Despite how much I am involved with Android now, and my ever-growing addiction to the platform over the past couple of years, I was surprised to reckon a few weeks ago that I have never experienced Android like it was created and meant to be — ie. on a Nexus device. I have owned and used an HTC Desire Z, an Iconia A100 tablet, a Samsung Galaxy S3 and an LG Optimus 4X HD, but never a Nexus device. That’s because I live in Lebanon, where Nexus devices are a black market rarity and Samsung is everywhere.
However, I eventually managed to convince the local LG team to lend me a Nexus 4 for review. And *insert expletives* I’m blown away.
I’m not a stranger to AOSP-based ROMs. I have flashed various iterations of CyanogenMod on both of my Desire Z and Galaxy S3, and used them as my daily drivers for over two years. I know how stock Android looks, how it works, I know which features were added by ROM modders and which are available in the original code. Actually, scratch that. I thought I knew stock Android, or how it was supposed to feel at least. Boy, was I wrong!
The first thing I learned after handling the Nexus 4 is that it’s not the same experience. At first, I struggled to put the difference into words, but now that I’ve had time to think about it, I can pinpoint a few factors:
AOSP ROMs, no matter how “stable” they are, are never really, really stable. You might see bugs, some hardware features may not function properly, and overall, you don’t have the confidence of knowing that things will work like they are supposed to. That’s why I always have a Nandroid backup with me, in case I have to re-flash while on the move — which only happened once thankfully.
AOSP ROMs feel weird on devices that aren’t meant to run them. Think of it as trying to fit a round peg in a square hole: it might go in, but it’s not exactly correct. Like it or not, Samsung, HTC, LG, Sony and every other manufacturer build their hardware to match with their own Android skin, so when you change one part of the equation, the chemistry is simply no longer there.
AOSP ROMs like CyanogenMod, Paranoid Android, AOKP or others, add their own features which might introduce bugs and slowness, or interfere with the way the original Android source code is supposed to work.
Speed vs. Absolutely Zero Lag
The first apparent difference I noticed with the Nexus 4 was the lack of lag, and by that I mean that everything is so instantaneous that I was almost thrown off guard. I had never complained about lag on my Galaxy S3 , I even considered it a fast and responsive device, but I’ve learned that there’s a difference between regular speed and absolutely zero lag. Google had introduced “Project Butter” with Jelly Bean 4.1, and although the Galaxy S3 runs this Android version, it doesn’t seem to have benefited from Butter as much as it should have.
Project Butter improvements in Android 4.1
By comparison, the Nexus 4 is blazing fast. There is no waiting between the moment you get your finger close enough that the screen detects a touch and the device’s response to that touch. It’s uncanny how both happen at the exact same time. Scrolling through text, swiping images in the Gallery, opening and closing the Multitasking view, everything is swift beyond what I had ever experienced before.
At one point, I thought I was wearing my biased rose-colored glasses and exaggerating. I asked my friends, all of whom were quite happy with the speed of their HTCs, Samsungs and Sonys, to check the Nexus 4. I told them to use the device for a minute or two, then get back to me. And the verdict was unanimous: it’s smoother than anything they had used.
I Don’t Really Need Replacement Apps
When I got the Nexus 4, I set myself one rule: don’t install replacement apps for at least one week. I wanted to experience Android like it was meant to be, with the stock browser, keyboard, launcher, gallery… For someone whose first installs on any Android device or ROM are always SwiftKey, Nova Launcher and QuickPic, withdrawal was bound to occur in less than 24 hours. But something strange happened instead.
24 hours went by, then a week, then a couple of weeks, and I had forgotten about my “one week” pact. Then I remembered it about three weeks later, and although I was tempted to accuse myself of being a stock Android fangirl, I couldn’t help but wonder what had happened.
Using the default launcher and Gallery on the Nexus 4
It all boils down to two factors: default Android apps have gotten a lot better with time, and they fit so much with the rest of the pure Nexus experience that they somehow retreat to the background to let you get your work done. I’ve always thought that the best software was the one that you didn’t have to set up, fiddle with, learn, teach or tweak. Instead, it’s the one that’s coded so well that you tend to forget it exists in the first place. And that’s exactly the case here. I didn’t have to spend my time tinkering with the software, it just worked and I was left free to install my apps and enjoy the experience.
Be Gone, Navigation Buttons Prejudice!
One instant turn-off from AOSP ROMs that I carried through my first few hours with the Nexus 4 was my hatred of the on-screen navigation buttons. When I had previously flashed AOSP ROMs on my Galaxy S3, I tried to use them but couldn’t for more than a few minutes and instantly turned them off and reverted to the hardware keys. On the Nexus 4 however, the buttons feel less like a wasted part of the screen, and more like a continuation of the hardware. I got used to them surprisingly fast.
