This year, after having leaked more than a shot-up sieve, the long-awaited Nexus 5 is here with Android 4.4 (KitKat) in tow. It's most definitely one of the best phones you can buy, even if it doesn't quite meet its inflated expectations.
What Is It?
It's the new Nexus, baby. It's a smartphone from Google (built by LG) designed to showcase the newest version of Android (4.4, a.k.a. KitKat) in its purest form. It has a 5-inch, 1080p IPS Plus screen (445 pixels per inch), Qualcomm's current flagship in the quad-core 2.3GHz Snapdragon 800 processor, 2GB RAM, 2300mAh battery, and a 8MP camera on the back. And yes, unlike last year's Nexus 4, the Nexus 5 supports LTE with no hacking required.
Perhaps most significantly, you can buy it, unlocked, and without any carrier subsidies for $350 (16GB version) or $400 (32GB version) straight from Google. Most major US carriers will be selling it as well at significantly reduced on-contract prices, though you have to promise your first born or something. Sadly, Verizon customers are being left out in the cold on this one.
Why It Matters
The Nexus 5 matters because it's Google's pure, unadulterated vision for what an Android phone should be. And its predecessors have always been among the best phones of any kind you can buy.
The most important feature of a Nexus phone is that it offers a vanilla Android experience. Hardware manufacturers can't help but pollute their offerings with skins, which almost without exception degrade your overall experience. Some of them are okay, and some of them make you want to feed your hands to an alligator, but none of them are 100-percent pure Google.
It's not just software, though; Nexus hardware has—in theory, at least—been dialed in by Google to show off the full potential of its platform. As with last year's Nexus 4, Google has tapped LG to produce the body to pair with its KitKat soul. Ultimately, it's the closest thing in the Android ecosystem to what Apple is able to offer with its iPhone, where Google has full control of the software and the hardware.
Oh, and because the Nexus program essentially exists outside of wireless carrier control, OS updates come much, much faster.
On the outside, the Nexus 5 is unremarkable. That doesn't mean bad, just that nothing really stands out. It's a slightly rounded rectangle, most reminiscent of a Galaxy S4 except a bit taller (5.43 vs 5.38 inches), a bit thicker (0.34 vs 0.31 inches), and just a hair narrower (2.72 vs 2.75 inches). The back is a brushed plastic that strikes a nice balance between smooth and grippy. The only physical buttons on it (the power button and the volume rocker) are both placed just prominently enough, and offer a satisfying click.
Really the Nexus 5's only distinguishing features are an extra-large camera lens (which is necessary for the built-in and fantastic optical image stabilization), and its big bright screen. Speaking of the latter: that IPS Plus display is sharp and plenty bright, even in direct sunlight. When compared to an AMOLED display, you can see a bit of rosiness in the whites (whereas AMOLEDs tend to skew a bit greenish) which we find pleasing, but no IPS display can come anywhere near an AMOLED when it comes to blacks. The Nexus 5 manages a respectable very dark gray, but it can't touch that vacuum-of-space blackness that the AMOLEDs have.
There is no removable battery, expandable memory, or IR blaster on the Nexus 5. There is, however, wireless charging, which actually comes in pretty handy.
Left to right: Moto X, Nexus 5, HTC One, Galaxy S4
The Nexus 5 is fast. We expected it to tear, and it is, indeed, the fastest Android phone we've ever used. Truth be told, it's only slightly faster than the current top-ranked speedsters like the HTC One. But slightly faster than something that's already fast as hell is still fast as hell. We'll take it! That said, if you were expecting the Snapdragon 800 when combined with stock Android would result in a phone so speedy you'd actually time-travel backwards a little every time you used it, well, it's not that, but it's the closest thing we've got.
The thing is, that speed isn't always obvious. See, most of the stuff you actually use your phone for doesn't require that much processing power. So, when we pitted the Nexus 5 against the under-powered Moto X and had them race to open a giant app like Dead Trigger 2, the Nexus only won by about 1.25 seconds. Certainly nothing to sneeze at, but until games or video editing suites for mobile take a big leap forward and require much more horsepower, the extra speed is just kind of a nice bonus rather than a life-changer at the moment. You are free, however, to feel smug about how future-proof that mad-dog engine will make your new phone.
