Is Buying The Nexus The Only Answer To Android Fragmentation?

If you're an Android geek, you're probably sick of hearing about Android's "fragmentation" problem. Is the only solution buying the Nexus, Google's flagship model? Whitson Gordon thinks so, but Elly Hart isn't convinced.

Title image remixed from Adchariyaphoto.

Go Nexus: Whitson's View

We've heard promises from Google time and time again that updating will be easier, but it's time to bite the bullet and accept that for us Android geeks the Nexus is the only phone worth buying.

The Fragmentation Problem

Put simply, Android's fragmentation problem can be summed up by looking at the iPhone: When a new iPhone update rolls out, every newer-than-two-years old iPhone owner can expect to upgrade at the same time. They may not all have the exact same feature set — for example, the iPhone 4 won't have the new turn-by-turn navigation coming in iOS 6 — but they're at least guaranteed to be updated with some new features. This is easy for Apple to do because it makes the hardware and the software, meaning it has a lot of control over each device and the software it gets.

Unfortunately, Android is different. With Android, you have multiple manufacturers taking Android, tweaking it with their own UIs and editing it to fit lots of different devices. The problem is those devices don't get software updates as soon as Google releases them, and in a lot of cases, they don't get them at all. Android manufacturers have gotten worse at keeping up with updates over the past year too. Only 10 per cent of Android users even have Ice Cream Sandwich, and Jelly Bean is already out in the wild. We complain about this all the time, and yet so many of us have ignored the most obvious solution: just get a Nexus.

What's a Nexus?

For those of you who don't know, Nexus is essentially Google's iPhone. Google has full control over the hardware and software, comes out with a new Nexus every year or so, and updates all recent-ish Nexus phones with the latest version of Android as soon as possible. The Galaxy Nexus is the latest Nexus phone, available on multiple carriers (check our Planhacker guide for all the Australian suppliers), and has already updated to support Android 4.1 Jelly Bean. The OS is also completely open source, so it's easy to make custom ROMs. It has an unlockable bootloader for flashing custom kernels, and a stock version of Android without any crapware or bloated UI tweaks. However, for some reason, it's often ignored even by Android geeks, who opt for other, less advantageous phones from other manufacturers.

What You Get (Or Rather, Don't Get) With A Non-Nexus Phone

One of the best things about Android is that you have your pick between lots of different handsets — some large, some small, some with styluses, some with physical keyboards. Many have their own UI on top of Android, which brings extra features to the device (which are sometimes good and sometimes awful). The choice is nice, but by buying one of these phones, you make one big sacrifice: updates. You may get them, but they aren't guaranteed, and you certainly won't get them in a timely fashion. When buying a non-Nexus phone, you should buy it based on what the phone is like out of the box and consider any software updates you end up getting are an exciting bonus. I really can't put it better than Matt Buchanan did over at Buzzfeed:

You might buy a new phone that's missing something, thinking, "It will get better." No, it won't. If I were to tell you one thing about buying technology, it is this: Buy something because you like what it is right now, not because you think it's going to get better, or that one day it'll be what you really wanted it to be. It's kind of like marrying somebody and thinking you'll change them and they'll get better. They might. But they probably won't. Over time, you'll just hate them even more. And yourself, at least a little.

Now, in the case of Android, it may not always be this dramatic. In fact, most phones are pretty awesome when they come out — like the Samsung Galaxy S III. Is it a good phone? Sure it is. But it's already outdated compared to the Galaxy Nexus, a phone that came out around seven months ago. It will probably get Android 4.1 at some point, but you'll be waiting a while — and we'll already be halfway to another version of Android by then.

What You Get With A Nexus Phone

Because Google has so much more control over the Nexus phones — and because they don't have manufacturer UIs and other roadblocks to the same extent — having a Nexus means you get updates almost as soon as Google releases them. They won't stay up to date forever, of course, but if an update is coming, you'll be the first to have it. Not only that, but you'll have more stable ROMs, better rooting methods, and all around an easier time hacking and tweaking your phone, all because developers have more to work with. Plus, you don't get locked bootloaders like you do on other phones.

