After arriving on the Nexus 5, Kit-Kat is slowly rolling out to the rest of the Android devices that can handle it. So what’s new, and what’s the best? It’s worth talking about not least because the differences can sometimes be subtle unless you’re looking for them. Here’s a quick overview of the ten best features, not all of which you might notice at first.
1. Speedy Multitasking
The first thing you’re going to notice is that the new Android is very, very fast under the hood. Switching between apps is much speedier and more fluid over the already pretty sharp Android 4.3. Even testing it on an “old” Nexus 7, the software didn’t break a sweat over anything we threw at it and hopped quickly and seamlessly between seven different apps. It’s not the feature that will leap out and wow you when you first deploy the OS, but it really does a lot to make the whole system more dynamic and easier to use.
2. Chromecast Support
The Chromecast is, of course, Google’s tiny little video streaming tool that costs just $35 and will likely wind up in every stocking and gift basket this year. But the mirroring feature really has to be seen to be believed; taking some video with your phone and then playing it back on a Chromecast feels a lot like the future of home movies is already here when you first do it. And it’s handy for apps, too; if you don’t have any Aereo support, running it on a TV is as simple as booting the app and pinging your Chromecast.
3. Better Caller ID
Another small feature that makes a big difference is the revamped called ID. Now, if you’re being called by a business, Google automatically looks up the number and pairs it with the Google card of that business. It’s both effective at letting you know who’s calling and it helps you put a business to the “mystery number” giving you a call. It also lets you more effectively screen calls; while trying it out, there were definitely a few calls we got in Kit-Kat that let us know the business on the other end wasn’t someone we wanted to talk to, and in the future, it can be used to track spam numbers so you’ll never have to hear from “Rachel of Card Services” again.
4. Chrome In Apps
If apps load web content, Kit-Kat uses Chrome by default. That may be annoying if Chrome isn’t your preferred browser, to some degree, but there’s no denying that it speeds up apps in ways that you’re not going to notice until you start doing without it; it speeds up downloads and generally makes everything a lot less aggravating. If you use a lot of apps that pull content from the web, it’s going to make a surprising performance difference and it’s one of the invisible little touches that make a big difference.
5. Lockscreen Searching
It’s pretty annoying, when you’re listening to something, to have to find your phone, unlock it, open the app, and then scroll past the part you don’t care about. So Android 4.4 just puts the media you’re playing back in your lockscreen. Just scroll from there and go back to what you were doing.
6. “Immersive View”
This is really just Googlespeak for “If you’re reading a book, your phone’s notifications and other assorted stuff won’t constantly be changing the shape of the screen or dragging down the notifications bar.” And while it does sound like something that should have been in there right from the beginning, it does make reading and enjoying content on your phone a lot easier and simpler.
7. More Organizational Features
In general, Android 4.4 just makes things easier to find. Every text and SMS you send to your friends is now under one heading in Google Hangouts, for example, putting all your messages in one place and ensuring you never miss anything. Google Drive now syncs across your phone and QuickOffice for easier access to the documents you use. Essentially you’ll be better able to sync… well, everything on any Android device.
8. More Transparency With Location Features
One of the points that’s troubled a lot of people, recently, and for excellent reason, is that your phone is basically a tracking device, and a lot of apps are happy to flip on your GPS even if you don’t want them to. And it’s a battery suck, on top of everything else. Just go to Settings, pick Location, and now you can keep apps from flipping on parts of your phone, and even deny them your general location. No fiddling with GPS, or WiFi, or cellular. Just a switch.
9. Emoji Support
Yes, if you use emoji, there’s now keyboard support for them, built right into the operating system. They’re much easier to access; no more long presses of the space bar. And of course the library is extensive. That said, this raises the question of why you need emoji in the first place, but we’re not judging. Well, much.
10. Simple Homescreen Switching
If you like to tweak your homescreen a lot, Google has heard your cries; it’s now simple to switch between multiple versions. Another nice touch is that wallpapers reach across the screen and beneath the buttons now; it’s minor, but it’s much more attractive than you might at first think.
11. NFC Payments Are Tweaked
Google Wallet has gotten something of an overhaul, and if you use this feature, which admittedly not many do, it’s actually greatly improved. We recommend storing loyalty cards on it if for no other reason than it means you can take stuff off your keychain, and it’s much more convenient to have your loyalty cards stored in the cloud.
Android 4.4 is more of an evolution than a completely new system, but the little touches are often what makes an operating system stand out. And as you can see, Android 4.4 has plenty of little touches to love, and it’s built to make your phone or tablet that much better.
Dan Seitz is an obsessive nerd living in New England. He lives in the Boston area with a fiancee, a dog, a cat, and far too many objects with processors.