Dispatches from the Nexus

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.

Comments closed
    • NovusBogus
    • 7 years ago

    I recently got a Nexus 4 to experiment with Android development, and while there’s a few things I don’t like about it I’m overall very satisfied given what I paid for it. In a perfect world someone wanting an unlocked, truly carrier-agnostic phone would have a lot of options but that just isn’t the case. My main gripe is that the chip has an FM tuner but they didn’t wire it up, which aside from the fact that I do listen to FM radio is the sort of Jobsian railroading that Android is supposed to be avoiding.

    As far as the ecosystem goes, I don’t trust Google but the alternatives are worse. Winphone looks nice but the backend/dev side is still a train wreck, and iOS treats everyone like children in addition to being silly expensive. Google at least has the good sense to open everything up and let the chips fall where they may (like MS did in the early days of Windows), and when they’re trying to screw you out of privacy they do tell you about it upfront and usually offer an opt-out.

    • sarahmarshallpsu230
    • 7 years ago
    • jackiesz0911a
    • 7 years ago
    • sarahatler008
    • 7 years ago
    • ashleytehone039o
    • 7 years ago
    • ermo
    • 7 years ago

    I’m pretty old skool when it comes to phones, and I only recently got myself a refurbished SGSII (the international version with a 45nm 1.2GHz dual core 4210 Exynos SoC w/ARM Mali GPU, not the NA version that has a QualComm SoC) from a friend who couldn’t get it to run properly.

    When the SGSII was released, it came with Android 2.3.4 Gingerbread, but thanks to some intrepid souls, I now run a mostly stock Android Open Source Project (AOSP) + Cyanogen Mod (CM) based 4.2.2 Jelly Bean ROM with a few neat additions. It’s called [url=http://slimroms.net<]Slim Bean[/url<] and in my experience, it is both high quality, very clean and basically fire and forget, as the guys who run it are pretty anal about code quality and mandatory code review. I guess you could say that it's a better CM than CM itself. The downside is that it doesn't really support that many devices. The developers deigned to include an update app that can download the latest releases as they become available, along with a convenient link to the ChangeLog. Pretty nice touch and it works like a charm, too. In summary: While the SGSII is not a new phone, I've got to admit that I'm impressed with how Slim Bean gives me that smooth, uncluttered Nexus-like experience with an extra pinch of well-judged and -executed tweakability.

      • Spunjji
      • 7 years ago

      +1 for putting me on to Slim Bean. They have a release for my n7100; I nearly hit upon my definition of perfection with the P.A.C. Man ROM but it still has too many odd bugs for me to be entirely happy with it.

    • danazar
    • 7 years ago

    I really, really, really want to like Android at this point. Really. I kind of hate my iPhone 4, it’s starting to glitch and have both hardware (home button is broken, apparently common) and software (swipe-down to get notifications stops working, until I kill all the open apps and return to the home screen, and this didn’t start after an OS upgrade) problems. I really want to like Apple, but I feel like they’re not innovating as much as the Android side is anymore.

    But there are two things that keep me from switching:

    1) iOS gives better control over what apps can and can’t do. I can go into “Location Services” and dictate to apps whether they get to know my location or not. Android doesn’t appear to offer this at all. They do require apps to notify you what permissions they want, but the take-it-or-leave-it approach means devs can just go ahead and request full access because they know you can’t do anything about it. (Yes, for *smaller* apps with easy replacements you can just ditch the app for a less invasive one, but good luck doing that with Facebook.)

    2) The way Google recently dealt with AdBlock Plus was not pretty, and convinces me they’re not nearly as open as they’re claiming to be anymore. It’s getting just as boxed in as iOS is these days. Google is getting obsessed with collecting all your information; I installed a Firefox add-on to my desktop recently which shows who’s trying to track you when you visit a website, and “google-analytics.com” is EVERYWHERE. The last thing I really want at this point is an entire OS built by someone with the philosophy that they can track everywhere I go and everything I do on the Internet.

      • BabelHuber
      • 7 years ago

      Just root your Android phone.

