Coming into the new year, the Faculty needed to updated its teaching equipment for Android. And if we have it, then I need to support it… you can see where this is going…
So within a week of each other I had in my hot little hands a Nexus 6, a Nexus 9, and a LG G Watch-R.
The Nexus 6
The Nexus 6 is Googles latest reference device. What I mean by that is every year or so Google partners with a manufacturer (this time Motorola) to produce a device that runs the latest spec hardware with an installation of absolutely vanilla Android. No extra apps, no bloatware; just Android and the standard Google Apps (Drive, Maps, Gmail, etc).
Previous to this I had a similarly spec-ed Samsung Note 3. The Note 3 is also of similar size, with both phones being of the phablet (very large phone) family. The Note 3 has a screen size of 5.7″ and the Nexus 6 5.96″. The Note 3 runs a Snapdragon 800, while the Nexus runs the next generation 805. Both run 3Gb of memory and have a vast array of senors, GPS, accelerometer etc etc.
However if you want a full hardware review, look else where. This is a story of actual day-to-day usage of the Nexus 6.
Make no mistake, the Nexus 6 is a big phone. And I mean properly big. This is a phone that will never pass the ‘mens jeans pocket’ test. The beast will spend its life in either your back pocket or the inside pocket of your jacket (usually weighing down your jacket to make it all wonky). However with that size comes screen real estate, and oh what lovely screen real estate that is. Motorola has gone all out with this 1440 x 2560 screen. It is crisp and fast and really the first phone (yes, even after the Note 3) that I am happy to sit back and watch a video on. It really does make all others feel like toys. I had to do something on a workmates iPhone the other day and just couldn’t get over how small it felt.
Although this is not a hardware review as such, on a phone like this you cannot go past the spec that this thing carries. The Snapdragon 805 is a blisteringly fast processor. Teamed with its Adreno 420 graphics processor and 3Gb of memory, it is no wonder that it eats anything else out there at the moment.
Specs are all fine however, but what this equates to in the real world is a phone that never waits, never pauses, never falters even for half a second. It is so quick to flick between apps, start new ones, refresh, etc etc. If you are anything like me and get frustrated at unnecessary wait times, you will truly love this.
Battery life is also sensational. Where the Note 3 got me ‘nearly’ 2 days, the Nexus is happy until about lunchtime on the third day.
However commenting on the specifications alone in regards to performance ignores what the Nexus range is all about. This is Android as Google designed it. No manufacturer bloatware, no extra apps, no added “utilities” from your telco. This is just Android + hardware drivers + basic Google applications. That’s it. Once you get through the initial start up wizard you are greeted with a home screen of just the basics and an app drawer that is nigh on empty compared to a normal android phone. The rest is up to you to fill.
And without all the extra stuff running in the back ground, it makes all the difference when it comes to performance. If you have ever loaded up one of the more stripped-out custom firmwares for other phones, you will know what I’m talking about.
This is ‘essence of Android’. There is nothing here to clog up the performance.
Yet this lack of apps can be a double edged sword. I know of quite a few people who have (as an example) had Samsung phones for quite a long time now and pretty much rely on the bundled applications that come with. Yet it is not this market the Nexus is aimed at. This is without a doubt an enthusiasts phone. This is the Android equivalent to a blank canvas to do with as you please.
For years now I have had “normal” manufactures phones. This is my first Nexus. And I can see why others who have had Nexus’ before rave about them so much (well, with the exception of the camera on the Nexus 5). For me this phone has been like a breath of fresh air. A phone cleared of all its clutter.
It is well built, well spec-ed, and well designed. It is just a shame that none of the Australian telco’s are going to run with it, so if you rely on getting your new phone on contract, you’re out of luck. To get this machine you will need to purchase it outright.
The Nexus 9
The Nexus 9 is Googles latest reference tablet. Much like the Nexus 6, it provides consumers with a vanilla installation of Android in a well spec-ed tablet. Unlike the 6 however, the Nexus 9 sports the latest nVidia K1 processor and GPU. This means that when it comes to performance, it is only nVidia’s own Tegra tablet that pips the Nexus 9 at the post.
Much of the Nexus 9 can be related to what I have written about the Nexus 6, with a few exceptions.
I’m not sure exactly why, but the screen has left me a bit cold. There is nothing exactly wrong with it, however it’s just a bit ‘meh’. It lack ‘pop’, almost like it needs the contrast and saturation turned up just a smidge. Given its screen size, it does not run the most exciting screen resolution either. Not that it is ‘low res’ by any stretch, but just enough to lack the ‘wow’ factor that I got from the 6.
While I can get nearly 2 and a half days of battery, with constant use, out of the Nexus 6, I have not been staggered by the battery usage on the 9. With only minimal use, I have been lucky to get 3 or 4 days out of it, with most of that spent on stand-by.
Lastly (and although it is much improved over Android 4), Android on a tablet still feels like an after thought to me. Still not sure I can put my finger on it, call it a hunch, but there is just something that feels a little unpolished about the combination.
