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With the Nexus 4, Google tries to bypass carriers again

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Check out our full review of the Google Nexus 4 phone. 

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Google wants to offer you freedom. Freedom from lengthy, restrictive and expensive mobile contracts which often serve nobody except the network offering them. It also wants you to be free from annoying user interfaces obscuring Android and stopping you from getting timely updates to the latest version of the OS.

It’s doing this by selling three devices through its own Google Play store — the Nexus 4, Nexus 7 and Nexus 10. All but one were announced yesterday, and together they’re the “playground” Google declared open in its invitation to the hastily canceled event originally scheduled for Monday morning in New York.

All three cost considerably less than one may expect, with the Nexus 7 starting at $200, the Nexus 4 at $300 and the Nexus 10 at $400. The Nexus 4 and Nexus 7 both have 3G HSPA+ radios inside, and can be connected to more than 200 different network providers around the world, including T-Mobile and AT&T in the U.S.

Normally, you’d be paying $200 for the Nexus 4 and signing up for a two-year contract with a network provider, and indeed you can, as T-Mobile offers this exact deal. But why sign your life away for two years, when for another $100 you can buy the phone SIM-free and either continue with your existing plan, or shop around for a new and potentially better one without a monthly commitment. It saves you money and gives the option to upgrade your phone whenever you like.

Second time’s a charm?

This is nothing new, and not only is it a popular way to buy phones in the UK and Europe, but Google has also tried to educate buyers in the U.S. this way before. When it launched the Nexus One back in 2010, the Android phone could be purchased SIM-free for $530 through Google’s own web store or with a choice of network deals. At the time, Google tried to play fair with the networks, but it was never going to work, and the store was soon closed and the Nexus One discontinued.

It’s different today. Google has an incredibly strong line-up of phones and tablets, and we’re all much more aware of software updates — Nexus devices get the latest version of Android quickest remember — and of hardware upgrade cycles too. When a new model is released every year, those who purchased the previous one with a two-year contract can’t upgrade even if they want to, at least not without paying full price for the phone.

Google has a lot more influence now than it did when the Nexus One came out, and has even made a name for itself as a hardware company with standout devices such as the Galaxy Nexus and the Nexus 7 tablet. The Google Play store is mainstream too, and is used by millions everyday to buy apps, music, and movies. Hundreds of thousands of people also purchased the Nexus 7 directly from Google this year; making it only a short leap to taking the decision to buy an off-contract phone there, as well.

No 4G means more Google control

Google is going to need a fair amount of this influence if it wants the Nexus 4 to be a success in the U.S. though, as the phone doesn’t come with a 4G LTE radio. Google’s Andy Rubin told The Verge that the decision was made not to offer the feature due to the expense of putting two radios inside, and after the poor battery performance of the Galaxy Nexus on 4G networks. It’s telling that so far, there’s no sign of a variant on the way for Verizon customers.

The lack of 4G LTE won’t matter to everyone, especially in those countries where it’s not even an option, but a vocal few are certain to make their displeasure known. There’s a chance that if the Nexus 4 is a success for Google, it could choose to offer another version, but only if it makes financial and technical sense. In the meantime though, only offering a GSM Nexus 4 means one less network with which to deal.

The Nexus 4 is an exciting, high-spec device, but is it really capable of ushering in a new era where consumers becoming less dependent on carriers? From this point on, having provided the tools and the means, this is pretty much out of Google’s hands; leaving it all down to you.