The Nexus 4 — a smartphone that needs no introduction. Subject of many’s desires, frustrations, and even anger. I was super excited (and a little intimidated) at having the opportunity to review the next iteration of the Google superphone. Was I worthy of even giving my opinion on a phone so elusive, only a handful of people in the world have been lucky enough to hold one in their hands? I’m not going to lie to you, when I first received the Nexus 4 from UPS, I didn’t even open it right away. I just placed it on my desk… and stared at the box. This isn’t the type of thing you rush into. I wanted to make sure I was ready. Well, my body is officially ready. Here is my review of the Nexus 4.
The phone is fragile, no one can argue that. You also can’t argue that the device looks dead sexy. Like the carbon fiber Lamborghini Sesto Elemento, you’ll turn heads driving the thing but one false move and this thing is history. Even with Gorilla Glass 2 covering the front and back of the device, there have already been reports of minor drops shattering and/or cracking the glass. I snickered when Apple introduced the all-glass iPhone back in the day and my criticism remains — bad move.
Other than the durability of the device, the Nexus 4 is of generally good build quality (not great). I may have some objections to their use of chrome accents on the phone, but that’s all subjective. Overall the use of glass, soft touch plastic, and glittery backing make the device look nothing short of an expensive, $700 smartphone.
Unfortunately, beyond it’s looks, there were still some issues in build quality that bugged me. First off, there’s some give when pressing down on the back area. As shown in my video, it’s a small complaint, but one that made the device feel just a little more “cheapy.” Also, when pressing down on the front glass, you can see LCD ripples you may remember when you were first poked an LCD computer monitor as a kid. Again, nothing major, but something that’s also absent in more plastic-ie devices like the Galaxy S3.
The one issue that bugged me with the previous Galaxy Nexus still irks me on the Nexus 4: dat bezel. While I’m not suggesting I would want a device with virtually no bezels (the Note 2’s are a little too small for my liking), the fact that the Nexus 4 has a virtual navigation bar instead of capacitive hardware buttons means a thicker than normal bottom bezel. I’d say it’s reminiscent of the LG G2X. Yuck.
When it comes to top of the line specs, the Nexus 4 is a sort of mixed bag. This is to be expected given the device needs to keep costs low, and just like the Nexus 7, Google is focusing on delivering an optimal Android experience, without all the frills. Unfortunately, these “frills” come at the cost of storage space, which will no doubt be a make-or-break for some users (myself included).
Oh, man… the display. Where do I start. Well, let’s cover the raw specs first. The display on the Nexus 4 features LG’s in-house Zerogap True HD IPS techonolgy. In theory, this will make the images appear more vibrant and results in a more responsive touch screen. The size of the display is 4.7-inches (more like 4.3-inches if you take out the nav bar) and with a screen resolution at an odd 1280×768 (the Galaxy S3 has a 1280×720 display) providing for an impressive 318ppi. This means when it comes to screen real estate, there’s a little more elbow room on the sides of the OS which results in a slightly wider Android experience. Not “LG Vu wide” by any means, but you get the picture.
To illustrate the black nav bar taking away precious screen real estate
Okay, let’s get into screen quality. While the IPS display looks deceptively nice in most cases thanks to rich colors (not over saturated) and deep blacks (almost blend into the bezels), it’s at specific angles, in the dark, or during screen movement that everything turns to sh*t. I also noticed some yellowing in parts of the LCD although my iPhone buddies assure me it’s just the glue from the digitizer/LCD and it’ll fade with time once it dries.
Viewing angles fair well (top, bottom, left, right), but when viewed on from an angle, like when the corners are facing you, the entire screen turns into a bright, washed out mess. Almost white even. I understand this might not bother most folks, but it also means you have to look at your phone from head on to keep the display looking its 100% best.
Blacks are fairly deep, even with the brightness turned on max… in daylight. As soon as the sun goes down (or when viewing from the dark confines of your parent’s basement) the blacks are much more noticeable. It doesn’t help that the ever present nav bar is constantly reminding you of how bright the blacks are, or the notification bar. A little help from ROMs at turning both of these transparent will help you forget about this issue, but stock — it sucks.
Now this was the straw that finally broke my back. The refresh rate is downright atrocious on the Nexus 4. Now that Jelly Bean has introduced silky smooth, near 60fps scrolling, it’s this greasy butter that makes the display’s shortcomings even more prevalent. Whether you’re scrolling on the homescreen or in menus, everything leaves a ghosty trail behind it. Kinda like when you drag your mouse pointer across your computer screen — now picture that on everything that moves on the Nexus 4. Icons, text, graphics, everything. It’s one of the things that’s always bugged me about the LCD displays on tablets, and I couldn’t stand it on my Nexus 4.
