/ Rob Pegoraro / 6 am Thu, Nov 13 2014
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  • The new Nexus lineup is weak

    The new Nexus lineup is weak

    Rob Pegoraro feels like he's playing with someone else's hobby rather than using serious handsets

    If you’ve sunk enough of your time into Android, the appearance of a new lineup of Nexus devices from Google can be both a yearly ritual and a source of exasperation.

    Historically, Nexus devices have represented Android done right. They ship without the bloatware that manufacturers and carriers spackle onto Google’s operating system. They get software updates almost immediately instead of months later, or never.

    And because Nexus phones come unlocked, free to use on any compatible service, they also feel like something that belongs to you, rather than a chain to the carrier that really owns it.

    But in the nearly five years since the Nexus One’s debut, the Nexus lineup has shifted sizes, shapes and prices in a way that starts to look like extended A/B testing program. And the latest crop—the Nexus 6 phone, Nexus 9 tablet, and Nexus Player media streamer—is weaker than usual.

    Nexus 6 : This phone dwarfs its ancestors—2010’s Nexus One andNexus S, 2011’s Galaxy Nexus, 2012’s Nexus 4 (note:my own phone) and last year’s Nexus 5. The Motorola-built Nexus 6 sports a 5.96-inch, Quad HD display that packs in far more pixels than any human retina can discern, yet loses much of that resolution to oversized icons and text that’s too large by default.

    More important, the Nexus 6 makes one-handed use a clumsy, fumbling routine—so much that it has me wondering what I found so awful about the first Galaxy Note.

    Here, for instance, are the gyrations I go through to search Twitter when holding the phone in my left hand: First, curl my fingers to twirl the phone up and to the left, so my thumb can reach the top-right corner; second, rotate it back down so that my thumb can traverse the keyboard; third, hope the phone doesn’t slip free.

    I appreciate the great standby battery life, even if Google’s 10-hour estimates for active use on LTE and my own experience don’t match other plus-sized phones’ endurance. The back camera—with optical image stabilization to steady low-light shots—is good too.

    But I don’t want to see the Nexus phone line become reserved for people with giant hands or who abandon single-handed use. Nor can I approve this ending a streak of Nexus phones costing less than flagship phones: the $650 list price matches that of an iPhone 6 and exceeds the Galaxy S5’s.

    Nexus 9: I liked the 2012 and 2013 Nexus 7 tablets—even if the screen on last year’s review unit mysteriously died two freakin’ days after my review. Undercutting Apple’s price while beating it to “Retina Display” sharpness? That’s how you compete with iOS.

    This year’s Nexus tablet carries no such advantage. The $399, HTC-made Nexus 9’s 8.9-inch screen falls between the $399 iPad mini 3 and the $499 iPad Air—and by shipping with only 16 GB of storage that you can’t expand with a microSD card, it misses a chance to outclass Apple’s equally stingy allocation of memory.

    The back camera has a flash (which you’ll probably never use) but is otherwise unexceptional, battery life is good but doesn’t set it apart from other tablets, there’s no easy authentication to match Apple’s Touch ID, and so on. This is a good tablet if you’re already locked into Android but offers no substantial appeal to the uncommitted. In a word: meh.

    And what if you want a smaller Android tablet free of the cruft other vendors add? I don’t know. Maybe Google now expects you to tote a Nexus 6?

    Nexus Player: Here we have the weakest contender of next year’s Nexus lineup. The Player is essentially a Chromecast at almost three times the price, with a small set of additional apps and a separate remote control.

    Some of its limits aren’t Google’s fault. Amazon seems militantly opposed to shipping apps for their video services for Android, so if you want to watch its instant video on your TV you’ll need to rely on any of its own apps, plug in a Roku or buy one of Amazon’s media players. And Apple—haha, forget about that.

    But even video and audio services with Player apps, such as Netflix, suffer from their separation from the Player’s voice search: Speak the title of a Netflix exclusive, and the Player will ask if you’d like to rent or buy it from Google’s Play store. You’re also stuck with an onscreen app grid and content suggestions based on Google’s inexact sense of your tastes.

    The Player shows some promise as a gaming platform, especially with a $39 game controller. But how many people are in the market for a games-first device for their TV but haven’t already bought one from Microsoft, Sony or Nintendo? Are we looking at this decade’s Bandai Pippin? Or this more like a much cheaper Nexus Q that’s actually reached the market?

    Either way, as a Chromecast owner who’s repeatedly recommended that handy little media-playing pod, I’m not sold.

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