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What do we expect from the Nexus brand? Is Google still delivering?

We take a look at the Nexus brand, what it is supposed to represent, how it has or hasn't changed and whether it really matters.
By
December 11, 2014
Google Motorola Nexus 6 Hands on Android 5.0 Lollipop -20

On January 5th 2010 Google first introduced the world to the Nexus program, giving developers a reference device for modding, app building and general tinkering. The HTC Nexus One also served as a reference device for OEMs in general, giving them a better idea of what Google felt an Android phone should look and feel like, while also raising the bar when it came to specifications.

One thing the Nexus One wasn’t was ‘cheap’. At $529, the Nexus One was somewhat less expensive than many flagships at the time, but it was far from the low-cost option that the Nexus 4 and Nexus 5 would evolve the line into.

Now it’s 2014 and the Nexus line is represented by two relatively expensive devices (by comparison to last-gen Nexuses) with rather cutting edge specs and screen sizes that aren’t exactly ‘typical’ of the series. We’re also seeing a bigger push when it comes to carrier support with the Nexus 6 heading to several carriers across the globe including the five biggest carriers in the United States. And on top of it all, the Nexus series well-known reputation for quick updates to new versions of Android appears to less relevant now with more OEMs providing reasonably swift Lollipop updates — even Samsung. Hell, even the last bastion of ‘cheap’ Nexus power is officially phasing out, as Google has announced that the Nexus 5 is now out of production.

The latest members of the Nexus family seem to usher in a very different era, and it makes us wonder: what exactly is a Nexus device supposed to be like? Is there a clear and set purpose? What do we as consumers feel a “Google phone” should be like and is Google still delivering what we are looking for?

What is the philosophy behind the Nexus program?

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What draws a consumer to a particular brand over another? Is it the specs, the looks, pricing or something else entirely? Perhaps it’s the company’s philosophy and how well it stacks up with our own ideals.

For example, Samsung fans tend to prefer Samsung because they feel the Korean giant provides some of the best hardware and that its TouchWiz software adds extra value they can’t find with someone else (especially so for Note owners). For HTC fans, it’s likely the company’s dedication to premium design, an attractive UI that adds value without feeling overbloated, or even HTC’s iconic front-facing speakers.

Google has tried different OEMs, different features and different price points, but ultimately the goal has not changed.

Most of these brands have a pretty stable vision for the future that has evolved over the years, but never been dramatically altered. But what about the Nexus program? What is its core vision, and what attracts consumers? This is where things get a bit dicey.

As already mentioned, the HTC Nexus One was created to fulfill some very specific needs: provide a reference platform for OEMs, provide a tinkering platform for devs, bring quick updates to Android, and to fill a niche role for hardcore Google fans looking for a pure Android experience. Since then, Google has tried different OEMs, different features and different price points, but ultimately the goal has not changed. The Nexus 6 is every bit as much of a reference device for developers, OEMs and hardcore Android purists as ever before, and while there were some delays that made Lollipop’s rollout to older Nexuses not as smooth, the updates were still pretty quick — just not necessarily first.

It’s not you, Google — it’s us

Nexus 9-29

While I have a feeling that I’m going to get some flack for saying this, perhaps it isn’t Google that’s the problem. I have heard several comments across the webs from folks that feel that Google is ruining the Nexus program. Some of the common things I hear complaints about include: “OEMs are getting quicker updates than Nexus devices, Google is opening things up to wide for carriers and the Nexus 6 is way too damn big.” While Google is experimenting with some new things (carrier support, bigger screens, etc), how is that different than any previous Nexus product?

In addition to giving us a reference device, Google has often sought to shake up the market in some way with the debut of its Nexus darlings. For its early life (Nexus One and Galaxy Nexus) Google showed the Android world what a high-end pure Android experience was all about. During the era of the Nexus 4 and Nexus 5, Google wished to show us what a pure Android experience that doesn’t break the bank could look like, and as a result we’ve seen several OEMs follow suit with decent spec’d Android devices that don’t cost a fortune. And now Google is returning to the premium side of things once again, while also pushing non-typical display sizes.

Still, even with these changes in sizes and strategy, I have to argue that their overall philosophy largely remains the same.

Okay, but what about carrier meddling?

AT&T Restricted

Okay, so maybe we can look past the fact the Nexus 6 is a giant spec monster that’s much higher priced than its predecessor, but what about carrier meddling? With the exception of the Galaxy Nexus, Google has long stood behind the idea of keeping fairly tight control over the Nexus series and not letting the carriers get in the way of things. With the Nexus 6, however, we’ve seen AT&T brand the Nexus 6 and even put on some of its bloat, SIM lock it and do a few other things that aren’t too Nexus-y. 

I have to admit, I’m right with you here. I feel that, where carrier-branded Nexus 6 units are concerned, Google has essentially merged the rumored Android Silver’s philosophy (creating a brand, working with carriers, etc) with the traditional Nexus philosophy. This means that carrier devices have some limitations and that updates may even be slightly delayed, but at the same time it means that the Nexus program is seeing the widest level of exposure it has ever known.

If you’re upset by the idea of carriers having more control over the fate of the Nexus series, there’s at least a bit of a silver lining in the fact that Google has also worked to ensure that factory images from any Nexus 6 will work with carrier models, and so carrier meddling is actually rather limited. After all, firmware wise, a Nexus 6 is a Nexus 6, regardless of the carrier.

If you're upset by the idea of carriers having more control over the fate of the Nexus series, there's at least a bit of a silver lining in the fact that Google has also worked to ensure that factory images from any Nexus 6 will work with carrier models.

An even bigger point: Even if the carrier-sold Nexus 6 is more akin to the rumored Android Silver than a typical Nexus product, we still have options! If you don’t like the way Google is handling the carrier situation, get an unlocked Nexus 6 and do with it what you will. We vote by our dollars and if Nexus fans avoid carrier versions and go unlocked, Google will take note of this (as will the carriers) and so it’s less likely Google will make any further dramatic changes to the program.

Does it really even matter where the Nexus program is going?

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As long as Google continues to focus on giving developers a solid device for hacking, modding and the like — the Nexus program will continue to serve its true purpose. For those that feel like the Nexus program no longer lines up with what you’re looking for, think long and hard about whether or not that really matters.

Before the Nexus 4 it was much harder to find a handset with stock-like Android, quick updates, decent hardware and a price tag that wouldn’t break the bank. These days, options are much more plentiful. Lollipop seems to be a shifting point for quicker Android updates for flagship devices, and really only LG, HTC and Samsung are hanging onto their very customized UIs with most others moving towards stock-like or semi-stock-like builds of Android. As for low pricing, Motorola and OnePlus are just a few companies working to make budget options more attractive than ever before.

In other words, while the Nexus program still fits in with what many folks are looking for (developers, phablet fans, Android purists that don’t care about pricing), it may no longer be what you are looking for, but we should still be thankful to Google for helping challenge OEM perceptions on pricing, value and the importance of stock — as it has opened up new doors for Android buyers everywhere.

I realize not everyone is going to agree with what I said, and I respect alternative opinions. So how about it, what’s your take on the Nexus program?