Editorial: What is a Google Nexus Product Anymore?

Yesterday saw Google’s press event for the launch of a number of new products. We saw new Chromecasts, new device protection packages, Chromebooks, and of course, new Nexus products. The Nexus 5x, an evolution of the Nexus 5, and the Nexus 6P were announced. Google’s Nexus line began as a wallet-friendly offering to consumers focused almost entirely around a new version of their Android operating system. Is this still their mission statement, or has this changed?

A Brief History Lesson

Way back in January 2010, in what seems like a completely different era than the one we live in now, the Nexus line of devices was announced by Google, fronted by the Nexus One. This ushered in an age of devices from the Californian giant which suggested a hardware and pure software combination that became the spirit of the Nexus line. Simplistic yet stylish Android software without any carrier bloatware or tinkering, surrounded by material choices and a hardware specifications list containing the best technology the industry had to offer. The driver for Google was not profit here, it was setting a trend in the industry that would see their Android OS gain more popularity with each generation of devices. The cost of devices to consumers was kept low to ensure maximum engagement, but the value add was high. A win-win for the consumer, and the industry alike; delivering great products for great prices, as well as pushing the competition forward in a positive way.

[pullquote align=”right” color=”#FF9900″]”The Nexus 5 took full advantage of the current technology available.”[/pullquote]

Fast forward to 2013 and we can still see the effect in the Nexus 5 launch. The Samsung Galaxy S4 had, earlier in the 2013, a 1080p screen, with 2GB RAM, up to 64GB of storage, and a 13MP camera. The S4 launched at a price point that reached £600 at some retailers. Similarly announced was the HTC One (M7) in the February of 2013 and delivered similar specifications albeit with a Snapdragon 600 chipset, and the inclusion of a 4MP camera sporting “Ultra Pixel” technology. The HTC One’s selling point was the design however. Crafted from aluminium, the body screamed premium, and it’s price point mirrored that, launching at close to £500. Other devices were launched by Apple (the iPhone 5S), Sony (the Z1), and Motorola (the X) around the same time as the Nexus 5 was announced, however many were similar in terms of specifications (the Sony Z1’s camera aside), none got near the Nexus 5 price point, and Google had another ace up their sleeve as well.

Coming in at £299 on launch date, the Nexus 5 took full advantage of the current technology available, delivered a 1080p screen to match its rivals with an 8MP camera, 2GB RAM, a maximum 32GB storage option, and unveiling Android 4.x Kit-Kat to the public. It’s not hard to see why so many people then, and even in 2015, fell for the Nexus 5, seeing it as budget conscious with great specifications that matched or came close to the competition either side of its launch, and having the lure of a brand new operating system.

This was what Google and Nexus fans were used to. Good devices, good prices, new software, and a consistent approach to updates. More often than not the Nexus devices got predominantly good press in the following reviews which only further highlighted the value add these devices could bring. They were a developers best friend also, so there was certainly no shortage of people waiting to crack open the devices and see what could be improved or tinkered with, and making that available to the wider community. This added to the longevity of the device in question and to the mythos of the Nexus line.

The New Nexus?

Almost a year ago now in October 2014, Google announced their next Nexus, cleverly named the Nexus 6. The Nexus 6 would deliver a huge 5.96″ QHD (1440p) display trumping it’s nearest competitors in the size stakes (such as LG’s G3, Sony’s Z3, and Samsung’s Note 4)and continuing the trend of the time that bigger was indeed better. Along with that huge, high-resolution screen came a Quad-core Snapdragon 805 chipset running at 2.7Ghz, with 3GB RAM, 32 and 64GB storage options, and a 13MP camera capable of 4K recording. The HTC One (M8) was announced earlier in that year and was showing its 6 month age by this time, delivering less screen resolution, less RAM, less maximum internal storage, and less camera resolution. Similarly Samsung’s Galaxy S5 also felt a little old after only 6 months due to the Nexus 6, however its optics were on point.

Looking at the specifications, there were similarities to the Nexus 5 in terms of its technological leap year on year, as well as its standing with competitors, on paper. It was at the price point where things started to go wrong. The Nexus 6 launched at £499 for the 32GB version and £549 for the 64GB version. Whereas the Nexus 5 undercut almost all comers, the Nexus 6 sat proudly beside its competitors in the wallet-busting section. In comparison, launched in September 2014, the Apple iPhone 6 Plus cost £619 for the 64GB model, the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 cost around the £575 mark, and the Sony Xperia Z3 cost around the £550 mark. So the Nexus 6 is cheaper, but it’s much closer in terms of the other devices on the market.

Well surely a later version of the software was introduced? Of course, the Nexus 6 came with Android 5.0 Lollipop, with the Nexus 5 updated shortly thereafter. Furthermore, the Nexus 6 got largely slated for poor optics and battery life in the reviews following launch such was the porous nature of the first iteration of Lollipop..

It was perhaps another device launched earlier in the year that hurt Google’s Nexus line most. Leaving aside the marketing faux pas, and the invite system, the Oneplus One, released in April of 2014, seemingly took the Nexus angle and ran with it, delivering a 5.5″ 1080p display, a Snapdragon 801 chipset, 3GB RAM, 64GB of internal storage, and a 13MP camera capable of 4K video recording. It shipped with the customised CyanogenOS based on Android 4.4.2 Kit-Kat which seemingly improved on many, many aspects of stock Android without adding the weight that other OEMs did to their skins. Perhaps the killer however was the price. At a disruptive £269 for the 64GB Sandstone Black model, Oneplus has certainly announced their arrival to the market with a bang.

