Android Dilemma: Samsung Galaxy S III or Galaxy Nexus?

Google's demo of Android 4.1 - Jelly Bean - at I/O 2012 was awesome. Android has turned the corner, and the gap between it and iOS has disappeared.

Go pure Google: The Samsung Galaxy Nexus goes for only $349 is unlocked, contract free (if you choose). An unlimited data plan can be had for as little as $30 on T-Mobile so long as you don't need much talk time (only 100 minutes are included).
Go pure Google: The Samsung Galaxy Nexus is only $349 and ships unlocked, contract free (if you choose). An unlimited data plan can be had for as little as $30 on T-Mobile so long as you don’t need much talk time (only 100 minutes are included).

Here’s my situation- it’s likely the same for a lot of you Androids on the verge of an upgrade:

I’m contract free, still toting trusty OG Droid (2009) on Verizon, and on the hunt for the next big thing.

iPhone is not even in the running. With Ice Cream Sandwich, and major apps near par (Flipboard, Instagram, for example, are now available on the Play Store) Android is a heavy hitter, especially for a guy like me that runs the Google farm of apps such as Gmail, calendar, contacts, etc. Jelly Bean, in my estimation, pushes Android beyond iOS, at least until the iPhone 5 lands.

The clear Android daddy is the brand new Samsung Galaxy S III that ships this week (and is impressively available on all 4 majors: Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, T-Mobile). Hardware-wise it’s the one to beat. You’ve read the reviews, soaked in the praise. And millions of you have ordered one. Including me. Well, that is, until I cancelled my order, and changed course.

But why?

Namely: Jelly Bean.

According to reports Google is expected to add up to 5 OEM unlocked devices to the Play Store come Thanksgiving.

Google’s demo at I/O 2012 was awesome. Android has turned the corner, and the gap between it and iOS has disappeared. In addition Google has done a — ahem — sweet job of up-leveling its store, now called Google Play, and has added magazines, in addition to the devices section that was previously added. It looks as nice as it ever has. With JB and the content improvements, I suspect more than just a few iPhone users will be relishing the thought of moving bast an inflexible OS, with a tiny 4-inch display.

To get Jelly Bean, and to avoid the dreaded TouchWiz, there’s one clear route. Ordering a $349 unlocked, bloatfree, Samsung Galaxy Nexus direct from Google. It’s as pure as pure goes in terms of Android, with nary a skin in sight which is partly why it (along with the other Nexus devices such as the new Nexus 7 tablet) will see updates first. Partners such as Samsung, HTC and (even) Motorola, on the other hand, have to run a stable of tests, and update skins (TouchWiz, Sense, MotoBlur, respectively) before they can shower their users with the latest Android love.

So I cancelled the S III pre-order.

Not because it’s not a great, great smartphone. But because, by going pure Google, I get updates first, I get a phone that is free of contract, unlocked – and, can be activated on an unlimited data plan for as little as $30 via T-Mobile, so long as talk time is not critical for you. Also: Stock Android is bliss.

My decision: Freedom! Unlocked nirvana with pure Google Nexus. Only $388 out the door and no contract, no carrier commit. Hopefully it will ship with Android 4.1 – aka Jelly Bean.

Another not-often-discussed plus with the Nexus are the Pogo pins. They really shine when it comes to accessories. These three gold contacts mean you don’t need to fiddle with a micro-USB cable. Two accessories caught my eye on the Google site. One is the desktop dock; the other the vehicle mount (not yet shipping). It’ll be especially nice not having to attach cables for audio and charging each time I dock the phone in the car.

One potential roadblock in my decision was that I’m currently grandfathered for unlimited data on Verizon.

But watch for that red herring.

I pulled up my Verizon account records and realized that I was only using about 1GB-1.25GB per month of data. Not very much really. Then again, I don’t stream video. I primarily do check work mail, pull up stock quotes, and use Nav (Waze is killing it!). So, for me at least, unlimited data became a non-factor.

Word is that Google can get around the patent issue with Apple, which is primarily related to universal search, by upgrading Nexus stock to Jelly Bean. Those receiving this week or next may very well get it with Android 4.1 pre-loaded. Only God and Christopher Hitchens know when the S III will get it.

