The great Nexus debate: Do we really want or need 'Google Play edition' handsets?
The pursuit of the pure experience is something of which any Android follower will be aware. From the early days there has been a stand-off between those who wanted an unfettered Android experience and those who were happy to take something modified by the manufacturer. It was an Android standoff, a war of words, between those who are on the same side, but have different ideas.
That's all changed with the announcement of the Samsung Galaxy S4 Google Play edition and the HTC One Google Play edition (formerly called Samsung Galaxy S4 Google Edition and HTC One with Nexus user experience). We've praised the HTC One as being the best-designed handset around, while the Samsung Galaxy S4 brings the flexibility of microSD and battery access. Both are outstanding handsets in their own right and both are heavily modified Android in their original form.
Both are also much more expensive than the current Nexus 4 offering, at almost double the price. But if you pay out that cash, you get the hardware you crave and the purity you desire: you get the best of both worlds. Or do you?
The Android Great Escape
Over the past year or so, Google has been splitting out more elements of Android so they work as standalone apps. Gmail and Google Maps are the obvious best examples - they have been orphans for some time - but more recently we've seen the calendar break free and now the keyboard. These offer that pure Android experience, regardless of whether you're carrying a Nexus 4 or an HTC One X.
Chrome is the Nexus browser and although most manufacturers give you a tweaked browser, you can install Chrome, make it the default and enjoy the same experience as every other Nexus owner. Then you have Google Now. Google Now is one of our favourite features of Android. We often just shortcut straight to Google Now for the weather; we use it for searching and, thankfully, it runs from the Google Search app - again, an Android experience app that's independent from the rest of the platform.
We don't even have to mention the Play suite of entertainment either: Movies, Music, Books, Magazines. They're all here, for all to enjoy, as Google intended.
In those apps you have a great "core" Nexus experience already, one that's free of the changes that manufacturers bring. You can wash aside the fluff of weather in your calendar, a keyboard that's just not right or a browser limited to just a few tabs, but importantly, you get to choose what you want.
It's not all good
But there are problems with Android. Let's take the dialler and the People app that handles your contacts. Neither is a patch on that offered by something like HTC Sense 5.0. Start typing or dialling a number on the Nexus 4 and you get a string of numbers. Do the same on the HTC One and it's pulling up your contacts for you, ready to make that call.
After all, this is a telephone - communication is the very core of what smartphones are about. Generally speaking, the "contacts" experience that you get from HTC or Samsung is much better too. This is something you will lose in "going Nexus".
Then look at how stock Android handles apps in the apps tray. Can you order them how you want? Can you shift them into folders? Can you hide all the garbage you don't want to see? No, you can't. You can in Sense, or on Sony Xperia devices. You can group things in the apps tray so you don't have to do it all on the home screen.
But perhaps the most important point is about hardware. All the manufacturers are talking about cameras, whether on Android or not. Just look at the messages from Nokia, Apple, HTC, Samsung, Sony and more recently Huawei. The camera has become the front line in the smartphone war; the jewel in the consumer crown.
Many might offer the same Sony-built sensor, but how the camera is managed comes down to much more than what stock Android offers. Let's be honest, the Nexus 4 camera is terrible. Not only is the capture experience basic, but the display shows a downgraded preview of the scene during capture. Compare it to any HTC or Samsung device - it's a world apart.
Camera displays: HTC One X (left), Nexus 4 right
We recently interviewed ST Liew, president of Acer smartphone, who made exactly this point: "In smartphones, whatever you want to do, you can download from the marketplace. So you don't want to over-engineer the stuff that people can get anyway, but you focus on the enablers, so we enable a good camera."
That's what you stand to lose when you go Nexus: the control of the hardware that the manufacturer has packed into the handset. For the HTC One there's a stack of great camera stuff that would just vanish and who knows what the performance would then be like? Staying with stock hangs on to this refinement.
Batteries on charge
Let's think also about battery life. Modern smartphones have a battery problem and the Nexus 4 doesn't shine. It's a poor performer in the battery department and will be outlived by most modern handsets. Newer hardware (like processors and chipsets) gets incrementally better with each step, but the Nexus 4 isn't driving a Full HD display like the SGS4 or the HTC One. How will these perform in a raw Android state?
It's also a question raised by Drew Bamford, VP of user experience, at HTC. In short, he's the guy who leads the design of HTC Sense:
I'd love to see a comparison of battery life and performance between HTC Sense and Google experience. We are doing a lot of optimisation.— Drew Bamford (@drewbam) June 4, 2013
It's an important comparison that needs to be made to evaluate firstly, whether manufacturer's software optimisation does bring battery enhancement, but secondly, whether additions like Sense 5, say, use more battery than a stock Android experience on the same device. Early testing at Anandtech suggests there's not a huge degree of difference: does that mean that the optimisation that manufacturers bring counteracts the wastage their tinkering adds? A cynical view, perhaps.
The device we've been most impressed with recently when it comes to battery is the Sony Xperia Z with the range of power controls that Sony Mobile has enabled. You can get really granular and reduce the waste, something that stock Android doesn't give you. We'd hate to lose something like that if the Xperia Z went back to stock Android and both the HTC One and SGS4 offer some form of battery saving mode in their original form.
All about the apps
Of course the argument isn't that simple. Returning to the quote from ST Liew, he starts by saying: "Whatever you want to do, you can download from the marketplace." Some of the nice touches that manufacturers bring can come from apps and in some cases, third-party apps are preferable to default device options.
What you can't do, so well, is remove things that manufacturers include that you don't want. We're left with a situation where on devices like the HTC One and the Xperia Z, we have folders called "crap" where we dump all the apps we don't want to see. There's almost nothing on the Nexus 4 that we'd put in that folder.
Then we have the great launcher debate. Every manufacturer changes that up-front visual experience. It's partly about branding, it's partly about differentiation. Android looks great when you're faced with the simple launcher, the HTC One leaves you to embrace or side-step BlinkFeed, Samsung is still giving us a slightly cartoony spin on things. But you know at a glance who made the device.
You can install any launcher you want on your device, there's even a mock stock Android Jelly Bean launcher if that's what you want, but it's not the same experience, it's not the Nexus experience that you get as soon as you unlock your device.
So what do we want?
The best of both worlds isn't crushing the innovation of companies like Samsung, Sony and HTC, because we've arrived at a point where the incremental version difference in Android doesn't account for that much. Sure, there's a huge difference between Honeycomb and Ice Cream Sandwich, but within the incremental steps of Android, we can't honestly say the HTC One is worse because it doesn't have 4.2.2 (at the time of writing).
The best of both worlds is giving you the freedom to choose which features you want and which you don't. Do we want a tweaked music player over Play Music? Not really. Do we want Samsung's hardware controls you can swipe down? Yes. Do we want BlinkFeed? Not always. Do we want folders in the apps tray? Yes. The list goes on.
You might disagree with our chosen features, but that's exactly the point. It's not the Nexus experience we are craving, it's the freedom. Companies like HTC, Samsung, Sony and even Huawei with its just announced Ascend P6, should give users the freedom to quickly and easily make the device exactly as they want it. And by easily, we don't mean flashing and hacking. While those technical Android fans might be able to do that, the average consumer can't. And yes, if you want your stock HTC One to run the Google Play software you can do it with this ROM as detailed by Gizmodo.
For us it's not a debate that sees Nexus versus the rest of the world; it's about delivering a user experience while giving space for innovation. While we think it's exciting to see this shift in approach with Google Play edition devices, there's a lot you might miss out on in going for the Nexus experience.