The downside, obviously, is choice. You no longer have a heap of different devices to choose from; instead, you're predictably buying the one phone that comes out every year, made by the same people that make the software (sound familiar?). It may not be as fun as choosing your own phone, but it does have its advantages: you don't have to deal with the "should I wait" question, and you're pretty much guaranteed to have awesome hardware if you buy it at release time. Heck, the Galaxy Nexus is still a pretty awesome phone, hardware-wise — and frankly, I'd rather have constant Android updates than an extra 0.2GHz in my phone's processor.

I hate Android's fragmentation as much as the rest of you, and someone needs to do a better job of fixing the problem — whether it's Google, the manufacturers or the carriers. But until that happens, there's no reason for us Android lovers to torture ourselves by buying marginally better phones and sacrifice the ability to get updates and an easy hacking experience. The next time you're in the market for a new phone, ignore your impulse to shop around and just get the Nexus — you'll be a lot happier in the end.


It's Not That Simple: Elly's View

Whitson makes a compelling point about the Galaxy Nexus being the only phone Android geeks should be buying, but being forced into using one device goes against the fundamentals of open-source software. Isn't that the whole point of Android?

Fixing the fragmentation problem is also a different story in Australia, where the Galaxy Nexus is not available directly from Google and has already been dropped by Telstra and Optus. In fact, the few choices you have left to get the Google phone include signing a contract with Vodafone or forking out hundreds up front for a grey import.

Software doesn't trump hardware. The Galaxy Nexus is a dealbreaker for many Android geeks because it just doesn't cut it in the hardware department. The camera is average at best, the screen is lacklustre, and battery life sucks. Would you rather buy an Android phone with great hardware and the best chance at being compatible with future versions of Android, or would you choose a Google phone with older hardware that might not see as many Android iterations before being dumped? For instance, the Galaxy Nexus might be first to get Jelly Bean, but the Galaxy S III's newer hardware will probably ensure that it continues to get updates after the Galaxy Nexus' hardware becomes obsolete. Having compatible hardware and actually getting the update are two different things, but that's a story for another day.

Whitson and Matt are right about "buying something because you like what it is right now", but those future firmware updates are essential to the Android experience. What you get out of the box with an Android phone is the excitement that comes with customisation possibilities and anticipation of future updates. In the minds of consumers, it's a package deal — not an optional bonus. Android is intrinsically defined by its updates.

Manufacturers, carriers and the media perpetuate this sense of entitlement. The internet gets hysterical over point releases and speculate about fragmentation, so Android updates have turned into highly anticipated events. Meanwhile, manufacturers and carriers openly promote Android updates as a selling point. "Your Android smartphone will just keep getting better," Samsung gushes. "The majority of devices will receive upgrades in June and July 2012," HTC says. Most manufacturers and carriers have also started publishing schedules online so that users can see which devices will get updates and when.

Not even the Google phone is guaranteed to be first in line for updates. Because manufacturers and carriers insist on getting their fingers all over each and every update, non-Nexus devices could in fact end up getting Jelly Bean before some Galaxy Nexus users. Samsung and Motorola have historically been slower than HTC and Asus in pushing out updates, but they've shown progress in recent months. Google even said that only "some" Galaxy Nexus users would start seeing Jelly Bean in mid-July, and Telstra only just managed to push out Android 4.0.4 before dropping the Galaxy Nexus from its product line altogether. And unless you imported your Galaxy Nexus, you can bet that it'll be at least a month or two before your carrier hands down Jelly Bean to you.

Unlocked bootloaders and rooting are more mainstream now than ever. It's no longer the domain of a few stock Android devices. Manufacturers are more likely now than ever before to leave bootloaders unlocked for users who want to root their devices. The hacker-type community behind custom ROMS and system-level modifications is large enough now that you can find rooting and flashing instructions for just about any device. CynagenMod, one of the most well-known third-party Android ROMs, has clocked up over 2.5 million installations over dozens of different devices, and they offer features that go above and beyond stock Android.