As I cancelled the S III order, and quickly submitted a Nexus order before Apple appeals and possibly wins another injunction against Google, I realized a few trends:

1. Unlocked is the way forward

Yes, unlocked phones are expensive. The RAZR Max, for example, commands about $600 for an unlocked version. Contrast that with only $199 for the brand new, flagship S III and you could get heartburn. But factor in the two-year costs into that equation, plus the fact that you won’t be able to upgrade (without penalty) for twenty-four months, and the subsidized deal isn’t so great as it looks on the surface. Once considered a black art, unlocked phones are becoming mainstream offerings. Newegg, Amazon and scores of other swap-based retailers offer them – eBay, of course, has plenty of listings. According to reports Google is expected to add up to 5 OEM unlocked devices to the Play Store come Thanksgiving. This is another reason why I didn’t want to enter into a two-year contract; I want the flexibility of selling my Nexus and up-leveling later this year.

2. With direct sales, Google’s hybrid model could one-up Apple

Apple is vertically integrated. It designs, manufacturers (via Foxconn), and sells its own devices. Years ago this type of model was verboten. You either had to be a hardware house (Dell) or a software shop (Microsoft). With a premium today on user experience, that thinking has been turned on its collective ear. Even Microsoft with its upcoming Surface tablets is dabbling in vertical integration. Google, begging once again to push the envelope, is having its cake and eating it too. Its both licensing Android to others, and selling direct with Google-centric devices such as the Galaxy Nexus. It’s an interesting strategy, and one, so far as I can tell, without precedent in the mobile space.

So there you have it. One man’s resistance against contracts, against carrier strangleholds. Granted, the S III is a superb phone. Pure GNex, and freedom from two-year commitments is too enticing an alternative. And the ability to get the latest and greatest Android updates (without bloat) is icing on the cake.

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  • djgpdx

    Good article – Having held onto my Droid X for a few years, I was enticed by the S III and keeping my unlimited Verizon data plan. That said I would love to find a better way to avoid the contracts and bullying from the big carriers. Something needs to change!

    • Somehow I think the cell/carrier model as we know it today is going to be completely different in 3-5 years. Let’s hope! I’m betting Google + Amazon + Apple will have something to do with that.

  • BMC

    excellent article, I myself have struggled this very debate and came to the same conclusions, albeit the S3 is a GREAT phone, the unlocked, hassle-free, minted android software (the way it was meant to be experienced), and DEDICATED priority on device updates is what wins in the end. Im not sure on how many upcoming devices Google has in the works for the Fall but all indicators (ie Nexus 7 tablet) point to greater things.

    • Yes, I like priority on Nexus too. For many it will likely come down to a decision over hardware (S III wins) or software (Nexus wins). Many say — rightfully of course — that the hardware is more important as it can’t be upgraded after the fact. True enough, but I’m a free man w/o contract and look forward to the stable of unlocked OEM Androids coming to Google Play later this year!

      One Nexus feature that I really like that I forgot to mention in the article are the softkeys. I much prefer them to capacitive hardware. I like them on Android tablets, and I also like them on Android smartphones.

  • hydroman

    Sir with all do respect you screwed up in my humble opinion on cancelling your SIII order my wife has the Nexus. She has already had to have them send her a second one. The first one got hot. Ok they (Big Red) said hmmm mabye the phone mabye the extended battery so new nexus still gets hot so next new extended battery still hot ok can deal with hot but the new and old extended battery dont last but a hour and a half more than stock battery and all she does is very little facebook and occasionally some web no utube no games its horrible she cant wait to get rid of it not to mention very poor signal strength

    • You may be right, I may be crazy… Gnex battery is a big concern. I hope reports that the GSM version is better in this regard are true. Here’s the deal though: reversing my decision is much easier w/o contract. I can easily commit to 2yr S III if I change my mind. Backing out of a Verizon, on the other hand, is more costly.

