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?

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.

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