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In what is partly an experiment and partly a series, I've been using the Galaxy Nexus as my personal phone exclusively for the last week. It has been a nostalgic experience, as the Galaxy Nexus was the first (good) Android device that I used full-time. And while the sentimental tech-romantic in me would love to tell you all that it's been mostly fine — like my week using the Nexus 5 — I can't. It's actually been pretty rough.
The in-joke here at AP is that I am a phone masochist, and I kind of am. When everything works fine, it's boring. That's part of why flagship phones just aren't as exciting as they used to be. So I like seeking out unique (and often bad) phone experiences. Philosophically, the morally pretentious have long-held that there's value to be found in suffering, and a bad phone is a pretty mild way to get my daily dose in.
Working my way back in time, the Galaxy Nexus was the next in line on my mental list. Like the Nexus 5, I was able to track down my own phone from back in the day.
I forgot how small it was.
On paper, the Galaxy Nexus hasn't aged too well. It is equipped with a dual-core 1.2GHz TI OMAP 4460 SoC, 1GB of RAM, 32GB storage, and Korean import 2000mAh extended battery. Although it launched with Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, to get the most out of it, I flashed the last official factory image with Android 4.3 Jelly Bean.
As soon as I logged into my insecure testing account, finished the setup process, and started pulling down apps, I knew this was going to be a different kind of experience than the Nexus 5.
Android 4.3 isn't compatible with 2018
For the briefest moment on firing up the Play Store, I got a glimpse of the way things used to be. Two whole seconds of the 2013/4.3 era Play Store in all its glory before the app was quickly updated to the modern version. It was stunningly nostalgic — a common theme using an older Android phone — but it was also the first indicator that I might have some trouble.
This was a common sight.
Although a surprising number of applications were still able to install on Android 4.3 Jelly Bean, many of the more important ones I'd need would not. Things like Venmo and PayPal that I habitually use to split expenses such as food with friends weren't an option.
That "your device isn't compatible with this version" warning we've all seen on the occasional app became a common sight perusing the Play Store. I don't do backup devices, so I had to restructure my life to go without those apps. More than once that indirectly meant going hungry when I was busy. I've gotten used to the convenience of delivery food via Grubhub when my schedule gets super packed (I'll always miss you, Foodler), and it couldn't run on the Galaxy Nexus. So if I didn't plan ahead on days when my evening schedule was full, that meant no dinner.
Most first-party app listings still pointed to compatible versions, so I was able to put together a decent workflow. I didn't have to deal with using older versions of apps like Gmail or Maps, though it was fun using the old People and Messaging apps. Even Slack could be installed. This forward compatibility was a double-edged sword, though.
Apps designed for 2018 expect a bit more when it comes to memory and performance. That dual-core 1.2GHz Texas Instruments SoC and paltry 1GB of RAM weren't enough to play nice with contemporary services. Whatever Google's hopes for Oreo-based versions of Android Go might be, even Android 4.3 couldn't shuffle more than a few apps at a time before memory became a problem.
Getting a screenshot of Spotify playing with Chrome running took four tries, and it closed within seconds (image lightened to show Chrome better in the background)
If I was out and about, my primary concern on the Galaxy Nexus became memory management. While it was able to run 1-2 apps fine (depending on the combination), pushing past 2 wasn't really possible without a lot of planning. Even though I worked hard to ensure as few apps as possible were running in the background, developers just don't build with 1GB in mind in 2018. App launch times could also get up into the tens of seconds.
Like when I used the Nexus 5, it was curious to see a mixture of new and old designs on the Galaxy Nexus. While system apps were predominantly Holo, there were random and curious bits of Material Design that would pop up, partly due to apps using the more recent design language, but it was also present in other ways, like dialogs.
Some features I associate with later versions of Android did carry over to Android 4.3, probably because their functionality is baked into Play Services. Email and phone number autofill when signing into Lyft and Smart Lock for saving passwords in apps like Netflix weren’t a thing back then (so far as I remember), but they work now. Of course, I was using my testing/throwaway account, so none of the autofill info ended up being useful, but it was surprising to see it at all. Compared to the Nexus 5 on Marshmallow, fewer of these newer features reared their head, though.
Taken together, Android 4.3 seems to be right around the bare minimum of functionality for a smartphone in 2018. A lot of things don't work, and it is obvious compatibility is rapidly dwindling, but you can probably find a way to survive without anything more recent for at least another year or so — if you absolutely have to.
Hardware that barely gets by
Android 4.3 issues aside, the Galaxy Nexus' hardware hasn't aged too well either. Battery life was about what I got on the Nexus 5, and unfortunately, I wasn't quite as careful about managing it.
Like I said, I don't do backup devices. So after a late-night D&D session walking home drunk and without dinner (again, neither Venmo, PayPal, or Grubhub work on Android 4.3, so I couldn't split my buds for a pizza or pick up my own food), I experienced The Dead Battery for the first time in years.
The final countdown, noticed in its last minutes.
In an anachronistic, self-indulgent-millennial way it was an incredibly nostalgic experience. Back in the day when the Galaxy Nexus was new, I would have been more careful. I remember what it was like to micromanage my smartphone use, ensuring I'd have enough juice to get home. I was even careful when using the Nexus 5, but I slipped up when it came to the Galaxy Nexus.
I've been so spoiled by modern phones and their 4-7 hours of screen on time that it just didn't occur to me to pay attention that day, and walking home at midnight without the security of a working phone in my pocket wasn't something I'd done in a long time. I knew nothing bad would happen, but there was the little "what if?" tingle in the back of my mind. I could miss a work message, lose my way, get waylaid, or worse: get bored!
It was so refreshing, I actually did make a half-hearted attempt to get a little bit lost ambling through the suburban side streets, but I knew the neighborhood too well for that. Still, I got an unexpected if an incredibly minor taste of that "joy of missing out" Google and the New York Times have been so excited about.
Not the best camera, but it does take photos.
The Galaxy Nexus is just enough to get by if you are careful. The camera is noisy and bad in pretty much every quantifiable way, but you can make it work for you. The AMOLED screen has hardcore "blue tint/shift" and crushed blacks at low brightness, like the Pixel 2 XL (that says something about how far behind LG's displays are), but the resolution and density are usable. No LTE sort of sucks, but HSPA is surprisingly fast and uncongested where I am now that no one else is on it. The dated SoC and limited memory are a bigger impediment to speed.
Minimum smartphone viability
Unless your app requirements are exceptionally light, you'd need to pay strict attention to how you use the Galaxy Nexus and tweak your habits to fit its limits to get by in 2018. The app selection for Jelly Bean is pretty limited, especially when it comes to productivity. If a phone for you is just an entertainment and (basic) communication device, you could get by, but anything more involved will preclude its use.
Android 4.3 is also incredibly insecure. The last build it saw officially is from 2013, so it's vulnerable to pretty much everything. I wouldn't consider signing into a secure account on the phone. Using mobile banking, investment apps, or anything more private than a forum is probably asking for trouble, especially if you're the sort to sideload apps from unknown sources — likely to be a more common activity for those running an extremely dated version of Android.
Unlike the Nexus 5, I can't really say that the Galaxy Nexus is okay in 2018. If you used 4.X-era Android, it's a bit nostalgic, and there's some intrinsic value to the experience of using one (it's great to be reminded of how far Android has come), but most of us can't just switch to it the same way without having to intentionally change how we use our phones.
Even so, Holo feels a little like home.
- Devin Rodriguez (for lending me back my old phone)