Dispatches from the Nexus


— 5:16 PM on March 28, 2013

This past summer, the power button my Palm Pre started misbehaving. At last, I had an excuse to replace the aging handset with something better. There were myriads of options, including the Samsung Galaxy S III, which was the new Android hotness at the time. I'd actually been testing the S III for an article I was working on, and my time with it ultimately guided me to a different model: Samsung's own Galaxy Nexus.

Yep. Several weeks with the latest and greatest smartphone prompted me to buy an older model released more than six months earlier. The primary reason? As a Nexus device, the Galaxy Nexus gets the latest OS releases right away. I'd watched Samsung's own Galaxy Tab languish with an older version of Android as I enjoyed the nice step up to Ice Cream Sandwich on my Asus Transformer tablet, and I didn't trust the Korean firm to deliver an update to the then-fresh Jelly Bean release with any sort of urgency.

And they were gonna TouchWiz all over it, anyway.

In the seven months since I picked up the Nexus, Google has rolled out several Android updates boasting new features and functionality. There have been lots of little tweaks and some fairly major additions, and I've been able to experience them all with little delay. But has the steady stream of updates made up for carrying around older and ultimately inferior handset hardware?

Mostly, it has. Here's why.

First came Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, my primary motivation for going with the Nexus in the first place. Most Galaxy S III owners are running that version of the OS now, but it took Samsung months to start rolling out the update. I'm glad I didn't have to wait for Jelly Bean's "Project Butter" responsiveness enhancements, which make interface navigation and animation noticeably faster and smoother than in older versions of the OS. Anyone who's ever picked up an iPhone can attest to the difference a snappy UI makes. Responsiveness is especially important on touchscreen devices that allow users to watch the interface move beneath their fingertips.

Jelly Bean's other big-ticket item is Google Now, which combines search with intelligent information aggregation. The aggregator is pretty slick, and I love that it automatically tracks sports scores for my favorite teams. The fact that it can scour my email for flight details and information on shipped packages is a nice touch, as well. If I actually had a commute, the traffic updates and time-to-home estimates would probably be invaluable.

Google Now has quirks, of course. The public transit feature is supposed to show relevant schedules when you're near a bus stop or train station, but it doesn't work reliably at the bus stops near my home. Those bus stops appear in Google Maps, complete with accurate schedules, so it's not like the data isn't floating around inside Google's servers.

If it hasn't been run in a while, Google Now can take a few seconds to populate the "cards" on which information is displayed. While not hugely annoying, it's a little frustrating for a feature dubbed Now.

Speech recognition is central to Google Now's search component. In short, it's awesome. The speech recognition engine can be configured to run locally, where it won't eat into your monthly data allowance, and it works very well for quick queries. It's also accurate enough to transcribe text messages, notes, and brief emails effectively. I probably use voice for more than half of my text input—and for nearly all of my searches.

Android 4.2 doesn't have a fancy code name, perhaps because the enhancements it brings aren't quite as dramatic. Some of them, like the gesture-infused keyboard, don't apply to me at all. (When I'm not using voice, SwiftKey is my input mechanism of choice.) Support for multiple user accounts is offered for tablets but not smartphones, which does nothing for my Galaxy but is useful for the Nexus 7 that my parents share.

I do like the settings shortcut panel that Android 4.2 added to the notification bar. While this is really a minor change, it's now easier to tweak things like the screen brightness, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth. Alarms can be accessed instantly, as well.

Speaking of alarms, I'm absolutely in love with Android 4.2's new clock. A lot of folks seem to be complaining about the redesign online, but I rather like the stylized interface. There's a certain elegance to its stark simplicity. Swiping to the right brings up a countdown timer, and swiping to the left produces a stopwatch. I use both of those extras several times a week at least, and it's nice to have them so well-integrated into the native clock.

If the clock is an odd thing to obsess over, then my intense appreciation for its alarm-programming interface is especially bizarre. Rather than flicking virtual wheels that look like they've been pulled out of a slot machine, you enter the digits on a pop-up numpad. This method is much faster and more precise—attributes I appreciate when groggily setting my alarm for the next morning. Plus, I'm getting sick of skeuomorphic interface elements that impersonate real-world objects.

One of the other controversial changes in Android 4.2 the ability to distribute widgets across multiple "panes" on the lock screen. Part of the problem is that Google adds two panes by default: swiping to the left brings up the camera, and swiping to the right reveals the "add a widget" button. The camera is a nice shortcut to have, but I've triggered it accidentally on numerous occasions when pulling the Galaxy out of my pocket. The fact that Android provides no way to disable this feature—or lock screen widgets at all—adds to the annoyance.

Third-party apps will let you nuke lock screen widgets entirely, including the camera shortcut, but I haven't bothered. I've become too attached to quickly swiping between panes that show the weather forecast, incoming text messages, and Google Now without having to punch in my unlock code. Thanks to Keep, Google's recently released note-taking app, I've actually maxed out the number of lock screen widgets supported by the OS.

Nothing displayed in any of the lock screen widgets I'm using is sensitive enough that I worry about the phone falling into the wrong hands. However, depending on the maturity of your social circle, you might want to be wary of friends surreptitiously snapping lewd pictures using the camera shortcut—not that the thought of doing so has ever crossed my mind. Never.

The Android 4.x updates have been joined by smaller 4.x.x releases that make small tweaks and address bugs introduced in previous versions. My Galaxy Nexus wasn't afflicted with any issues until the 4.2.2 update, which sent the Android OS process into a tizzy and cut my battery life by more than half. Apparently, that's not an uncommon problem. I was on vacation when it hit, and when I returned home a couple days later, the issue had mysteriously resolved itself. The Android OS process emerged from its funk, and battery life returned to normal. That brief hiccup is the only one I've encountered to date.

I didn't really have any expectations for what Google had planned for Android when I took the Nexus plunge, but I'm impressed with the OS updates that have trickled out thus far. While the releases haven't been revolutionary, they've made a lot of day-to-day tasks more efficient. They've also improved the ease with which pertinent information can extracted. I get the sense that Google wants to make Android more PDA-like, focusing on the smartphone's role as a personal digital assistant rather than as a pocket PC. That makes a lot of sense given my smartphone usage patterns, and it's the reason Nexus devices will be at the top of my list when this one eventually bites the dust.

   
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