The Nexus 5 definitely feels light for its size, and LG did a nice job on the build quality. It feels solid all the way around, and fairly scuff-resistant. At the same time, there's no wow-factor here. When you first hold the HTC One there's a whoa moment when you feel just how solid it is. Likewise,the Moto X makes you realize just how small a 4.7-inch screen can feel in your hand. The Nexus 5 is comfortable, but it's definitely not as comfortable as either of those other devices. It's missing that wow factor.
While it's only been a few days, we're happy to report that battery life has been solid thus far. Naturally, it's nowhere near the Droid Maxx, but even with fairly heavy usage I typically made it to 1am with 15-percent left in the tank. We'll continue to test this and will update if there are any significant findings. Reception has been solid (testing in and around L.A.), and phone calls (remember those?) have been loud and clear on both ends.
Is Android 4.4 the best version of Android yet? Of course it is. That being said, would your average Joe/Jane notice the difference between it and 4.3, or even 4.2? Unlikely. Jelly Bean (Android 4.1 through 4.3) was a major leap for Android. It's when things got fast, smooth, and polished. KitKat (4.4) doesn't really seem like much more of a jump than 4.2 was to 4.3, and it probably could have retained the Jelly Bean moniker, but our guess is that it had been over a year and Google was antsy to put a new name out there. It's clear why it's not Android 5.0, though.
That being said, the improvements that are here are welcome. Most significantly, there's the new phone app which is much, much easier to use. Previously, this was the only part of 3rd party skins that we didn't mind so much because Android's stock dialer was so bad. Now you can start punching in the name of whatever contact (in the dial pad) you want, and it will shortcut you to them. It also includes a caller-ID feature which worked extremely well in our testing.
Less successful was the feature that allows you to search by name for "nearby places." For example, when I was searching for Ralph's (a grocery chain), I was given options for three of them that were between two and four miles away, while it completely ignored the one that was half a mile over. I was also directed toward Connecticut for waffles, so, there's that.
The messaging app got a major overhaul, too. In fact, it's been eaten by Hangouts, Google's chat app. Now SMSing and IMing are done from within the same app. You add one of your contacts to a conversation (a Hangout), and the app tells you if they're just on SMS or if they're on chat, or both (it also tells you if they're online or not). It's also now really easy to share your current location from within the app. That said, this puppy still has a lot of growing to do. For starters, there's no integration with Google Voice, which is madness, considering it's Google Voice. Worse, though, the whole UI for the app is a bit confusing. Things look cluttered, it's too easy to accidentally archive a conversation, and it's not very clear who's really online and up for a chat, or who's asleep because it's 4am their time but their phone is turned on.
Google Now (which we very much like) is now baked deeper into the OS. For starters, it has its own panel on the desktop, so you can just slide over to it. It's not really much simpler than sliding up from the app drawer, but we suspect a lot of people didn't know it was there before. This should make it more obvious to more people, which is a good thing. You can also now activate voice search / voice command from anywhere on the desktop (or within the Search app) by simply saying "Okay Google," then saying what you want. It's nice, but not nearly as helpful as it is on the Moto X, where you can say, "Okay Google Now" from virtually any app, or even when the screen is off.
Quickoffice is kind of a nebulous app. You can use it to "open and save files on Google Drive" or other cloud storage services. Great! It's handy for Word docs and PDFs you uploaded to Drive, but less useful if most of the stuff in your Drive was made with Google products.
Google finally stopped waiting for mobile carriers to acquiesce and just went ahead and baked Wallet more deeply into the OS. The process has become a bit more streamlined, too. As long as you have a credit card associated with your Google account you're pretty much good to go. Tap-to-pay registers are becoming increasingly common and if you ever forget your wallet (or just don't feel like digging it out), this is an extremely painless way to pay.
There are other improvements, too, like faster multitasking and better memory usage. There's a new, very sweet "immersive mode" which gets rid of the onscreen controls when you're reading a book or watching a video so you can maximize that screen. There's built-in support for using your phone as a pedometer (while using less power to do so) and for cloud printing, and of course the OS is less resource-hungry, so it will run on lower-end phones. For all that, though, it's still a bit rough around the edges.
As good as the Nexus program has been, it's always had a photographic Achilles Heel. Or, to put it more bluntly, the cameras on the Nexus 4 and Galaxy Nexus were awful. We are happy to say that that's no longer the case here. We were disappointed that it was just an 8MP camera when LG put a 13MP shooter into its G2 flagship, but luckily the Nexus 5 has some software help to make up the difference.
