Google Nexus 4 deep-dive review: Android at its best

An in-depth examination of Google's new Android 4.2 flagship smartphone.

Google's Nexus devices are meant to be the Holy Grail of Android technology -- pure representations of the platform that show just how good its user experience can be. With its new Nexus 4 phone, available November 13, Google offers its best effort to date and its most aggressive attempt to upend the U.S. smartphone market.

The Nexus 4's most noteworthy feature may well be the phone's pricing and sales model: The device will be sold unlocked and contract-free directly from Google: $299 for an 8GB version or $349 for a 16GB phone.

This may sound like a normal price, but it's actually extremely low. While most comparable smartphones are sold for $200 to $300, that's only because they're subsidized by carriers -- in other words, the carriers cut the price in exchange for a guarantee that you'll subscribe to their services for a full two years. Most phones of this caliber would cost between $600 and $800 if bought in a similar unlocked and unsubsidized manner.

Buying the phone outright means you wholly own the device and are under no obligation to anyone. As a result, you can choose to use the phone with any compatible provider -- including prepaid service providers, which often offer the same basic service you're used to at a fraction of the cost -- and can switch providers at any time with no penalties or fees.

(The Nexus 4 will be offered through a more traditional sales model as well -- T-Mobile will sell the device for $200 after a $50 mail-in rebate and with a new two-year contract -- but most consumers would fare better in the long run by choosing the unlocked model.)

So pricing aside, what's the Nexus 4 actually like to use? I've spent the past week using the phone in place of my own personal device. Here's what I've found.

Body and display

The Nexus 4 is manufactured by LG, but don't let that fool you: This is without a doubt a Google phone. Google's Android engineers worked closely with LG on every facet of the device's design, and the company's influence clearly shines through -- so much so that at a glance, the phone actually looks quite similar to last year's Galaxy Nexus device.

Google Nexus 4

While the general design language remains consistent, though, the Nexus 4 is anything but an incremental upgrade -- and that's immediately apparent the minute you pick up the device. The Nexus 4 feels sleek, solid and substantial. It's a luxurious piece of hardware, with not a single flimsy or plasticky-feeling surface to be found.

The Nexus 4 is 2.7 x 5.3 x 0.36 in. and 4.9 oz. -- almost exactly the same dimensions and weight as the Galaxy Nexus, despite its roomier display. Speaking of display, the Nexus 4 has a gorgeous 4.7-in. True HD IPS screen with 1280 x 768 resolution and 320ppi. The screen is among the best I've seen on a smartphone, rivaling the likes of HTC's One X and Apple's iPhone 5 for top honors. Colors are bold and brilliant, details are crisp and sharp, and even in bright outdoor lighting, the Nexus 4's screen remains impressively viewable.

(Incidentally, the contrast with the Galaxy Nexus in that regard is immense: When I hold the two phones side by side in direct or even indirect sunlight, the Nexus 4's display is easy to read while the Galaxy Nexus's screen is almost impossible to see. It's amazing how much difference a year can make.)

This isn't just any regular ol' glass, either: Google has introduced a new type of curving technique with the Nexus 4's display in which the screen is sloped subtly at its edges. The goal was to create a surface that matches the way you interact with the phone -- swiping and gesturing side to side. That's a marked change in approach from past Nexus devices, which were curved to match the shape of your face.

It's a subtle yet important distinction: The physical act of moving my fingers on the Nexus 4's screen feels smoother and more natural than on any device I've used. By optimizing the phone's form for touch over talk, Google is making a bold move -- but one that very much matches the way our smartphone usage habits are evolving.

The Nexus 4's screen extends all the way to the sides of the phone's face, creating a large surface area on an otherwise reasonably sized device. The display is surrounded by a thin silver metal band that's most visible when you look at the phone from the side. The edge where the screen and the band meet is a pleasingly smooth curve that's not at all sharp to the touch -- a demonstration of the attention to detail that went into this device.

