This year, Google is rumored to be partnering with a Chinese manufacturer for the first time on its Nexus lineup. The Huawei Nexus isn’t just an experiment, or giving a new OEM a chance at making a device. If rumors are correct, the partnership was chosen because of Huawei’s influence in China. Google’s Play Services are limited in China, in that they’re basically non-existent. But still, as a consumer, I can’t help but feel this year should have been Samsung’s year, and next year definitely should be…
For me to write those words is actually a big deal. Over the years I’ve not been Samsung’s biggest fan. In years gone by devices have been largely all-plastic and severely lacking in build quality. The flagship devices have been bogged down by TouchWiz UI which doesn’t just negatively impact the performance, it’s also highly offensive to my eyes. In recent times, Samsung has worked hard to make TouchWiz less awful to the point that this year, it’s almost nice. But it still doesn’t fly along as pleasingly as a pure, stock Android. And there are still UI elements hiding here and there that are aesthetically displeasing.
The Nexus range was made with an ethos in mind. It was meant to be “Pure Google”, in that it was unadulterated, un-skinned Android at its very best. But more than that, hardware was built to show off some of Google’s latest and greatest services. To show off the best Android could possibly be should mean using the best hardware possible. And — apart from the Nexus One — it’s hard to think of a time when that was the case.
In its heyday, the Nexus One looked and felt amazing.
Upon launch, the HTC-made Nexus One was a thing of beauty. It’s solid unibody aluminum frame was unlike anything else around at the time. It had a gorgeous screen that was both bigger, sharper, and brighter than the iPhone’s. It was fast, fluid and smooth too thanks to a 1GHz processor. Remember, this was back in January 2010. Its design seems outdated now, but at the time, it really was ahead of the curve in almost every way. It also had some really smart noise cancellation technologies cooked in to make calls much clearer.
After the original Nexus came two years of Samsung. The Nexus S in December 2010 and the Galaxy Nexus in October 2011. To say the latter was a disappointment would be an understatement. Compared to the original Nexus though, they were both dull, plastic shells with no character, nothing that really defined them or set them apart. The software experience was arguably better on them than other Android phones, but the hardware really wasn’t as competitive as some other devices. The Galaxy Nexus’ AMOLED screen suffered with the traditional struggles of an AMOLED display at that time. Whites turned grey if brightness wasn’t turned up to 11, while text looked fuzzy and colors weren’t accurate. That’s not mentioning the flimsy plastic rear shell.
To give credit where its due, with Android 4.0 “Ice Cream Sandwich”, Google’s operating system did start to feel much more polished than previous versions of the OS., but the hardware still left a bad taste in my mouth.
Needless to say, at the time, it seemed ludicrous to have gone from the impressive, considered design approach of the HTC Nexus One, to a phone which did nothing to excite the senses. Aesthetically, it was like looking at the chassis of a Porsche 911 side by side with a Smart Car. There was no comparison. For that reason alone, at the time, I felt Samsung should never, ever get another chance to make a Nexus phone again. They may have sold millions of Nexus S units, and put in a fancy curved Dragontrail glass screen, but the Galaxy Nexus ruined everything.
Over the following 2-3 years, Google shifted its focus. Instead of trying (and failing) to use world-beating hardware, it would partner with LG to bring us devices which performed really well, but were available at a fraction of the cost of a flagship device. The Nexus 4 had wireless charging and the most expensive model cost just $349, SIM-free and unlocked. It was a competitive product. Not necessarily from a spec-sheet point of view, but from a “here’s what you can get for less than $400” angle. The following year’s Nexus 5 was similar, albeit slightly more expensive. Still, neither captured the fit and finish or hardware design of the very first Nexus Phone.
Last year, I breathed a sigh of relief as Google used the Moto X-inspired design with the Nexus 6. Sure, it was definitely too big for most humans, but the solid metal chassis and curved back felt good in hand. The Nexus 6 also has a fantastic display, giving Google a beautiful huge canvas to paint its gorgeous Material-Design OS all over. But it still suffered with poor hardware in other regards: Its camera leaves a lot to be desired, especially in low light, while its battery doesn’t last as long as I’d expect on a phone this big either.
Let’s not kid ourselves though, the camera has — without exaggeration — always been a disappointment on Nexus phones. Which brings me back around to Samsung.
In the Samsung-less Nexus years, the Korean tech giant has been working hard on its hardware and design game. This year in particular has been a killer year for the company. The Galaxy S6 and Galaxy Note 5 are two of the most well-made and beautiful devices ever released. Not just on the Android scene, but on any platform. The Note 5 in particular is jaw-dropping. If that wasn’t enough, it also has what many regard as THE best display ever put in a phone and THE best camera. It has market leading design, market leading camera performance and a market leading display. Its only (slight) downside is (maybe) the battery life. Oh, and TouchWiz (slightly). Still, with stock Android 6.0 Marshmallow supposedly trebling standby time, neither of those would be an issue.
I can’t help but imagine what a Galaxy Note 5 or Galaxy S6 would look like running pure Android. With a chassis, fit and finish of that quality and the killer screen and camera combo, it would easily be the best Nexus phone ever made. And, in my opinion, the only one which directly competes, and perhaps beats, the iPhone in every measurable metric. Nothing would say “this is what Android can do and be” more than that.
From what I’ve seen of Huawei’s hardware in recent months, I have no doubt that this year’s ‘6P’ will be a great device. But unless it has a better rear camera and display than the Note 5, I’ll always be wondering ‘what if’. What if Samsung used its recent designs to come up with a Nexus? In my mind, a pure stock Android 6.0 Note 5 would be as close to perfection as we’ve ever seen on the Android market.