Nexus 5 deep-dive review: Does Google's new flagship phone deliver?

Google's Nexus 5 offers a high-end Android experience at a low unlocked price -- but is it worth owning?

By , Computerworld |  Mobile & Wireless, android phones, Google

Nexus devices fill an interesting space in the Android ecosystem. They're made with close involvement by Google and designed to showcase the company's unmodified Android software. They get OS updates directly from Google with little to no delay. And they're sold directly from Google, unlocked, at off-contract prices that are practically impossible for most manufacturers to match.

Nexus 5

It's no wonder, then, that Google's new Nexus 5 slipped into backordered status within minutes of its launch. The Nexus 5 -- built by LG and available now for $349 to $399 (with a three- to five-week shipping delay as of this writing) -- is the first phone to run Google's new Android 4.4 KitKat operating system. And it has the kind of hardware that'd typically cost you a minimum of 600 bucks if you bought it without a carrier subsidy.

(You can, by the way, opt to buy the Nexus 5 in a more traditional carrier-based manner -- Sprint is selling the phone for $50 with a two-year contract and T-Mobile will start selling it later this week for $42 down and a two-year $17/mo. payment plan -- but most users will end up paying significantly less in the long run by buying it unlocked and going with an off-contract setup.)

So, value aside, what's the Nexus 5 like to use in the real world -- and is it an Android phone worth owning? I've been living with the device for more than a week. Here's what I've discovered.

Body and design

The Nexus 5 is actually pretty close in size to last year's Nexus 4 flagship: The phone, at 2.7 x 5.4 x 0.34 in., is just a hair longer and a touch thinner than its predecessor. At a glance, those differences are hard to detect.

What you do notice when holding the device is that the new Nexus feels meaningfully lighter in the hand than its older sibling. Part of that is due to its weight -- the Nexus 5 is 4.6 oz. compared to the Nexus 4's 4.9-oz. frame -- but part of it also relates to the way the phone was designed.

The Nexus 5 leaves behind the glass casing from last year's model and instead goes with a plastic-based body. Between that and the lack of metallic-colored accents, the phone does have a less premium look than the Nexus 4 -- it's not exactly what you'd call a striking device. However, it doesn't seem cheap, just very understated.

The back of the Nexus 5 uses a soft-touch rubberized plastic that's reminiscent of this year's Nexus 7 tablet, all the way down to the vertical etched Nexus logo. Though it's a bit of a finger-grease magnet, the material has a warmer and less slippery feel than the Nexus 4's glass and will presumably also be less fragile and prone to scratching. All in all, the Nexus 5 may be less distinctive-looking than its predecessor, but it's also more comfortable.

Even so, when I hold the two phones side by side, I can't help but think that the Nexus 5 seems less thoughtfully designed than last year's device. While the Nexus 4 is all rounded edges and smooth surfaces, the Nexus 5 has several areas that are surprisingly sharp. Its buttons, for instance -- a volume rocker on its left edge and power button on its right -- are ceramic, which sounds nice enough. But their edges are harsh and feel rough to the touch. The same goes for the prominently raised camera lens on the phone's back, which also has the perplexing effect of preventing the device from laying evenly on a surface.

Android 4.4 KitKat: A visual tour

The latest version of Google's operating system offers a lot of new features for Android fans to try out. For a quick tour of the platform's highlights, check out our slideshow highlighting the most interesting and useful.

Then there's the design of the display: While the Nexus 4 had a carefully curved screen that sloped subtly at its sides -- designed to optimize the surface for the horizontal swipe gestures used throughout Android -- the Nexus 5 has a flat screen with a sharp-feeling edge created by the surrounding material. We're talking subtle touches, but the attention to user-experience-focused detail put into the Nexus 4 just isn't as apparent on this new phone.

The Nexus 5 is available in both black and white. In addition to the obvious color differences, the white version has a glossy plastic finish on its perimeter instead of the soft-touch matte material used on the black device.

