Mobility

Google Nexus: The smart person's guide

This comprehensive guide covers the Android flagship device series, including the benefits and limitations compared to other phones, as well as why it matters for business.

Image: Josh Miller/CNET

Smartphones are as integral to any modern workforce as a traditional desktop or notebook computer. Unlike these traditional computers, most Android smartphones lack timely platform or security updates, making them a weak link in information security. Google's Nexus device series is typically the first to receive the software updates, and is considered the "cleanest" Android experience, free from OEM modifications, which often unnecessarily consume resources.

TechRepublic's smart person's guide to the Google Nexus device series is a quick introduction to the usability, productivity, and security benefits of Android on Nexus.

Update on July 21, 2017: Google has slightly altered its direction since this guide was first published, so we will not be making additional updates to this resource. Be sure to check out the Google Pixel phone smart person's guide, and our latest coverage of Google and mobility stories.

Executive summary

  • What is it? Google's Nexus line of devices are flagship Android products produced in cooperation with OEMs, whereas Pixel devices are completely in-house.
  • Why does it matter? Nexus and Pixel devices receive OS and security updates directly from Google, often well before other Android devices.
  • Who does this affect? Nexus devices are a good value proposition, as they combine quality hardware with finely tuned software, with a longer support life span than average Android phones.
  • When is this happening? The first Nexus device was released in January 2010, though new hardware is typically released in October.
  • How do I get it? Current generation Nexus devices can be purchased from the Google Store, or from third-party retailers.

SEE: Check out all of TechRepublic's smart person's guides

What is Google Nexus?

Google's Nexus brand is a line of Android devices (phones, tablets, and media players) that are manufactured by select OEMs, including HTC, ASUS, LG, Huawei, Samsung, and Motorola. Unlike other Android products offered by these companies, the entire software stack is provided directly by Google, without skins or bloatware added by manufacturers or mobile network operators. Similarly, Google's Pixel brand is completely in-house—the design, manufacturing, and software stack is handled by Google. Additionally, Pixel products are only available directly from the Google Store.

Combined, the Nexus and Pixel brands are Google's flagship Android products, and are analogous to Microsoft's Surface and Lumia products, and Apple's iPhone, iPad, and Apple TV products.

SEE: Securing Your Mobile Enterprise (ZDNet/TechRepublic special feature)

Presently, the current Nexus phones are the 6P and 5X, which launched in October 2015. Their predecessors—the Nexus 6 from October 2014, and Nexus 5 from October 2013—are currently supported, though no longer available on the Google Store. The Pixel C, which launched in December 2015, is the current Android flagship tablet. The Nexus 9 and Nexus 7 (2013) are currently supported, though no longer available from the Google store. The Nexus Player is the only released media player, though it was removed from the Google Store in May 2016 without an announced successor.

Unsupported, legacy devices include the the Nexus 4, Galaxy Nexus, Nexus S, and Nexus One phones, as well as the Nexus 7 (2012) and 10 tablets. The Nexus Q was cancelled shortly after being announced, with units given away for free to those who pre-ordered.

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Why does Google Nexus matter?

Because Google directly supplies the Android for Nexus phones, these phones are typically the first to receive OS updates. This is an important consideration for developers, as Google also provides early builds of future Android versions through the Android Developer Preview program.

All users also benefit from monthly security updates, which can be delivered directly to devices without delays from device manufacturers, or interference from mobile network operators. While Samsung, LG, and Sony have committed to provide monthly security updates, carrier-branded phones continue to lag behind in security updates. Not all companies have agreed to provide these security updates, and a representative from HTC called the plan "unrealistic."

Additionally, Nexus devices serve as the standard-bearer of Android, and are often the first to deliver new features—due in large part to having hardware features built around added software support. For example, the Nexus 5X and 6P introduced native fingerprint reader support and USB Type-C compatibility, both of which were made possible by merit of added support in Android 6.0 (Marshmallow).

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Who does Google Nexus affect?

Aside from the aforementioned focus on OS and security updates, the Nexus series is traditionally a good value proposition—vendors such as Sony have a good history of providing multiple OS updates for phones and tablets, though are often more expensive than competitors' products. Mid-range smartphones from all vendors have a particularly poor history of timely software updates. The high-end Nexus 6P starts at $499 for the 32GB model, whereas the Galaxy S7 is $679, and the HTC 10 is $699.

Additionally, the Pixel C tablet is obviously designed around productivity—it has a unique screen ratio of 1:√2 (a resolution of 2560x1800), which prevents apps in the split screen mode introduced in Android N from feeling cramped. (This is the same idea as the international A4 paper size.) Combined with the magnetic Bluetooth keyboard, it feels very much like a more solid competitor to Microsoft's Surface tablets.

Although the Nexus Player is intended primarily for home media consumption, it makes a compelling solution for digital signage at $79.

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When is Google Nexus happening?

Current generation devices—the Nexus 5X, 6P, and Pixel C—are available now on the Google Store. According to Google's official policy on Nexus updates, devices will receive major OS updates "for at least two years from when the device became available on the Google Store" and security updates for "the longer of 3 years from availability or 18 months from when the Google Store last sold the device."

Since 2011, all new Nexus phones have been announced during the month of October. Accordingly, the full-size tablets—Nexus 9, 10, and Pixel C—as well as the Nexus Player, have also been announced during the month of October.

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How do I get a Nexus device?

Nexus devices are available on the Google Store, as well as third-party retailers. Google Pixel products are exclusive to the Google Store. Of note, Google offers the Nexus 5X for $199 (a discount of $150) with activation of Google's Project Fi mobile phone service.

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About James Sanders

James Sanders is a Java programmer specializing in software as a service and thin client design, and virtualizing legacy programs for modern hardware.

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