Bytesize: Google Nexus 4 review

It is not only the most powerful flagship smartphone on the market, but also the most affordable. After living with it for a month, Alex Masters reviews Google’s latest Nexus handset

Google’s Nexus 4 smartphone has been the talk of the tech world for some time now, thanks to its affordable price, impressive specs and distinct lack of availability. Luckily I was able to test the Nexus 4 over the Christmas period thanks to Three UK, who provided me with a review unit so that I could test their new DC-HSDPA network, but more on that later.

First Impressions

I’ll admit that when I first heard news that LG had been chosen to build the latest Nexus smartphone I was more than a little concerned. LG do not have the best track record when it comes to manufacturing flagship Android handsets, but thankfully my concerns were short-lived. Once I had the device in my hands, it was clear that LG had produced an exceptional product worthy of the Nexus moniker.

Design

The build quality is almost second to none, matched only by the iPhone 5, although I still prefer the Nexus 4’s overall design, weight, and dimensions. The iPhone 5, with its sharp lines, narrow display and aluminium frame, feels cold and even a little underwhelming when placed alongside the Nexus 4. With its curved glass display, soft touch black frame and shimmering glass back panel, the Nexus 4 feels solid and, dare I say it, looks more attractive. No doubt Apple fans will scream bloody murder and disagree with my last comment, so I ask that you go and see the Nexus 4 for yourself before you wax lyrical in the comments about Apple’s design chops.

Anyway, moving on. The loudspeaker on the Nexus 4 is clear, although its placement on the back, bottom right corner of the phone, is less than ideal. You have to cup the speaker with your hand when holding the phone in landscape mode to avoid muffling the sound. Placing the Nexus 4 on its back on a flat surface will also muffle the sound considerably. It’s a poor design decision at the end of the day, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s not a deal-breaker. The headphone audio quality is also very clear and Android’s built-in EQ really helps to refine the sound quality.

Cameras

There are two cameras in the Nexus 4, the rear is an 8 megapixel unit that produces great pictures, especially compared to Google’s previous Nexus phone, which left a lot to be desired in the photography department. It’s not going to replace a full-blown DSLR, but it is on par with an entry-level compact camera. In well-lit conditions the images are excellent, colours are vibrant and realistic, and images are sharp. It does produce quite grainy images in low light conditions compared to the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S III and iPhone 5, so if this is a key feature for you, then one of the latter handsets might be more suited to your needs. Overall, the rear camera is pretty good.

The front-facing 1.3 megapixel camera is also very capable. If you’re a fan of Google+ Hangouts or Skype calling, then you’ll really appreciate the Nexus 4’s video call performance when paired with its dual microphones. A group of my friends miss-took the Nexus 4 for a laptop in a Google+ Hangout because the quality was so good.

The Display

The Nexus 4’s solid frame houses a huge 4.7 inch IPS+ LCD display, with a 1280 x 768 resolution, cramming in an impressive 320 pixels per inch. The result is a super-sharp and vibrant display with excellent viewing angles. On par with the arguably best-in-class display found in the HTC One X. Google have moved away from AMOLED display technology in their Nexus phones for the first time in favour of LCD, which offers a brighter panel with more accurate colour reproduction.

Text is crisp and easy to read, high resolution images are vibrant and rich with detail, and high definition video content looks incredible. I’m still taken aback by how good video content looks on the Nexus 4, even after several weeks of daily use.

The reason for this image quality isn’t just due to the display, but also due to the laminating process used to fuse the cover glass and multi-touch sensors together into a single component. This process reduces the gap between the glass and display panel, making images feel like they are right on the surface of the glass, rather than a few layers below.

The Nexus 4 uses Corning’s toughened and scratch resistant Gorilla Glass 2 on both the front and back. I’m not sure if it’s the manufacturing process or some kind of coating, but the surface of the glass is incredibly smooth to the touch. More so than any other touchscreen device I have used in the past. It’s also surprisingly resistant to smudges and fingerprints.

You might be concerned about the glass back, as it could shatter if the phone is dropped. I’m inclined to agree. Gorilla Glass 2 benefits aside, I would definitely recommend a case for the Nexus 4. Even though the glass is flush with the frame, it will still break if dropped from a decent height. There is an official Nexus 4 bumper case available to buy, but I’d still recommend something that also protects the back panel and not just the sides of the phone. That glass back will be expensive to repair.