Processor n’ RAM
This ones obvious — the 1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro APQ8064 with Adreno 320 GPU kicks ass and takes names. It conquered the LG Optimus G and it destroys the Nexus 4 (in a good way). Apps load up quick, game frame rates stay high as the clouds. You can’t slow this processor down if you tried. The added 2GB of RAM make the Android OS a joy to experience. Gone are the days of apps in the background reloading when you return to them — this is simply how Android was meant to be enjoyed. This processor/RAM combo is the reason to own the Nexus 4, make no mistake. It’s also the Nexus 4’s saving grace.
This is gonna be a big one for a lot of people out there. At the time of launch, Google decided to only offer two sizes options for internal storage: 8GB and 16GB. This was most likely another attempt by Google to keep costs of the device down (and profits up for LG), and while this might not sound like a big deal to those of you who’ve never had to deal with it, placing these memory constraints on users is a definite make-or-break for me. I endured through a 16GB Galaxy Nexus, kept all my music in the cloud, had maybe 2 home movies, and snapped a few pics. I hit my 16GB ceiling after only a few months and I can honestly say I have no idea where the memory went. I do like to play a good game or 2 on my phone, so more than likely it was system resources sucking up all that storage. Don’t forget that even if you opt for the 16GB Nexus 4, after formatting and the OS are loaded onto the device, you’re left with an even smaller 13GB (roughly). Ouch. I’d be willing to bet my left foot that Google will launch a 32GB version 5 months from now. Mark my words.
Battery life, while not of MAXX standards, isn’t bad. Rest those fears of quad-cores eating up all 2100mAh’s in double time. The battery life on the Nexus 4 is similar to that of the GS3. On average, I get about 14 hours daily but it’s on standby that the S4 Pro really shines. If I don’t mess with it (leaving it unplugged overnight, or at work), the Nexus 4’s standby time is astounding. And that’s with virtually no signal in my home. The same was said of the LG Optimus G, so I can safely say this is all due to the S4 Pro. Of course, there are many factors that affect battery life and your millage may, and most likely will, vary.
HTC One X (left), Samsung Galaxy Note 2 (middle), Nexus 4 (right)
If you’re coming from a Galaxy Nexus, I know you’re worried about the camera. But, well… don’t be. Like age, I know that MP’s ain’t nothing but a number, but the camera on the Nexus 4 is vastly improved over its predecessor. I took some shots in daylight, as well as indoor low lighting and they speak for themselves. For good measure, I even placed a low light comparison shot with some other Android devices for you to stew over. The pinnacle of Android camera tech is easily the HTC One line and while the Nexus couldn’t quite match it, you can see it did fairly well against Samsung’s great camera tech on the Note 2. Color me impressed. Video quality at 1080p was equally nice, and here’s a couple of videos — one in daylight and one in low light — along with some more sample pics to show off the Nexus 4’s nice camera.
LTE (or lack thereof)
Google also made a controversial move in forgoing LTE radios in the Nexus 4. Well, a recent teardown revealed they’re partly there and you can enable them through software tweaks (Canada only). While lack of LTE might sour the experience for some users (where HSPA+ is unacceptable) the Nexus does include support for T-Mobile and AT&T’s HSPA+ networks, and even T-Mo’s ridiculous 42Mbps near-LTE speeds. Google has yet to announce plans for a CDMA version of the Nexus on Verizon or Sprint and given that they’re passing on LTE altogether for this iteration of the Nexus, 3G speeds on those networks would only have Nexus users pulling out their hair. Again, another make-or-break issue for many and yet another reason many will most likely pass on this device unless they drop the contract and go pre-paid on T-Mobile or AT&T (a move Google supports and one of the reason they’re created Android and the OHA).
NFC is pretty much a standard these days and worked without a hitch with Android beam and Google Wallet. Unfortunately without purchasing extra hardware, I was unable to test out the Nexus 4’s micro USB SlimPort feature. While I’m all for planning ahead for tomorrow’s tech, it’s rather annoying that LG/Google didn’t opt for the more universal MHL or a micro HDMI port. Also, lack of USB host functionality is a major shortcoming of the N4, something that works perfectly in devices like the GS3. It’s possible this could be fixed in a future software update, but until then — major negative marks against the Nexus 4.
Of course the biggest draw with owning a Nexus device is always having the latest version of Android at your disposal (and before anyone else). Because this is Google’s labor of love that means direct updates from Google HQ straight to your Nexus device, without the troublesome middleman (carriers). But sometimes bleeding edge comes at a cost. For instance, Android 4.2 is buggy. Buggy as all hell. This has a lot to do with the OS itself, and a little to do with apps that just aren’t compatible (although new updates are rolling out every day). When it comes to just the regular ‘ol OS, I’ve experienced times when the screen wouldn’t turn on (although the device was awake), freezes, and the infamous random reboot. Not good, but since this is a Google phone, you can expect a speedy update to address and squash these bugs in the near future.
Android 4.2 introduced a handful of new features, and while we’ve covered most of these in posts in the past, let’s see how functional they work in real life.
