Google has just launched the Nexus 5 smartphone, which is going to be the company’s flagship handset to show what a “pure” Android experience should be. The Nexus smartphone is always popular for several reasons: 1/ its price per performance is usually unmatched 2/ OS updates come faster since Google itself is managing them 3/ they are free of carrier-specific software and locks. Since we named the Nexus 7 tablet a “killer product”, the question is: can Nexus 5 reach the same heights in the smartphone space?
As expected, the Nexus 5 fulfills those promises, but you will see that details do matter and that it is extremely difficult to offer the absolute best experience, at half the price. Hardware-wise, the Nexus 5 is the fruit of a partnership between Google and LG, just like Nexus 4 was. As such, Nexus 5 looks a lot like the LG G2, but you will see that it is not quite an equivalent phone like Optimus G and Nexus 4 were. In this review, I will give you a sense of how it is to use the Nexus 5 in the real world. Ready?
Before we dive into the review, I should tell you how I use my phone since we all have a different usage patterns that influence what we think of a phone and its features. In general, I use mine as a small computer to keep track of things like emails and social network notifications. I call very little (if at all) and when I do, that’s rarely for more than 10mn at a time. I don’t play much, but on occasions I would do so, or watch a movie if I have time to kill and am too tired to work (airport connections…). I use the web browser very frequently to catch up on news and perform random searches.
|LG G2||Nexus 5||Nexus 4||iPhone 5S|
|Display Size (inches)||5.2||4.95||4.7||4|
|OS||Android 4.2.2||Android 4.4||Android 4.3||iOS 7|
|Camera (F) MP||2.1||1.3||1.3||1.2|
|Camera (B) MP||13 (OIS)||8 (OIS)||8||8|
In addition to the details above, you may be interested by the following details: the 4.95” screen is a Full HD IPS display (1080p) using the Gorilla Glass 3 glass from Corning. Like many other high-end smartphones, the Nexus 5 has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor (2.26GHz) and 2GB of RAM.
The Nexus 5 comes with wireless charging built-in, which can save about $35 when compared to phones that required a cover to be purchased separately. The convenience of having this built-in is that the initial look and feel of the handset remains unchanged with wireless charging.
The Nexus 5 is an LTE device and as far as I know, there is only one SKU (model) at the moment. It work swith Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile. Verizon doesn’t seem to be supported by know, although I’m not sure if that’s a technical problem or a business one. The Nexus 7 tablet works on Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T but Sprint was left out. For local networks, WiFi AC is supported out of the box.
The Nexus come in Black or White color $349 (16GB), $399 (32GB) and they are free of any network lock, so you can use it on any carrier with a compatible network.
The Nexus 5 has a clean design that comes in either black or white (I recommend the white version which is less prone to visible dust). The facade is very “pure” with only glass ,with no apparent branding. The back is made of plastic with a coat of soft-paint which has a “leathery” warm feel. It’s impossible not to see the prominent camera ring at the top. It is decorative and puts en emphasis on the camera and gives an impression of power & performance. Most people that I know like this design touch, and I do too.
The Volume controls are on the left side, while the Power control is on the right along with the micro-SIM tray. The 3.5mm audio connector is at the top and the micro-USB connector at the bottom. This is a rather classic configuration for smartphones, so no surprises there. I like the fact that the buttons are crisp and easy to find. This is always high on my list of “must have” items.
When I first grabbed the Nexus 5 in my hand, I noticed that it felt very light for its size (4.59oz / 130g). This is great, but it also feels a bit “plastic”, much more so than the Nexus 4, and a bit more so than the Galaxy S4 if you want to have a comparison with a popular handset. As usual, some people will like it and some will not, but that’s a big deal for you, I would recommend trying to get your hands on one, possibly in a carrier store like T-Mobile or Sprint. I appreciate the light weight very much, and that’s most important to me since the phone spends most of its time in my pocket.
The Nexus 5 comes with a 1080p screen that has a diagonal of 4.95” (that translates to 445 point-per-inch, or PPI). It uses an LCD IPS technology which provides very good viewing angles. Google also mentions that Nexus 5 is using Gorilla Glass 3, which makes it highly resistant to scratches (keep in mind that “shocks” and “scratches” are two VERY different problems to solve for display makers). I measured the maximum brightness of the Nexus 5 display to 490 LUX, which is higher than its LG G2 cousin which tips 440LUX. That’s great under a bright light (like the sun…). On the other hand, the black levels of the G2 are noticeably better (the blacks are more “black”).
Yet given that the LG G2 display is probably the best we’ve seen in recent months, it’s not such a bad thing to be slightly behind it. I suspect that both Google and LG have searched for a best performance for the price ratio, while the G2 is only about best performance. In terms of image quality, I would have no problem comparing the Nexus 5 display to the HTC One for example. In relation to the G2 display which gets an “excellent” rating, I think that it’s fair to give this one a “very good”, which is one notch below “excellent”.