Display, speaker and ports

Enough about design: Let's get onto the display. The Nexus 5 has a 4.95-in. 1080p IPS LCD display that takes up the majority of its face -- and with a whopping 445 pixels per inch, the Gorilla Glass 3-protected screen is every bit as gorgeous as you'd expect.

The Nexus 5's display is bright with rich and brilliant colors, crisp text and excellent viewing angles -- a huge step up from the comparatively washed out 4.7-in. 720p screen on the Nexus 4. Like with most LCD displays, blacks on the Nexus 5's screen are less deep than what you'll see on an AMOLED-based panel -- but on the other hand, whites are noticeably more pure-looking, and the screen remains easy to see even in direct sunlight, an area where AMOLED screens tend to struggle.

My only beef with the Nexus 5's display is its auto-brightness mode, which has been pretty erratic in my experience. The screen will sometimes ramp up to full brightness for no apparent reason while I'm sitting in a dim room, then dial back down to a more reasonable level a few minutes later. In general, it seems to stay too bright most of the time. Hopefully this is something Google can address in a future software update.

The Nexus 5 has a cut-out earpiece centered above the display and a camera lens to the left of that. The bottom bezel holds a multicolored LED indicator that lights up to alert you of missed calls, new messages and other notifications. You can customize how and when it works by installing a free third-party app called Light Flow.

The phone has two grilles on its bottom edge, though only one is directly related to the speaker; the other apparently holds the device's microphone. The speaker's sound quality isn't great: Music played through the phone is somewhat tinny, as is the case with the majority of smartphone speakers, and the volume cap is fairly low.

That being said, the Nexus 5's speaker is absolutely an improvement over the Nexus 4's, both in sound quality and placement. Its audio is noticeably less good than what you'll hear through the Moto X, however, and not even close to the outstanding audio delivered by the HTC One.

As far as ports, the new Nexus has a 3.5mm headphone jack on its top edge, a micro-SIM card slot on its right edge and a micro-USB port on its bottom edge (centered between the two aforementioned grilles). The micro-USB port doubles as an HDMI-out port with the aid of a SlimPort adapter.

Performance and storage

The Nexus 5 runs a 2.26GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor along with 2GB of RAM. Translated from geek-speak, that means the phone is fast -- really fast.

The Nexus 5 handles anything you throw its way. Loading and switching apps is practically instantaneous, Web browsing is smooth and speedy, and swiping through home screens is swift and stutter-free. There's really not much to complain about when it comes to this phone's performance.

I must add, though, that we're reaching the point where high-end phone performance is (or at least should be) reliably good. That doesn't make the Nexus 5's horsepower any less impressive, but in terms of most real-world use, we're talking about a small noticeable difference between it and other high-end devices -- including last year's Nexus 4. Most modern smartphones are more than fast enough for our needs, and that's a good thing.

The Nexus 5 has a nonremovable 2300mAh battery. I was initially concerned about the phone's stamina: On my first couple of days with the device, the battery drained rather quickly and I hit the empty mark by late evening.

Since then, however, things seem to have settled out and the phone is now consistently okay -- though not exemplary -- in its real-world endurance. Results vary based on my day-to-day activity, but with a moderately heavy mix of scattered Web browsing, social media use, video streaming and voice calls, I'm generally able to get around 13 hours of up-time with 3 to 3.5 hours of screen-on time per charge. The phone still isn't going to win any awards for its battery life, but for most users, it should be able to make it through a typical day.

The Nexus 5 comes with either 16GB or 32GB of internal storage space, depending on whether you buy the $349 or $399 model. Just over 4GB of that space is taken up by the operating system and various preinstalled software, leaving you with roughly 12GB or 28GB of usable space. The phone does not have a microSD card slot for external storage expansion.

Carriers and connectivity

Compared to most carrier-connected phones, the Nexus 5 is a bit unusual in its network-agnostic setup. All models of the phone are compatible with any GSM network -- meaning AT&T or T-Mobile in the U.S. -- as well as with the CDMA technology Sprint employs. Verizon is the only major U.S. carrier that doesn't allow the phone to operate on its network.

