The thing with spending just a few weeks with a loaner Nexus 5, Google and LG's Android 4.4 KitKat reference device, is that I'm not able to enjoy what's easily this phone's most attractive feature – the fact that it only costs US$349 unlocked from the Google Play store in the U.S.
That's not to say that there isn't plenty more to love about the Nexus 5. It comes with a great screen, quality software upgrades and plenty of hefty components that allow it to compete with any other flagship phone out there today.
At this point, I've spent over a week with a Nexus 5 since the phone was officially unveiled on Halloween (October 31) following months of leaks and rumors. I can say that while it might not be the sexiest smartphone ever, it is a solid choice for Android lovers, and far and away the best value in any new smartphone available on the American market this year.
Sweet specs at the center of the Nexus 5Let's dig in to what makes the Nexus 5 tick and, more importantly, hold its own in an increasingly competitive and commoditized smartphone market.
The shape and build of the Nexus 5 are decent and an improvement over the Nexus 4 with a soft but sturdy plastic back panel rather than glass or metal, Gorilla Glass on the front and some nice subtle curves on the back and corners. I prefer the feel of a Moto X in my hand, but there's really nothing to complain about, and nothing flashy in the form of the Nexus 5 either.
Given that, the first thing you notice about the Nexus 5 is how great the screen is. There's reviews out there that will tell you how other flagship phones deliver brighter colors, and it's true in some cases, but this 1920x1080 HD IPS display delivers a total package of 445 pixels per inch over 4.95 inches of ultra-responsive screen. The responsiveness is a result of the big daddy Snapdragon 800 quad-core 2.26 GHz CPU and Adreno 330 450 MHz GPU at the center of the Nexus 5. Even other workhorse phones of the year like the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4 come with the earlier Snapdragon 600.
A full 2 GB of RAM also helps, as does the fact that Android KitKat was designed to be leaner and functional on lesser smartphones with as little as 512 MB of RAM, which is part of the broader Android push into lesser developed markets where even $349 is still a very pretty penny to pay for a new phone.
All this combines with the Nexus 5's dearth of manufacturer and carrier inflicted bloatware for a user experience that is speedy and completely lag-free in my first week of use, even after Google automatically loaded all the dozens of apps I've downloaded from the Play Store over the years. Even graphics-intensive games were able to keep up where other phones in the house (including a few other current flagships) often falter.
Choice of a new (upgraded) generation
The Nexus 4 became a favorite of Android devotees worldwide, bolstered again by its bargain basement price tag (it started at $299 unlocked for an 8 GB model), despite lacking LTE capability.
The Nexus 5 fills in lots of the gaps that made many balk at its predecessor. LTE compatibility is there (although not for America's largest carrier, Verizon), as is a better camera and storage options start at the more reasonable amount of 16 GB this time.
The screen size has also grown a bit over the Nexus 4, and the Nexus 5 display jams in nearly another 125 pixels per inch.The battery also gets a slight bump to 2300 mAh from the Nexus 4's 2100 mAh and the Nexus 5 comes with wireless charging ability turned on.
Also much like the Nexus 4, the Nexus 5 is tough to get your hands on out of the gate. As the Google Play store began taking orders, shipping dates quickly slipped to between 3-4 weeks or longer for many customers. Carriers and other retails stores will also be offering the Nexus 5, but most will sell it at a markup, or rather, without subsidizing each handset as it seems the Play Store does – it's been reported that the actual cost that retailers pay to Google is higher than $349.
Can this camera get it done?
If you've been checking out Nexus 5 reviews already, you've probably noticed a wide variety of opinions on the quality of the upgraded Nexus camera. Here's what I feel I can say pretty definitively about the 8 megapixel shooter that rises up from the rear panel of the phone:
- It's better than the camera included with the Nexus 4
- It's not the best smartphone camera on the market, not by a mile
- Unless it's a Nokia Lumia, you probably shouldn't be relying on a phone to capture important images anyway
- For the kind of images you might reasonably rely upon a phone to take, the Nexus 5 will get the job done and you'll have fun using it
You get a lot of the standard modes with the Nexus 5 camera, plus the Android Photo Sphere app, which is one of the more nifty ways of capturing a 360-degree panorama.
HDR+ mode also cleans up lots of the flaws in the Nexus 4's camera, making washed-out shots a lot more rare and generally sharpening most pictures.
Taking a bite of Android KitKatWhile Android 4.4 KitKat is only a point update that doesn't reinvent the wheel in anyway, it's a beautiful iterative upgrade that I'll be exploring in a more in-depth software review soon.
Nexus 5 users will immediately notice the changes on boot, with a redesigned home screen that features a now transparent notifications bar up top, a new font and redesigned native app icons.
The phone dialer app also gets a major makeover, and now features limited caller ID for numbers that are listed in Google Places.
Google Now is more woven into the fiber of Android than ever in KitKat, with its own permanent residence to the left of your left-most home screen (which also now work differently – more on that in my KitKat review). Just keep swiping left from home and you'll eventually see all your Google Now cards in one place.
Another big change is the integration of Google Hangouts and text messaging. This is Google's attempt to put all your contacts, texts and chats in one place. If you never spent much time in Google Chat, Talk or Hangouts, it might take a little getting used to. It's easy enough to pull up a contact by their name, no matter if you're looking for an email or cell number, but novice users are likely to have little idea whether they're sending an SMS, text or IM to their friends.
Voice control is also present on the Nexus, but unlike with the Moto X, you'll need to at least get through your lock screen before the Nexus 5 will start listening for the trigger, which is simply "OK, Google."
Other new bonus features include printing capability, Quickoffice as a native app, a step counter for fitness apps, handy audio seeking from the lock screen and a low-power audio mode that allows for 60 hours of audio playback.
What's MissingWhen the biggest wow factor in a device is its price, you can expect hardware that breaks very little ground otherwise. That's basically true with the Nexus 5, which puts together a lot of top-notch hardware with the best version of Android yet for an amazing price, but introduces no new revolutionary innovations.
There's a few baffling omissions, however. Most notable is the lack of touchless control like that available in the Moto X. Motorola had to put together a custom chipset to accomplish the ability of the Moto X to always be listening for a command to wake it up without totally sacrificing battery life.
The Snapdragon 800 at the heart of the Nexus 5 has this feature already built in, yet for some reason Google and LG chose not to take advantage of it.
I also would love to have seen a beefier battery in this device and a little more of that back curve that makes the Moto X feel so nice to hold.
But the biggest disappointment for me and surely many other Americans in the Nexus 5 is the lack of Verizon support. This likely isn't Google's fault, it's just horribly ironic that this phone is unlocked and supports such a wide variety of networks ... except for the biggest one.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that there are two versions of the Nexus 5, one designed to work across North America, and another GSM-centric international version designed for everyplace else. Unfortunately, the North American edition may not work well for traveling outside the continent as a result, which is a real shame for an otherwise great unlocked phone.
One last gripe that is minor, but needs to be said – the plastic cover designed specifically for the Nexus 5 that I received from Google along with my review unit is absolute garbage.
Bottom LineAnyone with more than a passing interest in Android really has no reason to pass up on the Nexus 5, except maybe for me.
I must be one of the very rare Android users that comes up against the very few shortcomings that the Nexus 5 actually has, namely its lack of friendliness to Verizon subscribers and global travelers. With any other phone, these would be absolute dealbreakers, yet I will still strongly consider the Nexus 5 on the strength of ... well, everything else – its hardware, software and price, to be exact.