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KitKat: Two steps forward, one step back for Android

Android 4.4 KitKat looks up the number of the caller
Android 4.4 KitKat looks up the number of the caller — but it only knows the numbers of companies and people who share their numbers with Google.Google

Consumer Reports evaluated Google's Nexus 5 phone this week, and said it was "marred by Android 4.4 quirks." While we ourselves found some aspects of the new Android version, also known as KitKat, to be improvements, we agree with CR that some trumped-up features don't work as well as many initially thought, and some so-called improvements actually make the interface more annoying.

Even if you're not planning on buying a Nexus 5 — which is a decent phone with a crazy-awesome no-contract price tag — you may soon get KitKat. Google is beginning to roll KitKat out to its own Nexus-branded tablets and phones, first to recent Wi-Fi-only models, then to models that use cellular data. Meanwhile, an assortment of handsets from Sony, HTC, Samsung, LG and Motorola will eventually be kissed by the Kat, following that cumbersome Android update process that involves the synchronization of carrier and manufacturer timetables.

There are quite a few under-the-hood advantages that KitKat brings to devices — better app security, more efficient location management, better cloud file support, quicker multitasking and touch-free voice command, plus a bunch of smaller additions that you may find highly desirable. This isn't a negative review: The operating system has advanced. Nevertheless, when it comes to the biggest user interface tweaks, there are definitely issues that may end up nagging you.

For starters, let's address the caller ID feature that everyone got excited about when KitKat was revealed. It's supposed to do a background look-up of incoming calls, so that instead of seeing a number, you see a person or business name. Consumer Reports' Mike Gikas wrote, "It didn't work for me. My informal tests involved having acquaintances call me from such companies as Bank of America, Sony, and even Google. In all cases, a phone number was the only thing caller ID showed me."

The reason is that Google taps a database that's supposed to be filled by people reporting their own phone numbers, or the phone numbers of their businesses. If businesses use Google Apps, their global phone lists can show up as well. But talk about this advanced caller ID somehow helping you screen telemarketers — especially the shady kind — is more wishful than true.

Another issue Gikas had with KitKat was that the combination of Google Hangouts (social-focused video chat and instant messaging) with standard cellphone text messaging quickly becomes annoying. "I rarely use Google communication tools, but I frequently use SMS, so I often found myself weeding through 7-month Hangout exchanges to respond to a text message someone just sent me," wrote Gikas. He also didn't like how Google kept trying to get him to share his SMS content with his Google+ Circles.

This can be irksome, but our beef with the Hangouts-SMS merger is kinda the opposite: There's no way to add your Google chat buddy to the phone's main contacts list. Nor can you merge someone's phone number and their Google identity. The result is that you will reach Google friends only through the Hangouts app, not through contacts, and the people you chat with most will likely appear in duplicate inside the Hangouts app.

Gikas also found a few interface changes to be awkward, particularly with the quick settings menu, which now requires two taps to appear, and the Google Now personal assistant, which — somewhat confusingly — can now be conjured up using one of two different gestures.

One change we both agree is useful is the ability to tweak the home screen and add widgets by pressing and holding on a blank part of the screen. This eliminates some of the awkwardness found in Jelly Bean, KitKat's predecessor, which feels like it always wants you to add more stuff to your home screen. 

We'd disagree with one gripe from Gikas: He doesn't like the new contacts list, which auto-prioritizes people based on whom you talk to most, and throws in local businesses when you search. It didn't work very well for him. We, too, found some irregularities, but you could tweak some settings, and overall we liked having our VIPs front and center. Gikas was most vocal about the fact that this new contacts list seemed to replace the always-useful "recent calls" view, but that's still there: Just tap the little clock at the bottom left, and you see a chronological listing of all the calls you've been making.

Since we're talking about KitKat's failings here, it does seem strange that the neatest features of Google's Moto X smartphone are not implemented in KitKat. It still takes too much effort to see who's messaging you — the Moto X lets you glance at the contents of a text message just by tapping your finger on the screen, but the Nexus 5 makes you unlock your phone. And what about the fact that you can give Moto X voice commands without unlocking the screen? How about launching its camera with a flick of the wrist? It's not hard to launch the Nexus 5's 8-megapixel camera, but that's an example of smart gesture based design ... and it originates from Google's own Moto team. I get that the Android dev team and the Moto people are separate, but they're part of the same company now, and should benefit by sharing good ideas.

If you've lived with Android long enough, your response to this is probably: "But I can just download apps that will help me tweak all of these things!" Yes, one of Android's chief assets is third-party customization, but the Nexus project is about streamlining the code, and showing off what clean Android can do as efficiently as possible.

The Jelly Bean updates were so good, on so many levels, that they did away with the need for much third-party augmentation (and made iPhone users jealous, too). But with KitKat, it seems like we're back to solving some issues on our own — or worse, waiting for Samsung or another manufacturer to figure out some aesthetically unpleasant workaround of their own.

— With additional insights from NBC News' Todd Wheeler, Devin Coldewey and M. Alex Johnson

Wilson Rothman is the Technology & Science editor at NBC News Digital. Catch up with him on Twitter at @wjrothman, and join our conversation on Facebook.