Google knows all too well that Android's culture of updates isn't helping fragmentation, but it's taken steps to solve the problem and will continue to improve. While an alliance of sorts between carriers and manufacturers hopelessly failed, Google has reined in the pace of updates over the last 12 months to allow devices to catch up. It's also set up various compatibility programs, developer initiatives, and now the platform developer kit (PDK) announced at Google I/O this year. The PDK is especially important because it gives manufacturers early access to Android updates for testing and tweaking that should result in faster updates to users.

So if you just want to be among the first to get the latest and greatest version of Android, and you don't really care about the hardware, get a Nexus. The reality is that if you're motivated enough to root and flash your smartphone, you don't care when or if your carrier will roll out an update. You'll go out of your way to get it yourself. There's nothing much we can do as the end user about fragmentation other than to keep doing what we're doing and give ourselves the best chance at receiving future Android updates:

1. Look at newly released devices — don't bother with anything more than six months old 2. Look at high-end or flagship models — don't look at budget or mid-range products 3. Be informed about when Google is expected to release a major update. 4. Keep up to date with your carrier's Android update schedules. 5. Check your manufacturer's history of updates — some manufacturers are quicker than others. 6. Avoid devices with locked bootloaders — or check online for a workaround.

Ideally, you'll end up with a device that puts you in a strong position to receive future versions of Android. That means carefully considering hardware along with the software — not settling for a particular device because you feel like you have no choice. It will be more work for you, but that's part of the appeal and reward of choosing Android.


Comments

    Wow, reading the above article, there only seems to be one solution to the Android fragmentation issue. Get an iPhone :)

      woah! woah! settle down there matey, im not jumping over to the North Korea of Tech just because i cant get an update, custom roms suit me fine!

        Kim Il Jobs makes great phones though, his people adore and clap so loudly it must be true!

        haha its great you love being 'in control' of your phone so much because you have the time and the inclination, but don't think for a minute that the other 99.999999999% of the world does.

    firstly - the gnex's screen is luckluster? really i get nothing but compliments about mine even from retina display loving new ipad owners?? :S but anyway

    i think both OPs are right, if you want the latest updates guaranteed for the time your device is relavant the nexus device is your only option BUT only if its an unlocked non carrier version and the sooner google start selling it here the better, if you buy a none nexus device then you should NOT expect timely updates, especially if you buy it through a carrier. (i mean expect in the" it will happen sense", you should dam well expect the company to do updates but dont expect its a set in stone going to happen thing)

    that seems reasonably fair after all of course google are gonna be able to roll out updates quicker then manufacturers and carriers but the real problem in my opinion is that this fact is not advertised rather the complete opposite both manufacturers and carriers advertise all the time that new and shiny device x will for sure get update y and they sell the devices off the back of this blatant lie, when i purchased my galaxy nexus from optus i was told by no less then 2 staffers that the gnex is a nexus device so i will get updates within days of their release, i knew this to be a outright lie, but its almost my job to know this average joe out there doesn't know what i know and would assume getting the latest updates is a huge bonus and the sales guy is telling me it'll happen within days so i should buy this product.

    ive said on other forums and sites that there needs to be a crackdown and rules set on device lifespans and update expectancy, of course sorting out who sets these rules and enforces them is the biggest issue but in a quick dream world you would have a consumer affairs style group setting the support lifespan of devices, i signed a 2 year contract with company x thy should at least support the device for that long too, and then updates well i guess that needs to come from google and trickle down (or course this is rather hard with it being open source and all but), if you want to be an android partner then you must port updates to your devices (that are within a set lifespan again y not 2 years) within a set time frame say a month or two and trickled down carriers who wish to sell android devices must get there "testing" done within a couple weeks, this would guarantee customers that should there phones be "alive" they will get the latest updates within 6-10 weeks of release from google, everyone would know when and for how long devices will be supported and can buy with confidence.

