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New in Android 4.4 KitKat: Everything You Need to Know

CaptureSo the long awaited Google Nexus 5 is finally here. And with the new device, comes a new version of Android: version 4.4 “KitKat.” About two months ago, Google announced the name of their latest version of Android. However, not much was said about the OS, and what would be different from 4.3 Jelly Bean. This comes in stark contrast to the Nexus 5′s hardware, which was pretty much a done deal seemingly forever ago. In any case, both the device and the OS are available now. And as such, all of the remaining details have come to light.

Last night, we covered some of the key features that were (at the time) rumored to be included in today’s official launch. The story mainly focused on changes that affect fragmentation, support for new sensors types, and improved NFC support. Many of these and more were confirmed today, along with a host of new features, thanks to the official release of both KitKat and the Nexus 5 and some in-house sleuth work.

voice

Better Google Now Integration

The stock launcher will now feature Google Now front and center. By that, I mean that it will be right on your home screen, just one leftward swipe away. And on the Nexus 5, you will be able to simply say “OK, Google Now” from anywhere on your home screen, and Google Now will start listening to you.

The “OK, Google Now” functionality is similar to what we saw on the Moto X and the most recent Droid devices. However, this is a bit less useful than the previous offering because the device must be powered on and be on the home screen for this to work.

Built-In Printing Supportprint

Aftermarket printing solutions have been able to leverage Google Cloud Print for some time now. However, now printing is built right into the operating system, without the need for any additional apps.

Faster Multitasking

Android 4.4 is slated to improve multitasking performance by optimizing memory management and improving touch screen responsiveness. This, along with efforts to reduce the memory footprint of core apps, should mean that the system will make better use of available computational resources.

Full Screen Immersive Mode

Android has made the overall experience “more engaging” by allowing content to utilize all available screen real estate. Previously, this was only possible in certain types of applications such as video players, where no user input was required.

Now, any application can make use of the full expanse of the screen by fading away both system bars. Previously, any user interaction would bring back the hidden bars. Now, however, the bars can be set to only reappear with a swipe from the top of the screen. This enables applications of any type to make use of this feature, even when user input is required.

kk-proc-device-overview-n5

Low-End Device Support

KitKat has been streamlined, such that every major component has a reduced memory footprint, with new APIs geared at helping app developers create faster and more memory-efficient apps. This includes the new API ActivityManager.isLowRamDevice(), which lets you tune your app’s behavior to match the target device’s memory constraints. Furthermore, core system process have been trimmed, and new services are configured to run serially and in small groups, to avoid higher memory demands.

This expands on yesterday’s news that Android 4.4 would be better suited for devices with limited memory. As stated on the Android Developers Site:

OEMs building the next generation of Android devices can take advantage of targeted recommendations and options to run Android 4.4 efficiently, even on low-memory devices. Dalvik JIT code cache tuning, kernel samepage merging (KSM), swap to zRAM, and other optimizations help manage memory. New configuration options let OEMs tune out-of-memory levels for processes, set graphics cache sizes, control memory reclaim, and more.

That said, despite claims of compatibility with lower end hardware, we find it curious at best that Google is choosing not to update the GSM Galaxy Nexus to 4.4. Google mentions that this is due to the device being outside of the 18-month product lifecycle, but we can’t help but feel that this isn’t exactly setting a terribly good example for other device providers.

Improved Rendering performance

kk-rs-chart-versionsThanks to changes to the rendering engine, applications that use RenderScript will benefit from the tuning in 4.4. Chief among these changes, Android’s SurfaceFlinger was updated from OpenGL ES 1.0 to OpenGL ES 2.0. This brings added performance through the use of multi-texturing, as well as improved visuals with color calibration and more advanced effects.

Improved NFC Payment Support: Host Card Emulation

Yesterday, we mentioned that NFC payment functionality would be extended to devices without NFC Secure Elements. Now, we know how this is possible. Android 4.4 introduces support for Host Card Emulation, whereby standard NFC hardware can emulate ISO/IEC 7816-based smart cards that use the contactless ISO/IEC 14443-4 (ISO-DEP) protocol for transmission. This then makes any device with NFC hardware capable of using the tap-to-pay functionality. That said, not every device will have support. And currently, it looks like only devices with US SIM cards are eligible.

Improved Security

Android 4.4 now uses SELinux in enforcing mode in order to block potential policy violations within an SELinux domain. KitKat also improves upon the cryptographic algorithms by adding support for two additional algorithms. More information about the new security features in Android 4.4 can be found in Pulser_G2′s Android 4.4 Security Enhancements Overview and his extensive review of dm-verity and its implications.

SMS Provider

App developers can now use a shared SMS provider and new APIs to handle device messaging, as well as message storage and retrieval. The new APIs use the new SMS_Deliver intent to allow app developers to route messages through the user’s default messaging app, making the cross-app experience seamless.

New Sensor Modes and Improved Connectivity

Finally, connectivity options and sensor support were bolstered in KitKat. Hardware Sensor Batching is a new optimization that should dramatically reduce power consumption during ongoing sensor activities. This is ideal for low-power and long-running sensor use-cases such as geo-fitness apps and more. Support for step detection and step counter sensors was also added, though this is hardware dependant.

Support for IR Blasters was also added to 4.4, bringing a new API and system service. These will allow app developers to better make use of IR Blasters on supported devices, without the need for device-specific coding.

Finally, Bluetooth saw a nice overhaul with support for HID over GATT (HOGP), which gives applications a low-latency link to select hardware, and MAP, which lets apps exchange messages with nearby devices.

Android Design

Quite a few changes were also made on the design front. These include toning down the blue accents throughout the UI, as well as a few, more subtle changes. A fantastic overview detailing some of the new design features in KitKat can be found below:

While we didn’t hear anything on the Wearables front as was previously expected, we were certainly given worthy treats on this Halloween. The enhancements to resource consumption, responsiveness, immersiveness, and overall fit and finish make for a great update. We’re excited for what Android 4.4 KitKat brings to the table, and we’re even more eager to see what the future holds for the OS.

What are you most excited about in Android 4.4? Let us know in the comments section below!

A full list of new end-user features made available in 4.4 can be found on the Android KitKat website, and more developer-centric features can be found on the Android Developers website.

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