Why we need Nexus phones

An­droid man­u­fac­tur­ers can’t stop muck­ing up An­droid. Here’s why we still need Pro­fes­sor Google to give ev­ery­one an ob­ject les­son in how to make a proper An­droid phone

Tech Advisor - - CONTENTS - DEREK WAL­TER

The Nexus 6P and 5X (see pages 34 to 39) could be the per­fect An­droid phones we’ve been pin­ing af­ter for years. Great build qual­ity, a top-flight cam­era, rapid up­dates, all wrapped to­gether with a pure and un­sul­lied version of An­droid.

It’s es­pe­cially that last item that phone man­u­fac­tur­ers keep fum­bling. You can get an ex­cel­lent cam­era with a new Sam­sung Galaxy S6 or the LG G4. HTC’s all-metal One se­ries has al­ways been a leader in the looks depart­ment (see page 46). And the Moto X lets you build a de­vice to your lik­ing in a near-stock An­droid pack­age (Though how of­ten it stays up to date is an­other mat­ter.)

They are all good phones. But all are sus­cep­ti­ble in one form or an­other to a list of griev­ances. Slow up­dates. Pre­in­stalled apps you can’t get elim­i­nate (from the de­vice maker and car­rier). In­ter­face tweaks that merely change, in­stead of im­prove, the An­droid ex­pe­ri­ence.

Th­ese con­tin­ual prob­lems have con­vinced me that de­spite what oth­ers may say, we des­per­ately need Nexus phones to lead the way. I’m more op­ti­mistic than ever with what Google pro­duced in the Nexus 6P and 5X. Here’s why it still needs to teach ev­ery­one about how it’s sup­posed to be done.

A Touch of the Wiz

We’ve railed plenty of times here about third-party soft­ware. Sam­sung’s TouchWiz and the cus­tom in­ter­faces from LG and HTC are easy tar­gets. But why is that one of our con­stant gripes?

Of­ten they don’t really add any value. Most of th­ese cus­tom user in­ter­faces un­nec­es­sar­ily change the con­fig­u­ra­tion of the set­tings, home screen, and other fea­tures. Yes, An­droid is all about open­ness and cus­tomi­sa­tion, and giv­ing ev­ery­one the free­dom to do this. But they should ac­tu­ally make things bet­ter.

To be fair, some­times they do. Sam­sung adds some use­ful tweaks to TouchWiz. For ex­am­ple, there’s a handy check­box in the drop-down menu to turn on auto-bright­ness. You can also cus­tomise which set­tings are at the ready from this spot (pic­tured right).

TouchWiz also lets you uninstall an app from the home screen – some­thing An­droid fi­nally added with Marsh­mal­low. Phone makers can, and should, add th­ese kinds of things if they make the ex­pe­ri­ence bet­ter. But they don’t need to mess with the way but­tons and switches look, or turn tog­gles into check­boxes just be­cause they can. There’s no need to switch up the fonts and colours or copy iPhone fea­tures like rounded app icons and a Par­al­lax wall­pa­per (look­ing at you, Sam­sung).

Bloat­ware: still non­sense

While the bloat­ware sit­u­a­tion has some­what im­proved, it’s still rather ter­ri­ble. Take this ex­am­ple: on the Galaxy Note 5, you can’t in­stall Word, Ex­cel or Pow­erPoint from the Play Store. You have to get them from Sam­sung’s own Galaxy Apps mar­ket.

It’s one of those part­ner­ships that is great for Sam­sung and Mi­crosoft, but ter­ri­ble for you. That’s why when I first fired up my Note 5, I had to con­stantly tell OneDrive to stop pes­ter­ing me to back up my pho­tos. Then I had to get rid of Flip­board Brief­ing, which takes over an en­tire home screen. It’s ridicu­lous that the stan­dard pro­ce­dure for set­ting up a new An­droid phone is to spend an hour de­bloat­ing all the apps and ser­vices you don’t want. Yes, Ap­ple in­cludes apps you prob­a­bly don’t want, but at least all you have to do is drag those into a folder and they’re out of your way.

This is an­other place where OEMs need to look to Google – the com­pany re­cently sliced out Google+, Play Books and News­stand from the list of re­quired apps. We need fewer pre­in­stalled ap­pli­ca­tions, not more.

At least Mo­torola has dis­tin­guished it­self by stick­ing to the stock An­droid in­ter­face,

and making its phones avail­able di­rectly, with­out car­rier bloat (or price over­head). But the yin to that yang has been a string of bad cam­eras, with the ex­cep­tion be­ing the good-but-not-great Moto X Style. We’ve said it plenty of times: leave An­droid alone.

Up­date mad­ness

The fa­tal flaw of the An­droid ecosys­tem is the un­will­ing­ness of OEMs and car­ri­ers to de­liver timely An­droid up­dates. Lol­lipop has been out for a year, but it’s only on a quar­ter of the An­droid phones world­wide.

The sit­u­a­tion is bet­ter with flag­ship de­vices, as most have been up­dated to Lol­lipop. But it will be sev­eral weeks, if not months, be­fore Marsh­mal­low comes to your non-Nexus phone.