The one upside I discovered as well is that the buttons are context-sensitive. Unlike hardware buttons, they can move, which means that they’re always on the right side in landscape mode, whether you flip your screen 90 or 270 degrees. They can also change, and the Back button becomes a Down arrow when the keyboard is open. On other devices, I often have a little hesitation that clicking Back when the keyboard is open would actually go back instead of closing the keyboard, but thanks to the on-screen cue, I now know exactly what the button will do. Of course, there’s also the benefit of launching a Google voice search instantly by sliding up on them from anywhere, which you can’t do with the physical keys on other handsets.
The navigation buttons are context-sensitive and let you launch a Google voice search
LG Builds Quite Awesome Hardware
If my time with the Optimus 4X had taught me anything, it’s that LG knows how to build really good hardware. Sturdy, classy, light enough to be carried easily but without compromising on the materials. The Nexus 4 embodies all of that. Sure, the all-glass form factor gives it an air of fragility, and you might want to treat it with a little more care than other devices, but it’s still an elegant and slender device.
I instantly fell in love with the patterned squares on the back, and even got a wallpaper to match for my homescreen (as shown in the screenshots above). I was also very impressed by the clean look of the device from the front. There’s no logo, no hardware buttons, and both the speaker and the front camera are inconspicuous. If you glance at it quickly when the screen is off, you wouldn’t be able to tell if the device was straight or upside down.
The Nexus 4 is one sexy device from the clean front to the patterned glass back
Putting aside the fragility of the all-glass body, the Nexus 4 is a classy device that feels great in the hand, and I can’t help but wish that Google asks LG to build their next generation Nexus. With slightly different materials, I’m pretty sure it will sport excellently designed and built hardware.
Android Skins Aren’t All That Bad
My friend, Steve Litchfield, has been carrying out a review series looking at different OEM skins to see what changes they bring to Android, and whether they are good enough to justify the delays in updates that their devices suffer. He’s already reviewed TouchWiz, Sense and Xperia UI and came up with the conclusion that the first two offer enough improvements to warrant their existence, but not Sony’s Xperia which, due to its minimalistic approach, doesn’t bring any real enhancement but still suffers from delayed updates.
Although I have been championing stock Android for a long time, I have to agree with Steve. For example, the main two areas where TouchWiz trumps stock Android are the dialer and the notification toggles. I can’t believe that the default Android dialer doesn’t offer T9 predictive name input, forcing you to go to the People tab and search for a person’s name to dial their number. Also, Android just added toggles in the notification area, but TouchWiz, Optimus UI and other skins have had them for several years. They even allow you to customize which toggles you want to use, and don’t require a separate drawer, appearing above your regular notifications instead.
Downsides of stock Android: no T9 dialer and the toggles are limited and in their own drawer
Of course, the downside of Android skins is that most devices that were launched before and after the Nexus 4 are still stuck on Android 4.1, whereas the Nexus 4 is already on Android 4.2.2 with the added Daydream and Lockscreen widget options. You give some, you take some… Oh well.
Upsides of stock Android: you always have the latest with Daydream and Lockscreen widgets
Look, if you haven’t figured out by now that I was quite infatuated by the Nexus 4, then you really didn’t read anything I said. Hardware, software, and price-wise, it’s a well-balanced device with a few compromises and a lot of power. And no one can honestly claim to be an Android fan until they’ve handled one Nexus device (currently the Nexus 4, 7 or 10) to experience Android like it was meant to be, as a whole package. The responsiveness, the simplicity and integration of the default apps, the continuity between software design and hardware design are unique and unparalleled in the Android ecosystem now, even if you dabble with AOSP-based ROMs.
As a matter of fact, after a couple of days with the Nexus 4, I tweeted something along these lines:
After using Android like it was intended on a Nexus 4, I’m crying for the millions of people whose only perception of Android is TouchWiz.
It’s not that TouchWiz is bad per se — although I admittedly despise its color scheme and icons — it’s that Samsung has such a hold on the Android market that many millions of users likely think that that’s all there is to Android and will never know how wrong they are.
As for me, I’m back on my Galaxy S3 with a CyanogenMod 10.1 ROM, and awaiting patiently for the new Nexus 7 and Nexus phone, which I am definitely buying — unless there’s a groundbreaking feature in other devices that sways my decision. I’ve tasted the Nexus flavor of Android, and there’s likely no going back to any other.