The Nexus Compromise
If you’ve been a fan of Android for any length of time, at some point you’ve likely had to decide between two categories of devices for your next purchase: a Nexus device, and something else. You’ve looked up spec comparison sheets, read professional reviews, and browsed forums for user impressions. There are many positives to choosing the Nexus; in fact, many would argue it is the single best choice among the crowded field of flagship Android devices, period. However, there are also some negative aspects of the Nexus line that aren’t frequently brought into the discussion. As 2015 continues, it is becoming more important to touch on these aspects in order to make a better point of comparison, and what they might mean moving forward.
A helpful place to start is to define what being a “Nexus” device really means. Google’s vision of Android is one that is open, clean, and customizable; at its core, the Nexus line has always been just that. From the Google Store, it is sold both SIM and bootloader unlocked, with no carrier or OEM customizations on the front-facing software. It serves as the launch device to introduce new versions of Android to the public, and as such, comes loaded with Google’s suite of applications and services, as well as Google’s design language, front and center. In the same vein, it is also among the first to receive OS updates, directly from Google, and is guaranteed to be kept current for at least 18 months. It can also be seen as a “developer” device, which allows a clean testbed for developers to code their applications on, however it is not strictly meant for developers only. Google has, at least for the last couple of years, marketed the Nexus towards consumers as well: they are sold in carrier stores and big box retailers, often offered on-contract, often offer very high-end specs, and are priced comparatively with other high-end flagship devices. Google has even started to release TV commercials promoting them upon release. Indeed, the line between the Nexus as a “developer” and “consumer” device is being blurred, seemingly more every release cycle. At the bare minimum, a Nexus device is simply Google’s take on Android; no more, no less.
In a world of carrier customized and controlled devices, application “bloatware” becoming more and more out of control, and delayed updates on flagship devices due to the nature of both the OEM and carrier handling the update process, a Nexus device sounds like a no-brainer, at least on paper. In practice, at least up to this point, it is more of a mixed bag. Certain key reasons why one might choose a Nexus often compromises the user experience of the device. The most obvious is the software experience: being the first to have the brand new version of Android also means that the user often serves as the “beta” tester for said new Android version. A lot of developers just aren’t quick to update their apps for compatibility. And while Google is usually on-point about providing quick fixes for major, Android-breaking bugs, sometimes it takes them a little longer to get things in order, as users are now seeing with 5.0 Lollipop. The complaints of Lollipop, on both Nexus and non-Nexus devices alike, are many, including a device-crippling memory leak that Google is seemingly having trouble completely fixing.
Even if Google were to release an extremely polished version of Android right off the bat, with hardly any major bugs, the premise of the Nexus line itself often leads to major compromises. As the device is unlocked, factory images of the system are freely and openly posted for anyone to download and unpack. This not only includes the Android OS itself, but may also contain system drivers, firmwares, cellular radio software, WiFi, Bluetooth, and GPS software, etc. All of these software “bits” are owned by the many different companies that manufacturer the chips found inside the device, and as such, Google needs to make sure that they have the legal authority to package and distribute such software (this, in fact, has led to Google removing and reposting factory image and binary files for some devices in the past). As a Nexus device adheres to being open, Google will usually try to not license or distribute specific software from companies that do not agree to their proprietary bits being used in this fashion.
Ultimately, what all of this legalese means for the consumer is that certain underlying software technologies that other OEM flagships contain will be limited in nature or function, or not at all included on the Nexus. For instance, an OEM flagship device might contain some enhanced Bluetooth functionality that Google will not offer or support on the Nexus line, even if it contains the exact same Bluetooth chip inside. A specific example of this is the Bluetooth MAP profile; this allows Bluetooth devices to exchange text messages, and up until very recently had been excluded. This is also one of the reasons why the camera experience on Nexus devices is often seen as poor or underperforming compared to other flagships. In essence, a camera is both the physical hardware sensor used to capture the image, as well as the underlying image processing software that is used to construct and process the image. A lot of the great underlying image processing software that powers other major flagships is also closed source, and is therefore unable to be implemented in a Nexus.
The distinction between a carrier controlled, flagship OEM device and a Nexus device is an important one, and ultimately, a lot of users will opt for the Nexus regardless of its shortcomings. And while there are a lot of things Google could do to make their Nexus devices more attractive from a user experience standpoint, some of these shortcomings are simply the negative side effects of offering a truly open device. They are the very definition of a compromise. It is a very good thing, though, that consumers do have that choice. After all, having a choice is what it means to be a fan of Android.