    • Al

      You obviously got a defective unit on the worst carrier

  • JT

    I was in the EXACT same situation (OG Droid since 2009, month-to-month on Verizon, afraid of losing Unlimited data but only using <1GB/month)… I was torn between the SIII and the Nexus but in the end the Nexus won out. Ported my number over to T-Mobile on the $30 Monthly 4G plan and couldn't be happier. After 2 weeks using the Nexus on ICS, I'm struggling to imagine how JB could be that much better, but I'll find out in a few days. This is the first time in 15 years that I'm not bound by a wireless contract and it feels GREAT! Great article, and great choice… enjoy the Nexus!

    • Great to hear that. I’m hoping mine comes in shortly. I activated $30 TM as well, talk time no big deal, can buy extra minutes, or use voip etc. For guy like me who likes to test different devices, get the latest & greatest (saying this knowing I was on OG Droid for 30+ months!) the Nexus sans contract is choice.

  • PK

    Just did the same thing and an additional perk of an unlocked phone is on my recent vacation in London I was able to pick up a UK SIM for roughly $16
    (10GBP) and that gave me 500MB data and unlimited texts(for 30 days). Calls came out of the $16.

    • Nice! Didn’t think about global benefit of popping in SIM on the road.

  • Efrain Ramirez

    About damn time Clint ! I’ve been following your quest since last year when we were on the same path. (Og droid since first week of release) . Only difference I jumped on the nexus in December. You knew back then that no matter what you couldn’t be without the latest and greatest software so why drag it out.?! I’m glad you finally came to your senses and ordered the GNEX, you would have regretted the GS3. Have fun with the latest and greatest.!

    • Ha, I know! It’s been an admittedly soapy & “dilemma” filled affair. As you might know I actually had VRZN GNex is Dec. Returned it because of battery. Glad I did, since now I’m not on contract, and will hopefully see slightly better juice with GSM version… but be forewarned… as soon as those new OEM unlocked Nexus devices hit in Q4 I’ll be wracking my brains out again, lol.

  • William Shropshire

    I’d still go with the GS3. Better Camera hardware/software and expandable memory are pretty big differences. The the processor w/2GB memory goes a long way with maintaining speed during multitasking. Though Android’s multitasking w/Project Butter do help the Nexus a lot.

    And let’s not forget about LTE. GSM variant is missing that. Maybe not a big argument, but something to consider.

    And you have to take into consideration Touchwiz features not available on Vanilla Android such as Motion features and, again, the camera software. GS3 will also have Jellybean sometime this year.

    If you just bought a phone last year, then it would be better to just wait for the new GNex to arrive sometime in Q4 this year. If you’re in desperate need of a phone then go for it. $350 to go off contract is a good deal

    • William Shropshire

      And you can buy the GS3 off contract. A couple hundred more but it can be done. After selling my old phone, my SG3 cost $200 off contract.

    • It will be interesting to see how the next GNex stacks up. I agree the GS3 is a pretty formidable bit of kit – both are of course, ironically, made by Samsung… which makes me wonder: will Moto become the new Nexus maker?

  • can i get more details on the $30 t mobile plan im very interested

  • mike

    I used the Gnex since it came out and recently switched to the gs3. I was blown away by how much of an upgrade the gs3 feels like over the gnex. For one, I get several more hours out of the stock gs3 battery than I ever did with the gnex with an extended battery.

    The screens may be similar in terms of stats (resolution, dpi) but the color range on the gs3 is so much better. Colors in HD photos seemed to blend together on my gnex but I can see all the details on the gs3. The 4.8 screen on the gs3 might look too big on paper but it really enhances usability (reading webpages)

    The 2 gb of memory on the gs3 also goes a long way to improving the whole android experience.

    The only thing I don’t like about the gs3 is TouchWiz.

    Both phones are amazing so you cant go wrong either way. But, I would say that I’m much happer with the gs3 than I was with the gnex

  • andhavarapu

    I was looking at the S3 which would have cost me about $950 (yes) vs $450 overall for the Nexus. It was an easy choice. Nexus allows me to get the next Nexus in time :)! S3, well it is awesome but never fell in love with it, so no need to burn money like that!