Having my old iPad (gen 4) still sitting by the bed (which is where my tablets tend to live) I still find myself reaching for it. Although the Nexus 9 is considerably smaller and lighter, the iPad is still nicer to use and much nicer to look at. To say I am disappointed with the Nexus 6 is an over statement. It is by no means a bad tablet, however in the same breath I have to say this is not a great tablet either. It is still just another black-faced, wide bordered Android tablet that doesnt feel much different to use than the hundred other tablets on the market that match this description.
The LG G Watch-R
Let me start this by saying that Android Wear as a platform is new. Very new. To the point where when first released a lot of people bemoaned that it still felt like a beta release. I can understand this too. Even as a bit of a tech-head, if I’m shelling out good money for a retail device, I want to work and to work well.
However over the last 8 months or so it has matured noticeably already. And with the update to Lollipop, from a platform point of view it certainly seems stable and functional.
So now that I have Android on my wrist, what can it do?
Well, not that much to be brutally honest. If you are after a Dick Tracy style video call on your watch, or even a voice call you will be disappointed. There will be no “Echo Three to Echo Seven. Han, old buddy, do you read me?”.
What it can do can be broken down into three main categories: Voice Commands, Notifications, and app control.
The voice commands are an extension of Google Now, the voice command platform that is built into the phone. This can be very handy when needing to use your phone hands free. Such as “Navigate to…” “Call….” “Send text message to”. All this functions work well. (Although I did find the hard way that saying “Send Facebook message to David” simply sent a text message to David saying ‘Facebook’ which confused him a little). So while driving to/from work, I have found it useful to send a quick message to my wife and initiate a call, yet for the rest of the time I feel like a bit of a Muppet talking to my wrist whilst out in public, so don’t tend to do this.
The notifications are simply an extension of the notifications on your phone. If the app is able to publish notifications there, then they will appear on your watch. This can be good and bad depending on how many and how often you get email/Facebook/SMS notifications. The main upshot is you can just glance down at your watch to see as opposed to pulling out your phone each time.
App control greatly depends on if the app developer has created a Android Wear add-on for their app. My primary music player these days is PowerAmp. I love its control over sound interruptions (audio focus/dipping) and it’s auto detect of headphones and bluetooth audio connections. The publisher has created an Android Wear companion app which lets me play/pause/skip. If PowerAmp is not currently running I can launch it from my watch too.
I get the impression that although more and more of these companion apps are coming onto the market, a lot of developers are waiting to see if the effort is worth it for what is currently a very small market.
In the end Android Wear is not a life changing bit of technology. Had is had more real world functionality such as video and voice calls, then perhaps it would have had a bit more of a wow-factor. I still think it’s cool from a completely geeky point of view, yet as a real world device I am left a little cold and feeling like it is a nice novelty but not much more. Hopefully as the platform matures further, we will see more useful technologies emerge for the watch.
One big this I have skipped over in all these subjects is the new version of Android: Lollipop. Being version 5 of the OS, this platform is really showing how far Android has come. From my personal experience, Android has matured very nicely since version 3 (the tablet only version known as Honeycomb). From both a usability and stability point of view, it has come in leaps and bounds since then.
However there has always been one thing that I haven’t liked about Android since the beginning: the GUI has always been a dogs breakfast. With no set GUI framework, every app had its own set of colours, fonts, layouts, etc. Switching from one app to another always felt like you were switching from one universe to another. There was just no consistency. As a workmate once said “This is a GUI written by programmers”.
Lollipop hopes to fix this with the introduction of a GUI framework called Material Design. The aim of this is to give app developers a base on which to build their app interfaces in order to bring some kind of consistency to the Android ecosystem.
Google has already pushed this out too all their apps (GMail, Maps etc) as personally I think they’re onto a winner. It is clean, functional, and easy on the eye. On aspect Apple has always had over Android is this very thing, so it is great to see Google making such great strides trying to fix this.
There are certainly other changes under the hood such as a refreshed notification system, but in all honesty, nothing earth shattering. What we do have here however is a very stable, very nice to use, very clean platform that I think will serve the Android community very well.
Between the Nexus 6, the Nexus 9, and the LG watch I have been very quickly dragged into the Lollipop system. The changes aren’t revolutionary, more evolutionary. For me the biggest improvement has been with Material Design. The freshness of this new design can be seen so well on the Nexus 6. With its massive screen screen and fast hardware, Lollipop really shines here and Material Design performs stunningly.
Although the Nexus 9 left me a bit cold, and the LG Watch a bit uninspired; at least where the watch is concerned I can see where it is trying to go. If I had to hand back the tablet tomorrow, I won’t be concerned. If I had to hand back the watch, I would be a little disappointed but wouldn’t really miss it, but if I had to hand back the Nexus 6 I think I would be heart broken. It would mean I’d have to go back to my bloatware-ridden Note 3 and I know I’d just be constantly missing the 6.