Android 4.4 KitKat Project Svelte born on dumb Nexus 4: dual-core CPU, 512MB of RAM and 960 x 540 qHD display

by: Chris SmithNovember 26, 2013

Android 4.4 KitkAt logo wood - aa

One of the main features of Android 4.4 KitKat is Project Svelte, which makes the brand new OS run on older hardware that may be considered obsolete by today’s standards (dual-core CPU, 512MB of RAM and qHD display), but which is a step in the right direction for Google when it comes to fighting OS fragmentation.

We’ve suspected all along that KitKat will bring software optimizations for older devices, considering the various leaks that preceded the quiet late October KitKat announcement, and Google made it all official when it released official information about the new OS. But we didn’t know that Google used a special Nexus 4 unit that used only two processors, 512MB of RAM and a 960 x 540 (qHD) resolution display to test out KitKat and actually make it work.

Google’s head of engineering Dave Burke in an interview with ReadWrite has shared the untold story of Project Svelte. Here are some revealing quotes:

“The goal of Project Svelte was basically to reduce the memory footprint to fit into 512 megs. The way we did it, by the way-which we didn’t talk about-was to take a Nexus 4 and adapt it to run at 512 megs.”

“We adapted the resolution to qHD that is 960-by-540 because that is kind of the sweet spot for entry level smartphones,” Burke said. “We reduced it from four CPUs to two CPUs. We reduced the clock frequency and whatnot. And literally a bunch of us just used that as our default phone. It was painful, and it was broken to start with.”

Once the special Nexus 4 was “constructed” Google had four objectives in mind:

  • Reduce the footprint of the system.
  • Reduce the footprint (memory usage) of the apps that run on a Google Experience (Nexus) device.
  • Fix how apps react and crash during bad memory situations.
  • Provide better measurement and instrumentation of how apps are running in Android so developers can see how memory-conscious their apps are.

According to the publication, the first two objectives were achieved thanks to using the dumbed down Nexus 4 version. Furthermore, in order to reduce memory usage, the company stripped Google apps from the OS making them behave as standalone apps. The last two objectives were achieved by creating a RAM usage score – ProcStats – to keep an eye on how apps were using the available memory, and then by monitoring RAM usage efficiency in apps.

Nexus 5 Android 4.4 KitKat Hands On

Ultimately, KitKat got the best of Project Butter and Project Svelte, both projects being overseen by Burke. “We were kind of joking that, when I started, the first thing that I was working on was Project Butter to make the system smoother,” the exec said. “The thing is, butter puts on weight. So then I did Project Svelte to lose weight. So now my contribution to Android is basically zero,” he joked.

Now that the interesting secrets of Project Svelte have been unveiled, the tricky part still remains, and that’s updating older devices to Android 4.4 KitKat. Motorola has already added various older devices to the list of KitKat-supported handsets, and we’re certainly looking forward to seeing what old devices will be the first get the new desert upgrade, whether they’re made by Moto or anyone else.

Sadly, the Galaxy Nexus, a device that would most likely qualify for KitKat, is not officially supported anymore for software upgrades.

  • AbbyZFresh

    Then explain why the Nexus 4 was the very last to get KitKat despite being built from the base of the N4 specs.

    • Nickan Fayyazi

      The very last to get KitKat? What?

    • utilitybelt

      Bugs found in N7 and N10 build. The firmware rolled out to the nexus 4 was the one with the bugs fixed. They went the correct route. Releasing the firmware just to release it would’ve been a nightmare especially if it came out that they’d already identified the bugs and released a buggy OS update anyway.

    • ziplock9000

      Any delay would have been to increase sales in the N5. That’s fair enough as Google is a business. As an N4 user, it was only a couple of weeks (which is exactly what they promised) anyway.

  • Shark Bait

    Sticking it on the galaxy nexus and nexus s would have been a good show off of how well they had done. A good bit of PR

    • Jesus

      I am Jesus, and I agree.

      • Shark Bait

        No waaaaay

        • Alan Shearer

          Problem would be getting texis instruments to provide updated omap drivers for it. Could have been done I suspect (who knows if they tried or not)

          • Kevin Kuo

            TI just updated the binaries for the GPU on the Gnex about a month ago. Google is the one pulling the plug. I’d imagine TI is quite surprised too.

          • NeedName

            yep, google is sticking firm to an 18 month life span for devices. The TI drivers have nothing to do with that decision.

