The Home Screen
First thing you’ll notice when you start up KitKat is the new launcher. KitKat does away with the standalone launcher and actually runs the Google Search app as the home screen. The biggest visual changes are the status and system bars, which are now transparent while on the home screen. This idea first debuted in OEM skins, and it’s a great visual improvement over the black bars in Jelly Bean.
The APP Drawer and widgets
In another brightening change, the app drawer background now displays a slightly darkened version of the home screen wallpaper instead of the straight-black background of Jelly Bean. The home screen dot pagination is present in the app drawer, too.
Widgets are now hidden behind a long press—just hold down anywhere on the home screen and they’ll pop up. The zoomed-out screen gives you access to wallpapers, widgets, and settings. The transparent widget interface looks better than it did in Jelly Bean (which had a black background), but it’s still the worst possible list type for something like this. A horizontal list would have fast scrolling; a contacts-style letter scrubber would be even better. But as it is, it takes 10 horizontal swipes to get to the end of the list. If Google is really attached to a horizontal list, make a quick scroll happen if the user slides their finger over the dots at the bottom—currently touching the dots does nothing.
Home Screen Wallpaper
The new wallpaper cropper is a huge improvement over the incomprehensible Jelly Bean implementation. The old wallpaper cropper showed you boxes inside of boxes inside of boxes in an attempt to display the vertical and horizontal crops. KitKat has gone full WYSIWYG—just drag the image around, pinch zoom, and hit “set wallpaper.” Whatever it looks like in the preview is what you’ll see once it’s set. You can even set a perfect 1080×1920 as the full-screen background, and KitKat will intelligently disable the parallax scrolling effect. Jelly Bean would insist that you crop the background so that the scrolling would work.
We mentioned that the home screen was actually the Google Search app. The benefits of this are that you can now say “OK Google” when the home screen is on, and voice search will open and start listening. This is extremely useful and saves you from having to hunt for the voice command button.
System and Status Bars Modification
Left: Jelly bean Play Books interface. Right: The new “immersive” mode, which hides all of the UI.
Two years after first including them in Ice Cream Sandwich, Google is finally taking advantage of on-screen buttons. KitKat includes a new “Immersive mode” that can hide the status and system bars in any app, provided the app developer chooses to enable it. Google Play Books is one of the first apps to take advantage of this, and it hides all the UI elements and presents the user an unobstructed book page. This isn’t meant for every app, but it will really help out games or reading apps.
Left: the immersive mode tooltip. Right: the status bar displaying in a full-screen app after a swipe-down gesture.
Immersive Mode’s auto-hiding system and status bars have long been present in YouTube and other video apps, but they would reappear whenever the screen was touched. In KitKat, apps can hide the status bar even when the user is interacting with the screen thanks to a new gesture. In apps that support immersive mode, a swipe in from the top or bottom of the screen will make the system and status bars reappear
The new semi-transparent bar mode
In most apps, the system and status bars turn black, but KitKat actually has the ability to display semi-transparent system and status bars, and apps can draw behind them. So far, no apps that we know of make use of this, but Google showed off the feature with a demo maps application.
Despite all the benefits, KitKat has several feature regressions in the status bar. In Jelly Bean, the Wi-Fi and signal strength icons would change from blue to gray, denoting the device’s Internet connectivity
The Email app has had a rough life. It has always lagged behind the Gmail app, which Google has usually favored. With KitKat, the Email app has received a complete Gmail-style makeover and can now hold its own against Google’s in-house mail service. The list view displays contacts’ pictures for each e-mail, which double as checkboxes. The bottom action bar has been integrated with the top bar, and, just like Gmail, there is now a slide-out navigation drawer. Best of all, swipe-to-delete works in the inbox view, allowing you to effortlessly deal with e-mails. The message view got all the benefits of Gmail’s recent makeover as well.
The Calling app wants to kill phone numbers
KitKat’s new phone app. There are no phone numbers anywhere.
Here’s a wild design decision: the main screen of the new phone app does not contain a dial pad. At the top of the phone screen is a search bar. Tapping on it brings up the keyboard, and you just enter the name of a business, tap a result, and start the call.
It not like numbers displayed—you know the name; you can call the place. It’s a risky move, but it totally works—nearly every business is on Google Maps, and it’s much easier to remember a business’ name than a random string of 10 digits. We’ve all sat in front of a computer before, Googled a phone number, and then dialed it on our phones. This beautifully cuts out the middleman.
There is still a dialer, but it’s hidden behind a button now. It’s not actually a full-screen interface; it pops up over the phone app like a giant keyboard. It will search your contacts as you type by number and by T9. Other than the redesign, that’s about it—it’s a dial pad. The streak of blue at the bottom is interesting—there are tons of KitKat changes that remove the blue that was first introduced in Honeycomb, but in this one spot, Google added blue.
