Google makes the Dialer awesome again: this is why you want Android 4.4 KitKat

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
Google makes the Dialer awesome again: this is why you want Android 4.4 KitKat
The Google Nexus 5 hit the Play Store about two and a half weeks ago on Halloween. I was lucky enough to get mine the Monday after Halloween, so I've had a solid two weeks to mess around with the device and more importantly, time to dig into Android 4.4 KitKat. The KitKat update has started rolling out to Nexus devices, and the indications point to the update hitting Google Edition phones relatively soon, and of course the Moto X soon as well (it's hard to say about the DROIDs since Verizon loves to delay updates). The rest of you may have to wait a while, but if you do, you may calm yourself in the interim by saying that the latest update of Android is an incremental update; and, despite the nickname change, it doesn't offer huge new features. While it does offer a bunch of smaller changes for everyone, and a few changes that will appeal to a small subset of users, there is one new feature that is surprisingly sticky, and that has the potential to fundamentally change your smartphone experience.

The other changes

When we have gone through all of the new features available in KitKat, the same things are always mentioned because the change log for visible changes is pretty small. There is the Google Experience launcher with its touchless "Okay Google" command (which is a Nexus 5 exclusive for now, unless you want to do a bit of sideloading, but even then you won't get the touchless command), the optimization for lower-end phones (likely the second major reason for the nickname change after the confluence of KitKat and Halloween), full-screen mode for apps (which really just allows for the on-screen nav buttons to disappear, since devs could always take over the notification bar), Hangouts with SMS (not a KitKat exclusive anymore), Emojis (legitimately cool, if you hate words), wireless printing (nice, but very few people will use it), screen recording (nice for developers and tech bloggers, but not so useful for anyone else), a tweaked UI, better support for pedometers, and a few other smaller features. That's a fair amount of change for an update that only brings your system from 4.3 to 4.4, but the real flagship feature in KitKat is the new Dialer. 

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Given all you can do with smartphones these days, you may forget that they are actually phones, I know I certainly do. For reference, I have averaged just 300 minutes of talk time per month on my cell plan as far back as I bothered to check, and the majority of that talk time is spent organizing dinner prep times with my wife. I tend to chat with friends in Hangouts, do a Skype call here and there, but since I'm a fan of the written word, I tend to use e-mail or text the most. I don't even call to order food if I don't have to, and use online ordering like GrubHub more often than anything else. So, to say that my favorite new feature in KitKat is the Dialer feels a bit strange. 

I use Google Now and voice actions more than anything else in the Android system, but I was already in love with that service, and getting easier access to it has been something that I've done on my own for a while now with alternative lockscreens or always-listening options from Utter! or other apps (although I tend to only put those on my Nexus 10, because a tablet battery can handle that always-on better than a phone, since neither will have the properly optimized hardware). So, while the new access options on the Nexus 5 are nice, they aren't groundbreaking, especially since they don't translate to other devices, not even my Nexus 10. The visual tweaks are nice, but those things don't fundamentally change how you use your device. I'm not much of a fan of how Google has integrated SMS into Hangouts, so I've already switched to Textra on the rare occasion that I have to send an MMS and don't have a quality data signal (because all my SMS goes through Google Voice and I'd usually use WhatsApp or email to send a picture.) I prefer words to emojis; and, while I expect to do some screen recording eventually, it's not an everyday thing for me. 

The Dialer

But, regardless of how little I actually make or receive phone calls, I'm astonished at how often I find myself jumping into the KitKat Dialer. At first, I was thrown off by the changes, because Google has radically altered the UI of the Dialer and has ditched the Holo theme. This definitely caused some issues at first, because I was so used to swiping between the dialer, history, and contacts tabs, but, if you try that in Android 4.4, you're likely to accidentally remove a contact from your favorites list, which is the new swipe action. 

What Google basically did was make your contact's list the main screen with your favorites prominently featured, and the most recent call in your history right up at the top. Your favorites list has been made smarter, because not only does it list the people you have specifically put in your favorites, but it adds in numbers that you've called a lot, and it rearranges your favorites automatically based on how often you call certain numbers. 

Not all of the changes are for the best, like burying the "add new contact" option in the overflow menu, but a quick tap will get you to your history, or slide in the dialer from the bottom, which is easy enough. If you scroll to the bottom of your favorites, you'll see a button to reveal the traditional contacts list, which is the standard alphabetically sorted list that goes on forever. At first, this choice seems annoying, because you're so used to using that long list to get at your contacts, but the idea is to make that list more hidden in order to promote the usage of the biggest addition to the Dialer - a search field. 

This is Google after all. The search field will let you easily find someone from your contacts list, as you would expect; but, it also goes beyond that. The new Dialer also looks to minimize how much time you spend in other apps only to be bounced back into the Dialer. This means, instead of going to Google Maps or Yelp to find a business, you can search right inside the Dialer app itself. The search field doesn't just return results from your contacts list, but also nearby place results that you would see in Google Maps. So, if you search for "pizza", you'll not only get any pizza places in your own contacts list, but nearby pizza joints as well. 

While that has been incredibly useful, I think the best new addition though comes in the changes to Caller ID, because that has been supercharged with Google as well. Now, any time you call a number, or receive a call from a number that can be matched to a Google Maps business record, Google will show you that business name, and possibly a picture (though that part of the feature has been a bit dodgy so far), instead of just the phone number. This means far fewer mystery phone numbers in your call history, and if you're like me, it means even more than that. 

I have all of my phone calls automatically logged to Google Calendar using the CallTrack app. Sure, a solid 75% of the calls logged are to or from my wife, but I always find that I'll need a number that I called just one time a few months ago, and I can't find it. Given my relatively light call history, it usually only takes a bit of digging to find the right date, and maybe a few random number calls to pinpoint that exact number I needed. But now, I can just search my Call Log calendar and find that number. Sure, it would be better if I could search my call history directly through the Dialer, but I wouldn't be surprised if Google has that planned for future updates. 


The update isn't perfect, and there are some annoyances with the new Dialer in Android 4.4. The move away from Holo can make navigation a bit odd at first, some features are more hidden than you may want, and some features that you might really be hoping for won't be there just yet. But, if nothing else, it is proof that there are pieces of smartphone software that are still begging for overhauls. The contacts list has been one such place, and it has seen some big improvements in Windows Phone. Google has attempted to do the same with Android's People app, but developers haven't hooked in as Google had hoped. 

The Dialer may no longer the central feature of your mobile phone, but it is still an incredibly important piece of how we use our devices. More and more, we have been bumped out into various apps to find the phone numbers we need. Or, we've had to accept the standard limitation that if a number wasn't in your contact list, Caller ID would be unavailable. Google has fundamentally changed both of those issues in Android 4.4 KitKat, and I would be surprised if iOS and Windows Phone didn't follow suit soon enough. Sometimes features are too good to not spread to other mobile platforms. There's a reason the notification tray has become standard, or app stores, or quick settings toggles. 

Ever since Google completely overhauled Android with 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, there haven't been too many big name features in the four subsequent incremental updates to the system. Android 4.1 Jelly Bean brought Project Butter and Google Now. The best you could point to in Android 4.2 were Photo Spheres, because while it did bring gesture typing, that wasn't anything new given the success of Swype. Android 4.3 had Bluetooth 4.0 LE support, but no real consumer features. Android 4.4 is another incremental update with a lot of smaller changes, but I think we'll be looking back after future Android updates and saying this was when Google made the Dialer awesome again. 

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