When reviewing the Nexus 5, I’m extremely conscious of getting caught up in the excitement phase that accompanies receiving a new phone. After looking back at last year’s review, I actually feel that my assessment was mostly fair. But still, the passing of time has allowed that device’s flaws to slowly surface and endlessly irritate me. These minor annoyances are the things that I’m mostly keenly aware of when attempting to objectively look at the Nexus 5. Although it would be easy to accept its flaws in light of its bargain price tag, I’ll mostly be judging it more on its status as Google’s flagship handset.
One thing that Google definitely improved on this year is the launch. The people at Mountain View have obviously realised that selling a high end phone for £299 is going to create a lot of demand. The Play Store seems to have held out much better this year, with the phone at least taking a few hours to sell out and the checkout process being smooth and effortless. Last year’s stock issues may have been out of Google’s control, but the ability to handle the traffic surely wasn’t. Al that said, the cynic in me can’t help but think that the lack of an announcement or published launch date must have helped to dampen the initial demand somewhat.
Look and feel
If I was being harsh, I’d describe the Nexus 5 as plain; it literally is a black slab of plastic and glass. It may only be semantics but I think the term minimal is much more appropriate. To my eyes, it looks has a clean look with small touches that lend it an air of quality. In particular, the round earpiece, ceramic buttons, drilled speaker holes and embossed (ceramic) Nexus logo all look great and demonstrate a certain attention to detail. It looks classy, without any of the tacky touches that Samsung use to pimp out their also plastic handsets.
I went for the all black handset as I was worried about possible discolouration with the white version. I have no idea if this will be an issue, but keeping white gadgets blemish free is often an exercise in futility. Needless to say, I’m very happy with my choice. The back has a rubbery texture that feels great and provides a robust grip. I’m glad to say that the Nexus 5 won’t be slipping off of sofas and beds worldwide like its predecessor.
Once again, Google/LG have gone with a top mounted headphone jack which I personally find infuriating. This should always be bottom mounted IMHO. They’ve also seen fit to reverse the orientation of the micro USB port for some reason or another. Compared to the headphone jack it’s a minor annoyance but I still keep trying to force the charger cable in the wrong way out of habit. Thankfully, the buttons are all located precisely where you’d expect them. Volume one the top left edge and power on the top right. They’re easy to locate, have a nice clicky feel and look great in all their ceramic glory.
If you’re a fan of big phones, you’ll love the Nexus 5. Those with tiny hands, or espousers of one handed use should probably look elsewhere. Using the handset with one hand is definitely possible with the correct grip, and features like gesture typing definitely help the experience. General navigation is also fine, with only the top 20% of the display being a stretch to reach. Luckily, most of Android’s controls are on the lower half of the screen, and lateral swipes obviate the need to hit tabs at the top. But two handed use is definitely preferable. Personally, I find that two handed use is just more efficient and much prefer the larger size. As ever, your mileage will vary. Whatever your size preference, the weight should be agreeable to most. At 130g it’s incredibly light, while still feeling substantial enough.
To this day, I’ve been more than happy with the performance of my Nexus 4. It’s always felt fast and snappy in general use. Things like launching apps, scrolling and multitasking are generally fluid and stutter free. It may now be mid-range hardware, but in my opinion it still offers a higher end experience (especially for Android). In regard to games, I’m usually too concerned about battery life to regularly play them on my phone, and those that I do install don’t generally push the hardware to its limits.
Therefore I wasn’t really yearning for the extra power which the Nexus 5 provides. It didn’t really seem necessary given my current experience was still more than adequate. Even with my relatively low demands, the jump in performance is immediately noticeable. This thing flies/screams/is ridiculously fast. Apps launch instantly, scrolling is near flawless, switching tasks is quick and smooth. The only issue I’ve had is when panning around photos in the camera app. For some reason the phone takes a second to refocus the photo after every pan. Once you notice it, it’s hard not to keep looking for it.
I’m not really one for benchmarks, and in light of the flagrant cheating undertaken by most Android OEMs I’m not even sure how much use they are. Suffice to say that for the money (for even double the money) you’re not going to disappointed with the performance on offer from the Nexus 5.
I should also mention that the Nexus 5 is the first widely available Nexus phone with 4G. I refuse to count the Verizon Galaxy Nexus for those of you that disagree. This was perhaps the Nexus 4’s biggest failing and while it was personally fairly easy for me to overlook it last year, it would have likely been a deal breaker at the tail end of 2013. I’m now eagerly looking forward to Three’s 4G for no extra cost.
