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.

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