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So you want to buy a smartphone. But which one? There is a bewildering array of smartphones and pads/tablets from many manufacturers. What are the essential differences?
Here is my very simple recommendation: Buy only a Nexus device.
That said, there are now several devices that are similar enough to Nexus devices that they can also be recommended, namely the Motorola Android phones (Motorola Mobile is a subsidiary of Google), the Google Play editions of popular smartphones, and phones that come with or are prepared for CyanogenMod. Please see the chapter Nexus-like smartphones below for details.
If you want a tablet, choose from the Nexus 7 and Nexus 10.
Of course there can be good reasons to buy something other than a Nexus, particularly, if you need a combination of features that no Nexus device has. However, that will also buy you the disadvantages described below, so it is a tradeoff. A compromise in this case is to swap the operating system, Android, for a good, free version, like CyanogenMod.
Nexus devices are the ones issued directly by Google with standard Android and made by various manufacturers. They essentially have three advantages:
Look at the poor fellows who bought a very expensive Samsung Galaxy S III and were still running Android 4.0 to 4.2 after 4.3 and 4.4 had long become available and had been running on the Nexus devices for months.
There may be another reason why all those manufacturers delay the delivery of Android updates. I suspect that want their devices to become obsolete as early as possible, so their owners feel obliged to buy a newer phone. Of course their official excuse is that it takes so much time to add their (unwanted) extensions to standard Android.
Their excuse for stopping updates altogether for devices older than one year is that the hardware is too weak for the newer Android versions. That sounds funny if you see that other modifications ("mods") of newer Android versions, like CyanogenMod, are running just fine on these devices. They are just not very easy to install, therefore most users are not acutely aware of them or shy away from the complicated rooting procedure.
Unfortunately, Google is now biting its own tail by providing Android updates only up to about one year after they were last sold. Fortunately, the Nexus devices have always been well supported by Cyanogen, so they are still a good choice. If you buy them early, you may get updates from Google for about two years, then you just switch over to CyanogenMod for more years of timely updates.
There are three kinds of phones that are not Nexus devices, but still have similar characteristics:
You can roll your own by buying just any phone that is well supported by Cyanogen or any other reliable source of timely Android updates, instantly getting rid of the manufacturer's bloatware, and replacing it with CyanogenMod or any other good third-party ROM. With the new CyanogenMod installer this is now much simpler than it used to be, but check first which phones are supported and buy only those.
The security aspect
Besides the already mentioned advantage of Nexus devices, i.e. no poorly functioning bloatware, it is now becoming obvious that Nexus devices have a significant security advantage.
When a security hole is discovered in Android, all Nexus devices within the updating period are updated within days, within one or two weeks at the latest.
Other manufacturers, however, do not and probably cannot forward the security patch nearly as fast, because of their own bloatware insertion. The usual delay is around three to six months. Older devices do not ever get any patch and stay highly vulnerable for good, unless they are supported by Cyanogen oder another reliable ROM source.
When you buy your next Android device, you should be wise enough to make a rational choice, now that you have read and understood this and can no longer claim having been uninformed. (:-)
One already mentioned alternative for an up-to-date mod is CyanogenMod. Cyanogen is delivering updates more timely than your manufacturer, particularly for older devices. Not as fast as Google, but still a lot faster. It takes them around 3 months to adapt Google's latest Android version to the myriad of phones they support.
You should consider not to wait for stable versions, but instead install release candidates (RC1, RC2, etc.), semi-stable interim versions (M1, M2, etc.) or even the nightly builds, and prefer a few glitches over gaping security holes.
An example from 2012/2013
This article describes a ghastly defect in most modern Samsung Android devices that shows itself when you copy more than 20 data items into the clipboard. The device instantly becomes unusable and can only be resuscitated by performing a factory reset. This, however, kills all programs and their data.
All Samsung Android devices that run the current TouchWiz bloatware are affected, i.e. most newer devices except Nexus. The Nexus devices run the pure Google Android AOSP (Android Open Source Project) version that is free of manufacturer bloatware and therefore do not carry the defect.
Phone makers’ Android tweaks cause security problems
Smartphone makers’ custom software is responsible for a slew of Android security issues, researchers at North Carolina State University say.
The open nature of Google’s Android operating system means manufacturers can add their own software layer to the phone—helping them stand out from the pack with a different look and features. Yet new research shows such tailoring may also be responsible for a host of security weaknesses that could make phones more vulnerable to hackers.
According to a study conducted by computer science researchers at North Carolina State University, changes manufacturers made to the stock Android software were responsible for more than 60 percent of the security flaws uncovered in phones from different handset companies. …
Read the complete article in the MIT Technology Review
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