So with the Lollipop software suffering a number of bugs causing poor battery life (something the Nexus 6 was hung for in reviews), and the Nexus 6 pricing almost doubling for some models from the previous Nexus device, where did that leave them as a symbol of all that was good and pure in Android-based technology and where did they go for their next device in 2015?

Enter, two new Nexus smartphones, the 5X and the 6P. The LG manufactured 5X is an evolution of the Nexus 5 from 2013. A similar 1080p screen, this time at 5.2″, 2GB RAM, and 16 and 32GB internal storage options all remain from the 2013 Nexus, however an improved Snapdragon 808 chipset is delivered, with a 12.3MP camera capable of 4K video recording and a large 1.55µm pixel size for more light is included. The latest Android OS, 6.0 Marshmallow is also included here. The price? For the 16GB model, the price is £339, moving up to £379 for the 32GB model.

The larger device, the Nexus 6 manufactured by Huawei, delivers the same Android 6.0 operating system, this time displayed on a 5.7″ QHD (1440p) screen with 3GB RAM, 32/64/128GB internal storage options, and a 12MP camera capable of 4K video, again with a large 1.55µm pixel size. The price this time runs from £449 for the 32GB model to £579 for the 128GB model. On paper it looks like they’ve kept similar pricing whilst bumping the specifications and choice.

By way of comparison a Samsung Galaxy S6, which is largely considered to have the best camera on any Android device to date, sits at £575 for the 128GB model today, whilst it’s cousins, the Edge and Edge Plus come in at £600 and $670 for the 128GB and the 64GB models respectively.

Those prices for the Nexus 6P stack up against the competition quite well, but they are a far cry from the halcyon days of £300 Nexus devices sporting the latest and greatest aren’t they?

The Future: What is a Google Nexus Product Anymore?

So, as the headline of this editorial asks, is the Nexus line still relevant. The answer is relatively easy. Of course it is. It delivers comparable performance at comparable costs to its competitors. However, as a cutting edge device delivering the very latest hardware with the best Android has to offer sitting atop it and at a price point that attracts the masses, the Nexus line has lost its way somewhat for me.

Looking at the specifications list, there are any number of glaring omissions from the latest devices that detract from the hardware side of the argument. Firstly, despite the supposed increase in battery efficiency promised in Android 6.0, the 5X’s 2700 mAh and the 6P’s 3450 mAh batteries are relatively small considering proceeding devices sporting similar, and the number of pixels the 6P specifically will need to push. Secondly, and intrinsically linked to battery sizes, we’ve got the case for wireless charging again. No Qi, or PMA technologies can be found here, so you won’t be charging your device without the USB C cable. It remains to be seen whether the battery management in Android 6.0 is sufficiently good that it negates the need for charging during the day, but I for one won’t be holding my breath on that front.

Next up we’ve got the cameras. Both the 5X and the 6P sport 12MP camera. Now, it’s not all about megapixels, and we should all know that by now. My worry is in the assertion that there is no need to have optical image stabilisation included in either device due to the increased pixel size providing more light and as such offering a faster shutter speed to help alleviate blur and provide better clarity in low light. This might be the case, and certainly reports from DXOMark suggest it is up there with one of the better cameras on a smartphone, I remain somewhat sceptical. I, like many, remember HTC’s assertion that their 4 Ultra Pixel camera would produce stunning results due to similar technology.

SD Card slot anyone? Well, neither Nexus device offers this. This one is no surprise as Google haven’t been a proponent of an SD Card slot for some time. However, if consumers are looking to save cash with a 16GB Nexus 5X for example, they’ll be struggling on the storage front thanks to that omission.

Resource wise, on the Nexus 5X, you’re looking at 2GB of RAM. Now 2GB of RAM should be enough, especially on stock Android, however we’re seen other devices get bogged down with multi-tasking with in the past with the same RAM options, so it’ll completely depend on Android 6.0 as to whether this is revealed as enough. Then finally we have the chipset choice for the Nexus 6P. The Snapdragon 810 chipset is the subject of many thousands of articles out there, discussing its heat issues and thus its performance throttling. Google and Huawei will no doubt inform users this is a version 2.1 of the chip providing increased GPU performance and improved heat output. Whether that directly relates to improved performance and a reduction in throttling remains to be seen as the reports by ArsTechnica suggest that v2 of the 810 still showed a large amount of throttling under load.

Then we’ve got the price. I can understand how Google can justify this. The cost of sale are no doubt increasing as are the raw material costs for the manufacturing partner. With that in mind, the Nexus 6P (flagship Nexus is you will) is both cheaper than some of its competition and more expensive than others. They sit nicely in that bracket and are of course a viable alternative to them. However, this device in particular might as well be called the Huawei 6P as there is certainly nothing Nexus about it other than the Android 6.0 software, which OEMs are getting faster and faster at rolling out as skins become more stock like anyway.

Am I bitter at the 6P not costing pittance, no, not really. I suppose my feelings could be summed up with the following analogy; It just feels like following your favourite indie band. Consistently delivering great music, and listening to its audience in order to drive their career. Sticking two fingers up to the establishment for years and managing to keep the moral high ground whilst ticking over quite nicely thank you. You then arrive at their latest show to find they’re wearing Pepsi logos on their T-Shirts, have branded baseball caps on, and are singing cover versions of their new record labels’ favourite artists’ work! It’s not wrong, it’s probably a good move, but it leaves you feeling somewhat….empty. A decision then has to be made whether you buy into their increased prices, watered down innovation and ideological shift, or whether you look for the next new kid on the block.

I, choose the latter I’m afraid.

NOTE: All this could change when I actually get hands on with the Nexus 6P and even the 5X, and the smell of new technology fills my nostrils, but I’ll attempt to remain impartial!

About Craig Bradshaw

Tech enthusiast and Editor-in-Chief of MobileTechTalk

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