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The Google Nexus 4 was released 10 years ago

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About a month after the Google Pixel 7 Pro and its smaller sibling were released, one of our oldest favorite Android phones is celebrating its first double-digit anniversary. The Google Nexus 4 was released to the public 10 years ago, after its October 29 launch event was canceled due to Hurricane Sandy. While the Galaxy Nexus before it accompanied the big jump from Android 2 to Android 4, the Nexus 4 is the phone that proved that Android phones and software could be pretty, too.

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The road to the Nexus 4

Google has come a long way over the past 15 years when it first launched Android. In contrast to Apple, Google went the Microsoft way when it comes to its operating system. The company didn’t make Android for its hardware exclusively. Instead, Google made Android a versatile platform for others to build upon, both when it comes to software and hardware.

Despite the software distribution approach, Google was interested in showing developers how it envisions its software from the start. The first Android phone, the HTC Dream, was co-developed with Google and was supposed to show consumers and manufacturers what they could do with the then-novel operating system. Once Android phones became more ubiquitous, Google kept teaming up with other manufacturers to create testing and showcase devices under the Nexus brand, first introduced in 2010.

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Early phones like the HTC-made Nexus One and the Samsung Nexus S were marketed towards developers, with Google only offering them in limited quantities and making it rather complicated to buy them, with limited availability and no purchase options through carriers. Still, the Nexus S and the Galaxy Nexus after it managed to find a small but loyal following from enthusiasts who wanted to enjoy Android the way it was supposedly meant to be, without any additions from manufacturers.

The Nexus 4 was the first truly fashionable Android phone

Google’s LG-built Nexus 4 was still a phone meant for developers first and foremost, but it was also more than that. It was one of the first Android phones to be built with a big emphasis on design, clad in glass front and back, interrupted by a grippy rubber frame. The phone was not like most other Android phones back in the day, made from high-end materials rather than plastic. The sparkly back with its holographic pattern that changes depending on how light hits it was without a match at the time, too.

Its understated look in hardware and software made it feel more like an iPhone than the equally well-built HTC One X of that same era. In a sense, it was ahead of its time, with high-end phones these days following that same basic design scheme of adding glass front and back. This idea wasn’t without its critics. In contrast to the Galaxy Nexus before it, the Nexus 4 didn’t feature a removable battery, forcing many people to invest in some great battery packs amidst concerns about battery longevity.

On the software side, Google also made clear that it was finally taking interface design more seriously. The Nexus 4 was the second Nexus phone to launch in the Android 4.x era, showcasing all the work it made with Android 4.2 Jelly Bean and Project Butter. Android historically had a reputation for choppy animations and poor system UI performance, and Google used the Nexus 4 and Android 4.2 to show that it’s taking steps to mitigate this.

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The Nexus 4 was also one of the phones to experience Google’s big jump to Android 5 Lollipop in 2014 and the then brand-new Material Design language, replacing the dark Holo interface of old. This new, overarching design idea was the culmination of Google’s efforts to create a visual language across ecosystems and other Android skins, helping you instantly recognize Android app design and—more importantly—Google app design. This trend only continued since then, with Android 12’s Material Design 3 and the uber-personal Material You look elevating design to the next level.

Last but not least, the Nexus 4 offered a great bang for the buck for those lucky enough to get one of the chronically sold-out units. At $350 (roughly $450 today, adjusted for inflation), it offered a 1.5GHz, flagship-level Snapdragon S4 Pro and 2GB of RAM, paired with 16GB of onboard storage. Its 8GB version only cost $300. While these specs may seem laughable today, they still represent what Google stayed true to for most of its Nexus and then Pixel lineup: Good to great hardware at a slightly more affordable price than the competition.

The only big issue that cropped up over the years is the rubberized frame. While you could get around the fact that the Nexus 4 didn’t get any software updates beyond Android 5 by installing a custom ROM, the rubber just wore off over time, leaving you with a sticky, disgusting feel when you use the phone without a case. This is only a problem that came up years after regular software support ended, though, so probably it wasn’t anything that affected real-world usage much.

The Nexus 4 paved the way for the Pixel lineup

While the Nexus lineup never moved big numbers, neither for Google nor its hardware partners, it’s clear that the Nexus phones became an increasingly more important part of the company’s strategy. The Nexus 4 proved that Google could sell a well-designed phone and use it to showcase its latest features and design ideas, like a new Google Now shortcut and a redesigned clock widget.

From the Nexus 4 onward, Google’s phones got more capable. The Nexus 5 may have eschewed the glass back for a rubberized plastic alternative. Still, it stayed true to the understated design the Nexus 4 and, to an extent, the Galaxy Nexus before it, introduced. The Nexus series never achieved an overarching hardware design scheme, though. The Nexus 6 was quite the departure, given its size and form, and with the simultaneously introduced Nexus 5X and 6P after it, you would be hard-pressed to identify them as being a part of the same series.

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That only changed when Google took matters into its own hands, launching the Pixel series in 2016. With a new hardware division of its own, the company was finally able to pursue the design it wanted to offer, merging and coordinating its hardware and software efforts better than ever before. The Nexus 4 proved that hardware design is an important part of the equation, and Google is now finally starting to take this seriously, with the Google Pixel 7 and 7 Pro its most refined and flawless products yet.

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