It’s also nice to see Google manage to include 802.11 ac WiFi. I don’t actually have a compatible router, but it’s reassuring to know that there’s some future proofing built in. Some others can’t/don’t manage to include it in devices costing twice the price.
As with the performance, I was more than happy with the screen on my Nexus 4. The 720p IPS display was sharp, with great viewing angles, bright colours and good accuracy. It may not have quite hit the heights of devices like the HTC One and iPhone 5, but for most people (especially without a direct comparison) it was an excellent display in its own right. I’m still not sold on 1080p displays on a phone. Don’t get me wrong; more is more, but once you’re past 300ppi I just feel like diminishing returns seem to kick in. And powering all those pixels is using up even more precious battery.
It almost goes without saying that the Nexus 5’s display is fantastic. It’s plenty bright, incredibly sharp, has good blacks and nice accurate colours. Like the Nexus 4, it seems just a notch under the very best LCDs on other phones, but we’re talking about the difference between an Audi and a BMW. I’ll let you decide which is the premium brand, but you’re unlikely to go wrong with either. It’s really impressive that Google/LG have managed to slot in a significantly bigger display without increasing the size of the actual handset. In fact, the Nexus 5 is noticeably thinner and significantly lighter than its predecessor. The ultra-thin bezels and extra space gained by making the system bars transparent really do result in a display that feels (and is) much bigger.
You can’t really talk about the Nexus 5 without also covering KitKat. The hardware is only half of the story, its purpose being to showcase Google’s latest and greatest Android release. Android had it’s iOS 7 moment two years back with ICS, and the point releases since have generally focussed on improving fit and finish. KitKat is a bigger change, and sees Android begin to move towards a cleaner, lighter aesthetic. The most obvious UI changes are the now transparent navigation and status bars and the removal of the signature Holo blue, in favour of white. This allows content to fully use the entire display and makes the screen feel even bigger. You can immediately see the difference when using the new Launcher. Unfortunately, apps have to be updated to take advantage of the extra space and I’m guessing that this won’t happen quickly.
The new Launcher also features bigger icons which in my opinion are verging on comically large. It just seems like a massive (pun intended) waste of the available screen space. To put it in context my first Android phone (the HTC Magic) featured the same 4 x 4 grid of icons, despite having 15 times less pixels to play with, as well a much smaller physical area. The iPhone is often called out for its relatively small screen, but Apple still managed to add an extra row of icons on the one occasion where it increased it. For that reason alone, I quickly found myself installing Nova and increasing the icon grid to fit more apps. Unfortunately I no longer have transparent status and navigation bars, but I’m far more productive.
The more dramatic change to the Launcher is the integration of Google Now. Similar to Spotlight pre iOS 7, a quick swipe to the left takes you immediately into Google Now. I personally find this change even more annoying than the huge icons. Besides being pointless (Google Now is still immediately available from anywhere with a quick swipe up from Home) it completely interferes with my homescreen management. I like to have everything either on my homescreen or at most one swipe away. This is now no longer possible as the third screen will now be two swipes to the right. This probably all seem academic and for once Android’s “open” nature means that I can still have my cake and eat it, regardless of Google’s meddling.
I’m also still not convinced about Google Now. Despite having every card enabled and permanently keeping my fingers crossed for something magical, it rarely shows me anything beyond weather, directions home, stocks and the occasional football score. Even then it isn’t perfect. I’m hoping it’ll eventually learn that I don’t even suddenly decide to go to work at 1am on a Saturday morning. On rare occasions, the activity card appears to tell me how much I’ve walked and cycled but it’s not exactly a regular occurrence (the card, not me walking!). I should note that I’ve found it amazing useful on holiday, but day to day it’s more of an afterthought.
Unlike the Moto X, which is always listening out for voice commands, the Nexus 5 can only respond to the words “Okay Google” when you’re using the launcher. Since there’s a search bar at the top of every homescreen the utility of this is questionable over just tapping the microphone icon. On top of that, it only works if you set your language to US English.
After taking four years to give us predictive dialling, Google only took another four months to introduce an even smarter dialler. In retrospect it seems so obvious, but being able to search for businesses directly from the dialler is incredibly useful. Takeaway shops worldwide could soon be experience a welcome boost in orders thanks to the ease of searching for numbers. I can only dream that the automatic caller ID lookup will alert me to PPI scammers.
Google is slowly inching towards a definitive messaging solution, and with KitKat they’ve said goodbye to the Messages app, replacing it with just Hangouts. It’s nice to finally have SMS and IM in one app, although the integration still needs work. The biggest issue is that SMS and IM conversations are listed as separate threads. There’s no iMessage like integration with the elegant use of colour to distinguish the protocol. I’m fairly sure it’s coming, but we’re not there yet.
