The Unrooted Enigma: Why is the Nexus Losing its Old Fame?

The Unrooted Enigma: Why is the Nexus Losing its Old Fame?

Exploring one of the biggest pities of Android

Every now and then, I stumble upon the rare sight of a Nexus user in real life. This doesn’t happen often, but when it does, I quickly pose questions about their ROM and kernel. But so far I always found that they are, in fact, not even rooted.

To us at XDA, hobbyists and amateurs of all things Android, this can sound odd. Android fan communities typically treat Nexus phones as the Holy Grail of customization, the power user’s preferred destination for a paradise resort of custom ROMs, kernels, and modifications. Because of the amount of time we spend in our phone’s recovery backing up and flashing all kinds of stuff in our phones, and because of the Nexus’ reputation as the perfect device to experiment on, we often assume that if someone buys into a Nexus, they do so out of a feeling of deep respect for the platform, or a desire to customize to their heart’s content. Last Nexus user I met in real life, however, had not even changed the stock wallpaper!

Now, I don’t mean the comments above nor the ones coming below to serve as polarizing elitism. Rather, as an exploration of why some users wouldn’t root a Nexus, of all phones… and why they should know more about it. If you came to this page from somewhere else, keep in mind that these kind of articles are primarily aimed at XDA audiences.

Many people do not need root, custom ROMs, or Kernels, we know that much — to the more casual crowd, the word “root” alone evokes images of bricked phones and voided warranties (nevermind that returning the device to its original state and relocking the bootloader usually does the trick). There is some inertia that needs to be broken in order for one to root a phone, an initial fear of sorts, and depending on your phone and carrier, a small learning curve too. Luckily, the Nexus phones are the easiest phones to unlock and root. One might argue that things such as Android Pay will suddenly stop working, but the a recent systemless root (as well as custom ROMs like Chroma) allow for the best of both worlds.

How often do you see a popular Nexus review touch on development?

Yet all of us at XDA beat those initial fears and dove into the true world of Android customization. We know the advantages, control, and potential, and surely many self-proclaimed enthusiasts would enjoy it too. Why don’t they take the leap, particularly on Nexus phones?

For the answer, you mustn’t look further than your RSS feed or youtube subscriptions; when is the last time you saw a popular Nexus review that touched on development?

The ones that do only scratch the surface with a passing comment, and in many cases it’s clear the reviewers or journalists themselves haven’t and wouldn’t even root that phone. Yet to us and many more, a Nexus is primarily bought because of its openness and potential, not just because it’s running stock Android. Within the more mainstream side of the blogosphere, this seems to be the prime differentiator between a Nexus and a regular Android phone, but a locked down Nexus would make many of us reconsider the purchase.

So while to us a Nexus means software freedom, to those who consume media and advice from non-savvy enthusiasts, or those afraid of delving into fastboot, the Nexus has a different meaning. Many simply choose Nexus phones because of stock Android running on decent hardware, and a few years back, because of the price. I’ve known many people that, for example, bought a Nexus 5 simply because it was an amazing deal. They didn’t modify anything at a level deeper than their launcher, but even as a flashaholic I reckon the Nexus 5 was a smart purchase regardless of developer support.

Once you unlock your Nexus’ potential, you will find a rich world of modifications

Yet these same people has complaints about their phones — and how couldn’t they? The Nexus 5, for example, didn’t have an impressive battery life. The Nexus 6’s notification light was not on by default. The Nexus 5X came with underwhelming performance due to the Snapdragon 808 among other factors. So on and so forth.  All of these things can be frustrating, yet they can all be mitigated, solved or improved upon through modifications with root or custom ROMs & kernels. Once you unlock your Nexus’ potential, you will find a rich world of modifications, from enabling speakers for surround sound to adding new features like double-tap to wake. Most modifications are not even exclusive to the Nexus line, but these phones typically see faster and stabler releases.20160101_101415

My Nexus 5X was frankly disappointing during my first month with it. Performance was simply not there, as it felt slower than my old Nexus 5. Battery life, too, was not much of an improvement (and while Doze is nice to have, the older Nexii retroactively received it too, so it’s not much of an advantage excluding the sensor hub). If you followed some of my articles on the Nexus 5X, you might remember I didn’t quite expect this. I was disappointed, but after trying out some new ROMs and Kernels (Chroma, PureNexus, Elemental X, Phasma) and playing around with modifications and settings, I realized I wasn’t wrong — the Nexus 5X’s does have a really capable hardware package, it’s just misutilized by default!

Many issues are easily solvable, but unknowing users feel at the mercy of OTAs.

The same can be said about many other issues, some transient and some permanent. Unlocking your phone’s bootloader and modifying the software to your needs allows you to overcome many annoyances, from wakelocks to legitimate bugs.

Not everyone needs to fix them, but most surely do complain about them. We see this online all the time, self-proclaimed power users who complain in forums and boards about various issues they can’t resolve, left at the mercy of their OEM’s OTAs.

In spirit, Nexus phones are more than just a nice phone with stock Android. Every year I hear the historic tidbit of its developer-platform origin less and less. On one side, I am glad to see a good phone line-up – arguably, the line-up Android needs to be good – get a lot of positive attention. But at the same time, seeing reviews completely ignore the Nexus’ biggest strength brings me some frustration. I know many people who gave their Nexus a chance, who were amazed by the sheer freedom of the platform, tried all sorts of ROMs, and even made their own. I know people whose lives changed for the better because of their journey through the deeper levels of Android.

Apart from this Nexus Effect, having full control of your phone allows you to fix issues, optimize performance and battery life, add extra features and customization options, and have a generally better experience. All of this comes with a learning curve, and many might not have the time to spare. But once you get rolling, you get to understand why many people are in-fact “flashaholics”, and why it’s not just a joke people throw around. At the end of the day, the Nexus has a special meaning to us at XDA, an aura surrounding the line-up that no other phone has. 

Everyone should at least be aware of that, and its potential. This is ultimately the point of this piece: in the age of the premium feel and fancy gimmicks, the Nexus spirit seems to be declining in many communities. The phone still retains its developer-platform identity, particularly among actual developers. The biggest pity is that media outlets increasingly ignore the line-up’s virtues to focus on the top of the Nexus iceberg (stock Android), and in turn, new users seldom know how deep it goes. I often receive PMs requesting help with rooting, and many times these come from Nexus users — nothing makes me happier than to help those willing to take a deeper dive into Android. That’s why at XDA, we strive to show what the community has to offer, be it apps, ROMs, or mods. And these particular Google phones are close to our heart because they are what tie all of it together… they are called Nexus for a reason!

About author

Mario Tomás Serrafero
Mario Tomás Serrafero

Mario developed his love for technology in Argentina, where a flagship smartphone costs a few months of salary. Forced to maximize whatever device he could get, he came to know and love XDA. Quantifying smartphone metrics and creating benchmarks are his favorite hobbies. Mario holds a Bachelor's in Mathematics and currently spends most of his time classifying cat and dog pictures as a Data Science graduate student.