No new launcher, but Android 4.4 KitKat on the Nexus 4 is all about great performance

Over the weekend, the Android 4.4 update started hitting Nexus 4 devices. After the slow initial roll-out, this week, the OTA update should ideally hit the smartphones. If you haven’t received it yet, stay patient and as you may know pushing the update button every few minutes won’t get you anywhere nor is there a backdoor entry into the queue. But what exactly has changed with the update and should you really be dying to get it? Let’s have a look.

The cover image

Belated entry


The first thought that ran through my mind when I laid eyes on KitKat on the Nexus 4 was - this is not the launcher I ordered. The souped-up Google Search-powered launcher is a Nexus 5 exclusive at the moment and as a result the one on the Nexus 4 is an entirely familiar beast, except there are no traces of ‘Holo blue’. The status bar icons are now white and there are no off-colour data activity indicators to tell you whether your connection is active. Instead you have to pull down the quick settings drawer to see those tiny arrows. Don’t go looking for a transparent status and navigation bar; you won’t find them on a Nexus 4.

Lockscreen sees some changes, but homescreens remain the same

Lockscreen sees some changes, but homescreens remain the same


Unlike the light folder backgrounds on the Nexus 5, the Nexus 4 gets the same dark background folders, which are quite a contrast to the otherwise white status icons. The app drawer icon too remains the same, with a dark glow under the icon. Surprisingly, the widgets tab is retained in the app drawer, which is a very strange omission. The Nexus 5 drops this for a long-press menu on the homescreen.

The one thing that is carried from the Nexus 5 is the lockscreen. The clock is centred and there’s an up arrow instead of the ‘Navring’ to indicate the Google Now quick access. The camera pane sits on the right, but there’s an icon to help those unfamiliar with the interface. It works well, and there’s a certain measure of hand-holding through the UI that’s quite a change from how Android used to be a few years ago. It shows Google is preparing the OS for a bigger stage, and has in mind the hordes of first-time smartphone users that could be using Android as their first smartphone OS.

More of the familiar: Android 4.3-like folders, app drawer and widget picker

More of the familiar: Android 4.3-like folders, app drawer and widget picker


The Email app has been revamped to look more like the stock Gmail app. The new icons for Settings, Camera and Dialler are all present, and the KitKat easter egg works just as advertised on the Nexus 5. The new immersive mode which hides the status and navigation bar pops up when using some apps, but not all and a simple swipe brings the bars back. It works really well in practice and isn't as clumsy as one would have imagined it. Makes us wonder how it wasn't a feature since the days of the Galaxy Nexus, when on-screen buttons debuted.

Speaking of which, Nexus 4 gets the same Google Search-powered dialler as on the Nexus 5. This is by far the best dialler we have seen or used on a smartphone and makes looking up numbers for nearby places a cinch. On the flipside, I was disappointed with the lack of Google Places listings and consequently the phone numbers for some nondescript but popular local eateries in suburban Mumbai, but it did manage to grab the numbers of the more famous places. So it’s not yet the India-ready virtual directory we have been looking for.

Location settings enhanced; Printing makes debut

Location settings enhanced; Printing makes a debut


In addition to the dialler, KitKat brings other improvements to add merit to the Android at the workplace idea. You’ll find new settings for Printing to enable printing through a KitKat-running phone, taking care of one more office need.

There’s a new way to adjust your Location settings, and Google now lets you choose what kind of polling mode you want. So you can choose the power-saving method or the full-blown all-sensors-engaged way to pinpoint your location. There’s a middle-of-the-road option too, so it’s not just one or the other. All in all, it makes controlling your location settings a lot easier. There’s even a new Location tile in the quick settings drawer which takes you to the settings screen.

Users can now assign a default SMS app and a default launcher right from the settings, and there’s a new option to switch from 3G to 2G and back again. The camera UI looks just as minimalist and bare as on the Android 4.3 build. Naturally, there’s no HDR+ option, which is also a Nexus 5 exclusive. Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be any improvement in the quality of pictures shot using the new firmware. Colours are still muted and sometimes washed out even in good lighting conditions.

The amazing new dialler searches for numbers of nearby businesses; Pick your runtime poison

The amazing new dialler searches for numbers of nearby businesses; Pick your runtime


These were some of the major UI changes, and while some omissions may have disappointed us, we had no complaints with the performance of the phone. In fact, the Nexus 4 ran noticeably faster through many of my usual activities on the phone. Scrolling through interface elements like the Settings list or the app drawer was snappier, or at least felt snappier. When compared side-by-side apps such as Chrome and Facebook opened much faster on a Nexus 4 running KitKat than they did on one running Jelly Bean. So that’s definitely a big thumbs-up for the update.

A note about ART and Dalvik: As you may know KitKat brings a new runtime choice to Android. Now you can switch from the years-old Dalvik runtime and move to Android Runtime or ART. ART pre-compiles the code for each app when they are installed, meaning apps take up a little more space on your internal storage, but load faster, due to the code having been compiled already. On the other hand, Dalvik compiled the code for apps every time they were fired up, thereby increasing the loading time.

Some apps do not run when using ART, because they haven’t been updated for KitKat yet. Most notably, WhatsApp is broken when using ART, which could be a big issue for many users. Being averse to WhatsApp, I gladly switched to ART and can report faster loading time on apps. It's not a world of difference, but the difference is apparent. To test the difference on newer hardware, we pitted the camera on an ART-runnning Nexus 4 against a Nexus 5 using Dalvik runtime. The camera on the former was half a second quicker to capture than the newer Nexus, with HDR off and flash on. This is a major win for ART and does add merit to the idea of it being the long-term Dalvik replacement. Though, as of now, it is advisable to stick to Dalvik, till more apps are updated for the version.

The third-level of the Android easter eggs brings back symbols of all previous versions

The new Android easter egg brings back symbols of all previous versions


One thing we couldn’t test properly over the weekend was the battery life of the phone. Having used the Nexus 4 for nearly the entire year, I can attest to the pathetic battery life. Hopefully, the KitKat update and the usage of ART will have some positive effect on this. We will update this story with more details about battery life as soon as we get more time to test that aspect.

So the big question is: Is it necessary to get the KitKat update for your Nexus 4? Yes, the launcher is a big miss, but we would recommend the update simply for the dialler, which greatly improves the most basic aspect of a smartphone. Moreover, the improvement in performance, the presence of ART and the potential battery-saving features make it a must-download. My first grouse was the omission of the Search-powered launcher, but the other improvements make it the only big one. And if I’m still hung up on getting the Nexus 5 look in a few days, then there’s always an app for that.

Published Date: Nov 25, 2013 02:19 pm | Updated Date: Nov 25, 2013 02:19 pm