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Google's LG Nexus 4: Exit Interview

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- I get the same question every day: Which Android smartphone should I buy? For the last year, my answer has always been the same: Buy the one Google's (GOOG) own employees use.

And for the last year, that has meant the LG Nexus 4.

The reasons for making your Android phone a Nexus are:

1. No crapware. Not from the handset maker, nor from the carrier. It's just like when you buy an Apple (AAPL) Apple product of any size or shape.

2. You get your software updates directly from Google -- not from the handset maker or the carrier. This means you get them right away.

3. Google's employees use Nexus. This means that if there's a need for a security patch or a desire for new functionality, a Nexus will get them as fast as possible.

4. Price. Presumably somewhere between Google and the handset vendor, a Nexus device is sold either at cost, or Google may even throw in a subsidy. This will save you $200-$300 for an all-cash purchase.

5. No SIM-lock, no contract. Choose from the cheapest pay-as-you go plans from any carrier, in any country in the world. This could save you up to $50 per month here at "home" in the US, and in some cases several hundreds -- or even thousands -- of dollars per day when you're traveling abroad.

The Nexus 4 was introduced on Oct. 29, 2012, and sales started a few weeks thereafter. Demand was high in relation to supply, and it took a few months until the backlog had been cleared. Google has sold out of the Nexus 4 now, but it is still selling at outlets such as T-Mobile, Fry's and Amazon. Cash prices range from $200 to $500, so be sure to check the terms.

Judging from the more than ample Internet rumors, the Nexus 5 is going to be introduced -- in conjunction with Android 4.4 KitKat -- on Oct. 14, and presumably be available within weeks thereafter. So why this review now, on the eve of its retirement? <story_page_break>

Well, just like when ABBA retired in early 1983, the band may no longer be in production, but the records will be on store shelves and played on radio stations for years to come. So it's likewise important to understand why the Nexus 4 was the best smartphone of its time.

In late 2012, the LG Nexus 4 replaced the Samsung Galaxy Nexus as Google's reference smartphone. The shift was more than about going from Samsung to LG. It was also about going from a Texas Instruments (TXN) CPU to a Qualcomm (QCOM) CPU. TI was exiting the high-end smartphone CPU business, and Qualcomm had come from nowhere in the CPU business, to outperforming the market's performance expectations.

The LG Nexus 4 has some drawbacks compared to its predecessor, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus:

  1. The back side is made by sensitive glass. In contrast, the predecessor had a resilient plastic back side.
  2. The sides and corners are sensitive to scrapes and bumps. In contrast, I used the predecessor for over a year and I can't find a single scratch. It still looks like it was just pulled out of the box yesterday.
  3. The combination of (1) and (3) above means that you really, really, need to use your Nexus 4 with a protective case of some sort. As with all phones, when you do so, it becomes a lot thicker and feels like a relative brick in your hand and pocket.
  4. The battery isn't removable. This may be neither here nor there for many people, but I have always felt it to be a surefire way to do a hard reset: Pull the battery.
  5. Switching the SIM card means using the SIM-ejector tool around. A paper clip will also do. The problem is that when you need to switch SIM cards, no tool or paper clip seems to be handy. A first-world problem, I know -- but still, a negative.

In other words, the negative aspects of the Nexus 4 have to do with the physical casing of the device. There is one more area, however, where the Nexus 4 fell short of expectations, even though it certainly didn't fall behind its predecessor: LTE. <story_page_break>

Or rather, the lack of LTE. Yes, I know -- there is actually LTE in there, but the current software load at makes it impossible to use LTE in the U.S. with the Nexus 4. Given how good the HSPA+ networks are for using the device as a smartphone, that may not be a huge deal for many people, but it's still a disappointment. Even in late 2012, LTE was a relatively basic expectation.

The Nexus 4 will remain important because it will most likely be upgradeable to Android 4.4 KitKat right away. It's not clear that this will be the case with any other current Android smartphone. As such, even though the Nexus 4 is physically sensitive to bumps and scratches, and that it lacks LTE, it will continue to make its owners very happy for at least another year, hopefully more.

And that's in contrast to many other Android devices.

In May-June 2013, the first real competition to the Nexus 4 appeared, courtesy of Google's "Play Edition" program. These devices, while originally engineered as non-Nexus, received new software that attempt to mimic the Nexus operating system load as closely as possible, only accounting for the specific hardware features (such as the camera) of those phones.

The two smartphones in the Google Play Edition program thus far are the Samsung Galaxy S4 and HTC One, both available for purchase directly from Google for $650 and $600, respectively. In contrast, the 16 gig version of the LG Nexus 4 was available for $350 before the August-September inventory blow-out for $100 less.

I wrote shortly before Google i/o in May that the dream device would be the Samsung Galaxy S4 combined with the Nexus software. And indeed, that's what we got. So what's there not to like?

Well, in theory, the Google Play Edition of the Samsung Galaxy S4 ought to be the dream device of the day: The best software in combination with the best hardware. Game over, no?

Well, not quite. It's a matter of degree, but one could argue that there is some question as to how fast, and how far into the future, these "Google Play Editions" will receive software updates. They got the update from 4.2.2 to 4.3 very quickly -- one week after the Nexus. However, subsequent patches have been slower, perhaps around a month. <story_page_break>

In the big scheme, waiting a month for a software update isn't the biggest deal in the world. However, the question here is uncertainty: We don't know where this is going in the future. How long will we have to wait for future software updates? How far into the future will be they provided at all? Two years from now? Three? Four?

Google would greatly help itself by spelling out what its agreement is with Samsung, HTC and in the future also hopefully others, as to what we should expect for timing and duration of software upgrades. Will they take one month or less? Will they be happening two, three or four years into the future? One would think Google knows the answers.

For these reasons, while it may be tempting to recommend the better hardware of the Samsung Galaxy S4 in particular, the remaining uncertainty causes me to still recommend the Nexus 4 instead. Yeah, that and the $300 (or more) lower price.

Just like ABBA in 1983, the Nexus 4 is now walking off the stage from its last performance. Now, let's continue to enjoy the music. You can't say that about all the other bands.

At the time of publication the author was long AAPL, GOOG and QCOM.

This article was written by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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