Nexus 5 Camera (very good)
The Nexus 5 improves the Nexus 4 capabilities and stays well within the leading group in the camera phone arms race. Smartphones have improved their optics, sensors and software across the board with Samsung, LG and Apple leading the way. Since the Nexus 5 is a cousin of the LG G2, I thought that it would be interesting to see how it performs relative to it. Interestingly, they are only very distant cousins and both the camera module and the software of the Nexus 5 are different from the G2.
In broad daylight, the Nexus 5 has a very good and predictable behavior: it takes great pictures with good color balance. Most people would be happy with this, and would feel in control of their photo experience. The Nexus 5 tends to spend less time as the G2 on “metering” (analyzing the image to setup the photo settings), so the experience can feel more spontaneous for casual photography. As usual, the Nexus 5 uses the stock Android camera app, which has a very simple design.
In low-light photography, the LG G2 clearly has an advantage. Despite having an optically stabilized lens, the Nexus 5 can’t match the G2 in extreme situations, and the Nokia 1520 is probably the one phone that the G2 has to fear right now – it’s too bad I don’t have one on hand right now. As you can see in the image above, the LG G2 took a much better low light photo. You can really tell what’s going on and there is no contest here. Even in extremely dark lighting, the G2 color balancing tends to remain accurate as well, while the Nexus 5 can shift towards “red”. Check this low-light photo of a plant taken by the Nexus 5 and LG G2.
While it doesn’t “win” in extreme conditions, the Nexus 5 still provides a very good camera experience, and I have uploaded full photos taken with it on our Ubergizmo Flickr account. To make a long story short, you need to set your expectations properly: the Nexus 5 is no LG G2 when it comes to photography.
There may be a chance that the camera app be improved by tuning the shutter speed in low-light conditions. How much can be improved by software remains to be seen (I suspect not *that* much, but photo post-processing can do wonder at times), but we’ll take anything we can.
Software – Android 4.4
Android 4.4 codenamed KitKat may be technically a “minor” revision, but it does bring its fair share of improvements. That includes design changes, like the departure of the “blue” bias towards a more neutral white, but it is really the new functionalities that are of interest to me.
Google Now is seeing a deeper integration and is listening at all time when you screen is on. Just say “OK Google” and it will be ready to receive a voice command. While it is similar to what Motorola did with the Moto X, it’s not completely identical. Moto X listens to your commands even when the phone is in standby mode, and that could save a couple of seconds since you don’t have to turn the phone on before searching for something. At some point, Google is also going to start scanning for app content (if the developers implement the feature), but it’s not quite there yet.
The Hangouts app is now the center for text communications, including Google Chat and SMS. At first, I thought that the idea would have been to create a text message thread “per person” instead of “per app”, but it turns out that there is so such merge after all. It’s weird because Palm got that working right away with Web OS, so I wonder why Google didn’t wait to get this right before launching. On one hand, this could lead to some kind of free messaging service like iMessage, but right now the integration doesn’t really bring a clear win for users. I even suspect that many users don’t know what “hangouts” is – I guess that they will soon, so that’s a victory for Google.
The Phone app has had an upgrade as well and makes it easier to call the people you talk to the most, thanks to a quick call log. Searching for contacts can be done on the same screen with the keyboard or a voice command. This is an improvement over the previous version in which I typically had to go through a few taps before finding a contact. Fortunately, Android’s ability to create direct call shortcuts is fantastic, so the previous limitation did not really bother me too much.
Finally, the Email app has caught my attention as well with new design changes, including photo of your contacts when available, better folder accessibility and a faster responsiveness in general. When a photo is not available, the Email app replaced it with the first letter of the sender’s name. It looks much better than one may think and it visually helps break the ocean of black and white noise from the email list.
The only downside that I’m seeing with this Email app is that the email search is pretty slow and over WIFI, it took about 12 seconds for the search to return a list of results. I believe that Google is searching in a bigger set of data than most Email apps, but I would prefer to see a short list ASAP while the app continues to search in the background.
As a wrap up on android, I also want to point out that Android is becoming more and more Google-centric. This is hardly a surprise since that’s the whole point of it all, but I have to wonder if other handset makers will be in such a rush to integrate Hangouts and other Google services so deeply. This is where the user experience from Google handset and 3rd party handsets may start to diverge.
Entertainment (very good)
A smartphone powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 won’t have any trouble with multimedia functions. I’ve also tried to play a 4K movie file and it ran without any issues, just as expected. Since the display is very good, the overall multimedia experience scales accordingly. While I rate this with well deserved “very good”, the Nexus 5 misses the “excellent” mark for two reasons. First of all the screen could have been a little better (did I mention how cool it is to watch movies on a bigger screen?) and secondly, the speakers quality could have been better. The sound is OK, but there are better options out there.