Took ’em long enough, but Google has finally introduced a feature into the stock Android OS that many have been enjoying in custom UI’s for years now — notification toggle settings. There’s nothing groundbreaking here, just some settings that can be quickly accessed and toggled in your notification pulldown. While I don’t have much by way of complaints with the new quick settings, I do wish they were configurable like on LG’s custom UI. Well, that and accessible by doing a double pull down gesture, not with a screen tap.
Photo Sphere was the one new feature I was most excited with. The idea of transforming you world around you into virtual areas your friends can explore piqued my interests. Similar to the Street View from Google Maps, Photo Sphere lets you take full 360 panoramas in every angle, creating a sort of snow globe of whatever you like. These Photo Sphere’s can be shared with friends and family on Google+ or on Google Maps but there-in lies the problem. These can only be viewed on your browser, or with another Android 4.2 device (Nexus 4, 7, or 10 for now). And, just to view them from another device means downloading the picture to your own phone, then opening up the Photo Sphere’d image in your gallery. Lame and not worth the trouble. Until Google can figure out how to get this working with the standard Street View app found on just about every Android device since Cupcake, this feature is limited in functionality (but still very fun).
Lock Screen Widgets
Lock screen widgets are all new to Android 4.2 and I was dying to try ’em out. The idea is simple. Why not use your lockscreen to display widgets without having to go through the trouble of fully unlocking your device? Sounds great in theory, but unless you lock your phone with a pin, pattern or password, it’s almost completely useless. There’s 6 total lock screens that can hold a total of 6 widgets. Not every widget can be displayed on these lock screens and even when they’re tiny, you can only display 1. Dumb, right? What’s more is the UI is confusing and you have to fumble around with it for a few seconds to figure out exactly what’s going on.
I wish Google would have tweaked the 4.0/4.1 lockscreen to allow for customized unlock shortcuts similar to Sense, TouchWiz, etc.. I mean, why would a user swipe to the left for quick access to the camera app when you could have an unlock app icon to take you to the app? The only real benefit comes when you have your phone locked with a pin. Then you can have quick access to app info and camera without having to enter a password every time. Other than that, you probably wont use ’em. In fact, lockscreen an opportunistic developer even introduced an app in the Play Store to completely disable this functionality altogether. Good move for those that don’t use PINs.
Gesture Type Keyboard
This is another feature we’ve covered in depth in the past, and even loaded it up on a few non-Nexus devices. While it’s nice that Google is taking the effort to improve their virtual keyboard by introducing Swype-like functionality, it falls short of the same experience. Other than that, Google added enhanced next word prediction which is similar to SwiftKey, but once again, falls short in execution. Nothing to see here, folks.
Multiple User Accounts (Nexus 7, 10 only)
Daydream is Android’s new interactive screensaver. You can set it up in the display settings to start when the device is docked, charging, or both. Stock, there’s only a handful of Daydreams available that range from interactive photo galleries, to digital (or analog) clocks, Google Currents, or a nifty colorful nightlight. The best part about Daydreams are that Android developers can take advantage of them for their own apps in the Play Store (a Twitter Daydream immediately comes to mind).
Miracast Wireless Display
While at first I was excited at the prospect of having Airplay-like wireless display, Miracast is a bit more than that. It also requires additional hardware in most cases to display onto your television. Concocted by the minds at the WiFi Alliance, Miracast can wirelessly mirror the display on your device, to your television. The best part about Miracast is developers can take advantage of it to work with their own apps, displaying only specific information they deam fit. For instance, a presentation app can only display the specific image being presented, while the user sees the full gallery. Neat, huh? The only downside to Miracast is you’ll need to have a compatible television, or run out and buy some extra hardware.
So there’s definitely a lot to love when it comes to the Nexus 4 — there’s also a lot of areas where the Google phone manages to fall short. Make no mistake, the Nexus 4 isn’t the “end-all, be-all” of smartphones. That part we know. The bottom line is the Nexus 4 is a great device, made even sweeter by its more than reasonable price tag. As far as whether or not this device is for you, I feel like this phone caters to a specific group of people:
- Those who demand getting Android firmware updates the moment they’re released.
- Those with 2 generation old, single-core or Snapdragon S3 hardware (Nexus S, EVO 3D, G2X, etc).
- Those who are looking for an affordable replacement device.
- Those looking to break free from contracts and move to pre-paid GSM.
But for many who recently upgraded or are happy with their current Android device, this will be nothing more than a “pass” iteration. Even those with the Galaxy Nexus might be able to happily squeeze a few more months out of their device, and maybe even a year if they’re lucky. Other than an insane processor, there really isn’t too much here we haven’t seen already, and in some cases, other manufacturers are doing better (removable battery, better camera quality, micro SD card, USB host, MHL). When it comes to the Nexus 4, it is still very much a phone only for the die-hard Android enthusiast crowd.