Flashback: Android 4.4 KitKat optimized the operating system for phones with only 512 MB of RAM

Remember when Google used to name Android versions after deserts? It even put statues of these deserts in front of its office – it was fun back then and, more importantly, every new version brought big improvements.

Some were major milestones, like Android 2.3 Gingerbread, the version that was so good it refused to die. Android 4.4 KitKat also introduced major upgrades that are surprisingly relevant to this day, eight years after its release in 2013.

First the name – this was the first release to be named after a branded snack, all others are generic desserts. This was to follow suit with the name Key Lime Pie, but the last-minute deal with Nestle gave us the name we know today. Despite this setback, cakes are finally being recognized for their importance on the table with the v9.0 release.

KitKat came after three releases of Jelly Bean, a version that focused on providing a buttery smooth user interface. Aside from a few UI tweaks of its own, KitKat’s focus has been on improving performance on resource-constrained devices.

That was the goal of Project Svelte, which aimed to run Android with just 340MB of RAM, although 512MB was more realistic. Looking back at some stats, the average phone in 2013 had 1GB of RAM, with 3GB being the most you could buy. That means there were some devices with less than 1GB of RAM then, and there are still devices today (okay, they’re smartwatches, but the point is made).

Flashback: Android 4.4 KitKat made the operating system faster and optimized for phones with only 512MB of RAM

Google developers have created many tools to reduce RAM usage by the operating system and apps. One such tool was zRAM, a compressed segment of RAM that could temporarily store unused data to free up disk space. This differs from the virtual RAM feature you see on current phones, which uses the fast internal storage to move data out of RAM. Of course, in 2013 comparatively slow eMMC was the norm, especially on low-end devices, so such a scheme wouldn’t have worked as well as zRAM.

Flashback: Android 4.4 KitKat made the OS faster and optimized it for phones with just 512MB of RAM

Another big change was the preparation to replace Dalvik VM with the Android Runtime (ART). The Dalvik virtual machine was crucial to early Android as it allowed the software to be hardware independent – ARM, x86 and even the rare MIPS CPUs were supported. Android 2.2 Froyo introduced just-in-time (JIT) compilation to speed up application performance, but after a few years Dalvik was starting to show its age.

ART uses ahead-of-time compilation and basically compiles the app into the phone’s CPU machine code as part of the app installation process. KitKat still used Dalvik by default, only with Lollipop did Android complete the switch to ART. But ART is still used today and v4.4 laid the groundwork for it.

We may have underestimated how much KitKat changed Android’s user interface, as one small change made a big impact – v4.4 allowed users to choose a default launcher in the settings screen. This was possible in previous versions, but it was tedious. Now everyone could easily try different launchers if they were not satisfied with what the manufacturer skins offer.

Some other UI tweaks included adopting a see-through look for certain UI components like the status bar and navigation bar. Immersive mode allowed apps to run full-screen, completely hiding those two bars along with other OS interface elements. A new transition framework allowed developers to create cool, fluid animations for their apps.

KitKat has made the status and navigation bars translucent
KitKat made the status and navigation bars translucent • The immersive full screen mode

KitKat added native support for the IR blaster before manufacturers used custom solutions that were harder for app developers to support. Also, the NFC function received support for host card emulation, allowing the phone to act as a smart card used for mobile payments, loyalty cards, transport tickets, etc.

Flashback: Android 4.4 KitKat made the OS faster and optimized it for phones with just 512MB of RAM

Other new features include wireless printing (via Wi-Fi or online services like Google Cloud Print), the option to certify phones as Miracast-compatible, improvements in Bluetooth device connections, and more.

Flashback: Android 4.4 KitKat made the OS faster and optimized it for phones with just 512MB of RAM

KitKat made phones more secure by putting SELinux (Security-Enhanced Linux) in “enforcement” mode, which prevented compromised apps from accessing parts of the system they weren’t allowed to touch. v4.4 also changed how apps access the memory card, making it easier to browse local and cloud-saved files.

Files stored in the cloud can now be searched like locally stored ones
Files stored in the cloud can now be searched like locally stored ones

There are many other small improvements introduced with KitKat. For example, the way sensor data is tracked has been changed to reduce power consumption. This also allowed the creation of the pedometer feature to be built into the operating system rather than leaving it to apps to implement a power-hungry solution.

Moves and Runtastic Pedometer with the new pedometer function
Moves and Runtastic Pedometer with the new pedometer function

KitKat’s goal was to reach 1 million users. About a year after its release, v4.4 KitKat was already running on a third of Android devices and it wouldn’t be until mid-2015 before KitKat caught up with Jelly Bean. It never reached 50% adoption because Lollipop was already out there, eating up market share. At the end of 2015, Android was running on a total of 1.4 billion devices, so KitKat could never power a billion devices.

Flashback: Android 4.4 KitKat made the operating system faster and optimized for phones with only 512MB of RAM

But Android 4.4 KitKat’s legacy isn’t about how many phones it ran on in its heyday. The RAM optimizations that made the operating system tolerable on low-end devices, the performance and security improvements, and the new connectivity features it introduced are still relevant in version 12.

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