    of course that would take major initiative and a big shakeup from many players who are making money comfortably right now but im sure the flow on effects would be great the least of which would be no more fragmentation claims...we can dream

      woah! settle down there matey, im not jumping over to the North Korea of Tech just because i cant get an update, custom roms suit me fine!

        woops wrong reply, sorry fury s-12, though i havnt read your comment, u may deserve the response as well ;)

      I agree, watching 720p videos on my galaxy nexus is just amazing. I actually had an s2 before I got fed up with the software. The screen isn't lackluster, it just isn't an over saturated piece of crap. I can extend my battery life to over 2 days thanks to a battery saving app. The camera is fine and shoots great video. The only hardware problem (that wasn't even mentioned) was the absence of an SD card slot.

        Completely disagree. If you aren't set to 100% brightness, the screen is horrible. A white screen has varied colours all over, the backlight is not evenly spread and when going from portrait to landscape the areas that are normally the notification bar and bottom buttons are a vastly different colour.

        As also mentioned, the camera is horrible and even with the extended battery (vastly increasing the size) is just downright crap.

    It's funny that five years ago this wouldn't even be a conversation. You got your phone and you were darn well happy with it.

    I would be curious about the percentage of android uses who have actually upgraded, not running ICS.

    Elly's take seems of a bit of best case scenario, which if it does happen, it would be great! But really, I can't see the carriers passing these things down. The percentage of the market that really cares about this stuff is just too small for them to care about and make any real effort to update.

      Yeah, you're talking about when phones were just phones..

      You're right. Carriers and manufacturers should just get out of the operating system maintenance business and leave that to Google.. Then we can get updates straight from the source.

    The whole model of operator/manufacturer modified operating system is wrong.
    A vastly varied Windows based computers get their operating system updates straight from the source, Microsoft everyday.
    The world be a much better place if phone manufacturers were just that, manufacturers, and stayed away from the O/S.

    It is very easy to flash the yakju factory image. Took the whole of 10 minutes. Now I'm rocking jellybean. The reason I love the nexus is, if you think about it, each Android OS is written for that phone with that chip set etc. So many phones get an update and there are little quirks and errors. For instance ICS is amazing but it broke some features on some Samsung GS2s. Doesn't happen on a nexus

      it may be easy for you, but the average joe who just wants the latest version because why wouldn't you, would find it daunting and wouldn't expect to have to do that, especially a data loss method. not too mention no carrier allows you to root or flash etc and it will void your warranty

        There is no way that they can tell you have rooted your phone, no? Buy a jig, reset flash counter and return to the shop with stock firmware - none the wiser. Or am I missing something? Sure the average Joe might be daunted by all this, but you can guarantee they have a relative or friend that isn't and can help them out. Especially if they are on Lifehacker reading about android fragmentation :P

        I'm sorry you feel daunted. I was too. But I followed a key stroke for key stroke guide and it was fine. Of course you need to do some reading around the topic but if you can set up your modem you can just as easily flash to yakju. Check out efrant's post on FDA developers forum. If you don't want to flash a stock Google image don't worry anyway. Aus phones (i think) all have just got updated to 4.0.4 which is the second latest build. You will get jelly bean in 2 months. Not yakju instant, but still faster than any other phone

    Out of curiosity, how come an iPhone on say Telstra doesn't need a carrier vetting process when android phones do?

      I've always wondered about this BS double standard.