Another impressive bit of detail, surprisingly enough, is on the phone's back: The Nexus 4's rear is a smooth and reflective glass plate with a crystallized design that appears to move as you tilt the phone. The effect is eye-catching and distinctive without being over the top; you actually don't even notice it until you're looking closely at the phone. One minor drawback: The glass does seem to pick up an inordinate amount of visible fingerprint smudges.

The bigger risk with this flourish, of course, is that glass is inherently prone to breaking. Google and LG have taken steps to reduce the risk of shatter, including using Gorilla Glass 2 on both the phone's front and back and implementing edging that extends ever so slightly past the rear glass's reach in order to help break a fall -- but still, the more glass you have, the more risk you have of it cracking. If you have butterfingers, you may need to use a case or bumper in order to maintain peace of mind.

The Nexus 4 has a small LED indicator at the bottom of its face that alerts you to missed calls, new messages and other system events. As with other Android phones, you can customize exactly how and when the LED works by installing a third-party LED control utility.

Buttons, ports and charging

The perimeter of the Nexus 4 is taken up by a soft rubberized plastic material. On the left side of the phone is a silver metal volume rocker along with a tray for the micro-SIM card, which is locked shut and requires a small pin tool (included with the device) to open. The top of the phone has a 3.5mm headphone jack, and the right side houses a silver metal power button, which -- to be nitpicky -- is set back just a hair too far in the device and is consequently not always easy to press.

In terms of buttons, that's it: The Nexus 4, as you'd expect, utilizes virtual on-screen buttons for the main Android functions (back, home and app-switching), matching the design standards introduced with Android 4.0 last year. Given the fact that this is the way current versions of the Android operating system are designed to be used, this setup creates a far more fluid and user-friendly approach than the dated button-reliant configurations some manufacturers continue to employ.

The Nexus 4 has a standard micro-USB port on its bottom, which doubles as an HDMI out-port. LG and Google have opted to go with a relatively new protocol known as SlimPort instead of the more typical MHL interface for the video-out functionality. The upside of that setup is that SlimPort adapters are able to charge the device while it's connected to a TV, monitor or projector; they're also able to connect via both HDMI and VGA. The downside is that you'll need a special SlimPort adapter in order to make any such connections.

The Nexus 4 supports wireless charging via the Qi charging standard. Google has shown off a futuristic-looking "charging orb" upon which you can simply set the phone to charge it; that accessory was not available for me to review, and it's not yet clear when it'll be available for purchase or how much it'll cost. The phone does also support standard micro-USB-based charging, though, and comes with a normal micro-USB-to-USB cable and wall adapter.

Connectivity and calling

The Nexus 4 is a GSM phone, which means that in the U.S. it'll work on either AT&T's or T-Mobile's network (which are also the networks utilized by most prepaid carriers). That brings us to one sticking point with the phone: While it does support 4G-level data speeds, its network compatibility means it supports only HSPA+ connections -- not the faster LTE connections that have become commonplace with many smartphones in the States.

That said, I found the Nexus 4's data speeds to be perfectly satisfactory while using the device on T-Mobile's HSPA+ network. I routinely clocked in near the 18Mbps mark when I checked my speeds using Ookla's Speedtest.net application. The phone is capable of speeds as fast as 42Mbps, depending on your area and connection.

Google has described the Nexus 4's lack of LTE as a "tactical" decision, noting the limited availability of LTE outside of the U.S. along with the increased cost and decreased battery life the technology tends to deliver. So is the lack of LTE a deal-breaker? That's up to you to decide.

Personally, in most typical day-to-day phone-based usage -- Web browsing, social media use and the like -- I find it tough to tell the difference. (Some analyses have actually found T-Mobile's HSPA+ network to be comparable to or faster than LTE networks in parts of the country.) Remember, we aren't talking about 4G vs. 3G here; we're talking about 4G LTE vs. 4G HSPA+.

