Nexus 5: Impressions.

Google’s Nexus program is where it showcases what Android phones should be like, and not what manufacturers and carriers make it. That’s why, enthusiasts and geeks over the world freak out every time a Nexus phone is announced. I joined that herd this time around. What followed is a crazy wait for the Nexus 5 to arrive, and spending all the time I could get with it after it arrived, even if it was until the wee hours of the morning.

This isn’t a review. This is what I’ve felt while using the flagship Android phone, over the course of the weekend.

Hardware:

  1. The Nexus 5 is beautiful. The unassuming, calm matte of the phone is a joy to hold. It’s not the brushed aluminium that the iPhones are, or the HTC One is, but it’s not the trash-y plastic of the S4, either. It is a perfect midpoint of the two.
  2. The position of the micro-USB port at the bottom of the device is reverse. That’s weird because every charger and every USB cable I’ve got (Nokia, Sony, Palm, etc.) seem to have agreed on which side is top and which is the bottom. With this, LG and Google just reversed it. It’s confusing at first (I’m still in that phase) because the side you’re used to inserting on top is now the bottom.
  3. The screen is gorgeous. I was prepared to be amazed by the 1080p IPS display, but this is even better than what I expected. And surely beats the crap out of the over-saturated screens found on the Samsung phones.
  4. Rest, it’s a vanilla device. There’s nothing much to say except that the job of the design here is to get out of the way enough to let the user enjoy the software they way the engineers at Google intended it to be.

Software:

  1. Boy, this phone boots up fast!
  2. Much is said about providing the users with ‘stock Android’ experience when it comes to the devices of the ‘Nexus’ program. And the first thing you notice, right from the moment you boot up the phone and unlock to the home screen, is that this isn’t the stock Android they talk about. This is Google’s version of Android. There are Samsung’s, Sony’s, HTC’s, LG’s, Amazon’s, and-everyone-who-has-the-guts-to-design-their-own-software’s versions of Android, and the one that comes with the Nexus 5, is Google’s take on all of them. Google throws its own layer and skin atop stock Android making it not-so-stock anymore.
  3. Over the course of evolution of Android, Google has been abandoning the Android Open Source Project (referred now onwards as AOSP) to create proprietary, closed versions of its own apps to replace the native ones. As you open the ‘App Drawer’ for the first time, it’s tough to ignore this glaring duplication. There is an ‘Email’ app, and a ‘Gmail’ app. There is a ‘Settings’ app, and a ‘Google Settings’ app. There is a ‘Gallery’ app, and a ‘Photos’ app. And I can’t begin to wonder what happens when manufacturers and telecom carriers start adding their custom versions of apps, to the already present ones, complicating things further. Needless to say, this sucks, massively.
  4. I downloaded a whole bunch of apps on the first night (most of which I use on my primary phone, the iPhone 5, regularly). Of the first things I noticed was the lack of a common design language for apps. There’s very little similar between 2 apps (unless they’re from the same developer, of course), and each app is a learning curve. You’ve to spend some time figuring out what are the buttons you need to hit to accomplish a specific task. And more often than not, you will have to retry.
  5. It was only in my third attempt to change the wallpaper (one of the first things I believe anyone with a new phone would do) that I figured it wasn’t changing because I didn’t hit a faint tick symbol on the top of the screen.
  6. How does such a popular operating system, in its mature stage, not have a default ‘Lock Orientation’ quick toggle, leaves me dumbfounded.
  7. You can’t re-arrange apps in your ‘App Drawer’ based on your requirement. Android sorts it alphabetically, and that’s the only way. From what I understand, other launchers let you re-arrange them and add them to folders, etc., but shouldn’t I be able to do it by default too?
  8. Changing the ‘Font Size’ in the ‘Display Settings’ doesn’t seem to change it within apps. You’ve to manually change the ‘Font Size’ settings for every app.
  9. It’s nice how each app can talk to the other, and how most apps try to associate their login credentials to my registered Gmail address. Makes the set-up process faster and easier.
  10. The 3 dot target next to an app/content on the Play Store is a tough to hit target.
  11. There isn’t a universal go-to-the-top-of-the-screen button. With iOS, hitting the clock in the top bar, takes you to the top of the page. I find myself using that often, and trying to replicate the same on the Nexus 5.
  12. The function of the ‘Back’ button is a mystery to me. Hitting the on-screen ‘Back’ button in such apps usually throws me out of the app onto the home screen; while in other apps, I end up on the previous page of the app.
  13. Handling multiple notifications is a breeze. I can act on them together or ditch them all at once. It’s so much more useful, no wonder notification management on iOS is frowned upon.
  14. It’s insanely tough to find good, quality, original apps on the Play Store. You never know which app you downloaded includes malware or is just a phony duplicate which does nothing or an unstable version which will probably crash my phone. Makes me certain that sandboxing apps and making sure only quality, stable apps end up on the store is a better solution.
  15. Most of the apps are ugly iOS ports, and you know that by just how they look. That sucks because the 2 are such varied OSes that on Android, the apps don’t look native at all. And their icons look really bad.
  16. Google Now didn’t search through my list of apps until I went into the Google Now settings and unchecked and checked the setting for ‘Apps’ again. Some minor bug, I guess.
  17. It’s safe to say that 90% of 4.5+ inch phones are Android phones. Honestly, I think Google hasn’t thought or considered how tough it is to use the OS at such a huge screen size, without using both your hands. It’s tough to hit the back button on the top left of the phone within apps. What makes it worse that there aren’t any gestures that I can use, either. Sure, there must be some app which’d let me do that, but by default, I want to be able to swipe right from the left edge to open the left menu or to go back. It’s a very simple implementation, and would solve many problems.
  18. Multi-tasking leaves much to be desired. I can’t see much of the app, and neither do the apps update themselves in the background. The multi-tasking menu is far from aesthetically pleasing.
  19. KitKat seems far from complete. There are parts of the OS which use the darker colours, the original Android shades of black and blue, and there are parts which have been re-painted to white. The lack of uniformity is daunting.
  20. Google’s voice search is fantastic. It’s accurate and provides quick answers. Shows the world that Google isn’t letting its mastery slip by.
  21. There should be a way to manage which notification appears where on the notification screen, based on app, not the time of the notification. And if there is a way, I still haven’t been able to find it (Note: I haven’t Googled for it yet, either.)

