, even voice and video calling, are all now done through Hangouts – it's like a combination of FaceTime and iMessage into a single application. If you don't want to use Hangouts, of course, you can select your own default texting app in KitKat.

There's built-in support for step detector and step counter sensors, so your phone can act as a pedometer without requiring apps developers to build fancy algorithms in order to detect when you're taking a step. The new Nexus 5 has those sensors built in. There's also a new API for IR blasters, so manufacturers can more easily build smartphones and tablets that can control your television and home theatre equipment, and a new screen recording utilty that can let you capture a video of what you're doing with your smartphone and store it as an MP4 file.

KitKat also puts a stronger emphasis on Google's main business, search. Voice search is going hands-free through keyword activation, and it will ask questions if it needs clarification. The speech recognition engine is about 25 percent more accurate, according to Google.

Android 4.4, KitKat, which comes on Nexus 5, will also soon be available on Nexus 4, 7, 10, the Samsung Galaxy S4 and HTC One Google Play edition devices in the coming weeks, and hopefully everyone else in the not-to-distant future.