      Then you can install a firewall and apps which let you control the rights of other apps.

      You can also install custom ROMs without any Google app. But this of course means no maps, Play Store etc., so you have to find replacements.

      Android can be tailored to your needs, but of course not necessarily out of the box. You have to put some effort into this.

      • auxy
      • 7 years ago

      [quote=”danazar”<]I can go into "Location Services" and dictate to apps whether they get to know my location or not.[/quote<]I can do this on my phone. I have Cyanogenmod 10.1 (Android 4.1.1). Dunno if it's specific to CM or JB or what, but I definitely have an "Allow apps to request my location" option.[quote="danazar"<]) The way Google recently dealt with AdBlock Plus was not pretty, and convinces me they're not nearly as open as they're claiming to be anymore.[/quote<]Google makes virtually all of their money from ads. Whatever they say, they're still a business, and one has to protect their business. ┐(‘~`;)┌ I don't disagree that it was kind of a dick move to break ABP, but it was done for genuine security reasons (see [url=http://www.androidpolice.com/2013/02/13/google-has-effectively-killed-adblock-plus-in-android-4-2-2/<]here[/url<]), and saying they're "just as boxed in as iOS is" is ridiculous. Without modifying my phone at all, I can load an APK I downloaded from the web or [i<]compiled myself[/i<] and run it. Can you do that on iOS?

        • MadManOriginal
        • 7 years ago

        The location setting you’re talking about, if it’s what I’m familiar with, is a global setting. danazar is talking about a per-app setting and really should be a required Settings option for any app that can use location settings.

          • Firestarter
          • 7 years ago

          ATM, thats only available in custom roms or with the rooted stock rom + apps. I agree with you that this should really be possible with the stock rom

      • Spunjji
      • 7 years ago

      Agreed with everything bar this:
      “It’s getting just as boxed in as iOS is these days”

      Easy on the hyperbole, there. It’s really not. 😉

    • auxy
    • 7 years ago

    Ehh.[quote=”Geoff”<]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.[/quote<][b<]FTFYFT.[/b<](꒪⌓꒪) [super<]("this", "you", and "them".)[/super<] The whole entire REASON I have a smartphone is so I'm never without a computer. I don't care about PDA crap; I don't have any use for calendar or clock or camera or any of this other garbage. I have it so I can access the web, save and edit documents and media, run software of my own choosing -- you know, use it as a computer. Period. End of story! ╮(•˘︿ ˘•)╭ I have Cyanogenmod 10.1 (Android 4.1.1) on my old Motorola Droid X2 and it functions pretty well until the machine tries to swap applications to disk, at which point everything grinds to a halt, because disk accesses on Tegra2s rarely exceed 1Mbyte/second. Setting it to kill apps when I leave them more or less solved this problem, but it does limit the functionality somewhat. ┐(‘~`;)┌ Soo, I'm looking for a new device, but nobody seems to make the device I want. (╥_╥) I don't care about insanely high DPI fullHD screens or the industrial design of the phone at all; I just want one that's fast, fast, and FAST! Unfortunately, much like in the pre-built gaming desktop market -- where you have to buy an i7 with watercooler, 24GB of RAM, and a huge ATX case to even [b<]begin[/b<] to have high-end GPUs as options -- you can't buy a [b<]fast[/b<] phone without paying a bundle for a shiny thorium casing, 80 megapixel camera, and 4K screen. (◡︿◡✿) Gimme a quadcore A9R4, A15, Atom, or Jaguar, with 4GB of 64-bit (or higher!) RAM and NGFF or even mSATA in a 4-7" form factor and I'd be fit as a fiddle, regardless of screen quality, camera quality (or presence), cellular connectvity, or almost anything else. Make it happen! Somebody start a kickstarter! ( ̄^ ̄)尸╭(°ロ°")╯

      • Firestarter
      • 7 years ago

      I see that you’re trying to make a point, but I cannot possibly take you seriously if you keep interjecting those ridiculous smileys.

