As we cruise toward one of our favorite times of year, where we see the final release of a new version of Android and some fancy hardware to accompany it, we like to do a little roundtable of our thoughts on the upcoming announcements. The editors here at Android Central have deep thoughts on everything Android-related, but new Nexuses are definitely at the front of our minds right now.
We're going to look back at past Nexus launches, where Nexus fits in the Android world today, and of course what we're expecting from this year's phones.
The definition of 'Nexus' has changed a bit over the past few years. Or maybe it hasn't. What does it mean to you?
Phil Nickinson: Google's phone. OK, that's a little bit of a cop-out. Because that means Nexus really is whatever Google wants it to mean. Back in the day maybe it was really "developer device." But while that's definitely not the case now, I'm still not sure it's truly a consumer device. Or maybe it's just in that weird in-between state that so many phones are in now. Decent specs, mid-range price.
Alex Dobie: I think there've been two different types of Nexus. Firstly, you've got the developer devices that move the platform forward in some way, like the Nexus 9 with its 64-bit processor (which, let's face it, would've been a better consumer device with a Snapdragon SoC), or the Galaxy Nexus with its high-DPI screen, or the Nexus S with NFC. Then you've got devices that get released because Google just wants to sell a phone or tablet — things like the Nexus 7 (2013), Nexus 6 or Nexus 10 that don't include any groundbreaking new stuff. As a brand, the perks for consumers are clear: No waiting on upgrades, no software bloat, and the ability to buy unlocked without any carrier shenanigans.
Russell Holly: For me, Nexus has always been Google's guiding hand for the next thing Android should be doing or including. It's what Google thinks the mobile world should look like, and it's also a good non-emulator target for developers. I wouldn't go so far as to call any one Nexus phone a developer phone, but at the same time it's usually a great place for developers to start. That didn't really make anything more clear.
Andrew Martonik: Sure the "definition" may have changed from an enthusiast perspective, but from Google's perspective I think what "Nexus" means has always been pretty fluid. Each iteration of Nexus has been about pushing the Android world forward for that year it's available, whether that's with a certain design, feature, price, spec or just whole idea for what an Android phone should represent. Of course a Nexus always represents Google's vision of hardware and software designed for one another and working together, which in itself tries to guide the industry.
We've had six iterations of Nexus phone. Which one stands out the most for you?
Phil: For me it was the original Nexus One. And some of that is just a matter of circumstance. I'd just started this job full-time a few weeks earlier. It was one of my first hands-ons at my first CES. It was what I took on my first trip to Mobile World Congress. First phone for a custom ROM.
So, yeah. Pretty much like my first child.
Alex: For me, it comes down to which Nexus I ended up using the most during its time. And I used the absolute crap out of the Galaxy Nexus. Ice Cream Sandwich was a huge change from the Android we'd known up to that point. And although it was a plastic-bodied gadget, the new visual style and high-res screen made it seem like a futuristic phone. The GNex also got the first shot at Jelly Bean, a hugely important release for performance and fluidity that made it seem like a new phone all over again. And it's that which kept me using it over more up-to-date hardware in 2012.
Russell: The Nexus that stood out the most for me was the Galaxy Nexus. Samsung's partnership with Google lead to some unique thoughts for design, and really pushed Google to focus on building a consumer product and not a cool nerd toy that made phone calls, which as it turns out was a lot harder for this company than it probably should have been. It was the first Nexus phone I felt was worth recommending to people who weren't techy people.
Andrew: Though my favorite Nexus for the time was probably the Galaxy Nexus, I'd say the one that stands out most for me is the Nexus 4. The Nexus 4 kicked things up significantly in terms of design, specs and features, but for me the most important parts of the launch were the price and direct-to-consumer sales through Google Play.
Google stumbled at first with sales and distribution, to be certain, but offering a great phone at (for the time) a seriously impressive price for anyone to buy unlocked and put their SIM in was really important. We can see the fruits of that experiment now with subsequent Nexus releases.
No phone is perfect, but was there a particular Nexus phone that seemed to be a big misstep?
Phil: The Galaxy Nexus was an odd one. Start with the name. It's the only Nexus phone to align itself with its manufacturer that was. On one hand it makes sense — that's right when Samsung's Galaxy line was really starting to take off, and chances are there as some money at play in the decision to include that branding. But it also was the first Nexus phone that started to copy the hype of other mainstream devices — and then failing to live up to it. Then there was the whole thing about the Sprint version, and updates, and it basically turned into a bit of a nerd mess.
Alex: For me, the most disappointing Nexus wasn't a phone, it was the original Nexus 7 tablet. That thing was great for about a month, but I've yet to speak to anyone whose 2012 Nexus 7 didn't turn into a bag of performance issues and software weirdness with time. Successive updates helped things out eventually, but by then we had the (far superior) 2013 model.
A close second: The Nexus Q. I've still got that big useless orb sitting behind me as I write this.
Russell: The Nexus 5 didn't feel like a Nexus to me. There was nothing special about the hardware, nothing groundbreaking like the previous Nexus phones. It was Google's first solid effort in selling and offering support for a phone entirely on their own, and it felt like a sad iterative bump over the Nexus 4. The nearly instant shutter that was revealed with the previous generation was gone, the rubbery exterior wasn't all that great, and the only thing anyone ever says about the phone was how great it was "for the price" instead of any one killer feature.
Andrew: I, too, have to pick the Galaxy Nexus here. The launch was muddied and not very consumer-facing, the partnership with Samsung that led to actually having "Galaxy" in the product name was confusing, and the extremely poor worldwide distribution really took the wind out of its sails.
