The Galaxy S III is the highest-selling Android phone, but much of the geeky buzz is around the Nexus 4 – and the Galaxy Nexus before it. Nexus devices are special because they don’t have some of Android’s biggest problems.
These problems include a lack of official updates, manufacturer-created custom interfaces that slow things down and detract from the experience, and bloatware preinstalled by manufacturers and carriers.
What’s a Nexus Device?
Google started the Nexus program with the Nexus One, which wasn’t as successful as they’d hoped. They also released the Nexus S, which was not extremely popular. The program started picking up steam with the Galaxy Nexus phone, the popular Nexus 7 tablet, and now the Nexus 4 smartphone, which was sold out for months after being introduced.
Nexus devices are designed by Google and sold directly on Google’s Play Store, although they’re manufactured by other hardware manufacturers (LG makes the Nexus 4, ASUS makes the Nexus 7, and Samsung makes the Nexus 10.) Nexus devices are Google’s official reference and developer platform. Google’s Android engineers develop the software for Nexus devices and are responsible for releasing updates.
With other Android devices, manufacturers work on their own software. For example, Samsung is responsible for rolling out updates to the Samsung Galaxy S III, and they’re nowhere near as fast as Google is. They also don’t support devices for as long.
Nexus devices also allow easy bootloader-unlocking, which makes it possible to install custom ROMs and root the device very easily. They are intended for developers, after all.
Timely Android Updates
When a new version of Android comes out, it’s tested on these Nexus devices and Google immediately updates them with the new version of Android. If you have a Nexus 4, you can rest easy knowing you’ll get first access to new versions of Android. You won’t have to wait 6 months for your device’s manufacturer and carrier to roll it out, nor will you have to install a community-supported ROM that may not work properly with all your hardware.
When Android 5.0 is released, Nexus devices will receive it immediately. It won’t ever appear on most of the devices people currently own, and it probably won’t even appear on many new phones and tablets until 6 months later
With another Android device, your device may be outdated from the moment it leaves the store and never receive an update. Google now offers access to development releases of Android to manufacturers so they can roll out updates quicker, but this doesn’t seem to have helped. Smartphones and tablets are still launching with Android 4.1 today, even though Android 4.2 has been out for more than three months.
The Android Update Alliance, announced in 2011 to ensure all Android devices would receive updates for 18 months, was never mentioned after its announcement, even though many Android manufacturers signed on. Google and Android manufacturers made a promise, and promptly forgot all about it.
For more information about the Android update situation, read Why Your Android Phone Isn’t Getting Operating System Updates and What You Can Do About It.
Pure Android, No Skins or Bloatware
Nexus devices also offer a “pure Android” or “vanilla Android” experience. They run Android as Google’s developers intended it, not as software engineers at Samsung, HTC, or other manufacturers intended it. Many people run Cyanogenmod on devices from other manufacturers simply to get a more vanilla Android-like experience on their hardware.
This means that you won’t find any preinstalled NASCAR apps or other junk apps carriers and manufacturers are currently adding to their phones. These apps are installed in the system area and eat up storage space, even after you disable them.
You also won’t find skins like Samsung’s TouchWiz or HTC’s Sense (notorious for slowing things down and eating up more battery life) on these devices. These custom skins often hide Android’s best features, like Google Now and the multitasking menu.
Some people may prefer these skins, so this is a matter of taste. However, manufacturers don’t allow people to disable these skins and use vanilla Android. The only way you can do so is by installing a custom ROM like Cyanogenmod.
Price has also become a factor. In North America, smartphones are typically sold on-contract and are very expensive if purchased off-contract. ($649 for the an off-contract iPhone, and much more if you want more storage on your iPhone).
Unlike most phones, Nexus phones are sold off-contract for very reasonable prices. The Nexus 4 starts at $299 off-contract, and it’s composed of fairly high-end hardware. If you want to avoid getting locked into a contract – for example, to use a prepaid carrier or just to shop around for the best service – these phones are a great deal.
It’s a shame there are so few other reasonable options for buying a high-quality phone off-contract.
Android Manufacturers Have Dropped the Ball
The reason Nexus devices are so compelling is because Android manufacturers have dropped the ball. They offer devices running outdated versions of Android, regularly drop support from fairly recent devices, and are very slow to roll out updates. Their phones are packed with bloatware and custom skins that can’t be disabled. They don’t offer reasonable off-contract prices for people who don’t want to be locked into a contract with their carrier.
Nexus devices aren’t perfect. The Nexus 4 doesn’t have the longest battery life, the most storage, or the best camera. It doesn’t have LTE, which may be important to you. It has a glass back, which doesn’t inspire the most confidence. But it does have the best Android software experience.
If you want better hardware, you’ll have to compromise on software.
Android should be a vibrant platform with a variety of hardware choices. But, for many Android geeks who have been burned in the past by bloatware, bad custom skins, and lack of support, Nexus devices are the only option.
Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.
- Published 03/5/13