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Android 4.4 'KitKat' Part 1: User interface enhancements

updated 04:35 am EST, Thu November 21, 2013

Android 4.4 'KitKat' brings further user interface refinements

Android 4.4 'KitKat' officially landed on October 31 initially as an exclusive for the Nexus 5 smartphone, just three months after the arrival of Android 4.3 'Jelly Bean' on the Nexus 7 tablet. Google has seen fit to move away from the 'Jelly Bean' theme this time around, partly because it has revised the user interface more substantially than in previous releases, while it has also added a number of new features to the operating system. So what exactly has changed from a user interface perspective in Android 4.4 'KitKat'?

Android 4.4 'KitKat' brings with it a number of subtle, but noticeable visual tweaks as well as usability enhancements. Most of these serve to tidy up the user interface, making for a generally less cluttered and cleaner user experience. Some of the changes are not necessarily intuitive, meaning that if your device is in line for a pure Google Android update to v. 4.4, aspects of how you use your device will change as a result. Whether you find the changes better or not will be entirely a personal response. One of the great aspects about the open nature of Android is that if you don't necessarily like the changes, you can switch to a customizable launcher and go your own way.

The Home screen is the first place that you will notice a subtle redesign. Gone is the 'Holo' inspired line that used to separate the docked apps at the bottom of the Home screen. In its place, Google has located five dots, with each indicating one of the various screens, while the dot in bold represents the screen that you are currently on. The icons (some of which are new) also appear slightly larger, scaling slightly to take advantage of the larger 4.95-inch screen real estate of the Nexus 5 over the slightly smaller Nexus 4 4.7-inch display. The translucent black 'Holo' themes have also been replaced, this time with a translucent white effect. This is most noticeable in folders, which when opened show apps arranged against an almost flat white backdrop.

A swipe gesture to the right takes you left of the Home screen, launching Google Now. In the past, this would reveal another screen you could set up with your choice of apps and/or widgets. For example, I used to arrange my most frequently used utilities and social apps on the Home screen and to the left screen, I would place all of my productivity or work related applications. To the right of my Home screen, I would have games screen, followed by an entertainment screen one page further to the right. This change has caused a fundamental shift in how I use my Android device, but it is one that you quickly get used to. Google Now can still be launched with an upward swipe from the bottom of any screen, although it will now roll in from the left of the screen. It will certainly encourage more widespread use of Google's location aware services.

The App tray still launches as it always has with a tap of round App tray icon that sits in the dock. A subtle but significant difference in this view is that the tabs at the top of the screen that used to separate the apps from the widgets no longer exists. This cleans up and simplifies this part of the UI considerably. However, users who have always used the widgets tab to install selected widgets may struggle at first trying to work out how to install them. Seasoned Android users will have no trouble locating them with a long press on the background of the Home screen. This launches a widgets view where you can also select wallpapers and adjust your Google Now settings. It's like a third layer in the Android interface made up of the Home screen lying in the middle tier, the App tray 'above' it and the widgets view sitting 'below' it.

Other UI tweaks that are offer both better functionality as well as a more attractive appearance include the new Downloads view and the new Lock screen view that fills completely with album artwork when the Play Music app is open. The new Downloads view delivers an easier way of sorting through your downloaded files and locating them, while the new lock screen view with screen filling album art looks beautiful. Somewhat ironically, however, the ultimate UI tweak in Android 4.4 'KitKat' is not actually visual at all. It is achieved by way of the significant improvements that Google has made to touch responsiveness in Android 4.4 'KitKat,' which makes navigating the refreshed UI a much more fast and fluent experience.

While Google says that it has made some 'under the hood' algorithmic improvements to how Android smartphones running Android 4.4 'KitKat' will respond to touch input, it has been able to optimize this further on the Nexus 5 through the LG touchscreen technology built into the Nexus 5 display. The upshot is that if and when your device gets and Android 4.4 'KitKat' update, it should provide the most lag free interface experience you have yet experienced. However, if you have a Nexus 5, or a newer piece of hardware with a similarly optimized touchscreen, you will find that touch responsiveness is markedly improved. It is still not as responsive as iOS 7 running on the iPhone 5s, 5c or 5, but it is getting closer.

Overall, the UI in Android 4.4 'KitKat' is not a dramatic departure from Android 4.3 'Jelly Bean,' but it does help to simplify the experience in some ways by decluttering it. This, however, does not necessarily make it more intuitive to use as you need to learn, or get used to different ways of doing things that you previously used to do a certain way. In time though as you get used to them, the changes are probably for the better. The latest version of Android also brings with it several new features and revised applications, including enhanced voice controls, revised media apps, an upgraded phone app, and an all-new Hangouts app that unifies your messages. We will take a closer look at these in the upcoming Part 2 of our Android 4.4 'KitKat' series.

By Sanjiv Sathiah

by MacNN Staff



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