For almost three years now, Google has been offering Android gadgets under its Nexus moniker — ones which put Android in its purest form on hardware that the company thinks is cool. The brand started with phones and then expanded to include the nifty Nexus 7 tablet (as well as the ill-fated Nexus Q TV gizmo).
Only now, however, is Nexus beginning to feel like a comprehensive product line. That’s because Google is adding a 10″ tablet, the Nexus 10 (the first Nexus tablet which competes directly with the iPad) and a new phone, the Nexus 4 (which replaces the aging Galaxy Nexus). Both will be available on November 13; Google provided me with review units this week.
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Even though Google is now the proud owner of Motorola, it doesn’t rely on its own hardware arm to produce Nexus devices. Instead, it spreads the wealth around: The Nexus 4 is an LG device, the Nexus 7 is from Asus and the Nexus 10 was manufactured by Samsung.
As a result of this I-love-all-my-children-equally approach, there’s no overarching Nexus aesthetic, except for maybe “dark, with interesting textures or patterns.” So hardware-wise, the Nexus 10 doesn’t particularly look like the Nexus 7. The backside of the case is made of a rubberized plastic, and the most striking thing about it isn’t how it looks, but how it feels. It’s got an almost leathery touch I haven’t encountered in any other gadget.
I’d still take the iPad’s aluminum case over rubbery plastic in a heartbeat, but otherwise, the Nexus 10’s hardware certainly gives the iPad a run for its money. This tablet is slightly thinner and lighter than the full-sized iPad. Its dual-core processor and 2GB of RAM paid off in fast performance in the apps I tried. Unlike most tablets, it puts its stereo speakers on the front, so sound is projected right at you rather than fading into the distance. And it has MIMO wi-fi, a technology which can provide a considerable speed boost in the right circumstances.
Most strikingly, the Nexus 10 out-Retinas the iPad with a 2560-by-1600 10.1″ screen at 300 pixels per inch. (The full-sized iPad’s 9.7″ display is 2048-by-1536 at 264 PPI.) Text and photos look fabulous in a way they haven’t on any other Android tablet I’ve used.
The best thing about the Nexus 10 is its operating system — Android 4.2 Jelly Bean, a medium-sized upgrade which is debuting on the new Nexus devices. Like Android 4.1 on the Nexus 7, it’s smooth, good-looking and generally pleasant in a way that previous versions of Android were not. The new version has a bunch of worthy tweaks, including the ability to trace from character to character on the on-screen keyboard without lifting your finger (obviously inspired by Swype) and to push e-mails out of the inbox to archive them with one gesture. (Two intriguing features weren’t available when I tried the tablet, but should be there by the time the tablet ships: multi-user support so multiple family members can share a Nexus 10, and the ability to put widgets on the lock screen.)
After a very slow start compared to Apple, Google has also made progress with its stores for movies, music and magazines. For instance, dozens of magazines are available that take advantage of the Nexus 10’s high-resolution screen.
What remains extremely disappointing — and prevents the Nexus 10 from truly being the iPad’s peer — is the paucity of third-party software to shine on this tablet. Google Play has plenty of apps, but too few of them are designed with a roomy tablet screen in mind. On an iPad, for example, Rdio looks great and makes good use of the real estate it’s got; on the Nexus 10, it’s the Android phone version padded out with an absurd amount of blank space.
Still, an awful lot is right with the Nexus 10’s hardware and operating system. And the price — $399 with 16GB, or $499 with 32GB — is reasonable. It may be the first full-sized Android tablet that deserves to be a hit. And since it’ll be available at Wal-Mart as well as through Google’s online store, it has a shot at reaching a wide audience.
As for the Nexus 4, it’s interesting in part because it features hardware from LG, a company which has had a low profile in the U.S. smartphone market. Its 4.7″ screen is a bit larger than the 4.65″ one on last year’s Galaxy Nexus; the phone is a tad thicker and heavier even though the battery is sealed in this time around. It’s a very s0lid-feeling, well-built handset.
At 1280-by-768 pixels, the screen is Retina-class, and as with the iPhone 5, the touchscreen is laminated onto the LCD so it doesn’t feel like there’s a glass barrier between your fingertip and the pixels. The 4 also has built-in inductive charging, so you can recharge the battery by placing it on a mat rather than plugging in a cable.
Android 4.2 is as enjoyable on the Nexus 4 as it is on the Nexus 10. And one new feature, Photo Sphere, makes a lot more sense on a phone than a tablet. It lets you shoot multiple photos which the camera then stitches into a 360-degree panorama you can explore by looking up and down as well as to the left and right — and which you can then upload to Google+ or Google Maps.
Here’s a Photo Sphere I shot on San Francisco’s Embarcadero. They’re fun to create, even though the ones I made tended to end up with disembodied body parts gamboling around, since it takes several minutes to capture all the photos and any random strangers in them will likely walk around while you’re at work.
The most surprising thing the Nexus 4 doesn’t have is support for zippy LTE 4G wireless. Instead, it’s an HSPA+ device running on a standard (available in the U.S. on AT&T and T-Mobile, but not Verizon or Sprint) which is fast, but not as fast as LTE can be. As with most previous Nexus phones, Google wanted to sell it as an unlocked phone that would work around the world; doing that with LTE apparently wasn’t feasible.
If buying an unlocked phone is really important to you — or you’re on T-Mobile, which is just getting started with LTE — the tradeoff may be worth it. And Google is pricing the Nexus 4 very aggressively: It’s $299 with 8GB of storage or $349 with 16GB, no contract required. (An unlocked Samsung Galaxy S III, similar in many respects to this phone, theoretically lists for $899 and is around $550 at Amazon.) T-Mobile is selling the 16GB model online and at select stores, but its pricing isn’t as sweet as Google’s: It’s charging $199 with a two-year contract or $499 without a contract.
Neither of these devices is entirely free of gotchas, but both do well by their operating system in a way that’s never a given in Androidland. If you want to see what Google’s operating system is like at its best, you should check out the Nexus 10 and Nexus 4 when they go on sale the week after next.