The new flagship Android device has almost everything you've been waiting for... almost
Getting the Nexus 4 for review was something of a treat for me. I've been anticipating the arrival of a follow-up (and upgrade) from the company's previous flagship device — the Galaxy Nexus — for a handful of very specific reasons. In fact, I've held off on moving to other, excellent devices with expectations of this mystery phone in mind. While I have been largely pleased with using the Samsung-produced Nexus, there are some irksome qualities to the handset (a poor camera, weak display, and lack of LTE for AT&T) that have made me eager to switch.
When I had a chance to venture out to Google's Mountain View headquarters for a feature on the next phone, I already knew a bit about what was next on tap. We'd covered a variety of leaks of the alleged new Nexus, a glass-backed device apparently made by LG. The device turned out to be more than just what I'd seen in leaks — it's a robust handset, with the all the bells and whistles you'd expect, and a design sensibility that suggests Google is continuing to move in a smart direction with its hardware. But there are issues — like an alarming lack of LTE — which makes it tough to see how this stacks up fully against the competition.
Still, it's an interesting evolution of the Nexus experiment. An unlocked, high-end device sold for the cost of what some other phones sell for on-contract with carriers. For this market, that kind of choice is relatively unheard of.
So should you go rogue, toss contracts aside, and pick up a Nexus 4? Or does Google have to make peace with carriers before its phones can be considered viable alternatives?
The design of the LG-made Nexus 4 is very much an iteration of the Galaxy Nexus. That is, you kind of can't tell the two apart if they're sitting next to one another on a table. It's when you get closer that you begin to notice the differences — and there are many significant differences.
For starters, the device is made mostly from glass. Gorilla Glass. The screen is coated smoothly from edge to edge, and it almost feels like the glass is melted over the sides. Google's head of user experience Matias Duarte claimed that the curved sides helped swiping left or right on the phone, and much to my surprise, it did seem to make things easier to shuffle around near the edges of the screen. The back is flat glass with a holographic stipple pattern which you can't always see, but looks playfully futuristic in the right light. The two glass surfaces are joined by a soft touch band which wraps around the entire device, giving it a solid, weighty feel in your hand.
That glass covering is cause for concern, however. While testing the phone, I accidentally knocked the device off of my dining table and onto a hardwood floor... cracking the glass on the back. It's a small fracture, but had I just paid $300 for the device, I would be irate, and I'm not sure what LG or Google's policy is on replacement.
That glass covering is cause for concern
The Nexus 4 is a handsome but uninspired device
Button placement is the same as the Galaxy Nexus. The sleep / power button is on the upper right side of the phone, while a volume rocker sits on the left. The sleep button feels a little bit too recessed for its own good, and I sometimes had trouble getting it to respond to my taps. The headphone jack is on the top of the device, while the Micro USB port sits in the center of the bottom edge. On the back of the phone there's a small slit which houses a speaker, and a camera and flash somewhat awkwardly placed towards the upper-left side of the backplate — I prefer the centered placement of the Galaxy Nexus.
The Nexus 4 is a handsome — if relatively uninspired — device. Since it's taking most of its design cues from the previous generation Nexus, it feels less fresh than something like the bold Lumia 920 or HTC 8X. Even HTC's One X seems to be taking more risks than this phone, while being more sturdily built. The Nexus 4 has some similarities to the iPhone 5 in the sense that its design is an iteration of the model which precedes it, however Apple's handset comes off as considerably more polished and refined.
Google says this is the fastest phone on the planet
Inside, the Nexus 4 shines with an impressive set of specs. The phone's beating heart is Qualcomm's Snapdragon S4 Pro clocked to 1.5GHz, which Google says makes this the fastest phone on the planet. I'm not sure that's an empirical fact, but the device was extremely snappy. It also houses a healthy 2GB of RAM, and is available in an 8GB or or 16GB version (I tested the 16GB version). There's no SD slot here, so you're stuck with a relatively small amount of onboard storage, especially on the cheapest version. There's also a non-removable 2100 mAh battery inside.
