Google Nexus 4 review

The Nexus is a strange category of device. Designed as a pure Android experience, it's a family of Google devices that's principally pitched at Android developers, but also popular with consumers.

Why is it popular? Because the Nexus devices are free from the clutter of manufacturer skins and customisations, so the focus remains on the core experience, rather than something slathered over the top. The Nexus devices are also the first in line to get Android updates, so benefit from Google's tweaks before the rest.

The Nexus 4, therefore, should be an Android lovers' phone of choice. A pure, unfettered Google experience as it was intended to be. But does this handset, manufactured by LG, stack up against the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S III or HTC One X+? Simply put, is the Nexus 4 out of this world?

Design

Without hesitation, we'd say that the Nexus 4 is the best-looking LG phone of recent years. There is a wonderful simplicity to the design of the Nexus 4 from the front that recent LG phones, like the Optimus 4X, simply lacked.

Like the Galaxy Nexus before it, the front of the handset is free from adornments: it's just a black face. With the display off, it's just a deep inky black; it's unspoilt, there are no logos or fussy details. It's simply a smartphone. There's the front-facing camera and ear speaker, but that's it.

There's a slight curve to the edges of the display, which, like the Optimus 2X, means there's no hard edge. Your thumb just coasts from side to side on its beautifully smooth Corning Gorilla Glass 2 surface.

The rear of the Nexus 4 is a sheet of toughened glass too, so has the same silky smooth touch. This is inlaid with holographic patterning that shimmers as you move the phone. It's a great effect and gives the Nexus 4 a distinctive and premium finish.

It's all held together with a tactile waistband that's nicely shaped to provide plenty of grip when holding the phone. The sides act like the ridges ringing the HTC One X+ fitting neatly into the hands to keep things secure. With a back that's on the low-friction side, the Nexus 4 slipped a couple of times, but it wasn't especially problematic.

READ: HTC One X+ review

Around the edges you'll find the Micro-USB and 3.5mm connections; there's a volume rocker on the left and a power/standby button on the right, in the same location that Samsung chooses for its top-tier smartphones, conveniently placed. There's a tray for the micro SIM on the left-hand side.

We can't help thinking it's an extraordinarily good-looking phone, the rear detailing, with the prominent Nexus lettering, and slightly less prominent LG logo, means there's no mistaking that this is a Nexus 4.

Wake up the display and you'll spot perhaps the only oddity in the design. Where most 4.7-inch (ish) devices give you the full screen to play with, the Nexus 4 pinches some of the pixels off the bottom of the display for the touch controls - back, home, recent apps.

So compare the screen real estate with something like the HTC One X+ which has the touch controls separate from the display, and you'll find that the Nexus 4 gives you slightly less visible screen space. The disadvantage of this is that some apps lose a line or two of space, perhaps a line of text. The advantage is that this space can be used by full-screen apps, or the icons can be dimmed to dots or rotated to fit the orientation of the display. 

With the controls in the display itself, the space beneath feels a little empty, almost as though it doesn't need to be there; perhaps it could have been trimmed by 5mm or so. This area houses the notification LED, so rather than blinking at the top, it flashes at the bottom, as it were.

The handset measures 133.9 x 68.7 x 9.1mm and it's a typical 139.5g. That puts it on a par with devices like the HTC and Samsung rivals. It's a sealed unit however, so there's no access to the 2100mAh battery or a microSD slot, but that's the norm for recent Nexus devices. 

Display: Looking good

All eyes turn to the 4.7-inch LCD display on the Nexus 4 and rightly so, as it's magnificent and certainly one of the best displays currently out there. LG calls it the True HD IPS Plus, but the important points are the 1280 x 768 pixels it offers and the IPS part.

Most displays at this size are 1280 x 720, 16:9, but the Nexus 4 is 5:3. The extra width you get is noticeable at first glance as the display looks squarer and less elongated. You might have fractionally more empty space when watching a movie, but we're talking about millimetres.


We set the Nexus 4 alongside the HTC One X+, which is accepted to have one of the best displays around, and we'd say that the Nexus 4 looks better. The display offers you 317ppi, so it's nice and sharp, but it's the bright whites and rich, natural, colour renditions that impress.

LG is pushing the Zerogap Touch technology in the display. Like the iPhone 5, and most other premium handsets, LG has reduced the gap between the touch surface and the actual display pixels. This gives the display real punch, because it's right there, rather than looking slightly recessed. It's not unique, but it's great that LG's display in Google's phone can compete with, if not beat, the best.

The hardware

Aside from the impressive design and stunning display, the Nexus 4 doesn't scrimp on the hardware it offers either. Sitting at the core of the phone is the quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro chipset, clocked at 1.5GHz. This is backed by 2GB of RAM, making this a hugely powerful handset.

That power is obvious as you set the phone to task. The Nexus 4 effortlessly moves around Android 4.2's buttery smooth interface. Apps open in a flash, Chrome is blisteringly fast and there's no sign of lag as you set about your daily business. The result is an Android experience that's difficult to beat, it's fast, it's fluid and everything about the core experience feels right.

