Buy Nexus

Hans's picture
Sat, 2013-02-16 12:54 by Hans · Forum/category:

Introduction

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.

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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 money plays no role, go directly to Google Play and buy the 32 GB version of the Google LG Nexus 5, which is the latest in 2014.

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.

Why Nexus?

Nexus devices are the ones issued directly by Google with standard Android and made by various manufacturers. They essentially have three advantages:

  1. They always get the latest Android version first. Since the new versions usually come with significant advantages, this is a major plus.
  2. They are free from the bloatware that the manufacturers otherwise load on their devices to distinguish their devices from those of the competition. The manufacturers typically remove standard Android system apps and replace them with their own, which often do not work well or are incompatible. They can also not be uninstalled. Moreover, you cannot install the leaner standard apps from Google Play, so it is impossible or at least very difficult to get back the standard apps. Normally you are saddled for good with these memory-gobbling pseudo-system apps.
  3. Perhaps the biggest problem is this. If a security hole is discovered in Android, Google has in the past issued an update within days. All Nexus devices get it OTA (Over The Air) directly from Google and are usually patched up within a week or two. For non-Nexus devices, however, the manufacturer has to reapply his modifications first, then test the new version thoroughly before releasing it. In the past this has rarely taken less than three months, and older phones have not received updates at all. Since this is a major security issue, I am not sure how anybody can buy a non-Nexus device and stay safe without doing major modifications. (See below for more details.)

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.

Nexus-like smartphones

There are three kinds of phones that are not Nexus devices, but still have similar characteristics:

  1. Phones made by Motorola since the mobile division was taken over by Google. The first fruit of this joining is the Moto G, the price breaker. It comes only with up to 16 GB internal memory and only 1 GB RAM and lacks some more exotic features like LTE and NFC, but it is a powerful, modern device and costs only about half of the latest Nexus phone, the Google LG Nexus 5.
  2. Phones that come with or are prepared for CyanogenMod. In early 2014 only one of these existed—the OPPO N1, a powerful smartphone with a large 5.9 inch screen, a rotating high-performance camera with new flash technology, and a touchpad on its back.
  3. Google Play editions of some popular phones, currently the Samsung Galaxy S4 Google Play Edition and the HTC One Google Play Edition. Others may follow in 2014, but there were no announcements at the beginning of the year.

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.

The only way to defuse the ticking time bomb in an affected device was to install an alternative version of Android, like CyanogenMod or SuperNexus.

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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