        • auxy
        • 7 years ago

        My face is ridiculous? (◕︿◕✿)

        Your face is ridiculous. (◡︿◡✿)

        YOUR FAAACEE (☞゚ヮ゚)☞

      • Spunjji
      • 7 years ago

      …uhhh… Nexus 4? 😐

      Of course that doesn’t work if you need Micro SD, but you didn’t mention that.

    • Arag0n
    • 7 years ago

    I got a Nexus4 at work lately, but I still feel is not such a good looking phone. System wide it works as expected, but is not a beautiful phone.

      • Firestarter
      • 7 years ago

      looks better than the S3 IMHO

        • JohnC
        • 7 years ago

        Yea… S3 looks and feels like a plastic toy 😉

          • Firestarter
          • 7 years ago

          well plastic is not a bad thing per sé, being cheaper and easier to replace and all that, but the glass back on the Nexus 4 definitely makes it [i<]feel[/i<] like a premium device

      • JohnC
      • 7 years ago

      You should’ve waited for HTC One, then… Unless, of course, you don’t have a choice at selecting the phones.

    • JohnC
    • 7 years ago

    I’ve played with Nexus 4 for some time – it’s a very good device, both in terms of OS, build quality and useful features (like inductive charging)… No LTE, but honestly it’s not very useful on smartphones, especially with limited data from many providers and still limited coverage. The only real drawback was its camera, which sucked compared to flagship models of other mobile platforms, but most people won’t care much… Overall a much better phone (not to mention the OS itself) compared to WP8-based garbage, especially from Nokia – these idiots can’t even test their firmware properly (many people at WPcentral are having problems with signal strength and random band switching (LTE/4G/3G/Edge randomly switching between each other) on their Lumia 920’s after updating to recent 1308 version)… Still surprises me how many people are willing to stick with such unstable platform and devices and still have a “hope for a better tomorrow and maybe an Instagram app next year, Waze a year after” 😉

      • sweatshopking
      • 7 years ago

      Some of us don’t care about instagram. The OS is the #1 reason people pick WP, and its the highest rated in user satisfaction, so idkwtf. You keep bringing up the wpcentral forums, but have you been to the iPhone forums? Where thousands upon thousands of people have issues? As for stability, most users and reviewers have WP as the most stable. There have been articles dedicated to how it is far and away the most stable, so idlwtf. I get you don’t like Nokia or WP, but at least have an idea about context.

    • Beelzebubba9
    • 7 years ago

    Owning a Nexus 4 makes me very excited for a phone like it, but better. I’m generally smitten with Jelly Bean, but the hardware does seem like a bit too much of a compromise compared to the best phones available.

    • ludi
    • 7 years ago

    I ended up with a 16GB SGNex (unlocked from Google Play) last year, myself. I still don’t get why Google’s premier phone doesn’t include an SD expansion, but since I don’t really need it, the phone has been more than adequate. Apart from the missing SD expansion, the dual-core proc, and the slightly less-glitzy screen, it doesn’t really lack anything that the SIII offers.

    However, after the 4.2 update, I immediately went looking for a third-party app to kill the lockscreen widgets. The fact that Google released such a feature without a built-in settings option to disable it is bordering on tar-and-feathers territory.

    • Omniman
    • 7 years ago

    I agree my Galaxy Nexus has been working great from day one and I love the fast updates they roll out. My only issue I’ve had is when it stop recognizing any touch screen inputs but a power cycle fixes that.The phone itself though feels snappier then the day I bought it.

    Compared to my last phone which was the original Droid X which was certainly not my favorite of the phones I’ve had. I swear that thing only became slower and slower with each update. On top of it being a brick to haul around.

    • sweatshopking
    • 7 years ago

    ONLY so you guys don’t think i’m dead again, and dpaus doesn’t text me:
    BUT THE WINDOWS PHONE AND NOKIA!!!!

      • dpaus
      • 7 years ago

      You said our late-night sexting sessions were our little secret!??!

        • sweatshopking
        • 7 years ago

        and YOU told me we were EXCLUSIVE!!! HEART BREAKER

        • MadManOriginal
        • 7 years ago

        Ways to not keep a secret, #19: Question the keeping of said secret on the internet.