That experience isn't just limited to basic apps. We fired up Need for Speed Most Wanted and found it ran smoothly and looked fantastic. The same applies to HD video: it looks stunning and plays smoothly.

The Nexus 4 comes in two storage options, 8GB and 16GB, but there's no expansion option for memory. That might be a little restrictive for some, but it's the same problem you'll find with the iPhone 5 or top HTC phones. Google wants to push cloud services instead: we suspect the 16GB handset will be the more popular.

When it comes to wireless connectivity there's no support for 4G networks, but it supports up to HSPA+. You get dual-band Wi-Fi, NFC, Bluetooth and support for Miracast, a wireless display technology that uses Wi-Fi Direct to move the phone's display to a compatible device, like your HDTV. As you'd expect, you also get a bag full of sensors. 

The external speaker is of moderate quality, exhibiting distortion when at max volume and its placement on the back of the phone means it is muffled when you lay the phone flat on a table, but we found it perfectly usable as a speakerphone. 

When it comes to calling, the Nexus 4 is a comfortable phone to make calls with and we found that calls were clean on both ends, with enough volume to hear callers without a problem.

Android 4.2 refinement and a few holes

People used to say that Android was a little too rough as a consumer OS. Things have come a long way in the last 5 years to the latest iteration, Android 4.2, which makes its debut on the Nexus 4. Android 4.2 Jelly Bean brings with it some new features, but the most noticeable thing across the Jelly Bean versions of Android is just how smooth it now feels.

It's really slick and lag free: we've praised other devices for being slick, but the experience on the Nexus 4 just about trumps them. The animation moving around the device and the attention to detail is really impressive. For example, the way the background dims when you drag down the notification bar gives a feeling of sophistication that makes Android feel more polished than ever before.

 

Often we're left to the likes of Motorola or Samsung to bring convenient features, like access to hardware toggles or power controls. On the Nexus 4, the notifications bar contains an icon that will flip open a selection of hardware shortcuts, as well as giving you access to settings. It's a nice touch, meaning you can instantly get to things like brightness control or Wi-Fi.

But there's also a wonderful simplicity to things. Head into the settings menu and it's clear and easy to find what you're looking for. Many other devices now come with so many options they can feel bloated. The Nexus 4 doesn't: it focuses on those core integrated Google services like Gmail or Google Maps without getting distracted by additional extras.

Gmail now handles email content better, with the option to resize email content to fit the display and zoom to take a closer look. Services like Google Maps, along with free navigation, are difficult to beat. There is also an more enhanced service from Google Voice, which works very well, and the updated Google Now. 

Google Now is useful in some cases. It's easily access with a long press on the home button, and then serving up relevant cards pertaining to information you might be about to ask for. Weather is always useful, and as soon as you step away from home, it seems constantly to tell you how long it will take to get back. But search results are presented nicely, even if some of the Google Now cards will work for you only if you're living your life the way Google expects you to.

 

The handling of contacts feels a little disjointed, perhaps lacking the refinement that rivals offer with their tweaks. Contacts sit in the People app, but are accessible through the Dialler so you can quickly get to favourites, but you can't just type a name on the number pad and get suggestions, which feels a little behind the times.

The other thing we don't like is that when People opens, you've suddenly got a white background, rather than the black that you get in the dialler. It feels as though there's too much of a gap visually between the two, although this is a minor point of aesthetics.

A new addition to Android 4.2 is the gesture keyboard. With Android 4.1, Google added smart predictions and the gestures add to this, letting you swipe across the keyboard to trace out words. It's nothing new, as HTC and Swype offers it (as will SwiftKey shortly), but we like it's implementation here. The single-press text entry perhaps isn't as dynamic as SwiftKey so if you have a preference you might want to switch.

Play Music is the default music player, offering local and cloud music for your device, with Google Music going live in the UK on 13 November, meaning you can browser and buy music from Google Play. It's a pretty good player, easy to navigate with the option to play music direct from the cloud or download any stored music you want locally.

 

Google has updated Android 4.2 (13 November) to bring some addition features to the Nexus 4. You'll get music controls from the lock screen, with play/pause and track skip options, even if you have security in place.

In addition, there is now a selection of lock screen widgets. These can be used to add messaging, Gmail, calendar and the clock to the lock screen. In each case you'll be able to add the widget to a new page, giving you at-a-glance access to the information in those services.

If you have security in place you'll have to unlock your device before you can take any actions - write a new message or email, or open an appointment - but it's worth remembering that others can see some of this information even if you have security on your phone.

 

What you won't find on the Nexus 4 is some of the advanced features such as pop-out video or integrated network streaming. Straight out of the box, the Nexus 4 offers slightly less than other top-tier devices, although you'll be able to plug any gaps with apps from Google Play pretty easily these days. We found our regular apps worked without a hitch, except there's currently no native support for BBC iPlayer, however you can sideload the BBC Media Player apk and it works well enough.

Overall, the core experience of Android on the Nexus 4 is very nice. There's a certain appeal to having your device free of the additions that others will include: it makes everything cleaner and clutter free from day one. The out of the box experience might not have all the bells and whistles, but raw Android is getting more compelling than ever, and here Jelly Bean is blisteringly fast.

