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Google Takes a Step Forward With Nexus 5 Release

On Halloween, Google launched a new flagship smartphone, the Nexus 5 -- running the latest flavor of Android, KitKat. This phone is aimed at providing a high-performance, affordable phone that isn’t necessarily tied to a costly, inflexible two-year wireless contract.

Unlike most smartphones sold in the U.S., the Google's Nexus 5 is “unlocked,” so it will work on any carrier’s network…almost. It’s equipped to operate on, and will be supported by, all the major U.S. wireless carriers except for Verizon. Unlike the Nexus 4, this model includes LTE network support.

As of today the Nexus 5 is sold through the Google Play store, starting at $349 for the 16GB version ($399 for 32GB). It’ll also be available from Best Buy, RadioShack, and Amazon for the same price. This may sound expensive -- after all, the latest high-end iPhone (the 5S) costs only $199 for 16GB. But that’s a subsidized price. For a fairer comparison, an unlocked iPhone 16GB 5S costs $649.

No-contract (month-to-month or prepaid) smartphone service plans typically cost $30-$50/month, less than a standard two-year contract for a single line. This, plus the flexibility to switch carriers at will, represents a level of consumer power that U.S. carriers have stonewalled since the dawn of the wireless industry.

For people who really need a low upfront price, Sprint will start selling the Nexus 5 on November 8 at the subsidized price of $149 (16GB, after a $50 mail-in rebate). This comes with a contract that includes Sprint’s “unlimited data for life” guarantee -- which might be an advantage over prepaid data plans, depending on how much you tend to use the carrier’s data network vs. a Wi-Fi connection.

T-Mobile sales are “coming soon,” but there will be no subsidized price since T-Mobile eliminated subsidies last year. Reportedly, AT&T will not sell the Nexus 5, but they will support it.

The Nexus 5, which is manufactured by LG for Google, sounds comparable in many ways to high-end offerings from Apple, HTC, and Samsung. It features a Snapdragon 800 processor, five-inch display with 1080p resolution, wireless charging, 8MP rear-facing camera and 1.3MP front-facing camera. It weighs about 4.6 ounces. Google claims the battery lasts 8.5 hours on Wi-Fi, 7 hours on LTE.

Some reviewers are criticizing the feel of the Nexus 5’s plastic body -- it’s not as sleek as the iPhone, or the HTC-1.

The Nexus 5 runs the “pure” version of Android KitKat. Typically phone manufacturers and wireless carriers customize Android in various ways, changing or limiting its capabilities as well as adding “bloatware” apps that users often don’t want and can’t remove. One advantage of buying the Nexus 5 via Google Play or non-carrier retail stores, rather than from a carrier, is that users will receive Android updates as soon as Google releases them. Carriers often release their Android updates with considerable delays.

KitKat offers some performance improvements over Android Jellybean, including adding HDR mode to the basic camera app to automatically improve picture quality (a feature that several other smartphones have offered standard for a while). There are also enhancements for full-screen display, integrated messaging (text, MMS, Google Hangouts, and video chat all in one app), video-screen recording, and more.

KitKat is not as big a leap forward for Android as Jellybean was, but it’s still significant. In the bigger picture, KitKat will run on many older Android devices -- which should improve the useful life and user experience for many existing Android users.

If you want a Nexus 5, it probably makes sense to wait until after the holiday season to buy it, if you can. It’ll take a little while for carriers to sort out their plans and pricing. Plus, after the holidays the price of the phone might drop, as well.

If you’re interested in the Nexus 5 mainly to avoid a 2-year contract, you’ll definitely want to wait a few months to hear what experiences early adopters have in actually switching this phone from one carrier to another.

If the Nexus 5 catches on, it’s possible that more relatively inexpensive unlocked phones, and flexible plans to serve them, might start hitting the U.S. market. Despite Verizon’s resistance, the carrier support for the Nexus 5 is significant. It would be nice if the U.S. could start catching up to the rest of the world in terms of how our wireless market works.

 

Amy Gahran is an independent writer and mobile technology enthusiast based in Boulder, Colo. Her work has appeared at CNN.com. Gahran blogs at Contentious.com.

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