(and other asssorted thoughts on the launch of Android Marshmallow (6.0) and the Nexus 5X and 6P devices)

Another year rolls by and with it another Google Inc. (GOOG) mobile Android operating system launch.  This year's flavor of Android is nicknamed "Marshmallow" and follows in the footsteps of the most ubiquitous "Kit Kat" (4.4) and the fairly well-received "Lollipop" (5.0 and 5.1).

I. S'More to Love?

At an event in San Francisco, Calif. on Thursday, Google announced the imminent arrival of Marshmallow to the masses.  

Marshmallow has a long way to go, seeing as its predcessor, Lollipop, is just starting to see mass uptake.  By Google's own accounting Kit Kat accounts for roughly 39 percent of Android devices, or roughly two in every five.  Lollipop's two minor revisions have roughly 21 percent of the market, or roughly 1 in every 5 units.  The aging Jelly Bean (4.1 through 4.3), meanwhile, continues to live on with a roughly 32 percent share -- roughly 1 in 3 devices.

Android version share

It's official -- Android Marshmallow will receive the version number "6.0".  Behind the scenes perhaps the sneakest treat in Marshmallow's bag of tricks is the new "Material Design" guidelines, which should push popular apps towards a more standardized minimalist "flat" look.

Android marshmallow

Less subtle features include a more omnipresent Google Now (on Tap!), intelligent heuristics for better batter life (Doze), and copy and paste as text buttons (rather than the old perplexing symbols).

Marshmallow statue
Android 6.0 "Marshmallow"

Yes, the copy and paste improvements are actually kind of a big deal.  I've been an Android user for nearly a year now and I STILL find myself occasionally forgetting which icon is which and pressing the wrong button. Apple, Inc. (AAPL) already had gone a similar route with iOS, and finally Google has seen the light as well and dropped its overly amibguous text parsing soft buttons.

Alongside Marshmallow are a sweet pair of flagship devices under the familiar banner of Google's Nexus brand.

II. Huawei Fought the Law and Huawei Won

To be fair, much as with Marshmallow itself, there is no single show stopper in the new ensemble of Nexus smartphones.  Rather these devices wow where it really counts -- your wallet.

Nexus 6P

The Nexus 6P by Huawei Electronics

Priced at $499, $549, and $649 USD for 32, 64, and 128 GB editions (unlocked), the Nexus 6P (codename: Angler) is priced SO low that even Android fans may forgive its lack of a microSD slot.  There's all the essentials -- a Qualcomm Inc. (QCOM) Snapdragon 810 64-bit SoC, 5,7-inch quad-HD AMOLED display, and super hard Gorilla Glass 4 from Corning Inc. (GLW) ... even a fingerprint sensor (yes that round ring on the back is a fingerprint sensor, it will all make sense, shortly).

Nexus 5X and 6P
[Image Source: Wired]

The curious bobble in the brew is the camera.  Given that its hardware while solidly high end -- is in many cases the standard amongst flagships and not a gamechange, Google sensibly opted to emphasize the new camera module, which it believes is a cut above many Android devices.  I would be a bit skeptical of Google's braggadocio about the camera.

The 12 megapixel shooter is cornered on solid ideas -- namely the "ultrapixel" strategy of HTC Corp. (TPE:2498) (the 6P has 1.55 μm pixels, sort of midway between HTC's old 2.0 μm "ultrapixels" and Apple's 1.22 μm) and the laser-assisted focus that LG Electronics Inc. (KRX:066570)(KRX:066575) popularized with its G series smartphones.  But I would say the biggest one thing that will likely hold the Nexus 6P back from true pocket shooter greatness is lack of the optical image stabilization (OIS), a feature that most of the best smartphone cameras pack.  Without OIS you'll need steady hands to avoid at least mild blur in some shots.

Nexus 6P

That said, Google seems confident enough in the results, boasting, "the best camera we've ever put in a Nexus device."

Oh, and maybe Google should have said Hua-we-i.  Becuase like past Nexus devices it sourced the design to a top Android OEM -- in this case, Chinese phonemaker and telecom equipment provider Huawei.

Google's endorsement of a Huawei flagship device would almost have been unbelieveable just a couple years back.  At the time Congress considered banning Huawei devices from sale in the U.S. over concerns about its ties to the Chinese army and the possibility of spying (Huawei's founder was a former PLA officer).  A lot of trash was talked.  Accusations flew over supposed illegal sales to Iran.  The U.S. even went as far as to block or attempt to block a number of Huawei's telecommunications equipment sales to companies in the U.S. and its allies.  Notably in 2010 it lobbied Sprint Corp. (S) to dump plans to adopt Huawei hardware and in 2014 convinced South Korea to do the same.

Fast forward just a year and oh so much has changed.  The U.S. and Europe have officially removed Iran from their "enemies"... err... sanctions list, so Huawei and other Chinese OEMs no longer have to tread through that minefield of accusations.  And the U.S. has lost basically all its moral higher ground with which to admonish Huawei sternly, thanks to the revelation that American taxpayers own money was being used to fund a massive domestic spying program and a corresponding international spying program, targeting the masses in some of America's biggest allies.

And then things went from awkward to super awkward for the U.S. government.