      Because the one thing apple did really well with the iPhone (coming from a current but disappointed iPhone 4 user [who bought it for the reason they say not to in this article, and is half stuck in the apple ecosystem]) is they told the carriers to get stuffed, and that "If you want to sell the iPhone (and you know you do) then you'll shut up and do it our way"

      tim said it first apple basically said if you want to sell this then your doing it our way, apple had the recent success of the ipod and it was common knowledge thats how apple works so they could do this and carriers would agree, google didn't have this clout when they first introduced android but they do know and they really need to with the nexus line, other carriers not so much but at least the nexus line needs to do this

        But carriers claim that they need to make sure the hardware is still compliant for emergency calls, and that is what takes so long. If the iphone system software is updated, surely the same checks are needed? otherwise, once a base version of android is verified, all manufacturer versions based on that should be good to go, shouldn't they? dont they all use the same basecode?

      Software update "handled" by carriers is BS, c'mon android's a linux, isn't it.
      Do it the MS way, Google makes OS, carriers write drivers.

    Is this fragmentation problem for the general public who are not willing to root? because with rooting I do not see the fragmentation issue... I was running gingerbread by the time telstra released their froyo equivalent. even with the premium rom manager you can do over the air update with your custom rom...

      yes and no the fragmentation problem in general is felt the most by developers as they have to try and support a large number of devices and OS versions, google do alot to make this as easy as possible for instance you (basically) just supply one layout outline and some difference resolution assets and android automatically picks the best one for the current device making the many different screen sizes and resolutions practically a non issue, if the OS version fragmentation was removed and devs knew that any current device would have or will have soon enough the latest version of the OS it would make life more easy this of course all trickles down to the consumer getting better and more apps

      for a more consumer direct issue there is the issue of seeing the latest and greatest features of android and getting an outdated version on the new device they just brought, like google now is a huge selling point that im sure one or two "average joes" have heard about but if they go out an buy an optus galaxy s2 they are likely never going to see google now through official sources

    A couple of thoughts:

    -For people like me who are willing to root the phone and install aftermarket roms this is a non-issue. I know exactly what I want from a phone, I research and make sure I buy one that has strong community support via cyanogenmod/XDA and I get updates well past whatever the manufacturer decides.

    -For people like my parents (who both have Android phones) they don't know or care about software updates. They are happy with the phones exactly how they are. If anything, updates for them would probably be a bad thing.

    At a guess, I'd say those two groups make up a large number of Android users.

      system changing updates like gingerbread to ICS but point updates like 4.0 to 4.04 that fix alot of bugs etc still take forever to come out which is rubbish even with the bs testing and such carriers do a point update should be a quick process, apparently not though

      Unfortunately users like you just make life more difficult for the app developers, they can't possibly test their apps on every official Android handset (running several possible official versions of Android) AND all the aftermarket roms too. This is one reason the app situation with Android is so poor. Lots of apps, but not many that are much good because the developers can't spend the time making them work well when they are flat out trying to make them work on as many varieties of Android and as many different handsets and tablets as possible. And to top it all off they find most Android customers are reluctant to pay for apps anyway, so why bother?

      Your parents and the great mass of non-nerd users like them (people who just want to use their phones rather than constantly tweak them) may not care about updates but they suffer without them - most importantly they don't get many/any security updates, and that just leaves them open to all sorts of problems, problems they are totally unaware of and ill equipped to do anything about even if they did know. Bugs never get fixed, security holes never get plugged, the lack of timely (often any) updates for most Android phones is a serious problem whether the end users realise it or not.

    as many say u can run a custom rom....but there will be lot of bugs fir free (correct me if im wrong)
    also buying a nexus...No SD card slot...which is stopper for many

    Fragmentation is a problem and Google could do a few things to reign it in, BUT I've never been tempted by a nexus phone over a galaxy phone simply because of the hardware.
    The lack on an SD card on the nexus phone killed it for me, and the GS2 has a better screen.
    I also prefer the Samsung home button but that's probably personal taste. Perhaps having 2 or 3 nexus models would help Google. A cheap one, a midrange and a flagship.
    As for the software and updates.... we'll I'm probably the minority but I run a custom ROM. I change/update it whenever I want and add/remove whatever features/apps I want.
    In this case I totally don't care about Google's updates and especially and fairly small and incremental one like Jelly Bean.
    I am actually interested in the Nexus tablet, but again, that's got nothing to do with the software, but a nice screen, good battery, great design and very cheap price. And for that price I'm happy to accept no SD card and no 3G. It's all about the cost.