Storage

The Nexus 4 is available with 8GB or 16GB of onboard storage and there are no expansion slots for external memory. If this isn’t enough space for you then I suggest looking elsewhere, but for the majority of users, 16GB is more than enough. I wouldn’t recommend the 8GB model unless you are budget conscious or store most of your content in the cloud. The phone’s system files share the same storage space, meaning the phone’s usable space is closer to 5GB than 8GB.

The Software

The Nexus 4 runs Android 4.2 Jelly Bean, the latest and greatest version of Google’s mobile operating system. Free from any manufacturer modifications or ‘skins’, this is the purest Android experience available, and is one of the biggest selling points of the Nexus 4. I have already covered Android 4.1 in detail here, but I’ll run through a few of the new features introduced in Android’s latest point release.

First up, the camera app has been redesigned with a nifty contextual menu that is activated simply by placing your thumb on the screen. The camera controls are then spread out in a circle around your thumb. You can select items by moving your thumb and lifting off to activate the given function, such as the new HDR mode, which appears to be unique to the Nexus 4 at the moment.

One of my favourite features of Android 4.2 is the new photosphere mode, which makes it possible to create ‘Street View’ style 360 degree panoramic photographs. You capture every angle of your view with individual pictures and the software intelligently stitches them together to produce a single interactive panoramic image. Here’s an example I took with the Nexus 4 in Bruges to demonstrate.

Google Now, the company’s ‘intelligent personal assistant’ feature, has also been improved. Adding more contextual cards, such as a monthly report of the distance you have walked and cycled over the last 30 days. Cleverly calculated using Android’s location reporting feature. If enabled of course.

Speech recognition in Android 4.2 is orders of magnitude better on the Nexus 4 compared to its predecessor, the Galaxy Nexus. Faster processing and more sensitive microphones play a big part in improving its accuracy. The difference is like night and day, making voice commands and speech-to-text input genuinely useful features, rather than just gimmicks.

Android 4.2 also comes with gesture-based keyboard inputs baked right into the OS. Similar to apps like Swype and SwiftKey, it makes it possible to spell out words with a single swiping gesture, instead of pecking at the keyboard with your thumbs and fingers. It works surprisingly well and I find myself alternating between tap and swipe input methods, depending on each individual word in a message.

The Android lock screen is now accompanied by new lock-screen widgets, making it easier to jumps straight into the camera app, or perhaps glance at your Gmail inbox, without visiting the homepage first. These widgets are a little gimmicky, but can still be quite useful at times. I didn’t like them initially, but they grew on me the more I used the Nexus 4.

Other than the main features noted above, plus some small design tweaks, Android 4.2 is largely the same as 4.1, which is no surprise given that it’s essentially just a point release. Google have also added a new multiple-user account feature, but that is exclusive to tablet devices, and doesn’t currently support phones.

Performance and battery life

Billed as the ‘fastest phone on the planet’ by Google, the Nexus 4 had a lot to live up to. In my experience I found the phone to be very quick indeed, but it’s hard to judge such claims when other phones sport different operating systems with different feature sets.

Thanks to its quad-core 1.5GHz Snapdragon S4 Pro CPU, and generous 2GB of RAM, the Nexus 4 can handle even the most graphically demanding apps with ease. I am yet to come across an app that the Nexus 4 struggles with. Operating system animations and transitions are equally as smooth and snappy.

In my opinion, if it feels fast to you, then that is really all that matters. Who cares what the spec sheets say. Only the most processor intensive games and apps are going to slow your hardware down, but that is always going to be the case, as developers push the latest hardware to its practical limits.

The Nexus 4’s battery life is impressive, especially considering the size of the display. It’ll still struggle to make it through the day if you’re running a lot of processor intensive tasks, but in general use cases, the phone lasted me from morning to evening with a little juice to spare. If you’re planning a long journey that requires satellite navigation, then you will not be so lucky. Like any GPS capable mobile device, satellite navigation will make mincemeat of your battery if used constantly. Make sure you keep it plugged into a suitable power outlet if that is the case.