Obama spying on Japan
[Image Source: Wikileaks]

Remember how the White House was "pretty sure" that Huawei wasn't spying on behalf of the Chinese?  The statement struck many as a bit curious.  After all, how can you be so sure of whether holes are being abused when you don't know for sure exactly how many exist?  Well, as it turns out the White House reportedly knew all too well, as it was doing the exact offense Congress was accusing Huawei of.  Now it was China's turn to demand answers, and the American government's turn to hem and haw about their oh-so-ironic hypocrisy.

Suffice it to say this time around the Congress won't be in any hurry to discuss banning Huawei from the market, given that would be the equivalent of a Las Vegas call girl delivering the "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" to her Johns (although at least one prominent politician claims the U.S. government isn't so much a whore, but rather some manner  of high end stripper-for-hire to special interests).

Anyhow, the Nexus 6P is a big deal for Huawei because it marks its most prominent entry into the U.S. market, the culmination of a triumphant absolution that would have seemed highly improbable just a couple years back.

Nexus 6P from Huawei

And as much as the OEM itself is the storyline here, the price is an even bigger deal.  To put that in context $649 will buy you: a respectively diminuitive 16 GB iPhone 6S or a whopping 128 GB Nexus 6P phablet by Huawei.  To buy a 16 GB iPhone 6S+ -- Apple's closest analogy to the Nexus 6P size-wise -- you'll have to pay a hundred bucks and you'll get one-eighth the storage.  Ouch.

Oh and did we mention that Google is throwing in a $50 USD Play Store credit for those who preorder, plus a 90 day trial pass to Google Play Music?  (To Apple's credit, the iPhone also comes with a similar trial for Apple Music.)

Looks wise the Nexus 6P holds its own with an attractive metal body and three color options -- Aluminium (silver), Graphite (dark grayish), and Frost (whiteish).  At 7.3 mm (0.29 in) thick, the Nexus 6P is as slender as the iPhone 6S+, and at a weight of 179 g (6.31 oz) it's actually almost 7 percent lighter than the 192 g (6.8 oz) iPhone 6S+.

Nexus 6P

To address the elephant in the room, yes the news iPhones' A9 system-on-a-chip has a substantial processing edge over the Snapdragon 810 (according to Anandtech and HotHardware, among others).  That said, the 6P should feel relatively sporty, thanks in part to its new sensor/touch-parsing coprocessor, a similar strategy to Apple's motion coprocessor, and one that most Android's lack.  Based on what we've seen from Apple the net payoff will likely be a smoother feel across the UI.

Ultimately the iPhone 6S+ and the Nexus 6P are close in some ways and not so close in oths.  Arguably it's all a matter of perspective which is the superior offering.  Some buyers won't flinch at the $300 extra ($949 USD, total) that a 128 GB iPhone 6S+ costs versus the $649 USD, 128 GB Nexus 6P.  Others won't flinch at the Nexus 6P's narrow defeat to Apple on the processing front given that they're getting the phone for nearly a third less.

III. Nexus 5X -- No Razzle Dazzle, but Plenty of Sauce

While the story of the Nexus 5X -- made by South Korea's LG Electronics -- isn't quite as salacious as that of a Huawei-made Google flagship, the Nexus 5X tracks along similar lines strategy wise.  Specifically, if the Nexus 6P is Google's budget-minded answer to the iPhone 6S+, the 5.2-inch Nexus 5X is the equivalent answer to the iPhone 6S.
Nexus 5X
The Nexus 5X by LG Electronics

The device, which Google calls the spirtual successor to the Nexus 5 (2013), was developed under the codename Bullhead.  It features a slightly less powerful Snapdragon 808 (similar to LG's G4), but makes up for it with the same onboard I/O coprocessor as the Nexus 6P.  The Nexus 5X also shares the same fingerprint sensor and camera model with its bigger brethren.

One perhaps non-obvious upside is that while the battery of the device is only 2,700 mAh, the more humble 1,920 x 1,080 pixel ("full high definition" (FHD)/1080p) resolution shouldn't tax the battery too badly (and most won't notice the difference versus QHD).

The front camera module isn't quite as a fancy (5 megapixels in the Nexus 5X vs. 8 megapixels in the Nexus 6P), there's only 2 GB of LPPDR4, the screen protector is Gorilla Glass 3 -- not GG4.

But at its price point such shortcomings are workable.  Apple's similarly-sized 16 GB iPhone 6S (which lacks OIS, notably in its camera) retails for $649.  The Nexus 5X is just a little over half the price of an iPhone 6S, selling for $379 USD (16 GB) or $429 USD (32 GB) unlocked.

Nexus 5X

Yes the body here is plastic, but it looks pretty good.  The device is 7.9 mm (0.31 in) thick and weighs in at 136 g (4.80 oz).  That's slightly thicker, but slightly lighter than the iPhone which measures up at 7.3 mm (0.29 in) and 143 g (5.0 oz).

Again, Google's strategy for the Nexus 5X and 6P aren't exactly rocket science, and aren't exactly new.  The Nexus line has long targeted budget price points.  That said there's plenty of interesting surprises and angles in Google's new Marshmallow flagship devices. And boy are they budget-friendly.

Source: Google

"It looks like the iPhone 4 might be their Vista, and I'm okay with that." -- Microsoft COO Kevin Turner

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