The benefit of that setup is that you can purchase the phone unlocked directly from Google and use it wherever you want -- including with a variety of prepaid providers, many of whom offer service comparable to what you'd get on a postpaid plan for as little as $30 to $45 a month. Such an arrangement can save you hundreds of dollars a year compared to what you'd pay with a traditional contract-based configuration, and Google's unusually low unlocked price makes it quite reasonable to consider.

On the data front, the Nexus 5 has full support for all U.S. LTE and HSPA+ 4G networks. I've been using the phone with my own personal T-Mobile prepaid SIM and have been getting data speeds consistent with what I expect in my area (I don't have reliable T-Mobile LTE coverage at my house yet, so I usually end up defaulting to the carrier's HSPA+ network; my download speeds lately have been around the 12 Mbps mark).

Voice calls on the phone have been fine for me; I've been able to hear people loud and clear, and those with whom I've spoken have reported hearing me with zero distortion.

The Nexus 5 supports near-field communication (NFC) for mobile payments and contact-free data transfers. Thanks to a new system called Host Card Emulation, payment services like Google Wallet will now work regardless of what carrier you use; previously, certain carriers had blocked such services due to a special type of system access they required.

The Nexus 5 supports the Qi wireless charging standard and will work with any standard Qi-based charger. I tested the phone with the Nexus 4 Wireless Charger and had no problems.

Cameras

Google's Nexus phones have never been known for having stellar cameras. While the Nexus 5 still isn't going to be a phone you buy explicitly for its imaging performance, the good news is that the camera is a marked improvement over past Nexus devices and is capable of capturing some commendable images.

The phone's rear-facing camera is an 8-megapixel shooter with optical image stabilization to help keep shots steady. In addition, the Nexus 5 features a new HDR+ mode that snaps multiple images at different exposures and then instantly stitches them together to create more vivid and finely detailed results.

Without HDR+ mode on, the phone's photos have been hit and miss for me: Most shots I've captured have been decent and some have actually been quite good, including those in low-light conditions. Others, however, have looked a little lackluster and washed out (though nothing a quick after-the-fact software-based enhancement couldn't fix -- something the Nexus 5 makes easy to do).

Switching on HDR+ mode makes a world of difference: With that mode activated, photos look crisp and brilliant. When viewed zoomed in at their full resolution, I can often detect areas of noise in the images -- especially in the out-of-focus background portions of the shots -- but with typical uses like online sharing and regular-sized printing, that generally isn't going to be noticeable.

(I assembled a large gallery of photos taken on the Nexus 5, including several direct HDR+ and non-HDR+ comparisons, if you want to see some images and judge for yourself.)

One nagging issue with the Nexus 5's camera is that it's curiously slow; even without HDR+ mode enabled, the phone frequently takes a second or two too long to lock in on a subject and snap the photo. Another problem is that the camera sometimes struggles to capture moving objects without showing motion blur (which, to be fair, is a common issue with many current smartphone cameras). Representatives from Google tell me a software update is in the works that should address some of these shortcomings.

The stock Android camera interface is also starting to feel a little stale compared to what we're used to seeing on smartphones these days. The controls -- everything from options for activating the flash and HDR+ to settings for picture size, white balance, and scene-specific enhancements -- live in a multi-level semicircle menu that's tricky to navigate. There's also no burst mode for capturing multiple images in a rapid-fire style.

The stock Android camera interface lives in a multi-level semicircle menu.

The camera app does, however, offer easy-to-use tools for capturing panoramic images and Photo Spheres -- Google's term for interactive 360-degree images. Those are both nice touches.

The Nexus 5 is capable of recording 1080p-quality HD video. The phone also allows you to snap a still image while recording by tapping anywhere on the screen, which is handy.

In addition to its main camera, the N5 includes a 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera with 720p-quality HD video for all of your selfie-snapping and video chatting needs.