(You may also want to consider that owners of last year's 4G LTE Verizon Galaxy Nexus have found that the carrier-dependent configuration comes with some troubling caveats -- namely, delayed upgrades and software interference -- that directly clash with the "pure Google" promise of the Nexus brand. As someone who's used both a Verizon-bound Galaxy Nexus and an unlocked HSPA+ version of the phone, I've found the latter setup to provide a much better overall experience.)

In terms of actual phone calls, the Nexus 4 performed admirably in my tests. I could hear voices loud and clear -- so loud, in fact, that I often had to turn the volume down on the phone -- and people with whom I spoke reported being able to hear my voice fine as well.

The phone's external speaker is sufficiently loud, too, with more than enough volume to handle calls and music alike. When I tested the Nexus 4's speaker alongside the Galaxy Nexus's, audio played through the Nexus 4 was significantly louder and clearer-sounding with both phones at their maximum volume settings.

The Nexus 4 supports near-field communication (NFC) for contact-free sharing and services. Those services include the Google Wallet mobile payment system, which comes preloaded on the device.

The phone also supports Miracast, a new wireless display-sharing protocol. With the right adapter, Google says you can stream both audio and video directly from the Nexus 4 to any HDTV, with the TV mirroring everything on the phone. Be warned, though: Finding an adapter that works right now is easier said than done.

I tried setting up wireless display sharing with my TV using a NetGear Push2TV Wireless Display Adapter, which costs $60 and promises support for "Miracast-capable" devices. As I discovered, though, the product is limited only to "pre-standard compliant" Miracast devices (to NetGear's credit, that is in the fine print) and consequently doesn't work with the Nexus 4.

A full line of standard Miracast adapters is expected to become available soon. LG is also expected to start shipping TVs with native Miracast support sometime in 2013.

Under the hood

Google's Nexus 4 has a 1.5Ghz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro quad-core processor along with 2GB of RAM. You can crunch benchmarks all you want, but here's what matters: When it comes to real-world performance, this phone is fast. Really fast.

The Nexus 4 flies through app-loading, Web browsing and multitasking without a single blip or stutter. Home screen swiping and system animations are smooth as can be. I've put this phone through its paces, and no matter what I've thrown its way, I've yet to see one performance-related fault.

For perspective, most Web pages loaded a solid five to 10 seconds faster on the Nexus 4 than on the Galaxy Nexus when I performed side-by-side tests, with both phones on Wi-Fi. The Nexus 4 also booted up about 30 seconds faster than the Galaxy Nexus.

The Nexus 4 has a 2100mAh battery that's listed for 15.3 hours of talk-time and 390 hours of standby. In my experience, the device's stamina was consistently solid, though not out of this world.

With moderate to heavy daily usage -- a mix of regular on-screen browsing, network-based music streaming and a smattering of phone calls and video streaming -- I was always able to make it through a full day without hitting empty. When my usage skewed more toward the heavy side, though, the phone would sometimes fall into low-battery territory by the end of the day. Save for a stamina-centric device like the Motorola Droid Razr Maxx HD, that's pretty much in line with what you'd expect from any well-performing smartphone today.

The Nexus 4's battery is technically nonremovable, by the way -- the back panel doesn't come off by design -- but if you don't mind tinkering and taking things into your own hands, you might find that opening the device up and swapping out its battery isn't as impossible as it seems.

If the Nexus 4 has one glaring Achilles heel, it's storage: The device has no SD card slot, and with internal storage going only as high as 16GB -- which comes out to about 12GB to 13GB of actual usable space -- that doesn't leave you with a whole lot of room. Google's focus here is clearly on moving people to the cloud and to a habit of streaming over storing, but not everyone's going to be happy with that setup. If high storage is a priority to you, the Nexus 4 may not meet your needs.