A lot of the focus in KitKat has gone towards making it run better on less powerful devices. If this helps to finally rid the world of Gingerbread, it’ll definitely be a good thing. On the Nexus 5, lack of power is rarely an issue so it’s hard to judge how much of the performance is down to the specs and the OS. I’ll be interested to see how my Nexus 4 fares with it when Google finally decides to update its other devices.
I’ve only had the Nexus 5 for four days, so don’t want to make any big claims about its battery life. Being based off the LG G2, the one feature I was most hopeful for was the epic lasting ability that LG’s flagship has quickly become known for. Alas, the Nexus 5 features a significantly smaller 2300 mAh battery that isn’t much larger than the Nexus 4’s.
In my experience, standby power usage seems to be extremely low with the battery only losing 4-5% overnight while on WiFi with sync on. In use, it seems better than the Nexus 4, but not dramatically so. I used to get around two hours of screen time out of my Nexus 4, and the 5 may have upped this to a little over three hours. I would guess that I’m a fairly intensive user, constantly tweeting, texting, checking mail and making a fair few calls. Still, it’s quite disappointing compared to the 6+ hours of screen time I hear users of other phones get. Today (as per the above screenshot) I’m down to 19% after eleven hours. That’s with an hour of calls, and 260 minutes of screen time, including about 20 minutes of Netflix streaming over 3G. For some reason though, the biggest battery hogs are Android OS (30%) and Google Play Services (23%). If Google, sort out the system processes, we could potentitally have some very decent staying power. Camera
So we finally get to the traditional Nexus bugbear. Everyone knows that Nexii have crappy cameras that take crappy photos. That’s not actually quite fair. The Nexus 4 was actually capable of taking some fairly nice pictures, it just took little effort. HDR mode helped a lot, along with a talent for holding the phone steady and focussing properly. But it was by no means effortless in the way an iPhone usually is.
Is the Nexus 5 an improvement? Definitely. But that isn’t really saying much. The photos it produces are decent, and in the right conditions can be great. Low light performance is also definitely improved, with the OIS helping out massively. But focussing is still quite slow and the white balance often struggles, resulting in washed out, under-saturated photos. Again, it’s no way near terrible, but it’s markedly behind other devices.
I’m obviously no expert, but for some reason I doubt that the actual hardware is completely to blame. As with my Nexus 4, I can often rescue a lifeless photo with some help from Snapseed. You obviously can’t magically add missing detail, but simple adjustments to saturation, colour and contrast can do minor wonders. Apparently a software update to improve the camera is already in the works. Fingers crossed for an improvement on the same level that the Moto X recently enjoyed.
Another thing that hasn’t been fixed is the camera viewfinder, which still inextricably uses a different ratio to the actual photos taken. This makes framing photos properly a pain and surely can’t be that difficult to fix.
I remember Sundar Pichai commenting on Google+ a while back that Google is committed to making Nexus devices excellent cameras. They’ve definitely got a long way to go and it’s really disappointing that they’ve again only made an incremental improvement, especially since the LG G2’s optics have come in for a fair bit of praise. Compromises obviously have to be made to hit that £299 price point but personally I’d rather have had a 720p screen and better camera. As a Liverpool fan, the phrase “there’s always next year” again rings true.
It’s somewhat ironic that Google are investing so heavily in photo software and services like Google+ and Snapseed. The Nexus 5’s camera could definitely do with a little of that auto-awesome magic.
It’s easy to recommend the Nexus 5 based on price alone. There isn’t a single other device that offers so much bang for your hard earned buck. OS choice aside, if you don’t absolutely need an exceptional camera you’d have a pretty hard job justifying the extra £200 you’d need to buy an equivalent flagship handset from anyone else.
If you’re a stock Android fan and value fast (though not immediate) updates, it’s a no brainer. I buy Nexii because I love stock Android, don’t want to mess around with custom ROMs and want a phone which I’m confident will be supported for a decent (though by no means competition beating) timespan.
Although I’ve obviously ponied up for one, I still think Nexus 4 owners aren’t missing out on too much. If I was more sensible I’m fairly sure I could happily keep going with my Nexus 4. It’s a fairly incremental improvement which while nice is hardly life changing. For Galaxy Nexus users it’s a much simpler decision. Especially since Google have (disappointingly) cut support for this barely two year old device.
Although I love a bargain as much as anyone else, I’d still like to see Google release a true flagship device, even if it was a bit more expensive. Pricing aside, the Nexus 5 is still a fantastic phone. But not quite an exceptional one.