Android 4.4 KitKat

As mentioned earlier, the Nexus 5 runs the latest version of Google's Android operating system -- the brand new Android 4.4 KitKat release.

At a glance, KitKat is pretty similar to the preceding Jelly Bean Android platform, but there are quite a few new elements both visually and under the hood. Some of them add polish and fresh functionality to the platform, while others feel like backwards steps from the focus and simplicity Android has achieved over its past several releases.

(It's worth noting that Google has said some of KitKat's elements will remain exclusive to the Nexus 5, for now at least -- an unusual and slightly mystifying move. For the purposes of this review, I'll be focusing on the software as it appears on this phone.)

The biggest visual change in KitKat is its lighter all-around look: The top-of-screen status bar and bottom-of-screen virtual buttons are now translucent (on the home screen, anyway; they default back to black in most other places). Icons are larger and fonts have a thinner, crisper appearance. Most of the blue accents throughout the OS are also gone and replaced with white highlights.

The result is a cleaner and more minimalist -- if somewhat more anonymous -- feel to Android. It's an evolution that's consistent with Google's ongoing move toward minimalism in its product designs; little by little, Android is starting to feel more like a Google product and less like its own island within the Google universe.

There are other signs of increased Google presence on the Nexus 5: Google Now, the company's oft-acclaimed intelligent assistant, now lives on its own dedicated panel on the home screen; swipe over one spot from your left-most panel and it's there. You can still swipe up from the bottom-of-screen virtual buttons to get to it, as you've always been able to do, but that shortcut now takes you to the Google Now home screen panel instead of a standalone app.

The tighter integration of Google Now into the OS makes sense from a discoverability perspective: The swipe-up shortcut was a result of Now being tacked onto an existing operating system instead of being integrated into the software from the start. Its new placement makes it a more integral part of the platform and consequently makes it harder to overlook, particularly for less experienced users -- and that seems smart.

Google Now, the company's oft-acclaimed intelligent assistant, now lives on its own dedicated panel on the home screen.

For users more accustomed to the platform, however, the particulars of the implementation present some peculiarities. First, there's an odd level of redundancy in being able to swipe up or swipe over to perform the same action. And more significant, the panel next to Google Now -- the left-most panel you're able to customize and control -- is permanently set to be the default panel that pops up when you press the Home button. That means if you use more than two home screen panels, you now have to swipe farther to get to some of your content due to the noncentered starting position. That makes for a lopsided and awkward workflow.

(You can disable Google Now entirely, which will remove it from your home screen -- but that doesn't change the default panel position; the only way to accomplish that is to use a third-party launcher instead of the stock Google experience.)

It's probably no coincidence that KitKat gives you just two home screen panels to start. You can expand and add as many additional panels as you like, however, and doing so couldn't be easier: You just drag a shortcut or widget past the right-most panel and the system automatically creates a new panel for you. Conversely, when you drag all the content off of a panel, the system automatically takes the panel away. In another new twist, the system allows you to rearrange the order of your panels by long-pressing anywhere on the home screen.

Widgets, puzzlingly, are also now accessible by long-pressing the home screen, which is a step back to how things were done in the 2.3 era of Android. Google moved widgets out of a long-press menu and into a unified app drawer with Android 4.0 two years ago; the goal then was to simplify the operating system by eliminating hidden functions and making UI elements easier to discover.

Reversing that shift with KitKat strikes me as a strange regression. While the app drawer does look cleaner without the presence of a dedicated widgets section, the widgets are back in a place that's less visible and less immediately logical for users to discover. It's easy enough to get used to -- and long-time Android users likely won't mind the change -- but I'm not sure I understand the rationalization behind the move and worry it could hurt discoverability.

Equally baffling is the placement of a new Settings shortcut within the home screen's long-press section. At first, it just seems redundant, since there's already a Settings shortcut within the top-of-screen notification panel (as is the norm for Android). Once you press it, though, you realize this Settings shortcut takes you to the settings for Google Now -- settings that are also accessible within Google Now itself -- which just doesn't make sense.