You'll find the typical compliment of Wi-Fi radios here (802.11 b/g/n), Bluetooth 4.0, NFC, and interestingly, built-in support for Google's newest accessory, a wireless charging dock that looks a lot like the Palm Touchstone. One thing you won't find, however, is LTE. The device comes equipped with HSPA+ radios, which will work just fine on T-Mobile or AT&T here in the States, and on the majority of carriers in Europe and the rest of the world. There are no plans at the moment for any other variations of the phone that I know of.
The camera can produce vivid images with a relatively low amount of noise
The phone has two cameras — an 8 megapixel shooter on the back, and a 1.3 megapixel lens up front for video calling. The back camera worked well — certainly much better than the Galaxy Nexus — and was able to produce vivid images with a relatively low amount of noise and excellent color clarity. Focusing in on even close subjects wasn't an issue, though I did at times wish that its macro capabilities were a little more robust than they are. I sometimes struggled with getting close subjects to stay in focus, often having to reposition further back to get the shot I was after.
Google says it worked overtime on making sure low-light performance was improved on the Nexus 4, and I'm happy to say it is better than the last phone, though not a quantum leap forward (as Nokia's new Lumia 920 is). The biggest changes in the camera aren't really about hardware, however, and I have a lot more on that in the software section of the review.
Speaking of improvements, the display on this phone is big upgrade over the Galaxy Nexus' Super AMOLED screen, which was often far too dim when set to auto-brightness, seemed very over-saturated, and did a somewhat poor job of cleanly reproducing text. The 4.7-inch, 1280 x 768 LCD display of the Nexus 4 has no such trouble, producing images that are clean and crisp in just about any light setting. The slightly wider screen did a great job with just about anything I threw at it, though I did still feel that it auto-dimmed too low in darker settings. The display also seems to produce more washed out looking colors than competing LCD screens like the iPhone 5 or One X. It wasn't a huge issue, but your Twitter icon may seem weirdly devoid of life on the Nexus 4.
I mentioned that the Nexus 4 will not ship with LTE radios, and it would be negligent of me to not say how big of a difference this will make if you live in an area where HSPA service is not operating at peak levels. Since I happen to be an AT&T user in exactly that situation, I know exactly how it feels.
Slow. It feels slow.
In Brooklyn, where I did much of my testing, my HSPA connection maxed out at about 5Mbps down and 2Mbps up. On the other hand, a Samsung Galaxy S III on LTE hit crazy speeds — over 25Mbps down without breaking a sweat. I don't know what other customers are getting on their T-Mobile or AT&T connections, but that disparity is similar to what I've been seeing since LTE first hit the market. It's a massive gulf, and one which I have trouble ignoring at this point.
Last year I switched to the Galaxy Nexus on Verizon for a time, only to come back to AT&T and the HSPA+ version after being frustrated by the lack of updates — but I swore that my next device would have LTE no matter what. After testing phones like the iPhone 5, Lumia 920, HTC One X, and Galaxy S III, it's nearly impossible to imagine myself sticking with slower speeds.
As someone who uses my phone for business, this isn't just about downloading big files — it's about the device being responsive and quickly updating when I need something. On Android phones more than any other device on the market, a solid and speedy connection can make the difference between a really good or really bad day. When every service you use is connected to the cloud, an extra 20Mbps of speed goes a long way.
There's simply no way to ignore this deficit, at least for the US market.
On the plus side, call quality and reception was excellent on the phone. I only had one dropped called while testing, and general sound and clarity was top notch. LG smartly equipped the Nexus 4 with a loud and clear speaker, and an earpiece that carries surprisingly clean audio. The speaker was so loud that I actually had to turn the phone down for alerts. I did notice a slightly audible (but extremely quiet) buzzing sound occasionally when I was on calls, but it's possible that that's just a frequency I've been not hearing due to the somewhat muted sound of the Galaxy Nexus earpiece.