In the normal shooting mode the camera is fast, but the photos are decidedly lackluster. However, when you use KitKat's new HDR+ mode, that all changes. Not only is the dynamic range boosted (so highlights don't blow out and shadows don't get lost), but colors are enhanced and you get a lot more detail. That last note is somewhat surprising as HDR photos are typically associated with blurriness—since they're actually an amalgam of several images— but the proof is in the pudding.
HDR+ images were better almost across the board, regardless of lighting or distance. We did some head-to-head comparisons with the stock version of the Galaxy S4 (running Android 4.3) and the Nexus a lot closer in quality than we would have expected. Even without HDR, the Nexus faired pretty well, despite the Galaxy S4 having a five megapixel advantage. You can see our full photo test here.
The other much-touted camera feature on the Nexus 5 is its optical image stabilization (OIS). Again, we're happy to report that it makes a significant difference, which you can see especially in the video below. I held both phones in exactly the same way for all three of those shots. In the first clip with the ants, the Nexus 5 looks like it's on a tripod by comparison.
As you can see, the video quality is excellent. So, while this camera may not measure up to the Nokia Lumia 1020 or perhaps the iPhone 5S (to be determined), it should be more than good enough by most camera-phone metrics.
The one place it falls a bit short is in low-light. It isn't awful, but it isn't great either, and it really struggled to find focus. Also, the camera app itself has gotten slower from the version in 4.3 (slower to find focus and/or bring up the menu), which definitely shouldn't be the case, given the superhero processor inside. Also, it seems extremely limited given the phone's power. Why not the option to shoot 1080p at 60fps or 720p at 120fps for buttery super slow motion?
The screen is plenty bright even in direct sun light, and pretty, too. The phone is fast. Its software is the latest and greatest from Google (and it should get fast updates in the future). We like the increased Google Now integration, easily mobile payments, and the much-improved dialer. The camera is capable of some terrific shots (still and video), and for an unlocked phone, the price is very, very right.
There's really only one thing about the Nexus 5 that we absolutely hate: the speaker. From the image above you'd think it's stereo, but nope, the grill on the left is the speaker and the grill on the right is the mic. While the clarity isn't awful, the speaker is way, way too quiet. I missed several calls and texts when the phone was within a few feet or in my pocket. Its location also makes it all but impossible to muffle it completely when you're playing a game (like Dead Trigger 2). Same goes for watching a video in landscape. And when you muffle it, you muffle it completely.
Other than it's just a series of smaller gripes, most of which have more to do with KitKat than the phone itself. Google Voice integration with Hangouts is a must and feel very late at this point. Why is there a Gallery app and a Photos app? Who knows. Why does Google Now try to send me somewhere far away instead of down the street? Again, who knows.
As for the hardware, it's a bummer Verizon customers can't get it. We would have liked to see a bigger battery to help fill out that hollow back.
Should I Buy It?
Probably. Not only is it an excellent phone right now, it's the most future-proofed phone currently in existence. It's got horsepower to spare, and since it's Google's baby it should get updates from the mothership for a long time to come. Plus, $350 off-contract is a really sweet deal for a phone of this caliber.
But is it the best Android phone? That's tougher to answer. It's almost hard to believe, but the scrappy little Moto X, with its comparatively meagre 720p screen and dual-core 1.7GHz processor, gives the Nexus 5 a run for its money. The Moto X has form-factor on its side. It also has innovation; the touchless controls and active display are features I genuinely missed when I switched to the Nexus, and the rest of the Moto X OS is really very close to stock Android. Plus, you can customize the hell out of it. That said, it's not nearly as future-proof, updates will come slower, and if you want it off-contract and customized you're looking at about $480.
We'll let the question of the Moto X loom in the air, but we'd definitely take the Nexus 5 over the HTC One or Galaxy S4 or Droid Maxx. If you're into specs or if you're an Android purist, then this is definitely the phone for you. [Google]
Nexus 5 Specs
Network: Unlocked / Most U.S. carriers exept Verizon
• OS: Android 4.4 (KitKat)
• CPU: 2.3 GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800
• Screen: 4.95-inch 1920x1080 IPS-LCD display (445 PPI)
• RAM: 2GB
• Storage: 16GB or 32GB
• Camera: 8MP rear / 1.3MP front
• Battery: 2300 mAh Li-Po
• Dimensions: 5.43 x 2.72 x 0.34 inches
• Weight: 4.59 ounces
• Price: Unlocked: $350 (16GB) or $400 (32GB). On-contract price varies by carrier but starts around $150