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From HTC Nexus One to LG Nexus 4: a short history of the Google Nexus range

Home OfficeFeatures
by James Laird
, 07 Nov 2012Features
From HTC Nexus One to LG Nexus 4: a short history of the Google Nexus range

Google recently announced the newest additions to its popular Nexus range of hardware, the LG-built Nexus 4 smartphone and the Samsung-manufactured Nexus 10 tablet, to considerable adulation. But these spiffing new products didn't come out of nowhere - they're part of an evolutionary chain dating back to 2008. Let's take a closer look at the history of Google's Nexus line.

The early days: T-Mobile G1 and Google Nexus One

T-Mobile G1 (HTC Dream)

Google's dream of bossing the world of consumer hardware like it rules the online search roost began back in October 2008 with the T-Mobile G1 smartphone, originally branded as the HTC Dream by its Taiwanese manufacturer. In addition to becoming the world's first Google affiliated hardware, the G1 also represents the first Android smartphone to break cover, starting life on the unnamed Android 1.0 featuring an Android Market with fewer than 200 titles, and eventually scaling the futuristic heights of version 1.6 Donut before it was discontinued in 2010.

There's little question that the G1's specifications seem radically outdated by the demanding standards of today's smartphone enthusiast, but Google's initial hardware project was generally in line with the prevailing technology of its time, competing with relics like the original iPhone. Featuring a 3.2in LCD screen with a 480 x 320 pixel resolution at 180 PPI, the G1's display was in fact multi-touch capable, though Google disabled this feature at the kernel level until Android 2.0. In place of dynamic gesturing, touch operation was via basic capacitive prodding and poking, as well as relying on the full sliding QWERTY keyboard that slotted in horizontally to the device. This meant that the G1 was a chunky specimen - at least by current standards - measuring a whopping 17.1mm thick, though it only weighed 158 grams.

The Google device sported a 3.15-megapixel rear camera boasting auto-focus (but not flash). Basic video recording was enabled on handsets running Android 1.5 Cupcake and above. In the engine room, the G1 sported an ARM-based Qualcomm SoC clocked at 528MHz and featuring Adreno 130 graphics, helping to deliver mobile versions of apps like Google Talk, Google Calender, and Google Maps. Connectivity features included support for 3G, Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth, while the G1 came with a 1,150mAh battery and removable storage up to 16GB.

In retrospect, the G1 was noteworthy not so much from a hardware perspective, but as the debut of Google's still evolving mobile OS. At the time, Android was primarily of interest to early adopters rather than average consumers, with the G1 standing as the first milestone in the search giant's mission to break into mobile, as well as representing the embryo of it Nexus ambitions.

Nexus One

The Nexus One was Google's first true flagship smartphone and once again saw it partnering with Taiwanese manufacturer HTC. The inaugural Nexus product was released in April 2010 in the UK, building on the success of the HTC Hero, which won many hearts and accolades a few months earlier.

Shipping with Android 2.1 Eclair and eventually upgradable to version 2.3 Gingerbread, the Nexus One fully demonstrated the quantum smartphone leap made between 2008 and 2010. Indeed, a quick glance at the device's specifications reveal a handset that could easily feature in the mid-range market circa 2012. Sporting a 3.7in AMOLED display (later changed to LCD) with a resolution of 800 x 480 pixels at 254 PPI, the Nexus One was driven by a Qualcomm Snapdragon SoC comprising a Scorpion processor clocked at 1GHz, and Adreno 200 graphics.

Storage, too, was hugely evolved, with 512MB on-board, and a microSD card slot able to increase capacity by a further 32GB. The camera shot still images at 5-megapixel, while recording 720 x 480 video at 20fps, highlighting the evolution of the smartphone as a media and entertainment hub. These wholesale hardware modernisations were reflected by the phone's improved design. The Nexus One measured just 11.5mm thick and weighed only 130 grams - supermodel slim compared to its G1 predecessor.

