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
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.
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