Nov 08, 2013

    KitKat, a good step back


    NEXUS phones are flagship devices made to Google's specifications and designed to introduce new versions of the company's Android operating system.

    I've been using the latest of these, the Nexus 5. It's the first device to run Android 4.4, dubbed "KitKat", and the two make for a pleasant - if not dazzling - combination.

    As with last year's Nexus 4, Google has turned to LG Electronics to manufacture the phone, which is handsome in a generic sort of way. The corners are rounded and the soft-grip back is ever so slightly bowed; the five-inch display is surrounded by extremely thin side bezels, keeping the dimensions manageable. At about 8mm thick, it slides comfortably into pocket or purse.

    The 445-pixels-per-inch display exceeds that of both Apple's iPhone 5s and Samsung's Galaxy S4 and it weighs 130g, which is less than the Nexus 4.

    The most important change from its predecessor, though, is the inclusion of support for LTE, the fastest so-called 4G networks.

    The nicest thing is you get to choose: Google is selling the phone, unlocked, at the bargain price of US$349 (S$433) with 16GB of storage, or US$399 with 32GB.

    The Nexus 5 bears more than a passing similarity to LG's considerably more expensive G2, sharing similar displays and a potent Qualcomm Snapdragon processor. But its battery is less powerful, and the front and rear cameras aren't as good.

    Also, the 8MP camera, while adequate for most purposes, was sometimes slow to focus, with colours seeming washed out in less-than-perfect lighting conditions. Still, the Nexus 5 is a lot of phone for the money, as long as you don't ask too much of it.

    As for KitKat, the new version of Android, it's a step backward - and I mean that in a good way.

    As a general rule, new operating systems are designed to run best on the latest and greatest hardware. But that can pose problems for people with older devices, as some users of Apple's iOS 7 have discovered.

    The Android situation is even worse: Newer versions of the software don't run on many older or less powerful devices.

    With KitKat, Google has re-engineered Android to allow it to run on lower-end devices, in the hope that more existing phones will be able to upgrade to it and new, less-expensive devices, many of them being sold in emerging markets, will run it out of the box.

    Of course, it runs just fine on higher-end devices like the Nexus 5, where it can do some new tricks.

    One is support for a listening mode: Saying "OK, Google" from the home screen allows you to immediately dictate a search query or issue a command such as "Open the Netflix app".

    Meanwhile, Google Now, the personal assistant, resides a fingerswipe to the right from the home screen.

    There are other new features as well, including built-in support for step-counting and other fitness-related apps.

    I'm less enamoured of the consolidation of all texts, video calls and Google chat messages into a single hub called Hangouts, which feels more like an effort to promote the Google+ social network than something that really serves users.

    KitKat is a modest step forward for Android - but it may be more important to Google than to the people who use it.