Unfortunately, Google's first Nexus branded device wasn't the commercial breakthrough it had hoped for. Primarily, this can be attributed to the work-in-progress nature of the Android platform - prior to 2010, deployment of Google's mobile OS was still under five per cent of the market and the system was largely still in the hands of forward-thinking techie types as opposed to the increasingly mobile-hungry masses. Despite impressive hardware leaps, its was the iPhone 4 rather than the Nexus One that took the consumer world by storm, while BlackBerry devices were still near the height of their popularity 

In fact, the reception to the Nexus One was so subdued that Google chairman Eric Schmidt was quoted as saying his firm would not be releasing a follow-up to the Nexus One, while Android platform co-founder Andy Rubin proffered that future Nexus devices may look to specifically target business users, even to the point of reverting back to a QWERTY-style hardware keyboard. As we now know, this impatient speculation turned out to be pure drivel - the Nexus One may not have dazzled like some hoped, but by keeping up with the pace of innovation in the smartphone market, Google had positioned itself to excel in the future.

Coming of age: the Google Nexus S and Galaxy Nexus

Nexus S

Despite uncertainty surrounding the future of Google branded products, the company did, in fact release its next own-brand device just months after the HTC Nexus One's underwhelming launch. Unveiled in December 2010, the Nexus S was manufactured by Samsung proved to be the breakthrough product that the Internet supremo had been working towards since the previous decade.

In part at least, the warm reception enjoyed by Google's second Nexus handset can be traced to the design gusto of the Korean consumer electronics giant. The S featured an expanded 4in display with a curved touch-screen, measured just 10.8mm thick, and weighed less than 130 grams, giving it an appealing aesthetic in line with the evolving trend of the smartphone as fashion accessory as well as telecoms device. Samsung's involvement also meant a number of specification differences compared to the previous Nexus model: Qualcomm had been jettisoned as a chipset partner in favour of Samsung's in-house Exynos 3 set-up, which featured a (single-core) ARM Cortex A8 CPU clocked at 1GHz, supported by a PowerVR SGX 540 GPU.

The Nexus S also introduced a front facing VGA camera in addition to a slightly improved 5-megapixel primary snapper, while the aforementioned 4in display boasted an 800 x 480 pixel resolution at 233 PPI.  With regards to on-board storage, the Nexus S came with 16GB built-in and no SD card support. But most significantly, the Nexus S represented the turning point for Google and its mobile ambitions because it showcased the latest version of Android, 2.3 Gingerbread.

Gingerbread was the point when a previously promising - and increasingly successful - mobile OS positioned itself for future world domination. Quite simply, it looked better and ran cleaner than previous generations: GPS kinks had been largely eradicated, the stability of Android's virtual keyboard had been improved, and a new download manager had been implemented in time for more widespread access to 3G. The device was also one of the first to feature NFC capability (though it was admittedly still a very primitive technology in 2010).

While ongoing support for the Nexus S is limited these days, its importance to Google's native Android line-up is underlined by the fact that it is upgradeable all the way the latest iteration of Jelly Bean, version 4.2. Google's manufacturing partnership with Samsung got off to a strong start with the Nexus S and the consumer world was beginning to embrace the Android platform - the stage was now set for a landmark product.

Galaxy Nexus

Roll on 2011, and the Nexus brand was clearly on the rise. With the continued refinement of smartphone technologies - and Android deployment spurred on by strong app growth and the concurrent decline of both RIM's BlackBerry OS and the Symbian platform - mobile enthusiasts were now starting to itch for the next Google Android handset. In November 2011, the Galaxy Nexus arrived - and it delivered the goods.

Every bit the modern super-smartphone, the device heralded a number of milestones for Google's in-house hardware range. Not least, the Nexus range's first HD display, sporting a resolution of 1,280 x 720 at 316 PPI - specifications that are still impressive a year later. Video quality made the great leap forward, too, with the handset featuring 1080p recording at 24fps, while the Galaxy's front facing camera was now more than an afterthought, shooting photographs at 1.3-megapixels and video at 720p. Its 5-megapixel primary snapper reflected the general high-end standard circa 2011, and the Galaxy Nexus' aforementioned display measured in at 4.65in diagonally, hinting at the growing fetish for ultra-expansive screens. In the engine room there was a Texas Instruments OMAP SoC, compromised of an ARM Cortex-A9 CPU - the Nexus range's first dual-core chip - clocked at 1.2GHz, with graphics coming courtesy of a PowerVR SGX540 GPU.