Most of the software issues boil down to the lack of a common design language. The lack of definition of how an app should behave, and the lack of streamlining, the lack of uniformity. iOS ports don’t work for an OS that doesn’t look or behave like iOS. That’s what devs need to understand and Google needs to push.

At the end of the day, I come out with 2 very simple deductions.

One, Android in its current KitKat form, is a very able, and strong OS. It’s great, leveling, itself with iOS, and in some ways even better (just as it’s worse in some ways, too). It’s advanced, useful, and helps you get the work done.

Two, Android is complicated. It is not for the casual user. I said that a few months ago, and I repeat that again today. It’s not for the masses. I get why it has such a high adoption rate, but I want to see how many actually use it as a smartphone and not a feature phone. I’m sure it’s a much smaller fraction.

With the Nexus 5, Google has shown what the future of Android is. It has shown who is the boss and who controls the OS which earlier was open source. This isn’t the Android that Andy Rubin started out to make. This is the Android that Google needs to ensure that it keeps making money out of every dollar it spends in maintaining and building the OS. That’s Sunder Pichai’s job, and he seems to get that.

While Rubin’s job was to take a budding and developing OS mainstream, Pichai’s is to take a mature and growing OS and turn it into a cash cow. The Nexus 5 sends a strong statement to those who thought Google probably won’t ever make much money with Android (including me).

Here’s hoping Google fixes the discrepancies and issues with Android to make it an even better, friendlier mobile operating system…!

Author’s Note: All these are personal observations, over a 4-day period, on a Nexus 5 running Android KitKat 4.4.2, on Wi-Fi with no cellular connectivity.

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