Hangout SMS Support
The Messaging app is gone in KitKat, replaced by Google Hangouts, which is now the default way to send SMS messages. While Hangouts Chat and SMS are now handled by the same app, each messaging protocol lives in its own little world within that app. If you’re chatting with someone and switch to SMS, you exit one “hangout” and join another—the chat history disappears, and the SMS and Hangouts conversations are kept separate. Everything works; it’s just clunky. Hangouts doesn’t try to detect the appropriate way to communicate with someone or alert you that the person is available on hangouts while Messaging. Ideally, the protocols would just get out of the way and Hangouts would handle all that in the background. Hangouts with the new SMS support is another app that has made it to the Play Store for everyone
Google Keyboard 1.0, Google Keyboard 2.0, and the new emoji keyboard.
The Google Keyboard is another app that has all of the blue sucked out of it. The on-press effect and pop-up keys have turned gray. Jelly Bean’s ASCII-style emote key has been replaced with a full emoji “keyboard.” Tapping on this brings up pages and pages of full-color symbols that other Android users can see. Google Keyboard 2.0 debuted with KitKat, but it’s also on the Play Store for older devices. The emojis only work properly if both users have Google Keyboard 2.0 installed, so make sure your friends are up to date. Otherwise, what you think is a little bunny will show up to your friends as a blank space.
The clock app finally elevated its main purpose for existing—the alarm—to its own tab. Now a quick swipe to the left will open the alarms page, which saves you from having to awkwardly hunt for the button at the bottom of the screen. As someone who hacked a direct-to-alarm activity shortcut onto my old home screen, the faster access to the alarm is a welcome addition. Jelly Bean’s weird, lopsided clock font has been trashed in favor of more normal lettering, and the ambiguous location icon for the world clocks has been replaced with a much more communicative globe icon.
The clock app now uses the horrible skeuomorphic mess of a time picker that was first introduced in Google Calendar. The Jelly Bean option was an elegant, dead-simple way to enter the time. It was mostly just a number pad, so 9-0-0-am-OK would set the alarm for 9:00am. The new time picker is laid out like a clock, and you move the hands around the clock face to pick a time. After picking the hour, the clock face changes to a bizarre “minute” clock face with five-minute increments at each position. So rather than the Jelly Bean interface, the KitKat time picker has you pick an hour on the clock, then a swoopy transition happens. Next, you reassess the weird “minute clock” that you are now looking at and then pick the minute (good luck if you didn’t want a five-minute increment) before hitting “Done.”
The Jelly Bean picker was so smart. Notice how, in the screenshot, all the numbers are grayed out. That’s because 1:28 is already a complete time, and any other digit would result in an invalid time of
The downloads window is another dark-to-light change. Jelly Bean broke everything up into collapsible dates, but the new KitKat design is a flat list. The silly full-width button at the bottom of the screen is gone, replaced by a “sort” button in the top action bar. Downloads are sortable by date, size, and name, and there’s even a grid view for pictures.
Printing is now a core feature of the Android OS. KitKat brings APIs for full print services, and manufacturers are free to develop printer apps that plug into these APIs for system-wide print support. The only printer OEM currently on board is HP, but there is naturally a Google Cloud Print plugin that will support just about every printer. Printers can natively support Google Cloud Print by plugging into the Internet directly, but most people will probably use the legacy Cloud Print support that Google builds into every version of Chrome. If you’re signed into Chrome, the browser will act as a bridge to the Internet for any connected printers.
Apps just need to add a print button, which will bring up Android’s new print dialog. The dialog allows you to pick a printer, the number of copies, the paper size, color or black and white, and portrait or landscape. The last option, “Pages,” will presumably allow you to only print certain pages, but even when trying to print a four-page document, it doesn’t light up. The one thing that is really missing from the print dialog is the number of pages a job will consume. The Android Drive app doesn’t paginate, either, so there’s really no way to tell how big a print job will be other than to estimate.
Tap & Pay
In previous version Google wallet was used for payment but KitKat offers a way around the secure element, called “host-based card emulation” (HCE). This allows any app access to tap-and-pay, with no approval needed from the device vendor. Google Wallet can now be installed and used on any KitKat NFC device just like any other app. This opens up NFC payments to other apps as well. Multiple apps on the phone now have access to tap-and-pay, and there is even a section in the settings to switch between them. Apps can include things like loyalty card information along with the credit card transaction. There’s also a new reader mode, which allows Android devices to receive data from HCE cards and other NFC chips.