The Galaxy Nexus also introduced the world to the sophisticated Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich OS. The new operating system, combined with Samsung's design, helped the handset ditch a hard button-based interface entirely, while the Android Market - a feature since Android 1.0 - morphed into the more diverse and easily navigable Google Play store, ultimately leading to the arrival of a mobile-specific Chrome web browser. Other neat new features on ICS included Android Beam, an NFC app helping to power rapid short-range exchange, and Face Unlock, a security feature that enabled users to unlock their handsets via facial recognition software. The Galaxy Nexus was also one of the first widely-available 4G LTE handsets to feature in a major market, arriving in the US on Sprint Nextel's network in April 2012.

Unfortunately, the Galaxy Nexus was also one of the first Android products to arouse the ire of patent hoarder Apple, no doubt due to the involvement of bitter mobile rival Samsung. The Nexus device was one of the focal points of the Cupertino-based firm's wide-ranging complaint against its Korean competitor, though a pre-trial injunction didn't last long: instigated on 29 June, 2012, the US sales ban was lifted just over a week later, when Google stepped in and announced that the Galaxy Nexus handset would now ship with Jelly Bean to work-around Apple's objections.

Where the Nexus S represented a quantum leap with regards to hardware, the Galaxy Nexus combined the latest in smartphone technology with a vastly improved design and the slickest Android user interface to date. How could Google top that? By temporarily forgetting about mobile phones and re-defining a new consumer electronics segment, of course.

 

The Google Nexus 7 revolution

The arrival of the Galaxy Nexus handset meant that Google had finally delivered a product that went toe-to-toe with the best smartphones out there - its ambition for the Nexus line since day one. However, it still hadn't released a truly revolutionary piece of hardware that redefined the market entirely. Android had achieved this feat from a software perspective, but it conquered hardware earlier this year in July 2012. Announced at the firm's annual developer conference, Google I/O, the Nexus 7 changed the way we think about tablets and, by connection, mobile devices as a whole. 

The Nexus 7 was bold. While it didn't exactly create the 7in tablet category, it certainly established the segment as we now know it. Earlier devices like the original Samsung Galaxy Tab, which functioned as both a tablet and a phone, were widely ridiculed; others, like the Amazon Kindle Fire and Barnes and Nobles Nook, offered significantly reduced capabilities. The Nexus 7, on the other hand, boasted all the specifications and functionality you would expect of a full form factor tablet, but in a compact guise - measuring 120 x 98.5 x 10.45mm and weighing 340g, it's roughly half the size of Apple's third-generation iPad.

That small frame packs some seriously powerful kit though, not least an Nvidia Tegra 3 SoC clocked at 1.3GHz. In addition, the Asus-manufactured tablet's 7in LCD display offers a quality resolution of 1,280 x 800 at 216 PPI - the density might not sound like much on paper, but consider that the newer Apple iPad mini only runs to 163 PPI and you start to appreciate that it's a highly-commendable screen given the device's diminutive size.

The Nexus 7 also heralded the arrival of an incremental Android update, version 4.1 Jelly Bean. While the UI isn't radically different from ICS, the new platform provided some talking points, not least Project Butter, which saw Google tweak a lot of code to speed up its OS and eliminate the lag that previous generations of Android had suffered from. In the process, it made the Nexus 7 one of the smoothest operating experiences around. 

Perhaps most importantly, the Nexus 7 was cheap: tablets typically retailed well in excess of £300, but here stood a device starting at £159 sporting comparable features and components. Indeed, the Nexus 7 has already picked up a few 2012 'Gadget of the Year' awards, and it's likely to nab a good few more accolades as Christmas approaches and writers begin to compose their year-end lists. In short, the fruit of the Google-Asus partnership redefined popular perception of what was possible within a certain space and at a given price-point - the once-maligned 7in mini-tablet segment was now the industry's hottest market. 

The new autumn 2012 Nexus line-up

As 2012 draws to a close, Google is in an undeniably enviable position. Its Android mobile operating system is the most used in the world by some margin, its Internet and web-based endeavours continue to go from strength-to-strength, and the runaway success of the Nexus 7 means that its hardware range is now firmly established in the public's mind as an industry leader just four years after its inception.