Some other highlights of KitKat, as seen on the Nexus 5:

You can now activate the system's Voice Search tool simply by saying "Okay, Google" while on the home screen and then asking a question or issuing a command. It's kind of like the Touchless Control feature on the Moto X, except it works here only when the display is on and you're actively on the home screen, which makes it considerably less useful.

The Phone application has been overhauled and now allows you to search both your own contacts and nearby businesses simultaneously. It also taps into Google Search to provide caller ID info, as available, for incoming calls from unknown numbers.

The added functionality is fantastic, though in terms of UI, the actual dialer pad is now an extra touch away; for such a core function of the phone, I fear that the out-of-the-way placement could cause confusion among less savvy users. (I cringe to think of my parents opening the Phone app and trying to figure out how to make a call; even my wife stared at the screen for several seconds and then asked me what she was supposed to do.)

The Hangouts app now handles all SMS and MMS duties in addition to serving as its own cross-platform chat client. The unified approach to messaging is a step in the right direction, but there's still work to be done to make it a great experience. SMS threads are currently kept separate from regular Hangout chats, for instance, even when the conversations are with the same person.

The app's interface is also a bit busy and may bewilder casual users who are just looking to send a basic text. And the VoIP calling functionality recently introduced into the iOS equivalent is conspicuously missing in action; Google tells me it currently has nothing to announce on that front.

The Email app -- used for non-Gmail accounts -- has gotten a long overdue refresh and now looks and acts just like the Gmail app. This is a major improvement for anyone who relies on regular IMAP-based mail.

Wireless printing is now built in at the OS level, so any app can allow you to print directly to services like Google Cloud Print and HP ePrint with little setup or effort on your behalf.

Cloud storage is more natively integrated into the system, which makes it easier to deal with remotely stored files from any app or service.

The native photo editor in the Gallery app now allows you to edit images nondestructively -- meaning you can make manipulations and then save a new image instead of overwriting the original. It also has a handful of new frames, filters and other tools available.

There's some confusing overlap with the new Photos app, however, which ties into Google+ and shares much of the same functionality as the Gallery (including the ability to view and edit locally stored images). I'm not quite sure why the two haven't been combined.

The Nexus 5 ships with the now-Google-owned Quickoffice application and with Google's own Google Drive office suite -- again resulting in confusing overlap. One way or another, these two apps really need to be merged into one.

There's much more to KitKat in terms of both form and functionality. For a detailed rundown of all the software's key facets, see the second half of my Android 4.4 KitKat FAQ.

Bottom line

The Nexus 5 represents Google's vision for the future of Android. Unfortunately, that vision seems a little less focused now than it's been with past Android and thus Nexus releases.

At a Glance

Nexus 5

LGPrice: $349 (16GB) or $399 (32GB), unlocked; $50 at Sprint with a two-year contractPros: Excellent 1080p display; outstanding performance; light and comfortable design; supports wireless charging; will receive future OS upgrades directly from Google; unmatched off-contract valueCons: Unexceptional battery life; inconsistent camera performance; mediocre speaker; less premium appearance than other phones; no microSD card slot; Android 4.4 software less focused than previous releases

Still, the Nexus 5 has plenty of compelling qualities. The phone has a superb 1080p display surrounded by a light and comfortable body; it provides near-flawless performance; and it will get future OS upgrades directly from Google with none of the delays or uncertainties that accompany most Android devices.

The Nexus 5 may not have the best camera or the longest battery life on the market, but it provides an admirable overall user experience -- and when you consider its $349 off-contract price, it's easy to forgive its shortcomings and focus on its strengths.

JR Raphael is a Computerworld contributing editor and the author of the Android Power blog. For more Android tips and insights, follow him on Google+, Twitter, or Facebook.

This article, Nexus 5 deep-dive review: Does Google's new flagship phone deliver?, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Read more about smartphones in Computerworld's Smartphones Topic Center.

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