It should've been the HTC Nexus DNA

Beautiful screen, crisp hardware, superlative specifications: if ever a smartphone deserved Google's Nexus branding, the DROID DNA by HTC is probably it. Announced on the same day that LG's Nexus 4 went on sale, the HTC DNA is so impressive a phone that its looming, 5-inch presence even managed to overshadow Google's dire performance with Play store stability as eager Nexus buyers tried to secure a new phone. It's a sign that HTC is taking the smartphone segment as seriously as it really needs to, not only iterating on what's out there today but leading with new, compelling features in an appealing package. So appealing, in fact, that it's hard to escape the feeling that the DNA, not LG's handset, should've been the new Nexus.

The Nexus program has always been about pushing the envelope in mobile. That started out purely in hardware terms, with the original Nexus One acting as a shove for manufacturers to wade into the specifications arms-race. In handsets since, Google has used each iteration to frame its ambitions with Android, in terms of what it believes should be standards in software, hardware, services, and features. So, the LG Nexus 4, Google's latest collaboration, adds wireless charging for one, the search giant's theme-du-jour.

HTC has given the DROID DNA wireless charging. It has the high-resolution cameras – back and front, the latter ideal for the Google+ video hangouts Google has been pushing of late, what with its wide angle 88-degree lens – and top-tier processor of the Nexus 4, and the 2GB of RAM, and the gamut of sensors. It has a display that not only uses Super LCD, like the Nexus 4, but which blows its resolution out of the water with a Full HD panel, double the 720p LG opted for. There's NFC, for Google Wallet. Even Google and LG's decision to limit internal storage and leave out a microSD card slot has been mimicked, with Google hoping the cloud will drift in to take the place of local files.

In fact, there are only really two points of divergence from Google's current Nexus strategy and HTC's approach with the DROID DNA – well, three if you count Sense, but then it's an HTC-branded Android phone, and so Sense (for better or worse) is a given. First is on-screen buttons, or their absence, with HTC insisting on keeping its dedicated keys for system navigation. That's something Google has been trying to push for a couple of Nexus generations now, but it's something OEMs (when they're not being coerced with Nexus branding, that is) seem reluctant to accept.

DROID DNA by HTC hands-on:

The second, and more important, is price, and it's here that Google and HTC's approaches may have proved incompatible for Nexus purposes. The LG Nexus 4 is distinguished in no small part by its affordability in SIM-free state, and at $299 sans-contract it actually matches some handsets sold with the shackles of a 24-month contract. Google's ambition is to drive off-contract adoption (just as it tried – and failed – with the first Nexus, because either the market, or the carriers, or consumers, or most likely all three, weren't ready) and further relegate the operators to the role of dumb-pipe, and for that it needs a handset that's startling in its affordability.

In contrast, the HTC DNA is unlikely to be a cheap phone, at least not SIM-free. True, Verizon is hitting the $199.99 price point, but that's a subsidized figure: it relies on the carrier recouping its initial outlay on your shiny new phone with an overflowing wallet-full of cash on calls, messaging, and data each month over a two year period. That expectation, plus HTC's desperation what with its own dire financial straits, has undoubtedly prompted a more competitive subsidy, with an eye on the longer-term that an off-contract phone simply can't match.

[aquote]Google needed a cheap Nexus, a device as network-agnostic as possible[/aquote]

Here, then, is where HTC and Google's ambitions diverge most significantly. Google needs a cheap Nexus, a device as network-agnostic as possible. That's why it left out LTE, after all – because supporting each individual flavor of 4G means tying yourself to a handful of carriers, and the necessary testing and approval for each – and why operator offers in each country where the Nexus 4 is being sold feels like an afterthought.

HTC, though, desperately needs a device that will see the company taken seriously again. A phone that can stand against the best from Samsung, and LG, and Motorola, and even Apple, and not immediately be relegated to the also-ran category. Once, the company was synonymous with Android phones; in the past 12-18 months, however, it has dwindled to a shadow of its former glories.

It's too early to say whether the DROID DNA will achieve all that, though on a specs basis (an important element, though not the only one) it's off to a promising start. If there's a drawback to be found, though, it's likely to be the software side of the equation: one of the reason Google's Nexus devices have grown in popularity among users, particularly those heavily invested in Android, is because they're first in line for OS updates. The DNA runs an older version out of the box, Android 4.1, and by saddling it with Sense, HTC has introduced further delay into the upgrade process.

Right now, that delay seems inevitable. If HTC can use the early access Google has promised to new versions of Android for key OEMs, and give supporting existing devices with timely updates the same degree of priority as it does pushing out new phones, it could do what so far Samsung, LG, and the others have failed to achieve. That is, create its own take on the Nexus program, delivering the latest and greatest in hardware with the latest and greatest in software, maintaining its unique brand in Sense without also demanding a compromise on software freshness from users. That's the way to build brand loyalty and relevance, and they're the two factors that could yank HTC from its current downward spiral. The answer's simple: just make the DROID DNA a Nexus in all but name.