Review: Nexus 5

On October 31, Google announced the long-rumored successor to the Nexus 4. The Nexus 5, once again manufactured by LG, features a 4.95in 1080p display at 446ppi (as compared to the Nexus 4’s 4.7in display at 318ppi), along with a Snapdragon 800 processor. It’s also available in a new 32GB variant. Disappointingly, it retains the same 2GB of RAM as its predecessor. It’s not that 2GB wasn’t enough for the N4 – it was. But I’ve noticed some background apps closing in situations where they wouldn’t on a Nexus 4. I don’t know if this is a KitKat issue, or if it’s because driving the larger screen just needs more memory. Regardless, it’s time for me to answer the question probably on everyone’s mind, in my first-ever hardware review (thus far I’ve only done software): Is the Nexus 5 a worthy successor to the venerable Nexus 4?

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My Nexus 5 beside its box

Value proposition of the century

The value Google offers by means of the Nexus program is truly admirable. The 16GB model starts at $350 unlocked. I paid $450 for it at Best Buy because I was tired of waiting for my Play Store order, but even then, the Best Buy reps were astounded that a phone specced as such was made available at that price. It’s also worthy of mention that the Best Buy reps claimed that the Nexus 5 only works on Sprint. It came with a Sprint SIM card, but worked just fine with my T-Mobile SIM. I had to go back to the store the next day to help my brother shop for something, and the rep that sold me the phone recognized me, at which point I pointed out that the phone indeed works with T-Mobile. You’re welcome. This isn’t the first time I’ve upstaged a Best Buy employee either, yet I somehow can’t get a job there despite having tried multiple times. I suppose I’m getting a little off-topic…

Regardless, this isn’t the first time someone’s tried offering a value phone. The Nokia Lumia 520/521 should also come to mind. It’s a bit of a different concept though. The Lumia 52x isn’t intended to compete at the high end. Due to the fact that the Windows Phone OS runs well on low-end hardware, it runs well enough, but some things (like the screen) are still lackluster. That said, $100 for a modern smartphone is a good value for what it is. Kick the concept up a notch and add Android to take advantage of top-of-the-line hardware, and you have the Nexus 5. It’s priced like a budget phone, but make no mistake: it competes at the very top. For instance, if compared spec-for-spec to “the” Android phone to beat, the Galaxy S4, the Nexus 5 is in most ways equal or superior to the much more expensive (and overrated) Samsung device.

For instance, the N5 has a Snapdragon 800 clocked at 2.29GHz, while the S4 has a Snapdragon 600 clocked at 1.9GHz. Both have 2GB RAM and screens that are (for all practical purposes) five inches at roughly the same pixel density. And I have a strong preference for the design of the Nexus 5 over that of the S4. More on that later.

Performance

Google made big promises with Android 4.4 KitKat, and chose the Nexus 5 as the device to show that off. Was that a good choice? Powered by a quad-core Snapdragon 800, the Nexus 5 indeed manages to run everything noticeably faster than the Nexus 4 did. And the N4 itself wasn’t slow by any means. I tried Asphalt 8 on it, which played flawlessly (that said, it also played on my brother’s fourth-gen iPod Touch… which didn’t well support what he led me to believe about it being the Crysis of mobile gaming). In an example that distinguishes the N5 from the N4, it also doesn’t lag at the point of the five-second alert in Dots. It did this on the N4.

Needless to say, in most cases, I’m impressed with the performance of the Nexus 5, with one gripe. It comes with the same 2GB of RAM featured in the Nexus 4. I don’t actually know if this is a fault of not having enough RAM, or if it’s a KitKat/Chrome bug, but frequently when listening to Grooveshark songs in Chrome and doing other things, the music will stop and the page will reload when I flip back to it. I’ve never had this problem previously, so it may well be a KitKat bug. That said, I can’t particularly fault Google/LG for this, since 2GB is competitive with other flagship Android devices like the Galaxy S4 and the HTC One. Plus, it’s got the benefit of not having to run bloatware UI layers on top of the OS.

As a side note, some other reviewers have claimed it has scrolling issues in apps like Chrome. The Nexus 4 did. But so far, I’ve experienced no such thing on the Nexus 5 (which is quite refreshing).

Screen

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Nexus 5 displaying Chrome. My apologies for any less-than-stellar pictures. Any pictures of the phone itself I took with my Lumia 521.

