Android 4.4 KitKat represents a dramatic shift in Google's mobile OS. Android is no stranger to change--Google has dramatically reinvented it several times now--but many aspects of this particular update warrant a closer look. The new Android home screen, for example, may not look much different from the home screens in Jelly Bean or even Ice Cream Sandwich, but it gives us a better understanding of what Google may want Android to look like in the future.
Flat is in
Following in the footsteps of Windows Phone and iOS 7, the new Android home screen is flatter and displays larger icons that almost demand to be poked. The dock at the bottom of the screen has gone translucent and seems to flow into the software navigation buttons on the Nexus 5.
The Google search bar at the top of the screen is a permanent fixture: It shows up on all of your home screens and takes a page out of the Moto X's book by allowing you to dictate commands. The feature is similar to the Touchless Controls found in Motorola's latest batch of smartphones, but you can activate it only by saying "Okay Google" when the device is on and set to the home screen.
Liberated from the depths of Google's Search app, Google Now occupies the leftmost home-screen pane, though you can still access it at any time by swiping up from the home button. Google Now behaves just as it does on other Android phones and tablets, though KitKat includes an updated version that lets you customize your experience more effectively by establishing a few parameters. As you set up Google Now, the software asks how you prefer to get around, which sports teams you follow, and which locations it should keep track of.
Just for apps
Though technically not part of the home screen, the app drawer has received a facelift and now deals exclusively with apps. If you want to reach your widgets, you can find them by long-pressing the home screen and tapping the widget button that appears on the screen. Android no longer limits you to five or six home screens, and you can drag a widget or app to the far right edge to spawn a new pane. If there is a limit to how many panes you can have open at once, I didn't reach it (I lost count at around 29). I did my testing on a rather beefy Nexus 5 phone; it's possible that lower-end Android devices will have a stricter limit, based on their available memory.
Moving the widgets out of the app drawer seems like a missed opportunity: The widgets interface looks exactly the way it did when it was in the app drawer, and I would have liked to be able to sort widgets by size as well as alphabetically. Relocating widgets to their own hidden corner of the OS makes me worry that Google is planning to nix widgets in a future release, as they are no longer quite as in-your-face as they were in Android 4.0--4.3.
The new home screen provides a welcome visual refresh to Android--but it mainly shuffles things around, without really introducing new features or functionality. The heavy emphasis on search makes Google appear paranoid that people won't use its services to access the Web, but it makes sense considering that search is still the company's bread and butter. It's only a matter of time before Android becomes a straight portal to the Google homepage.