What IT pros need to know about the Android 4.4 KitKat OS

With a cleaned-up UI, improved security, and features for app developers, an upgrade to the Android KitKat OS has plenty to offer IT, users and devs.

Designed to run faster and smoother than previous versions of Android, the KitKat OS offers a cleaner interface, improved performance and a set of new and updated apps to enhance the user experience.

In addition to its new and streamlined features, Android 4.4 KitKat has a smaller footprint and requires fewer resources. It also includes a number of new features -- such as improved memory, security and app development tools -- that can make Android apps more powerful and flexible.

Behind the scenes: Memory and security

Google shrank KitKat's size and enhanced how the touchscreen and operating system interact, and the OS includes plenty of performance-enhancing updates, but the memory improvements take center stage. Every major KitKat OS component has been streamlined to better utilize memory, making it more responsive and capable of running on more devices, including older models with as little as 512 MB of memory. The upgrade also introduces new tools for analyzing memory usage, such as an option to let developers assess an app's memory profile.

KitKat has new application programming interfaces to help create more responsive and memory-efficient apps. In addition, the OS has ongoing performance tuning for apps based on RenderScript, a framework for running native, computation-intensive tasks. Plus, RenderScript apps benefit from KitKat's graphic processing acceleration because developers don't have to modify or recompile code.

Security has seen a number of improvements in KitKat as well. For example, the mobile OS includes an update to Security-Enhanced Linux , an integrated module that identifies which users and apps can access resources at the OS level. KitKat also includes improvements to its built-in virtual private network functionality and adds support for additional cryptographic algorithms.

KitKat also adds support for Near Field Communication (NFC), a set of standards for establishing radio communication between devices. The NFC integration enables the KitKat OS to support secure wireless transactions, such as submitting credit card payments or transit pass information.

New generation of apps

Many of the new features in the KitKat OS are useful for application development. For example, the OS introduces full-screen immersive mode, which lets an app use an entire screen, a valuable addition for watching videos or reading books. Apps can also take advantage of the new step and counter sensors to track a user's physical activity -- developers don't have to build those features from scratch. In addition, KitKat has updated WebView, a feature that allows admins to deliver a Web application or webpage within a client application. WebView is now based on Google's Chromium open-source Web browser, rather than the old WebKit engine.

KitKat also has a new transitions framework to support high-quality animations, an updated HTTP Live Streaming platform and support for audio tunneling to a digital signal processor. In addition, KitKat apps can use the new loudness enhancer and monitoring tools to increase the volume of spoken content and retrieve updates on audio levels, respectively. This makes it possible to implement such features as a playback meter.

The KitKat OS also includes additional Bluetooth profiles to facilitate interaction with more Bluetooth devices, such as keyboards and mice. Plus, the OS now supports built-in infrared blasters so users can remotely control tuners, televisions and other electronics with their Android devices.

Enhanced user experience

Users will notice the differences in KitKat as soon as it's loaded on their devices because the interface is different: The status bar is translucent, the user interface is more streamlined, some of the colors have changed and widgets are no longer in the main app drawer. The changes are not dramatic; they're many small improvements that make for a more refined environment. But users will also see smoother transitions and faster operations.

KitKat has a new storage access framework that simplifies file browsing and access, and Google's Quickoffice productivity suite is preinstalled. That also means users can open files in Quickoffice directly from cloud apps such as Dropbox or Google Drive. Plus, KitKat adds support for closed captioning, which allows users to set the language, text size and style.

Users with KitKat on the Nexus 5 will also find Google Experience Launcher, which integrates Google Now with the home screen. This makes it possible to activate Voice Search by saying "OK, Google." For the foreseeable future, however, this integration will remain limited to Nexus 5.

KitKat comes with lots of other features, such as an updated Hangouts app that has added support for SMS messaging. Users now have a single interface for Google+ text and video chat, Google Talk and, of course, texting.

Users will also find improvements in their calling features. For instance, search functionality is integrated into the new dialer app so a user need only type in a business name to retrieve a number, whether it's in his contacts or not. The app also includes a caller ID feature that tries to identify calls from numbers that are not in a user's contacts. In addition, the app has a favorites section that lists a user's most commonly called numbers.

Other improvements to the OS include the ability to print photos, documents and more to Google CloudPrint or HP ePrint Center enabled printers, or printers that have an app in Google Play. The email and downloads apps have also been updated to make it easier to organize and navigate messages and files.

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