The Nexus line has distinguished itself for two ways since its 2010 debut. First, it's a vessel for the purest expression of Android's capabilities. As a very close second, it's dirt cheap. One of those things is still true.
The just-announced Nexus 6 is a Hulk of a phone, its 5.9-inch display large enough to render the Nexus 7 tablet obsolete. But it also represents a Nexus line that's grown more than just physically, in the form of a $650 (off-contract) price tag.
Just to be clear, even though that number sounds big to our carrier subsidy-spoiled ears, it's perfectly in line with a modern-day flagship smartphone. You'll pay that much for a Galaxy S5; you'll pay about a hundred bucks more for an iPhone 6 Plus. And given the size and the specs of the Nexus 6—which includes all the latest and greatest guts you could hope for, plus that beautiful Moto X design in a slightly bloated package—it's a totally fair ask. But until today, the Nexus has never been about fair.
Last year's Nexus 5 was just an LG G2 with a slightly different haircut. Basically the same size, basically the same specs. The only major differences were two poorly thought-out back-panel buttons on the G2, and a $250 off-contract price gap. $250! You could have bought a Nexus 5 and a Nexus 7 for less than the $600 LG G2. The price gap between the 2012 Nexus 4 and its LG doppelgänger, the Optimus G, was even greater. Undercutting with the Nexus has been as proud a Google tradition as dessert-named operating systems.
The Nexus 6 undercuts nothing. In fact, the Nexus 6 is being undercut by the Moto X, which is largely the same phone—with less turbo-charged specs, in a more manageable 5.2-inch package—that starts at $500 off contract. Even if you make the argument that more display automatically equals better, and even with the bonus RAM, the Nexus 6 still represents a substantial markup, and comes without some Moto-exclusive software benefits or the fine-tuned customization of Moto Maker.
So what gives?
Nexus has grown up. Its audience is no longer developers or hardcore Android nerds. Google doesn't need to drum up business for it. The Nexus 6 costs more both because the Nexus name can command a higher price, and because names like LG and Samsung and Motorola and Sony don't merit any kind of markup. If anything, the lack of an ugly Android skin is one of the most premium features you could ask for.
It's easy to worry that without the price pressure of the Nexus, smartphone prices will inflate and dangerous rates. It's not like the Nexus 5 did anything to forestall the $855 Galaxy Note 4, though. Meanwhile, there are more good, cheap Android phones to chose from than ever, if that's what you're looking for.
I still think the Nexus 6 is grotesquely big. And I already miss the days when an off-contract Nexus phone was one of the best deals in tech. But in a way I'm glad Google finally decided to recognize its own worth. Less bloat shouldn't mean less value; it should mean the opposite. And the sooner smartphone makers that realize that, the better phones we'll have to choose from.