First Click: What was the best Nexus?

September 23rd, 2016


It feels like almost yesterday that we were excitedly poring over the first pictures of the Nexus One, Google's own-brand Android smartphone that sought to present the company's operating system in the best possible light. That device was built by Taiwanese manufacturer HTC, and it's only fitting that HTC is once again Google's partner as the Nexus line is widely expected to be terminated next month in favor of the Google Pixel hardware branding. A great deal has happened in more than six years of Nexuses, and it's a history of innovation that's worth revisiting.

At the time of the Nexus One's launch in early 2010, the smartphone landscape looked very different to what it is today. Apple was contesting multitouch patents with Android manufacturers, and the Chinese companies that are now dominating the midrange and terrorizing market incumbents like LG and Sony were nowhere near being able to compete. The Nexus One arrived with Android 2.1 Eclair on board and was immediately one of the most intriguing devices of the year. At the very beginning, Google had a whole ambitious plan to sidestep carriers and sell its smartphone direct to consumers via an online portal — a business plan that has worked out very well for subsequent companies like OnePlus — but Google's ambitions seemed to be ahead of their time.

The Nexus S and Galaxy Nexus, both built by Samsung, worked out well both for Google and its hardware partner. They nudged Android phone makers in the right direction, signaled Google's hardware priorities and expectations, and boosted Samsung's respectability — just as the Nexus One bumped up HTC's brand cachet. Fun fact: Sony Ericsson turned down the opportunity to build the Nexus One, because it feared diluting its brand by acting as Google's lackey. It wasn't much later that Ericsson cashed out of the mobile phone business, and it might not be much longer that Sony remains in it either.

The Nexus 4 and Nexus 6 were frankly the two most forgettable devices in the Nexus line, though they served to bracket what I consider the pinnacle of the whole endeavor: the Nexus 5. Made by LG, this smartphone was a remix of the outstanding LG G2 from earlier in 2013, with a focus on bringing the price down without sacrificing any of the premium experience. It had blazing fast performance and a boldly simplified interface with larger icons, both making Android KitKat feel delightfully fresh and modern, and it was priced at $349. The combination of what the Nexus 5 could do and its unsubsidized price was totally unprecedented and it completely skewed the price-to-performance curve of smartphones. Like all Nexuses, the 5 didn't sell in huge volumes, but it set an example and foreshadowed the current wave of incredibly powerful and well designed phones at bargain prices.

Last year's Nexus 6P and 5X are likely to be the final hurrah for this range of devices from Google, with the manufacturing honors shared between Huawei for the larger 6P and LG for the more affordable 5X. In total, LG has been Google's most called-upon partner in the Nexus series, having also authored the Nexus 4, with Motorola, HTC, Samsung, and Huawei pitching in as well. It's regrettable that a company like Sony — outstanding in hardware design and engineering, but constantly struggling with software — couldn't figure out a way to participate in the Nexus program. Equally sad, though it was never really likely to happen, is the absence of a Nokia Nexus — that would have made a great many fans of mobile technology absolutely giddy with excitement.

But hey, onwards and upwards, Google's ramping up a massive marketing campaign for its new Pixel phones, and it looks determined to stamp its own brand and stake its own reputation on their success. That should excite us even more than just another Nexus.

And if Google's Nexus phones are indeed consigned to the past, that gives us the opportunity to indulge in one of the web's favorite activities: ranking things! Cast your vote below and explain your reasoning in the comments. What was the best Nexus?

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