Google Unveils Android 4.4 KitKat and the Nexus 5

The new Android has lots more features -- but fits into less memory.

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Until now, the main thing we’ve known for sure about the next version of Google‘s Android mobile operating system is its name: KitKat. But at a media event this morning, Google provided its first detailed walkthrough of the update’s features. And it did so on the Nexus 5, the latest “pure Google” phone, developed in partnership with LG, which it will sell in unlocked form via the Google Play store.

As usual, the new Nexus, which has a 5-inch display and is shipping today in a 16GB version for $349 and a 32GB one for $399, no contract required, is the first phone to get the new version of Android, and it offers it at a strikingly low price for a serious unlocked smartphone. But Google is also releasing KitKat to the Android developer community today, and says that additional phones from other makers will get it next year.

There’s a lot that’s new in KitKat, but the item which Android and Chrome honcho Sundar Pichai began with is something you probably won’t notice or care about if you’re the type who buys high-end smartphones such as the Nexus 5. As part of Google’s aim to reach “the next billion people,” Pichai said, KitKat is designed to fit into 512MB of RAM, the skimpy allotment provided by lower-end phones, especially those sold in emerging economies. The core operating system and Google apps such as Chrome are svelter than before, and KitKat can alert third-party apps that memory is tight so they can fall back into more memory-efficient modes.

At the moment, Pichai said, price-constrained handsets often use Gingerbread, a three-year-old version of Android, purely because of memory constraints. If future ones can support the latest version of Android, it might go a long way towards solving the fragmentation which has left the operating system a less consistent, up-to-date platform than Apple‘s iOS.

Contrary to recent rumors — not that they usually mean much — Google made no mention of a new tablet or smartwatch at the event.

Here’s a list of some of the other features Google showed off at its event, a few of which will be exclusive to the Nexus 5 (at least at first):

A sleeker look. Google has cleaned up the Android interface, with visual tweaks like beefier support for full-screen mode and more translucency effects. You can shuffle home screens around by dragging and dropping them, and Google search, in both its typed and spoken forms, is more quickly available from any home screen.

A Web-connected dialer. You can now search for phone numbers, such as ones for local businesses, directly from the Android dialer; Google will look them up on the Net for you. It’ll also use Caller ID to show you an image of a business when it calls you.

Search within apps. In a feature that’ll roll out in November, Google search will be able to index and link to information within Android applications, allowing it to provide unified results which take you both to sites and apps. This will allow you to search for a recipe, for instance, and get links to both versions on the Web and ones within a recipe app. At first, this feature will work with apps from 10 partners — including Etsy, Expedia, IMDb, OpenTable and others — with more to come.

More conversational spoken search. In a feature similar to ones offered by the Moto X and newest Verizon Droids, you can say “OK Google” and then speak a search term or other vocalized action. Google will then ask you questions if necessary to clarify your intent; if you say “Call Jennifer,” for instance, it’ll ask which Jennifer you mean, and whether you want her mobile number or landline. Google also says that it’s managed to make its speech recognition 25% more accurate in the past year.

Google Now enhancements. This feature, which uses cards to show you information you might think is important before you’ve actually asked for it, will now display articles and site updates based on what it knows about your interests from your Web searches. In some cases, it’ll also show cards based on your location and what other people commonly look for when they’re in the same place — for instance, a schedule of geyser eruptions if you’re standing near Old Faithful.

Fancier photography. A new feature called HDR+ will take a flurry of photos, then use high-dynamic range technology to combine them, allowing for better images in tricky lighting situations and less motion blur.

Smarter storage. If you do something such as add a photo to an e-mail, you get a new image browser which shows local images, ones stored on Google Drive and ones which reside on third-party services, such as Box.

Text and MMS in Google Hangouts. Google’s communications app now lets you do texting, and will let you quickly send a map of your location. The Google keyboard now includes dozens of the high-end graphical emoticons known as emoji.

Wireless printing. Android has new printer features which let apps automatically support HP printers and any printer which works with Google CloudPrint, with more models to come.

That’s a lot to chew on, and a lot of it plays to Google’s strengths, including search and other technologies which rely on fast access to massive amounts of data on the Web. More thoughts to come once I’ve tried it for myself.