For gaming purposes, there should be no problem at all. The Nexus 5 is more than capable of handling the most demanding android games and the benchmarks below will show you just that. Add a wireless controller to it, and you should have a great little portable gaming system. It may not have the battery life of the SHIELD, but while you still have power, things should be nice.
Nexus 5 Benchmarks (Fast!)
It is not a surprise to see that the Nexus 5 stands shoulder to shoulder with the fastest smartphones out there. It uses what is arguably the best hardware platform on Android and it’s only normal that it scores very high in the benchmarks. Keep in mind that each manufacturer can select slight variations of frequency, memory type and speed, etc. Also the thermal constraints of each handset are slightly different, so results are never exactly the same.
The graphics benchmarks above show that graphics performance of the Nexus 5 is top notch and quite on par with what other Snapdragon 800 phones have shown thus far. This means that it can run the most demanding games and graphics applications on Android.
The CPU performance is pretty much on par with other Snapdragon 800 phones as well. At this point, I don’t know if there are claims of benchmarks scores being inflated, but keep in mind that it is always possible, so I would recommend taking a look at the “normal” Galaxy Note 3 scores. Since the scores between normal and inflated are not great enough to result into real perceptible user experience, but it is clear that bragging rights can trigger a lot of angry conversations.
Talking about the perceived performance is actually more interesting: since the Nexus devices do not have any “skin” on top of Android, and does not have any wireless carrier mandatory software, they typically feel faster with nothing holding them back. This is indeed the case here. I found the Nexus 5 to be noticeably more responsive than the HTC One and Galaxy S4 Google Edition that we reviewed earlier. The difference is not “spectacular”, but worth noting. Interestingly, LG’s own skin on the G2 runs nearly as fast which means that if OEMs put enough work into their own software, they too can build fast user interface.
Google has also worked hard to reduce latency from any touch action. This is most visible on the screen scroll interaction and more importantly on the keyboard response time which now feels virtually as fast as Windows Phone which always got high marks for that. If you care about low-latency user interfaces on Android, handsets from Google and LG are just about the best options out there.
Nexus 5 Battery Life (Good)
Coming into this review, I knew that a 2300 mAh battery capacity would yield much lower battery life than 3200 mAh or 3300 ones mAh – this is obvious.
For example, streaming one hour of video took out 20% of the battery, while playing from a local file shed 16%. This means that we have a maximum video playback time of 6.25hrs (local) and it can go as low as 5hrs (streaming over WiFi). This is about 30% less than what a G2 would get, and this is pretty much proportional to the battery capacity.
Outside of gaming, the display is the single biggest source of power draw, so reading and moderate web browsing should be relatively comparable to playing video, with a plus/minus 1.5 hour margin. Since the battery is not replaceable, heavy users should take notice, but regular users should not have a particular issue with this.
Wireless charging (integrated!)
The Nexus 5 comes with wireless charging built-in, but does not come with the charging pad. This is great because that has been offered as an option on other recent phones. On the Galaxy S4, the kit costs about $100 which includes the cover and a pad. The cover itself is probably worth $35. With the Nexus 5, you don’t need to get a cover and any Qi Wireless charging pad will be compatible. We have tried with the Samsung pad and things worked great.
Conclusion (very good+)
In absolute terms, the Nexus 5 would earns a “very good” rating, but if you factor in that it costs about half the price of high-end phones, I have to kick it up a notch. The Nexus 5 provides an excellent (pure) Android experience, with the latest features and improvements of Google’s 4.4 OS. To really understand what the Nexus 5 is about, you have to look at it from two angles:
The Nexus 5 is a great phone, but one that is also challenged by high-end handsets which are possibly 15%-20% “better” (I’m just throwing a number here), but cost 100% more. I can hardly blame Google for not throwing in luxurious materials, or the most impressive display. However, it’s pretty darn close to the best out there. The battery life is the most glaring difference with other high-end Android smartphones which have huge batteries.
If you look at it from a performance/price point of view, the Nexus 5 is nearly impossible to beat. There is no way around it: Google is not worried about making a profit on this, and they can use their financial might to bring the absolute best phone -for the price-. Additionally, it comes completely unlocked and works with a great many networks worldwide. In the USA, T-Mobile, AT&T and Sprint can accommodate it in the USA. As a no-contract option, this is the ultimate phone.
It depends what YOU want: if budget is not a concern, and if you want the absolute best low-light photography or “noble” materials like glass and aluminum, there are much more expensive options out there. If you want a great carrier-free phone with fast OS updates the Nexus 5 is the best there is.