There's no way to ignore the lack of LTE
Performance and responsiveness is second to none
As I stated above, Google says the Nexus 4 is the fastest phone around right now. Whether that's true or not, I can say that performance and responsiveness on the device is second to none. It's a very speedy phone that barely ever hesitated or failed to respond to my touches or commands. In particular, multitasking between a number of applications was no issue for the phone, buoyed up — I presume — by that generous 2GB of RAM.
Battery life was also top notch. I'm used to getting just about a day of use on my Galaxy Nexus (that's taking it off of the charger around 8AM or 9AM, and putting it back on around 2AM). Some days it doesn't quite make it that long, depending on my workload. The Nexus 4 fared much better. At the time of this writing, I've had it off of its charger for 10 hours and 30 minutes and it's still got 45 percent battery life. Yesterday before I plugged it in, I'd had it off the charger for 16 hours, with 18 percent of its juice left. To say it's holding up for full work days would be an understatement; even with heavy use, this battery more than pulls its weight.
The software inside the Nexus 4 isn't the kind of overhaul that Ice Cream Sandwich was in the Galaxy Nexus. In fact, it's a "dot" update to Jelly Bean, bringing the current version up to 4.2. That's not to say there aren't some significant changes here — and Google is definitely continuing to polish and refine an OS which is increasingly impressive and innovative.
Android is increasingly impressive and innovative
Probably the biggest updates in 4.2 are focused (no pun intended, really) on the camera. Google has completely revamped the way in which you interact with the shooter, now offering a wildly clever circular menu which can be activated by touching anywhere on the screen in the camera app. The contextual circle lets you quickly swipe in a variety of directions to tweak individual settings, making quick changes dead simple. Google engineers told me they wanted users to have an easier time taking pictures using only their thumbs, and they've definitely accomplished their mission. It worked well for me, though because it's so easy to touch and swipe while tapping to focus, I accidentally switched settings a couple of times while taking pictures. It does take a little getting used to.
The Nexus 4 also now has an HDR photo mode, which produces great results with surprisingly fast processing (if HDR is your thing), and Google has greatly improved its photo editing options, making tweaking your images easier and faster than before. I mean, you'll actually want to use it now. The Android team has added some smart little details, like being able to swipe across your image while editing and compare the changes, and a now includes a history of all your alterations that you can view while working on an image. It's intuitive and works flawlessly.
But perhaps the biggest addition in the camera is the inclusion of a wild new shooting mode called Photo Sphere, which makes panorama shots frankly look like a thing of the past. The easiest way to describe the functionality is to say it's like having the ability to take your own Street View photos... pretty much anywhere. It can be a little tricky to get all the angles right, but Google provides a fairly helpful guide which steps you through the process, and when you do get it right, the results are surreal. Once this features hits the public, I'm sure we'll see all kinds of crazy images appear.
Elsewhere, the company has brought a much-needed update to Gmail, and after four versions of the software, it will now automatically scale messages to fit within the width of your window. That means that Gmail has joined the ranks of the iPhone and Windows Phone in this basic functionality — and it will alleviate a lot of headaches for Android users. No more pan and scan; imagine that.
Google has also added a handy swipe to delete or archive function in the messages list, which I took advantage of at every opportunity. It's not the most original addition, but it's one that makes dealing with an unruly inbox a bit easier, and like many of the updates in this version of Android, is focused on one-handed operation.
A new method of input has been included with the keyboard — a mode called Gesture Typing, which is basically Swype without Swype. It works in conjunction with the standard tap keyboard (you can mix and match with ease), and makes one-handed typing roughly a million times easier. I don't know how Swype feels about this (did Google... swipe the technology from them?), but it's a pleasure to have on the already excellent Jelly Bean keyboard. Bonus: it will auto-predict your biggest strings, like email addresses, with enough practice.
A helpful dropdown menu called Quick Settings that lives in the notification window lets you get to your most-used toggles now (brightness, bluetooth, airplane mode, etc.) without deep diving into the settings list. You can also get to these by using a two-finger swipe from the top of the screen. I've been using this menu constantly since I got the phone, and it's one of the simplest yet most useful additions to the software.