          • sluflyer06

            Glad they updated the GPU binaries…what about the rest of it…….

          • Simon Belmont

            Not to mention, we don’t truly know if these GPU binaries were updated with KitKat in mind. They could have just been bug fixes for Android 4.3 or lower.

            I think that Google probably couldn’t have done a good build of KitKat on the G’Nex if all the binaries weren’t updated. There were a lot of changes in KitKat.

          • Alan Shearer

            Yea, read that recently as well. Good for the custom roms at least.

        • Kevin Kuo

          That’s greaaaattt.

      • Captain Spaulding

        Dude, that’s so not funny.

        • mobilemann

          on the overall list of things to be upset about, this isn’t even worth it.

      • APai

        ….for Christ’s sake!

    • Android Developer

      true. nexus S too.

    • Simon Belmont

      Exactly what I had been saying for months before KitKat was released. Almost the exact same words, even, so yeah, I totally agree with you.

      I’ve heard that updated binaries are actually out there from TI. I just don’t know if they were updated with KitKat in mind, though. Either way, custom ROMs should be good on the G’Nex for a long while to come. I’ll definitely be keeping my G’Nex updated with them (it’s my backup phone now that I have a Nexus 5).

    • Azeem

      There are builds of 4.4 for those devices, AND the aging Nexus One.

  • Effortless

    Looking forward to Android 5 and Nexus 6!

  • varl

    haha dumbass butter doesnt put on weight. Fat doesn’t get stored as fat, only carbs get stored as fat. One day people will learn the truth

    • raj

      FLAGGED !!!

    • Noel

      Lighten up man…we all get the point he was making. Sometimes ppl take things so seriously in here.

    • NeedName

      actually, genius, any excess calories get stored as fat. . . whether that excess caloric intake be from protein, carbohydrates, or lipids. . . stop believin health gurus and study some basic physiology.

    • BDPSU

      ANY excess calories can be converted to fat.

      Who’s the “dumbass” here?

  • raj

    The intention of Google is simple: Enable more devices to be eligible for the new Android version.
    They have succeeded in that
    Now, it is for the OEMs to follow suit

    Dear Sony, Samsung, HTC,
    Kindly update all the eligible devices.

    • Skander

      Google itself does not stick to this by abandoning the 1GB RAM HD Dual Core Galaxy Nexus.
      All marketing bull.

      • raj

        Here we are witnessing a situation where they are not updating 2013 devices…. Forget 2 year old handsets

  • DarxideGarrison

    I sense a big contradiction here. What is the point of Google optimizing KitKat for older devices if they didn’t even support the Galaxy Nexus? And even if KitKat does become available for older devices, how many manufactures would keep upgrading their older devices and risk decreased sales on newer ones?

    • NeedName

      Android OEMs, including google, only support devices for ~18 months. . . thus, this has nothing to do with fragmentation due to EOL. . . more to do with releasing low spec devices with the newer version instead of 2.2

      • DarxideGarrison

        I know about the 18 month limit. But again if Kitkat is allegedly being optimized to run on older lower spec devices, Google should have made an example by updating the Galaxy Nexus considering the Nexus 5 isn’t available for Verizon users!

  • John-Phillip Saayman

    Uh it can run on 512 mb of RAM and the Nexus 10 which has 2 gig can’t even get a bloody transparent bar.

    • Simon Belmont

      Hey. That’s a limitation of the GPU in the SoC in the Nexus 10, not the OS.

      The GPU in the Nexus 10 struggles with transparent hardware overlays, so the performance is very bad. You can’t really blame KitKat for that.

      • BDPSU

        Same for the N4? I’m a little ticked that KitKat on the N4 doesn’t have the transparent bars…they look cool. ;-P

  • chris pinkston

    Its probably more about a good experience on low end future devices more than upgrading older devices.

  • nishantsirohi123

    i hope this comes to the dual core flagships that were launched in the era of of the galaxy s2 (like the lg 2x, 3d, 3d max etc., samsung galaxy r , s advance etc. motorola photon 4g, atrix 1 and 2 , droid x2, bionic etc.)
    that shall do wonders for these devices

  • lazz

    Specs of an iPhone.


    Can Google explain why KitKat on the N4 doesn’t include the transparent status and navigation bars top and bottom? I would think the hardware could handle it.

    That looks like a N4 in the picture above – with the transparency.

  • DanRowinski

    Thanks for completely rewriting my story without a link to it. Appreciate that.