Review: Google Nexus 4

It doesn't have 4G and there's no expandable memory but LG's Nexus 4 remains outstanding value for money

It doesn't have 4G and there's no expandable memory but LG's Nexus 4 remains outstanding value for money.

Design & display

The first thing you'll notice about the Nexus 4 is how it feels in your hand. It's weighty without being too heavy and it feels very solid. It's a far cry from its plasticy-feeling predecessor, the Galaxy Nexus. The Nexus 4 also has impressive ergonomics. It's only slightly smaller than the Samsung Galaxy S III, but it feels more comfortable to hold single-handedly. The bezel around the screen is thin, so Google has maximised the display size without compromising on sheer size. The Nexus 4 feels much more expensive than its hugely competitive price tag suggests.

There are a few nice touches that suggest Google spent a lot of time on the Nexus 4's physical design. The two visible torx screws on the bottom give an industrial feel, while the chrome power and volume buttons on either side are a nice touch. They are slightly raised and provide good tactility. We also like the recessed earpiece, which is pushed to the very top of the handset, along with the plastic band around the edge of the phone. The latter makes the Nexus 4 comfortable to grip thanks to a matte finish and breaks up the otherwise glossy surface.

Google's most distinctive touch, though, is the glass back of the Nexus 4, which has a holographic like pattern when viewed in certain light. The laser etched pattern effect is actually rather subtle and can only be seen at all certain angles, depending on the light. If you were worried that this effect might be over the top, we can assure you it's nicely implemented. It appears black most of the time and when the pattern does appear it certainly isn't distasteful. One annoyance is the rear speaker: when the phone is laid flat on a desk or table, the sound is significantly muffled.

Unfortunately, the glass back of the Nexus 4 scratches easily. Our review unit was littered with scuffs and scratches after just a few days of use, so we'd advise you to use a case. There have been some reports online of the glass back cracking without being dropped, but we didn't experience this during our testing. We wouldn't want to drop the phone to find out how resilient it is, though. The Nexus 4 also heats up significantly when its in use. During long Web browsing sessions or when playing graphically intense games, the top of the glass around the Nexus logo on the back becomes rather hot to touch.

There are a couple of other downsides to the Nexus 4's design, too. The battery isn't removable and therefore isn't replaceable and there's no microSD card slot for extra storage. Given the phone only comes in 8GB and 16GB variants, the lack of expandable memory is an annoyance that we suspect won't sit well with many hardened Android users.

The Google Nexus 4 comes a true HD IPS display with a resolution of 1280x728. This screen is a significant upgrade over its predecessor — it's bright, clear and displays deep blacks. It also has no trouble displaying crisp and clear text with no visible aberrations, has excellent viewing angles and works relatively well outdoors in direct sunlight.

We did notice, however, that when directly compared with a Samsung Galaxy S III, the latter appears to offer more vibrant colours. The Nexus 4 is just as bright and whites don't have the same blue tinge that's common on the Galaxy S III, but at full brightness the Nexus 4's colours don't pop out at us as much as we expected. To users with a keen eye, however, this more natural colour reproduction is likely to be a positive.

Software and performance

Google's Nexus line of products have always been much more about software as they are about hardware. The latest version of Android running on the Nexus 4 is 4.2, still called 'Jelly Bean'. While this new version isn't a quantum leap over 4.1, the incremental upgrades Google has added are all welcome additions. The software continues to improve with each release and this is without a doubt the most polished version of Android we've used. There's almost no sign of lag when performing basic tasks and the software is responsive, slick and speedy. It also handles the most graphically intense games, like GTA III, Shadowgun and Need for Speed: Most Wanted, with ease.

There are a number of new features in Android 4.2. One of the most useful is a new quick settings menu, which is accessible by tapping a shortcut in the notifications panel, or by using two fingers instead of one to swipe down the notifications bar. We used this regularly and love its clean and attractive interface. It features shortcuts and toggles to brightness, settings, Wi-Fi, data-usage, battery usage, aeroplane mode, Bluetooth and the alarm. We do wish this was customisable, though, and it is a little inconsistent. Aeroplane mode, for example, is a direct on/off toggle when pressed but tapping the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth menus simply opens them in the settings menu. The menu is a nice touch overall but needs further refining.

We really appreciated a new 'gesture typing' feature on the keyboard that replicates Swype. It does require some practise to get used to but improves the more you use it and learns words that you commonly input. On the other hand, Android 4.2's new lockscreen allows you to add calendar, clock, Gmail and messaging widgets but we found its implementation confusing, limiting and eventually annoying. You can only add one widget to each screen regardless of how small you resize the widget and even if you choose not to use the widgets, an annoying box still flashes on either side of the screen every time you wake it. There's also no way to disable the feature and no way to swipe the on-screen lock button directly into the camera app (instead you need to swipe from the very right of the screen to the left to quickly open the camera).

Other software features of Android we appreciated are expandable notifications that can be actioned, like the ability to share a screenshot you've taken from the notifications window, and some minor enhancements to the Google Now personal assistant. It now uses your Gmail account as a data source for new cards — we had domestic flight details appear as a card after receiving a boarding pass through email, which was very handy. Google has also added a completely new clock app that incorporates alarms, a timer, a stopwatch and a world clock. We like the interface, which is clean and straightforward, but the half-bold clock font isn't to our tastes.

Camera, battery life

Google has made plenty of changes to the Nexus 4's camera application. There's an on-screen button to switch between camera modes, a capture key and flash icon that brings up the settings menu. However, you can also quickly bring up this settings menu by tapping and holding anywhere on the screen, where a circular menu will appear. From here you can swipe in the direction denoted to switch to the front-facing camera, activate HDR mode, turn off the flash, change the scene mode, adjust white balance and access further settings like the picture size and the location of captured photos. This menu makes it easy to quickly access the settings with your thumb, which is handy if you're rushing to take a quick photo. However, it is easy to accidentally select the wrong setting so there's definitely a learning curve required.

The new photo menu is quick to access, but it is easy to accidentally select the wrong setting.
The new photo menu is quick to access, but it is easy to accidentally select the wrong setting.

Google has made the most fuss about a new feature called photo sphere. It allows you to capture a 360 degree panorama by stitching together photos from multiple directions. The images take a while to capture and then sew together, so you need a great deal of patience to use it, even if the interface is intuitive and helpful. Our results were generally hit and miss — most of our photo sphere shots didn't blend well together and were often missing elements. It's a nice feature but one that still needs a bit of work to perfect.

The camera itself takes good quality photos with colour reproduction and detail levels notable strengths. The LED flash tends to wash out photos in dark areas, however, and low light performance is a definite weakness. In these types of environments, the Nexus 4's camera suffers from notable image noise. We also found macro performance hit and miss and had more success with close up shots using the Samsung Galaxy S III's camera. Thankfully, video recording quality is excellent for most part, though you'll need to keep a steady hand to avoid motion blur.

Perhaps the biggest omission on the Nexus 4 is a lack of 4G connectivity. The Nexus 4 works on all of Australia's 3G networks but no LTE means data speeds are slower than those offered by competing devices like the iPhone 5, the Samsung Galaxy S III 4G, the Motorola RAZR HD and the HTC One XL. If you live or work in an area where you're not serviced by currently limited Telstra or Optus 4G coverage then you won't be too fussed, but those who are desperate for the fastest mobile data connection will be left disappointed.

We found battery life on the Google Nexus 4 below average. We usually managed between 12-13 hours, which isn't enough to last a full day, though on one occasion with minimal screen on time we managed almost 15 hours, which is a decent result. The biggest use of the battery is the screen, which often accounted for more than 40 per cent of power drain.

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