One of Android 4.4‘s advertised new features isn’t exactly something you’d immediately see in devices. The latest version of Android is claimed to have been optimized to run even on low-end devices thanks to an effort internally known as Project Svelte. How this was made possible is now being revealed by Android engineering head Dave Burke who was also responsible for bringing Project Butter’s improvements to Android 4.1 Jelly Bean.
One of the biggest criticisms laid against Android, especially when it comes to app development, is fragmentation. Not just the myriad of devices sporting an ungodly number of hardware combinations but also the number of Android OS versions still being used in the wild. Of special note are less powerful devices that have been forced to use an almost ancient version of Android, Android 2.3 Gingerbread in this case, because of limitations in hardware.
Google definitely wants to fix this and prevent a future where low-end devices will once again resort to using old and unsupported versions of Android. And so it initiated an attempt to strike the problem at its roots and turn Android into a mobile OS that works great on the latest hardware but also manages to just work on less capable ones. And that project all started, oddly enough, with a Nexus 4.
The Nexus 4 is definitely not a weak smartphone, but Google developers and engineers were able to trim it down to such a state by reducing RAM to 512 MB, utilizing only two out of four CPU cores, throttling down the clock frequency, and adapting the resolution to 960×540 qHD. Android developers then started eating their own dog food and used this stripped down Nexus 4 for daily use, seeing how broken it all is and fixing things along the way.
The result was a battle plan that focused on reducing the footprint, particularly memory usage, of the whole Android system as well as Google apps, improving how apps behaved in low memory situations, and empowering developers to better learn how their own apps behave. To those ends, Google decoupled its apps and services from being baked into Android itself, implemented policies that will kill apps that use too much memory over a long period of time, and introduced the ProcStats tool in developer mode to let developers see just how much their apps are really consuming.
That said, Android 4.4 is still too new to have those theories and features tested out in the wild. Some recent low-end devices sport specs such as 1 GHz dual-core CPUs, 512 MB of RAM, and at least 854×480 resolution displays. It remains to be seen if these devices, a lot of which are thankfully running at least Android 4.0 in worst cases, will be able to receive Android 4.4’s promise of buttery smooth and svelte performance.