The Verizon version of the phone was a complete failure, if I have to be honest, and it severely limited the ability of anyone in the U.S. to get ahold of the unlocked model as well. (Not to mention the release of a Sprint model some seven months later.) The situation wasn't much better elsewhere in the world, where distribution was horrible, pricing was amazingly inconsistent, and nobody really knew where to get one or who'd support it after purchase.
Nexus phones have never had a huge market share, but neither are they 'developer Phones' any more. Are they still relevant?
Phil: The middle is a crowded space these days, with lots of big players. And the Nexus line maybe lives somewhere between there and the high end, though with a much simpler software scheme. Are these mid-range phones? Are these "beta" platforms for the Android software? All of the above, maybe. Or maybe they are still a developer-type device — nothing else is as easily tinkered with and reverted to working form, with readily available factory images. (Thanks, fastboot oem unlock!)
Alex: So long as Google is willing to deploy Nexuses within the notoriously difficult U.S. carrier system, they'll be more than "developer phones." If Google only wanted to sell basic hardware for app development, it could do that. (In fact, it did do that with the ADP1 and ADP2 dev phones way back when.) As for relevance, they're never going to challenge the big names like Samsung, LG and even HTC. Instead, I think, it's more about putting Android and Google out there as a consumer-facing brand — and making pure Android, which is a great experience for normal folks as well as nerds, available to the public at large.
Russell: As Google demonstrated with the Nexus 6, there's something about using a big phone we haven't quite figured out yet. Google's efforts to make a large phone easier to use through Material Design, a visual platform that modifies itself to whatever screen size you are using, wasn't quite enough. There's still something missing in that experience, and because the Nexus of this past year didn't properly solve any one thing it's easy to dismiss its relevance. I think with this coming release we'll see Google get back to solving problems with their hardware partners, and that will help everyone see the relevance again.
Andrew: I most certainly think that Nexus phones are still relevant, even if they may not have a large market share or mind share in the grand scheme of Android phones. As noted in the first question, I feel Nexus phones still work to push the Android industry in a certain way that fits Google's vision. But even on their own as a single (or in the case of this year, two) phone release they still stand as solid devices. Even if they're not industry-leading in their specs or price, they can still be relevant as another solid phone choice.
Nexus phones have never really been the best in the camera department, though they have gotten better in the last couple of models. What are your expectations this time around?
Phil: I admit, I'm jaded. I've been promised too much, too many times, from too many Nexus phones. That's not to say the last few have been horrible — the Nexus 5 grew into a decent shooter, and the Nexus 6 was OK in its own right — the damned thing's just too big. What'll really be interesting is what happens if indeed we get a pair of phones this year. Will we have to sacrifice camera quality in one for features from another? Or am I just borrowing trouble there?
Alex: Don't listen to Russell and Phil. The fact that LG seems to have gotten its (very proprietary) laser autofocus tech into a Nexus is enough to give me hope. Huawei has a patchier track record in imaging, but remember this is also the company behind the Honor 6 Plus and its crazy dual-camera, super-low-light tech. I think Google is experienced enough to navigate any licensing issues, and that Russell and Phil will be sharing amazing photos from their Nexus 5X and Nexus 6Ps not long after this article goes live.
Russell: I have zero expectations for the camera on the next Nexus hardware. I think Google is fighting against forces it can't control, against closed source and expensive camera software, and as a result the Nexus line will never have one of the best cameras in the lineup. I would love to be wrong, but there's a good chance the cameras on these phones will once again be just OK.
Andrew: I'm optimistic that Google is continuing to focus on improving Nexus cameras, but my standards for what defines a "good" camera on a Nexus are pretty low. The Nexus 5 and 6 can both take good pictures, but they're still far from the experience you get on other leading phones of the past two years, particularly in speed and consistency. Working within the constraints of wanting open source camera firmware and not paying for the best camera software tech out there hurts it, and we'll just have to see how far they've come with another year.
Besides a decent camera, what are you looking for most in the new Nexus phone(s)?
Phil: Again, that's the big question if we do get two phones. Is having fingerprint scanning capability built into the Android source code that big a deal? Or maybe it's just about having all the new bells and whistles in a single platform, long before most other phones will ever get them. The real question for me is how long I'll use the new Nexus(es). Will it (they) last me through the year? Will it (they) be supplanted by something else before then?
Alex: It's been a long time since I've been able to use a Nexus as my daily driver. So aside from a camera to match what's happening elsewhere in the high-end world, I want battery life that's acceptable to a normal human (hi Nexus 5), and a screen that isn't terrible in daylight and in the dark (sup Nexus 6).
Russell: I want Google to crush performance and battery life. We're looking at a generation of phones coming up with 4GB of RAM, insane processors for mobile devices, 2K displays, and well over 3,000mAh batteries in same cases, yet the overall performance and battery life struggles to keep up with what Apple can manage with half the hardware.
I don't want the next Nexus to be smoother and faster than most other Android phones that probably will get you through a day. I want an amazing user experience that will without a doubt get me from the beginning of the day to the end.
Andrew: I want to see something that supports and runs Android 6.0 impeccably, and puts that new software out there supported by the hardware features and design that people actually want. Fingerprint sensors will be a welcomed addition, but we also want a phone that feels nice and won't feel like you're compromising using it just to get the new software. In the end I'd love to see Nexuses return to more reasonable pricing as well, somewhere closer to what the Nexus 5 debuted at, but I'm not super confident that'll be the case.
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Andrew was an Executive Editor, U.S. at Android Central between 2012 and 2020.