    It's the same with computers. I'm a very heavy PC user/gamer. But I can't justify spending $600 on the latest GFX card every 6 months.

    TLDR:
    Software can be changed - buy a device for the hardware not the software.

      Also just like a carrier - buy it for the coverage, speed and quality not the bundled crapware they load on a phone.

      Dude. Jellybean is a huge upgrade. Project butter lives up to its name. No lag whatsoever. NONE

    I don't get it, when these phones come out they are "Google magnificence" but now it's "The camera is average at best, the screen is lacklustre, and battery life sucks".

    Also, with the SGS3 if it's so good at the moment, why would it need an OS update straight away when released anyway? It will be the same phone it is now in 6 months time. And it's not like the GNex has become worse since it was released, I feel like people just have a whinge for the sake of it.

    If your phone takes 10 seconds to boot now, and takes 10 seconds to boot in 6 months time, it's not all of a sudden "lackluster" because other phones can boot in 5 seconds.

    Peoples expectations change way too quickly! If you're happy with the performance of any phone at the time of buying, you should be happy with it in 6-12 months time regardless of what OS releases are out.

    I'm sick of hearing about "fragmentation" (note the quotes), because almost all the time, the offender doesn't have a fucking clue what they are talking about.

    Two rules really - buy a nexus device, or flash yourself to an AOSP experience. I think my next will be a Nexus device, but will have to wait and see if they cripple it like they have been known to.

    CM and AOKP are as good as AOSP, and will always be available for flagship models for a decent amount of time :)

    I must be one of the lucky ones - I got the update this morning.

    "Google even said that only “some” Galaxy Nexus users would start seeing Jelly Bean in mid-July"

    I have a Galaxy Note and a Galaxy SII. They are both running CM9 and are, quite frankly, freaking awesome.

    However, I can't help but get jealous of JellyBean, so I am seriously considering buying a nexus. But the big question is.. when is the next one coming out? I fell like buying one now is buying at the end of the cycle.

      just give it a few months, and CM10 will come out. and if it hasnt, the new galaxy nexus probably will have :p

    I left the iPhone for a galaxy nexus. It was a terrible decision. The galaxy nexus reboots at random intervals, gives error messages because it cannot detect its own camera, drops calls at about 25 seconds, takes a long time to load apps especially Facebook. Many apps just fail and do not even work at all.....should I go on. I am not a apple fan boy, I just hate that my old iphone 3gs is more reliable in every way. The phone has been back to optus and apparent fine....aaaahhhhh. Take this advice, don't get a nexus. Or please correct me if I am wrong or there really is some fundamental problem with my phone.

    I have a motorola xoom that was running a nice version of jelly bean AOSP two days after the source code was released and all it took was googling "xoom jelly bean" and i had a full guide and ROM download, anyone complaining about not getting the current version from their service provider should put in that 5% extra effort if they want the features as soon as they're released. Just my opinion anyway...

    from the linked "battery" sucking page:

    "My biggest gripe with the Galaxy Nexus is the battery life. It’s really not good. The 1750mAh battery just isn’t enough for the juice-sucking nature of Ice Cream Sandwich. With moderate-heavy usage, I can squeeze half a day out of it, but even with light-moderate usage, it tells me that I have to connect my charger by dinnertime"

    completely disagree.

    i've never heard anyone else complain about the battery being so awful. I'm happy with over 16 hours of battery in my light-heavy usage before i need to charge again.

    How the author labels ICS as "battery sucking" is beyond me.

    another consideration is that app developers sometimes lag behind the latest version, so when ICS came out early adopters couldn't get viber for weeks/months because it wasn't yet compatible. sometimes being a bit laters means all the apps are up to speed

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