It’s frus­tra­tions like this that send peo­ple back to the iPhone. When Ap­ple pushes out an iOS up­date, it’s avail­able for your de­vice that day. Yes, Google has wisely moved its apps to the Play Store and a ton of fea­tures to Google Play Ser­vices, which it can di­rectly con­trol and eas­ily up­date. But key func­tions, such as Marsh­mal­low’s new Doze bat­tery-saving fea­ture, come only in new OS up­dates. And who knows when you’ll get one.

The se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion is also still shaky. A re­cent study from Cam­bridge points out that al­most 90 per­cent of An­droid phones are vul­ner­a­ble, with the up­date bot­tle­neck of OEMs and car­ri­ers chiefly to blame. This is an­other case where Google needs to lead the way at shoring up your phone’s de­fences. Google has pledged monthly se­cu­rity up­dates to its Nexus phones, which are sold un­locked with­out car­rier in­ter­fer­ence. If this model proves suc­cess­ful, it could fur­ther nudge the in­dus­try in the right di­rec­tion.

A great cam­era and build qual­ity are a must

Last year’s Nexus 6 was a dis­ap­point­ment for its ex­ces­sive size and bad cam­era. That’s a huge pain point for buy­ers: the cam­era is usu­ally at the top of the list of wants when I talk to peo­ple about smart­phones. I have two fam­ily mem­bers who just switched over to the iPhone for that rea­son alone. Even though the Galaxy S6 and its sib­lings have a cam­era that’s ar­guably as good or bet­ter than the iPhone 6s, it’s the per­cep­tion of the iPhone’s pho­to­graphic su­pe­ri­or­ity that res­onates with buy­ers.

The same goes with finger­print scan­ners. When peo­ple see Touch ID for the first time, they’re wowed. Finger­print scan­ners are on Sam­sung’s top phones, but we are only fi­nally get­ting na­tive sup­port in An­droid Marsh­mal­low. By all ac­counts Nexus Im­print is light­ning fast, which should serve as a model for how this fea­ture out to be im­ple­mented. That’s es­pe­cially crit­i­cal with the re­boot of Google Wal­let to An­droid Pay.

The only hard­ware fea­ture Nexus phones are lack­ing is wire­less charg­ing. That’s not on the iPhone yet, so out­side of Sam­sung en­thu­si­asts, it’s prob­a­bly not en­tered the pub­lic con­scious­ness as a must-have. But a great cam­era is. Finger­print sen­sors should be there soon. Nexus phones must be lead­ers in im­ple­ment­ing core hard­ware com­po­nents, but qual­ity mat­ters. They have to look and feel good. Pickup trucks are use­ful, but ev­ery­one gets ex­cited about sports cars and per­for­mance ve­hi­cles.

The right per­for­mance for the price

Google really seems to have nailed the price-to-per­for­mance ra­tio this time around. The Nexus 5X is a bar­gain at £339, es­pe­cially if it turned out to be as good a phone as the orig­i­nal Nexus 5.

And the 6P is well worth the £449. The Nexus brand needs to get back to what it stood for in the past: good hard­ware, timely An­droid up­dates, and a com­pet­i­tive price. The in­ter­face and fea­ture set of stock An­droid makes it more com­pet­i­tive than ever. Google must show oth­ers the way.

Be­sides, there are plenty of cheap phones out there, like the rather good Moto G. And Sam­sung is in iPhone ter­ri­tory with its Galaxy S6 and Note line that starts at £600. Nexus should still oc­cupy that mid­dle ground – ex­cel­lent, stock An­droid phones at a price that won’t break the bank.

Also, with Nexus Pro­tect, Google is fi­nally catching up to Ap­ple when it comes to cus­tomer ser­vice. The big ad­van­tage of an iPhone is that you can walk into an Ap­ple Store any­time and get sup­port. If more peo­ple feel like there’s help on the line, buy­ing a phone with­out a bricks-and-mor­tar store might not be so scary.

Yes, we still need Nexus

No­body is hit­ting all of th­ese points ex­cept for the Nexus line. Mo­torola comes close, but with the ex­cep­tion of the Moto X Style, Mo­torola phones have had a con­sis­tently bad cam­era. And the Style’s lack of a finger­print reader makes us­ing An­droid Pay a pain. Now Mo­torola is hav­ing is­sues with soft­ware up­dates, to boot (the com­pany ditched out on any more up­dates for the 2015 Moto E, which is only nine months old).

Not only do we need the Nexus line more than ever, but we need it to be bet­ter than ever. We shouldn’t have to give up pre­cious fea­tures or great cam­era qual­ity just to get a clean in­ter­face and timely soft­ware up­dates. Google must make Nexus the bench­mark for how An­droid phones should be, the ‘as­pi­ra­tional’ brand that Pixel is for the Chrome op­er­at­ing sys­tem, be­cause pure An­droid is now good enough to be more than just for de­vel­op­ers.

Last year’s Nexus 6 was a dis­ap­point­ment for its ex­ces­sive size and bad cam­era. That’s a huge pain point for buy­ers: the cam­era is usu­ally at the top of the list of wants

Sam­sung’s drop-down set­tings menu brings some use­ful tweaks, but it’d be prefer­able if it didn’t go over­board with them

The data was col­lected by Google dur­ing a seven-day pe­riod that ended on 5 Oc­to­ber. The OS ver­sions are tal­lied when de­vices ac­cess the Google Play Store

You can’t get Word on a Galaxy Note 5

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