Connectivity

While on the theme of GPS, the Nexus 4 could pinpoint its location extremely quickly, a feature that was greatly appreciated while I navigated my way around Brussels over the Christmas holidays. Checking my location every few minutes throughout a long day of sightseeing had little impact on battery life. Accurate and responsive positioning is a key feature for me and I was very impressed with the Nexus 4’s capabilities.

The Nexus 4’s 2G and 3G reception is very good and definitely better than that of the Samsung Galaxy Nexus that came before it. Bluetooth, WiFi and NFC all work well, as you’d expect. The Nexus 4 is also capable of wireless charging when paired with an official Nexus wireless dock, but these are not yet available to buy. Alternatively, the Nokia Qi wireless charging dock is compatible with the Nexus 4, so you could always pair the phone with one of those if you’re not willing to wait for an official dock.

Call quality on the Nexus 4 is exceptionally clear thanks to its dual microphones. I did, however,  find the noise cancellation to be a little too aggressive at times, especially in loud environments. The Nexus 4 clips the audio to such a degree that the first word of a sentence is sometimes  stripped out completely, making the audio sound as though the caller is in an area with poor reception.

This can be infuriating at times and I hope Google tweaks the sensitivity in the next point release of Android to fix it. On the other hand, call quality in quiet areas is crystal clear and I have had several people comment on how clear it is during calls. You really have to hear it to believe it. This compensates for the terrible clipping in noisy areas. Well... almost.

DC-HSDPA vs 4G LTE

The Nexus 4 has one final trick up its sleeve, and that is DC-HSDPA connectivity. Without going into great detail, this is a form of 3G technology that enables the Nexus 4 to download at twice the bandwidth of standard HSPA+ devices. It’s a new technology that is currently being rolled out across the UK by all the major networks. I had the chance to test out Three’s DC-HSDPA network using the Nexus 4 and I can confirm that download speeds increase dramatically when connected to their ‘Ultra-fast’ network. Download speeds were, at times, up to twice as fast as the best standard HSPA+ connections I have experienced in the past.

The Nexus 4 does not support 4G LTE, most likely due to battery and pricing constraints, but as I have said in the past, UK 4G coverage is far from widespread, extremely expensive, and restricted by outrageous data caps. Until at least another 12 months have past, DC-HSDPA is, in my opinion, a much better choice for fast and affordable mobile data connectivity right now.

Ecosystem

Over the past several months Google’s Play Store has evolved and matured to become a worthy alternative to Apple’s App Store. Almost every smartphone app worth its salt is now available on either platform. These days many new apps launch on both platforms simultaneously. Both stores are pretty evenly matched when it comes to the major apps, although the iPhone still has a lot more high quality apps to choose from. On the flipside, Android enjoys a wider variety of free, or ad-supported apps, compared to the Apple App Store. This is worth bearing in mind if money is a factor in determining which platform is right for you.

At the end of the day, both platforms are mature, comprehensive and reliable. It’s up to you to decide which one suits you the best.

Wrap Up

Overall, I’d say the Nexus 4 is currently the best smartphone available on the market here in the UK. Android 4.2, combined with the Nexus 4’s powerful hardware, game-changing price and stunning display, is a combination that’s hard to beat. I was so impressed with my Nexus 4 review unit that I purchased a 16GB model for myself, luckily before they ran out of stock.

Google are selling the Nexus 4 unlocked and off-contract for £239 with 8GB of memory and £279 with 16GB. At these prices, it’s hard not to recommend the Nexus 4 to pretty much anyone and everyone looking to buy a smartphone. To put these prices into perspective, a 16GB iPhone 5 (£529) or Galaxy SIII ($500) will set your back nearly twice as much as a 16GB Nexus 4.

If you’re able to part with £279 outright, then you can take advantage of cheaper SIM-only contracts and save a considerable amount of money in the long run. That is, if you can get hold of a Nexus 4 any time soon. The handset is completely sold out on the official Google store at the time of writing, so unless you pay over the odds from a high street store, you might have to wait a few weeks to get hold of one.

The only Android phone that comes close to the Nexus 4 right now is the Samsung Galaxy S III, but the fact that the Nexus 4 runs an unmodified version of Android 4.2, and features DC-HSDPA connectivity, make it the clear winner in my eyes.

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