The latest additions to the Google hardware oeuvre look set to draw on this success further and continue to build the reputation of the Nexus brand. Tropical storm Sandy might have derailed Google's plans for a blockbuster launch to rival the recent soirées held by Apple and Microsoft, but the Internet giant's latest products look set to make a sizeable splash independent of the bright lights.

LG Nexus 4

Look at the LG Nexus 4 and you see the same product strategy that delivered the Nexus 7 such rave reviews - a specification rich device at an extraordinarily low-price. In keeping with current trends, the Nexus 4 boasts an expansive 4.7in display with a resolution of 1,280 x 768, and also sports an 8-megapixel primary camera and a 1.3-megapixel front snapper. 

Measuring in at 133.9 x 68.7 x 9.1mm, with a weight of 139g, the LG handset is powered by a quad-core processor, Qualcomm's Snapdragon S4 Pro, and features 2GB of RAM. The latest Google smartphone doesn't support 4G LTE yet (a bit of a disappointment, if we're being honest), but it does feature NFC and - look out Lumia 920 - wireless charging. On-board storage options are 8GB and 16GB, with pricing set at £239 a £279, respectively. UK availability is lined up for 13 November, and the Nexus 4 will be exclusive to O2 and the Google Play store for the first month of its existence. 

The next step? Provided the Nexus 4 isn't a complete flop, we'd think that one of 2013's first high-profile tech shows - CES and MWC in particular spring to mind - would bring a souped-up version of the Nexus 4 featuring LTE capability and a minimum of 32GB on-board storage. The recent refresh of the Nexus 7 shows that Google is content with minor tweaks as well as radical new additions to its Nexus line, and the LG handset is a prime candidate for turbocharging in the near future.

Nexus 10

Proving that Google isn't afraid to keep experimenting with the Nexus brand, the Nexus 10 is a high-end tablet looking to compete with the likes of Apple's iPad range. And why not? Its 10.1in, 2,560 x 1,600 pixel display at 300PPI actually bests the iPad's famed Retina display, while a dual-core A15 processor should make the larger form factor Nexus tablet the most powerful to date. It will also be the first device to offer Google's new Play Music service, with the new venture further indicative of the search giant's desire to take on Apple in every market possible.

Measuring 263.9 x 177.6 x 8.9mm and weighing 603g, the Nexus 10 packs a 9,000mAh battery delivering up to nine hours of use. NFC support is there, too, as is a 5-megapixel main camera and 1.3-megapixel secondary front snapper. The Nexus 10 also represents the debut of Google's latest incremental Android update, Jelly Bean 4.2, which features a new keyboard and improved content handling among other re-jigs.

Due to arrive later in November, the Nexus 10 seems to be a signal of intent on Google's part that it isn't pigeon-holing itself into (high-quality) entry-level and mid-range products, and this larger form-factor tablet - manufactured in partnership with Samsung - certainly ticks most of the boxes for the upper echelon of the market. Set to cost £319 for a 16GB model and £389 for a 32GB version, it's priced according to its segment, but still fairly - it's worth remembering that a comparable Apple iPad featuring 32GB of on-board storage and Wi-Fi costs £479.

What can be anticipated for 2013? Provided the Nexus 10 fares reasonably well, we'd expect a 3G refresh fairly early in 2013 - again, a benchmark gathering like CES seems as good a platform as any.

Nexus 7

Google's firebrand 7in tablet got a minor but significant refresh in autumn 2012. The Asus-manufactured device upped its base level of on-board storage from 8GB to 16GB while keeping its £159 price, while a 3G-capable version costing £219 was also introduced. The 8GB model is no longer available  

Where can Google possibly go with its flagship Nexus product? In the immediate future, the new Nexus 7 models are lined up for a switch to Jelly Bean 4.2, which should occur in the next couples of weeks. After that, the obvious progression is to a 4G LTE-ready device. As with other future developments, expect to hear something concrete at the beginning of 2013.

What's your favourite Nexus product, new or old? Was the Nexus 7 really the game changer ITProPortal claims, or is it a bit overrated? And what might the Nexus range look like in four more year's time? As ever, we're keen to hear you views and opinions, so don't click away before leaving a comment below!

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