Once upon a time, Verizon's Galaxy Nexus seemed like the holy grail of mobile technology.
Think about it: For the first time since the original Motorola Droid, America's biggest carrier was actually carrying a pure Google Android phone -- a device that would run the latest and greatest Android version, free from bloatware and annoying manufacturer modifications and with fast and frequent updates straight from Google's Android team. Man, that sounded nice.
Sadly, it turned out to be too good to be true: While the Verizon Galaxy Nexus is technically a Nexus phone, it's a Nexus phone with a lot of asterisks. And that's why, seven months after buying a Verizon Galaxy Nexus and signing a two-year contract with the carrier, I'm ditching the phone and saying so-long to the service.
For me, the fairy tale has ended.
Verizon Galaxy Nexus: It's a Nexus, but...
Looking back at the Verizon Galaxy Nexus tale, it didn't take long for the first signs of compromise to appear: Just before the phone's release, we learned that Verizon was blocking (er, sorry -- "not blocking but not allowing") Google's NFC-based Google Wallet application on the phone. The carrier was also, we discovered, baking two bloatware-esque Verizon-branded apps into the device. And it was locking down the Android-enabled ability to use the device as a Wi-Fi hotspot, modifying the OS to prompt users for extra money if they tried to toggle on the feature.
These things were annoying, particularly on a philosophical level -- Google's Nexus brand, after all, is all about having a pure Google experience with no carrier or manufacturer meddling -- but I was willing to grumble, curse a bit, and deal with them. Partly because, irritating as they were in theory, they were all fairly inconsequential in reality. And also because they were all really easy to circumvent (sorry, Verizon).
But then came the upgrades. Stock software aside, the biggest advantage of a Nexus phone is the guarantee of receiving new upgrades directly from Google as soon as they're released -- a sharp contrast to the wait-and-see game that comes with most manufacturer-designed Android devices. With Verizon's Galaxy Nexus, that promise has gone unfulfilled.
I saw the writing on the wall with the incremental Ice Cream Sandwich upgrades -- the 4.0.3 release that the Verizon Galaxy Nexus never got and the 4.0.4 release that arrived on the phone a full two months after its launch. With the shiny new Android 4.1 Jelly Bean release now officially out in the wild -- and nowhere near the Verizon phone -- I finally decided I'd had enough.
So long, Verizon Galaxy Nexus: The next step
So what's my answer? Simple: I'm moving to an unlocked HSPA+ Galaxy Nexus on T-Mobile's Monthly 4G prepaid service. It's something I've been considering since writing about the value of prepaid smartphone service a few months ago. The Jelly Bean upgrade was simply the last straw that pushed me toward the change.
The change, I'm happy to say, has been surprisingly painless: I got an HSPA+ Galaxy Nexus phone ($350 from Google) and ordered a T-Mobile prepaid SIM card activation kit ($0.99 from T-Mobile). I popped the card in the phone, followed the kit's simple online activation instructions, and within a matter of minutes was up and running with my new device. Porting in my existing cell number took one five-minute follow-up call to T-Mo's customer service. All in all, I encountered no hassles and never even had to step outside of my home.
I opted to go with T-Mobile's $30-a-month prepaid plan. That gives me 100 anytime minutes, unlimited texting, and unlimited data (with the first 5GB at 4G HSPA+ speeds). Aside from basic tax, $30 is exactly what I pay each month -- period. No shady surcharges, no hidden fees. That's a full 50 bucks less per month than what I was paying with Verizon (thanks to a grandfathered-in lower-level plan, that is -- with the company's new shared data plans, the difference would be even greater).
To be fair, it isn't a strictly apples-to-apples comparison: My new prepaid plan gives me fewer minutes than I had with Verizon; it also doesn't include things like free nights and weekends or unlimited mobile-to-mobile calls. And the data speeds are slower, as T-Mobile's HSPA+ 4G technology isn't at the same level as Verizon's LTE 4G technology.
But hey, those are tradeoffs I'm willing to make. Between my buckets of mobile data and the VoIP lines in my home and office, I rarely crack the 100-minute mark. And the few months when I travel and do need more talk-time, I can just pay for the extra minutes I use. My new plan allows me to buy additional minutes as I need 'em at 10 cents a pop; all I have to do is leave some extra cash on the prepaid account, and the cost for any minutes I use over 100 is automatically taken from that balance.
As for the data speeds, HSPA+ may not be as zippy as LTE, but it's still plenty fast. We're not talking a Sprint-3G-level drop here; to be honest, in most practical phone-based uses -- Web browsing, social media use, and the likes -- I've found it tough to tell much of a noticeable difference. The main difference I can tell is in battery life: While the Verizon Galaxy Nexus is notorious for burning through battery power, the HSPA+ version of the phone has some admirable stamina. Chalk that up as another perk of the change.
There is, of course, the cost of termination: I signed a two-year contract with Verizon when I bought my original Galaxy Nexus, and they don't let you out of those suckers without some serious bruises. Verizon's early termination fee for smartphones is $350 minus $10 for every full month of your contract you've completed.
That means I'll pay $270 to get out of my contract early. And yes, that really sucks. But when I factor in the amount of money I'll save each month, I'll more than make up that cost by the end of the year. And by the time my two-year contract term would have expired, I'll have made up the cost of the HSPA+ phone, too -- and saved an additional $300 on top of that.
When you look at it in the big picture, the cost of change suddenly doesn't seem so bad.
Living contract-free: The renegade Nexus lifestyle
I've been using my new HSPA+ Galaxy Nexus with T-Mobile service for a little over a week now. So far, I couldn't be happier: I have a true Nexus phone with Android 4.1. I have no bloatware and no carrier-added restrictions governing what I can and cannot do with my phone. And, most important of all, I'll continue to get OS upgrades immediately in the future -- as soon as they're released from Google, with no carrier-added delays. This is the true Nexus experience, not the crap-encrusted Verizon version.
Aside from the technological benefits, I'm pretty damn pleased with the long-term financial savings and lack of extended commitment my new setup provides. I feel like I've finally broken free from the chains the carriers have had us in for so many years. My phone is my phone, and I'm paying only for what service I want, when I want it. I'm paying about $600 a year less than I did with Verizon -- and if a better deal comes along in six months, I'm free to jump ship and move around as I please. It's really quite liberating.
The problem is that compared to the true Nexus experience -- the one Google promises and actually provides on unlocked phones outside of Verizon -- the Verizon Galaxy Nexus falls short. Within Google's Nexus universe, the Verizon model makes you a second-class citizen. And that's a designation I'm ready to leave behind.
The Verizon Galaxy Nexus failure: Final thoughts
It's easy to play the blame game -- a Google engineer once said that "operator approvals" are at fault for the slow upgrades with carrier-based Google devices -- but the truth is that Verizon's Galaxy Nexus represents a failure by all parties. Verizon failed to deliver on what a Nexus phone is promised to be. And Google failed by allowing Verizon to carry its Nexus name without fully committing to its Nexus model.
More than anything, I wish Google had been more honest about the realities of the Verizon Galaxy Nexus from the start. Nexus products appeal to some of Google's most loyal Android enthusiasts. Those people, along with the rest of the phone-buying population, deserve better than a half-fulfilled version of what a phone is promised to be.
There is a better way -- and I'm happy to have transitioned into it -- but it shouldn't take this much backtracking to get there.