With the launch of the last Nexus smartphone in October 2012, Google made a device available that was not only competitively specced and well designed, but also aggressively priced. At £239 (8GB), the Nexus 4 is the device that set the proverbial cat among the pigeons, bringing high-end specs, but not without its drawbacks.
Let’s put that price into context: it’s £10 more than the HTC Desire X (£229) which sounds expensive for what you get, as it’s an entry-level device, and £40 more than the Sony Xperia P (£199), which has some merits given that the build quality is good, but the Nexus 4 is significantly better than either device in almost all areas.
The raison d’être for the Nexus is to bring you pure Google. Designed as a development device, it gives you access to the latest Android software and features first and that’s often seen as the key differentiator for Android fans.
READ: Nexus 4 review
However, does the Nexus 4 hold its weight against the latest batch of top flight devices like the Sony Xperia Z, the HTC One or the Samsung Galaxy S4? As a new generation of Android smartphones land, we're drawn in to considering whether they’re worth the additional expense.
Simply put: are premium Android smartphones worth it?
HTC One vs. Nexus 4
The HTC One is HTC’s flagship device. It’s priced at £519.99 SIM free from HTC direct for 32GB of storage. Only 32GB is available in the UK, so obviously, the first point is that you get a lot more storage, as the Nexus 4 tops out at 16GB, if you pay the higher price of £279. Neither offers expandable storage.
But also for that money you get staggeringly good handset design and build, the HTC One feels better in the hand than the Nexus 4 and we think it looks better too. The HTC One is more of a showpiece, the LG-built Nexus 4 is more subtle, so both have merits.
Where the HTC runs away at great speed is with the latest hardware that’s packed in. While the Nexus 4 has a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro chipset, HTC runs off the the next-generation Qualcomm Snapdragon 600.
READ: HTC One review
In use side by side, the HTC One feels faster and more positive, despite the additions brought by HTC Sense 5. Swiping down the notifications bar, for example, is slicker, recent apps is better managed. Sure, it’s not running the very latest version of Android, but you get key things like Google Now and the latest version of Gmail and so on.
In terms of the display, the HTC One outclasses the Nexus 4 by a considerable margin. The display is both a higher resolution and offers better colour reproduction. Everything looks nicer on the HTC One.
The HTC One also trumps the Nexus 4 on battery life. It’s a recognised weakness of the Nexus 4, whereas the HTC One has reliably given us more than 16 hours of use a day.
Neither device feels like it offers the best camera, despite HTC’s posturings with the UltraPixel sensor. But HTC’s creative Zoe mode, live galleries and instant summary videos give the HTC One a consumer edge the Nexus 4 simply lacks.
So is the HTC One worth the extra £280? The pros are: better display, more storage, better design, more consumer refinement through Sense, more power and LTE. The cons: you’ll be waiting for HTC to push those Android updates.
Sony Xperia Z vs. Nexus 4
The Sony Xperia Z is easily Sony’s best Android phone yet. It combines premium materials with a number of distinctive features. Things just seem to click with this smartphone as they never did before for Sony. But it costs £519 for a 16GB handset.
One of the advantages that the Xperia Z offers over the Nexus 4 and the HTC One is that it has a microSD card slot, so you can expand that storage at your leisure.
There’s some similarity in design concept between the Xperia Z and the Nexus 4. Both make heavy use of glass, but the Xperia Z takes the prize for the skinniest model, if that matters, and we love the uniformity of the minimalist monolith-like design.
READ: Sony Xperia Z review
It’s waterproof too, something that not many smartphones can boast, and it gives you that protection without bloating the frame. It’s not going to be a tough phone as such, but it’ll withstand being dropped in the bath. Some might complain about the flaps needed to cover the ports, but we didn’t find that too irritating in practical use.
Like the Nexus 4, the Sony Xperia Z features a quad-core Qualcomm S4 Pro processor. It’s an older generation of hardware than the HTC One, as the Sony was announced earlier. The experience is still good, but less snappy than that of HTC.
The display of the Xperia Z is Full HD, like the HTC, but isn’t as accomplished. The viewing angles are a bit limited on the 5-inch display, but there’s plenty of punch to colours when viewing as you normally would. It’s sharper than the Nexus 4, but the Nexus 4 gives you wider viewing angles.
Of course, like the HTC One, the Xperia Z has undergone customisation. Dabbling with the user interface has brought some nice consumer features but you’ll be waiting for those upgrades when new versions of Android roll out, something that won’t be a problem on the Nexus 4.
One of the software tweaks is directed at battery management and this makes the Xperia Z the handset that in real life lasts the longest. The camera is packed full of features and returns great results, easily better than the Nexus 4.
So is the Xperia Z worth the extra £280? The pros are: a larger, sharper display, waterproofing, respectable battery life, a camera that’s packed with features and the flexibility of microSD. The cons: you’ll be waiting for software updates, of course, and Sony’s customisations in some areas feel a little unnecessary.
Samsung Galaxy S4 vs. Nexus 4
The Samsung Galaxy S4 is the newest of the bunch and the smartphone we know the least about - in terms of real world experience. It’s likely to be the biggest seller of the bunch, but priced at £629 by Carphone Warhouse, it's much more expensive than rivals.
Of all the devices, the Samsung Galaxy S4 is the most removed from the pure Android experience of the Nexus. Even stock features of Android are renamed and repackaged as Samsung, which neither HTC nor Sony really do, so it feels like a step removed from Android.
Like the HTC, the SGS4 will feature a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 chipset, although clocked at the higher speed. It also has a Full HD display, but uses AMOLED rather than LCD. The competition here will be with HTC to see which has the best display, both look sensational, and the Samsung puts the Nexus 4 in the shade.
Like the Xperia Z the Samsung Galaxy S4 offers expandable storage, but unlike any of the other handsets, the S4 has a removable back so you can change the battery. Battery life is currently unknown, but being able to carry a spare is a distinct advantage to longevity, so it betters the Nexus 4 here also.
Arguably, however, it’s the device that’s the least premium when it comes to build and design. Heavy use of plastic will be criticised, but it does a least keep the handset light: it’s the lightest of the bunch.
Camera performance is still unknown at this point, but with HTC making a gamble with the UltraPixel sensor, the Nexus 4 being rather lacklustre and Sony being average, it could well walk away with the prize.
So is the Samsung Galaxy S4 worth it? The pros are: great display, expandable storage, battery access. The cons: heaviest customisation away from Android and you’ll still be waiting for updates as new Android features appear. Admittedly, the SGS4 is the device we've spent the least amount of time with so far, but at £629, it's the biggest hit on your pocket.
So are premium Android smartphones worth it?
The Nexus 4 is a breakthough device when it comes to price. Alongside budget and mid-range devices, it is a star. It also has the pure Android advantage, meaning less delay in updates. However, the core Android experience, what it actually does, is similar to all the other devices. Manufacturers might bring additional software features, but many can be covered with apps to much the same effect.
But the Nexus 4 hardware is now behind the curve, giving these new premium smartphones something to sell. If you’re after the best experience, if you want to be on the cutting edge, then yes, premium smartphones are worth it.
But they're only worth it for about six months. With the rate of change being so rapid, staying at the cutting edge can be costly.