And there are little details like this all over Android 4.2. For instance, there's a new menu in your call log that lets you sort calls by type (missed, voicemail, outgoing, etc.) — a small tweak, but one which I found incredibly helpful. Google has also added an easier way to use an Emoji keyboard — if you want to do something like that.
Speaking of details — I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the terrific looking new clock app in 4.2. I know, I know — why should anyone care about a clock application? Well, there has been a lot of fuss over clocks lately, and I think Google has done an impressive job here of updating what was previously a rather mundane and simplistic app with something that shows the company is truly invested in design and thoughtful interaction. It typifies the kind of minimalist, clutter-free layout which seems to be becoming the norm for first-party Android offerings. One suggestion though — please make that snooze button a little bigger. A bleary-eyed sleeper needs a big target.
There are little details all over
Finally, Google has put even more weight (and science) behind its extremely helpful / somewhat creepy predictive search thing, Google Now. The card-based app has added the ability to scour your email looking for beacons from flight and hotel reservations, and then serve up that information when the time comes (say, day of travel or day of check-in). The cards can also remember if you've searched for a movie and remind you about the film when it opens, will tell you about dinner reservations you've made, ping you about events you're interested in, and even track your packages for you and tell you when they've shipped. As before (and perhaps more than ever), it works with remarkable sagacity.
Google has also improved its voice search in both quality of results and look and feel, and it now more closely resembles Google Now. In my testing, Google voice search outperformed Siri in the majority of queries, and not only did it get the answers correct and offer up perfectly worded responses, but it did so faster than its nearest competition — sometimes by a longshot.
All in all, the changes in Android 4.2 may seem subtle, but they come together to make a more cohesive, enjoyable, and responsive mobile operating system. Android may still have a slightly steeper learning curve than iOS or Windows Phone, but what you get in return for a little bit of extra effort is phenomenal. In just over a year, the OS has gone from a nice-but-flawed experiment to a sleek, sophisticated, and incredibly smart platform. I don't feel any hesitation in saying that the pure Android 4.2 experience is — at least in my estimation — the most advanced mobile operating system on the market.
One thing worth noting here — besides all the terrific changes in Android 4.2, I did notice a couple of software issues with third-party apps. The latest update of Pocket seems to crash on launch, Any.DO (a to-do app I use often) would flicker when I had it open, and Speedtest seemed to not be scaling properly to the screen of the Nexus 4, while it worked fine on my Galaxy Nexus and a Galaxy S III I'm testing with. I'm sure these are rather simple issues to clear up, but they were a bit troubling to me.
It's easily the best Android phone on the market, save for one small thing
The Nexus 4 is absolutely wonderful, but it's also vexing. Frustrating. Annoying. It's easily the best Android phone on the market right now, and has some of the most powerful software that's ever been put on a mobile phone. It's an upgrade from last year's Galaxy Nexus in every way. It's terrific — save for one small thing.
In the US, a flagship phone without LTE is like a muscle car with no wheels. For other networks in other countries, and for the lucky T-Mobile customers out there that are getting great speeds on its HSPA+ network — great. No problem. Go get this phone. But for others — many others — it's hard to imagine buying this device when you know it's a generation behind in terms of network technology.
A little over a year ago, I bristled at the fact that the iPhone 4S didn't have LTE, but I also admitted that the phone was a still a "force to be reckoned with." The same can be said for the Nexus 4, with a caveat. The mobile industry has changed a lot in the last 12 months. LTE is the norm, not a nice-to-have, and its performance has shown the cracks in the aging GSM networks of the US. No flagship device is released without it. Not even the iPhone.
For a phone and an OS built for the cloud, I think it's unacceptable to not offer a version that takes advantage of our fastest mobile networks.
If you buy the Nexus 4, you have to decide whether you're willing to compromise data speeds for the purest and best form of the Android OS. After comparing the options and seeing the gulf between Google's flagship and other devices on the market, I've decided it's a compromise I won't be making again.