Cameras

The Nexus 4 has an 8-megapixel rear-facing camera that, thanks in large part to its Sony BSI sensor, is capable of capturing great-looking shots both indoors and out. If you're coming from the Galaxy Nexus, it's going to be a major improvement.

The Android 4.2 Camera application introduces a refreshingly clean new minimalist interface.

I found the Nexus 4's camera to be excellent in well-lit conditions and darker environments (an area where the Galaxy Nexus's performance is particularly weak). The phone has a bright LED flash as well, and images taken with the flash looked natural and not at all washed out.

Shutter speed on the Nexus 4 is decent enough: I typically experienced one- to three-second delays between shots, depending on how much focusing was required. By default, the Nexus 4's camera takes photos in HDR mode, which quickly snaps shots at different light exposures and then combines them into a single image. The camera has settings for adjusting the exposure and white balance as well as a small selection of preset "scene modes." It can also record video at 1080p resolution.

The Nexus 4 has a 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera, too, for video chatting and vanity pics.

All considered, the Nexus 4 doesn't have the best camera you'll find in Android Land -- I'd say that honor still lies with HTC's One phones -- but it certainly has a very good camera that'll more than meet most users' needs.

Android 4.2

Software is an area where the Nexus 4 truly shines. The phone runs a stock version of Google's Android 4.2 OS; along with the upcoming Nexus 10 tablet, it'll be the first device to offer that release.

So what does that "stock" distinction actually mean? While most manufacturers modify Android with messy, cluttered interfaces and layers upon layers of bloat, the Nexus 4 utilizes Google's pure and unadulterated Android OS. The resulting difference in visual consistency, system fluidity and overall user experience is immeasurable; if you've never used a pure Google Android device, you don't know what you're missing.

Android 4.2 maintains the same basic UI introduced with this summer's Android 4.1 release but adds a handful of significant new features along with plenty of subtle polish. The end effect is a cohesive and compelling environment that's a pleasure to use.

Perhaps the most dramatic changes to the Android software (on the phone side, at least) reside within the system's Camera app. The Android 4.2 Camera application introduces a refreshingly clean new minimalist interface in which the screen is taken up almost entirely by the viewfinder. Instead of having numerous on-screen options, you simply touch your finger anywhere on the screen and a ring appears; you can then move your finger around the ring to access and adjust everything from the photo mode to the camera's flash setting.

Android 4.2 maintains the same basic UI introduced with this summer's Android 4.1 release but adds a handful of significant new features.

Swiping your finger to the left, meanwhile, causes the viewfinder to slide away and your most recently captured photos to be revealed. You can edit any image right then and there with a couple of taps, utilizing a range of built-in filters, frames, and cropping and lighting tools. With one to two taps, you can also easily share images with any compatible service installed on your device: Gmail, Dropbox, Evernote, Facebook, Twitter or any other app that supports Android's platform-wide sharing API.

The Android 4.2 Camera app has a fantastic new feature called Photo Sphere. Expanding on the panoramic image functionality introduced in Android 4.0, Photo Sphere allows you to capture interactive 360-degree images and share them with anyone.

Photo Sphere images look exactly like what you see on Google's Street View service; in fact, they're based on the same technology. When you fire up the Photo Sphere feature, the system guides you through the act of snapping multiple photos in varying directions and angles; it then automatically stitches the images together into a single cohesive sphere. You really have to see the process in action to appreciate how impressive it is (the folks from Android Central have put together a nice collection of user-submitted Photo Sphere images if you want to check some out).

Camera changes aside, Android 4.2 includes a new "quick settings" panel that gives you easy access to basic system settings. While similar functionality has long been offered in some manufacturer-modified versions of Android, Google has actually implemented it in a way that doesn't make you want to gouge your eyes out: The panel is visually subdued and tactfully tucked away in an icon within the main notification pulldown. You can also jump to it directly by swiping down from the top of the screen with two fingers instead of one -- a handy shortcut that's fun to use.

