10 Great Features Of Android 4.4 KitKat

'OK Google'

A new Android landed late last year carrying goodies for devices large and small. Android 4.4 KitKat reportedly delivers marked improvements to multitasking and responsiveness to touch and runs on as little as 512 MB of RAM. That 16 percent footprint reduction allows the speedier spaceman to perform on a broader spectrum of low-end devices and should help address some concerns about fragmentation.

While Google reserved many of the tastiest goodies for its own new phone, the Nexus 5, the chocolaty kitty delivers a candy store full of treats for non-Google device users too. These include piles of KitKat security features, transparent notification and menu bars, plus lots of other mouth-watering enhancements. Here's a look at some of the tastiest as KitKat is rolled out to more devices in the coming weeks.

First On Nexus 5

First released on the Nexus 5 (shown) in November, KitKat on Google's unlocked and overlay-free smartphone integrates more tightly with Google Search and Google Now. It also includes the new Google Experience Launcher, which delivers an improved speech-recognition engine and permits unrecognized or incorrect words to be tapped into submission. Search results can appear with links to geolocation-relevant web pages, and eventually also will link to installed apps that contain search-relevant data. Launcher is still just a swipe away from any app and comes pretrained to respond to the phrase "OK Google."

Hangouts For Android

KitKat replaces the Google Talk and Messaging voice and texting apps with an updated version of Hangouts, which puts SMS, MMS, video calling and group chats into a single window. For devices running Android 4.0 and higher, Hangouts works with a Google account to provide free messaging and voice calling over Wi-Fi and data connections. It provides simple contact search, can send location data, supports Emoji icons, and works with PCs and devices running iOS.

New Phone App

As Android developers continue to improve the stock phone dialer, they might finally have delivered with KitKat one worthy of the operating system. Rather than sifting through all contacts to find the current target, the app over time lists the most frequently called contacts first. Now with Google search built in, the dialer also now can perform location-based searches by business type such as "gasoline" or specific name like "ExxonMobil" via a link with the Google Maps API. The app even allows input of word-based phone numbers such as 1-800-Flowers for automatic conversion to numerics.

Caller ID

The KitKat phone app can link to the web when receiving calls too. Using the Google Maps API, it taps caller ID info from incoming callers that are not in the phone's contact list and displays information from the caller's Google Maps business profile, if one exists. It even pops up a picture. Some search-based features of the KitKat dialer are reportedly available only in the Nexus 5 for now.

Printing Power

Printing directly to a cloud-enabled printer will no longer require a separate app. KitKat delivers a native printing framework and APIs for managing print jobs, mediating between apps and services asking to print and adding printer drivers. Tablets and smartphones can output directly to any printer connected with Google Cloud Print, and printers from vendors with printing apps in the Google Play Store such as Hewlett-Packard's ePrint series. Capability applies to photos, GoogleDocs, web pages and other document types. Non-cloud printers also can accept KitKat content if they're connected to a PC and registered with Google Cloud Print.

Drop The Box App

Android 4.4 now can directly open and save files stored in cloud-based systems like Box. This eliminates the need to use one app for opening files on Box, another for Dropbox, and so on. It also works with files created or saved in Quickoffice, Google's productivity suite for creating and editing Microsoft Office word-processing documents, spreadsheets and presentations. An update to Quickoffice released in December improved performance and streamlined integration with Google Drive.

Tap To Pay

Android developers have been hard at work building an all-new open NFC architecture for conducting smartphone-based transactions. And Android 4.4 KitKat delivers it. The framework is designed to work with any mobile carrier and any payment app (including Google Wallet, of course). It also permits transactional metadata to be processed on-device or in the cloud.

Bluetooth Messaging

As tougher texting-while-driving laws take effect in some states, Android has a reply. The little green guy now supports the Bluetooth Message Access Profile, which can be used to link apps to the display and audio systems of cars equipped with the capability. The profile also defines message notification and browsing methods, as well as text-to-speech for email and SMS.

Device Manager

Parents, service providers and IT managers alike will appreciate Android Device Manager. This app tracks a device's location at all times and puts a pushpin on a Google Map any time it's requested. Once activated on the device, the app can help locate lost devices by ringing the phone at full volume (even if it's silenced). If stolen, the app also can lock the screen and/or perform a factory reset (erasing all data).

More Yummies

KitKat now supports Chromecast. That means that Android users can stream video from a smartphone or tablet from sites like Netflix and YouTube to an HDMI-equipped television using Google's $35 Wi-Fi device. There's now also support for Chrome web view, which lets apps use Chrome to accurately render their embedded web content. Apps also now can display closed captioning and subtitles. A redesigned app updater provides better sorting options, as well as list and grid views of downloaded files. A new mail app adds nested folders, contact photos and improved navigation. It's now easier to switch between saved home screens, locations and battery-saving configurations. Support for the infrared emitter is now built into Android 4.4, enabling apps to remotely control nearby electronics without having to build their own drivers.

The Bottom Line

Android 4.4 KitKat is loaded with treats ranging from delicious eye candy to nutritious utilities, making it a worthy upgrade once your carrier makes it available. For the daring and impatient types, ROMs are out there if you're willing to void the warranty and root the device. But considering that much of KitKat's functionality is duplicated by third-party apps, it's probably not worth the risk. For developers, about a dozen new Android 4.4 APIs make KitKat the juiciest one yet.