Camera, Photo Spheres, Gallery

Along with Android 4.2 come a couple of new features in the camera. There's a new Photo Sphere mode, that will create a 360-degree panoramic image by combining shots, as well as a new user interface. There is also access to the camera with a swipe from the lock screen, opening up the app directly.

With the camera being one of the top features of a smartphone, and high priority for manufacturers, it's something of a surprise that the camera experience on the Nexus 4 is somewhat lacklustre: there's noticeable lag, mostly down to slow focusing, so it doesn't feel anywhere near as dynamic as Sony Xperia, Samsung Galaxy or HTC handsets.

There's an 8-megapixel sensor on the rear, along with an LED flash, and a 1.3-megapixel sensor on the front. Controls are kept to a minimum on the display, you basically have a settings button, the capture button and the shooting mode. The modes on offer are Photo Sphere, panorama, video and normal camera.

Hit the settings button and a central controller opens, offering camera switch (back/front), HDR, flash, white balance, exposure compensation and finally more settings, which includes scene modes, geotagging and the resolution of capture. It's logical enough, with the most important settings available fairly quickly, but we're not hugely enamoured with it, it just feels fussy.

Nexus 4 HDR mode

Of these options, HDR is something of a star. We put it to test out in rural Somerset and it garnered more natural results than HTC's equivalent, successfully giving definition to the sky and the ground, without it looking artificial.

As we said, focusing can be slow and capture is slow as a result, so this isn't a camera to give good results with constantly moving children or pets. But even when it is focused, the image doesn't look as sharp or crisp as you'd expect from a display of this quality, exhibiting a lot of visible noise.

We snapped two devices together (below): the HTC One X on the left is sharp, with realistic colours, the Nexus 4 on the right is soft, lacks definition and colour, meaning photo composition isn't as pleasant as it could be, something just doesn't look right.

HTC One X (left) and the Nexus 4 (right)

The result is that the Nexus 4 is best saved for deliberately composed shots. Take your time and keep everything still and it performs pretty well in good light. In lower light conditions it doesn't perform so well as things get even slower, blurred shots are common and it's blighted by the expected noise.

Photo Spheres is one of the new highlight features of Android 4.2 Jelly Bean. Photo Spheres works by stitching together photos to give you a 360-degree result. The display guides you to help put the Sphere together and the results are pretty good.

You can view the Sphere on your Nexus 4, beam it to another device, or share it with Google Maps or Google+. Once approved, you'll be able to view it on GMaps as you would any other Street View scene. Alternatively, you can share it as a regular panorama and there's also the option to fire up Tiny Planet in the Gallery and edit your creation.

A Photo Sphere presented as a panorama

On the video front you get the option of various definitions, topping out at 1080p and the results are pretty sharp, with plenty of detail. Continuous autofocus is a little slow - there's no touch focusing for video - but the biggest problem we had was audio.

Video audio contained a lot of hiss and some background noise that sounded like the camera seeking focus. At times, this sounded like crickets or grasshoppers. We tried two difference Nexus 4 handsets and both had a lot of hiss, but the intensity was different between the two, so it's something to watch out for if quiet video is your thing.

From the camera app you can access the Gallery with a swipe, which it is nice touch. It only works in portrait, however, but we like the fact that in this filmstrip view you have the live camera just to the left of the screen, ready to swipe back into action.

Battery

The Nexus 4 has a 2100mAh battery, which on paper sounds like it will give you plenty of life. However, we've had a mixed experience with the Nexus 4. Put to moderately heavy use and you'll find that the battery drains quickly, thanks mostly to that large display. Typically we'd find that on a busy day, we'd need to be charging the Nexus 4 in the afternoon to then make it safely into the evening.

On lighter days we found we wouldn't need to charge it until the evening, but getting through the day is a struggle. Wireless charging is included, if you have a compatible Qi charger, but we didn't get to test this feature.

Verdict

There is a lot to be excited about the Nexus 4. It's equipped like a flagship Android handset, but priced like a mid-range phone. This is a huge point for anyone who wants to buy this smartphone outright, rather than taking a contract from someone like O2, which has a launch exclusive on the handset, for around £31 a month for two years.

The Nexus 4 is £239 for the 8GB model and £279 for 16GB. Compare that to the price of a HTC One X at around £420 for 16GB, or the Samsung Galaxy S III at £410 for 16GB and you can't help thinking the Nexus 4 is something of a bargain.

What you get is a handset that's been exquisitely designed, fully loaded with hardware and an excellent display, yet remains uncluttered with apps and features you might never use. There are some holes, certainly, but it's a wonderful experience in day-to-day use.

The weakness for us comes in with the camera. It's just not as much fun to use and feels slow compared to the best out there: we just want it to perform better. The battery life could be better and should be, but for a phone of this size and power, it's a common problem.

The Nexus 4 is an enticing proposition. It might not be loaded with the consumer refinement that you'll get from the Samsung Galaxy S III's software tweaks, or the diversity of integration that you'll get from HTC, but it undercuts both on price nicely.

If you're a heavy phone camera user, you might have cause to complain, but otherwise, the Nexus 4 is worth being excited about.