Android 4.2 also adds native support for adding customizable widgets on your lock screen, which allows you to do things like scroll through messages or identify a song without having to unlock your phone. The feature sounds like a great idea, but unfortunately, I haven't been able to test it yet, as the function was not present on the prerelease software on my review device. Google says it'll be added via an over-the-air update on the day the phone launches; I'll revisit it in my blog once I've had the chance to use it.

Android 4.2 includes an improved system keyboard that takes a cue from the popular third-party program Swype. In addition to regular letter-by-letter typing with word prediction, the stock keyboard now allows you to type by moving your finger from one letter to the next without lifting up. I found the gesture-based typing to be very much on par with Swype's -- maybe even a bit better in terms of accuracy and ease of use. It also has some of its own original touches, such as dynamic word prediction that shows up as you're swiping letters.

Other new features of Google's latest OS include a multilayered security system that scans apps in real-time for any harmful code; a screensaver called Daydream that lets you set up slideshow-like content to be displayed while your phone is docked or charging; an improved Gmail app with automatic message formatting, pinch-to-zoom functionality and swipe-to-archive gestures; and new options for the Google Now intelligent assistant program, including the ability to have the system detect things like flight plans, package tracking and hotel reservations from your inbox and then automatically keep you apprised of their status.

At a Glance

Google Nexus 4

LGPrice: $299 (8GB), $349 (16GB)Pros: Pure Google Android 4.2 software; guaranteed fast and frequent future upgrades; superb display; outstanding performance; excellent camera; stunning design; available at relatively low unlocked priceCons: Limited internal storage; no option for external storage; battery not easily removable; not compatible with LTE networks; glass-centric design could lead to breakage

For all the software's positives, I have noticed a few glitches during my time with Android 4.2 on the Nexus 4. The Gmail app, for example, currently sends all new messages from your main Gmail address by default, even if you have another address set as your default. Google tells me this is a known bug that engineers hope to have resolved by the time the software ships.

A couple of nonsystem applications have given me problems, too, including Google's own Google Voice application, which closes with an error anytime I try to type a person's name into the recipient field of a new text message. Given the fact that this is prerelease software for which nonsystem apps are not yet optimized, I'm hopeful these issues will also be ironed out by the time the OS is in users' hands.

Last but not least, we can't talk about a Nexus phone without talking about upgrades. While most Android-based devices are dependent upon their manufacturers and carriers for OS upgrades -- a process that often results in extended delays and extensive frustration -- unlocked Nexus devices receive upgrades directly from Google. There's no third-party meddling or interference, which means you're guaranteed to get upgrades almost instantly, usually within a week or two of their release.

The value of that assurance cannot be overstated.

Bottom line

Google's Nexus 4 offers the best overall user experience you'll find on Android -- and arguably any mobile platform -- today. Its unadulterated Google Android 4.2 software combined with a spectacular display, outstanding performance, excellent camera and inspired design make for a compelling package that shows just how good Android can be.

The Nexus 4 does, however, demand some compromises. The phone has a low amount of internal storage with no option to add an SD card. Its glass encasing, while visually appealing, raises the risk of damage to the device. The phone's battery isn't easily removable, and its unlocked GSM/HSPA+ configuration means it won't work with LTE-based networks.

If you can live with those limitations, the Nexus 4 can give you an unmatched Android experience at a tremendous value -- and without the carrier lock-in most similarly priced smartphones require.

JR Raphael is a Computerworld contributing editor and the author of the Android Power blog. For more Android tips and insights, follow him on Google+, Twitter, or Facebook.

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2 Comments

Ben McArthur

1

I for one, am glad i decided not to get the S3 because this in my opinion is FAR better ! Can't wait to get one of these now !!!

Andrew

2

OOOH! I'm going mad about this device. For the last year i was waiting for someone to make an Retina-like display on Android and here we go! Now i have a chance to get rid of my HTC DHD. I would certainly get one of these including new Nexus tablet!

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