          • dpaus
          • 7 years ago

          Exactly!! What’s the first thing any self-respecting conspiracy theorist does? Am I right?

    • dmjifn
    • 7 years ago

    I also just got a Nexus 4 and my reasons were pretty much the same. No LTE? No SD card? Not the latest hardware? Sucks, but using not-so-much-older phones stuck with Honeycomb sucks harder. I also don’t really feel like screwing around with aftermarket firmware. But the phone is pretty nice to use. Actually, I think I like it better than my Nexus 7 for email and notes.

    • Firestarter
    • 7 years ago

    I just upgraded from a cheap Huawai smartphone with Cyanogenmod to a Nexus 4. It’s pretty awesome!

    • trackerben
    • 7 years ago

    Settings in the swipe-down notification bar was already in Android 4.1.x, a brilliant design.

    Another one of Android’s few superior features over iOS is the ability to quickly move between screens. Pinching the current screen brings up a tiled presentation of all screens in miniature, from which you just touch the one you want. This and the brilliant Messages select-to-delete procedures are things iOS needs to duplicate particularly on iPads.

    Then again, the dialling procedure is still abysmal, to repeat a call made from the Dialpad takes an unneccessary extra step. The design of the Contacts lists which is focused on a tabbed interface makes it cumbersome to keep a direct dial screen of favorites accessible at all times. Landscape orientation is not possible for calling and other functions, the absence of a physical home/wake-up button on most droids, the general lack of UI consistency between basic functions (although individual UI treatments can be brilliant).

    And of course the power inefficiency of even the latest droids is frustating. That’s why I got one with a 3500mAh battery even though that makes it heavy. Power in droids is Caterpillar power – brute but flexible functionality in all tasks. Power in iPhone is Porsche power – smooth power focused in desired directions.

    • ApockofFork
    • 7 years ago

    I have the verizon galaxy nexus so I just rooted it and keep it uptodate myself. No point in waiting for Verizon and there is barely anymore hassle.

    The only thing disappointing about the phone is the battery life. I suspect and hope that the next version of android really focuses on battery life. JellyBean cut into battery life a tiny bit which was disappointing but expected considering the always on nature of google now (and perhaps the smoother rendering).

    Compared to my parents galaxy notes the phone is just 100x simpler. The amount of extra stuff that ultimately often just complicates the experience is mind boggling. It’s also frustrating when I try to show them how to do something and it just doesn’t work as simply as it does on my phone.

    • willmore
    • 7 years ago

    There’s always cyanogenmod. It makes any phone a Nexus phone.

      • indeego
      • 7 years ago

      Except the majority of phones released don’t run it. And those that do run it don’t run it very well.

        • Darkmage
        • 7 years ago

        I don’t know about that. The latest version of CyanogenMod? Yeah, that doesn’t always get ported. But I put version 7 on my wife’s G2 and my Nexus One. Hell, I even put version 6 on her old G1.

        It may not make your phone act like a state-of-the-art dual-core smartphone… but it will definitely increase the feature set and breathe new life into it. Especially the stable releases. I’ve had some battery life issues with release candidates and I don’t even touch the nightlies. But the stables releases are quite impressive.

        • Pan Skrzetuski
        • 7 years ago

        There are good roms available for every major android phone released – it can be a pain finding a decent one in the crowd though. AOKP is pretty popular after CM. I’m using LiquidSmooth on my Play Store N4.

      • Darkmage
      • 7 years ago

      I’ve been rocking MMumsy on my Galaxy Nexus and it’s pretty slick. Just enough extra to be useful without the feature bloat of CyanogenMod. To each his own, but I recommend MMumsy.

    • tahir2
    • 7 years ago

    “And they were gonna TouchWiz all over it, anyway.”

    Haha… the HTC Sense overlay isn’t nearly as bad but HTC support needs to die and be born again 🙁

      • phez
      • 7 years ago

      Reminder that HTC probably will release 4.2.x for the One in maybe, next year … if ever?

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