The Nexus 5’s improved screen is basically the reason why I bought it. I already had LTE unofficially, and the Nexus 4 was “fast enough.” It’s not much bigger than the screen on the Nexus 4, but the slightly-increased real estate (without increasing actual phone size – phones are the perfect size already, but if you can figure out how to make the screen bigger, great) is still much appreciated. The pixel density of the Nexus 5 is a staggering 446ppi, bested only by the HTC One. It’s great for reading, and even better for videos and gaming. I’ve never been terribly impressed with watching video on a phone screen. Until now. The slightly larger size and much higher pixel density improve things quite a bit.

Design

Nexus 5, back view

A lot of reviews that I’ve read have harped on the Nexus 5 for its design, which they claim is somehow lacking. I don’t know why. I like it. Both from an aesthetic perspective, and from a practical one. It feels amazing in hand, and looks like the smaller cousin of the Nexus 7, an incredibly sleek and professional-looking device.

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Nexus 7 (2013) next to Nexus 5

And yes, it’s a plastic device. But it’s, dare I say it, classy plastic. In most cases, I’m vehemently against plastic devices. Anything Samsung churns out both looks and feels horrible (seriously, as compared to the Galaxy S4, the Nexus 5 is a paragon of design). Even the iPhone 5C kind of looks like a toy. But the Nexus 5 feels like a thing of substance, despite being thinner and lighter than its predecessor. It feels densely packed, like a device that uses wisely every bit of space given to it.

And as a bonus, I don’t have to try so hard to only put it on soft surfaces like I had to with my Nexus 4. I like to keep my devices in pristine condition, so I would only place my N4 on cloth or paper, or in my pocket. I can set down my N5 anywhere and not worry about it.

Camera

Truth be told, I’m a perfectionist about image quality. So I’ve never owned a phone with a camera I’m actually happy with. But I’m a perfectionist about other things as well, meaning the only phones with cameras I’d be happy with (high-end Lumias, basically) would require sacrifices I’m unwilling to make, namely being saddled with the hardware and software limitations of the still-immature Windows Phone platform (that said, it has many of the same limitations as the already-mature iOS platform, so it may never grow out of them). So I basically put up with cameras that aren’t particularly wonderful in order to have an otherwise-perfect phone. That said, at least the camera is better than that of the Nexus 4.

Click on the samples for a full-size view.

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A picture of part of my desk. Yes, I need to clean that up. =/

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A picture of the same area, but in (even) less light than usual.

 

An image of my car. Yes, I need to wash that.

 

Another image taken outside, this time with better light.

 

One more, taken outside.

Needless to say, I have no pretense of being a professional photographer. But these photos should do a decent job of demonstrating the Nexus 5’s camera in a range of settings. The photos are passable, but far short of crystal clear. Maybe someday there will exist a Nexus device with a good camera. Today is not that day. The results are far from bad, but not particularly great either.

Miscellanea

The Nexus 5 also (officially) features a LTE radio. This is nothing new to me, as one could always enable it unofficially on the Nexus 4. But it’s nice to not have to do so every time I reboot the device. I’ve been speed testing the LTE in various places around town, and I’ve never managed to get the 20+Mbps result I got with my N4 once, but I probably got lucky that time. While on the topic of cellular radios, as I suggested earlier, the Nexus 5 is compatible with CDMA networks. Or to be specific, it’s compatible with Sprint. So if you’re a customer of the largest carrier in the United States (Verizon), you’re out of luck thanks to Verizon, Google, and their childish bickering.

I also applaud Google for offering a 32GB variant of the device this time around. I have the 16GB model due to presently being on a slightly-restricted budget, but it’s good to know that Google isn’t trying to shoehorn everyone into their asinine “cloud” vision after all. I really do wish they’d allow an SD card slot though. I’ve got a 32GB one sitting around that I don’t get much use out of.

Conclusion

The Nexus 5 is an upgrade to the Nexus 4 in almost all regards. It’s faster, has a gorgeous screen, (finally) has (official) LTE, and has a design that is (at least in my opinion – I’ve learned that the best way to find out what hell on earth is like is to try to convince people that design sensibilities are objective) substantially better than that of the Nexus 4, which wasn’t particularly ugly to begin with. The camera is improved but could still use more improvement, and that’s my only real complaint about the device, and forgivable because it’s only $350. The Nexus 5 isn’t quite the perfect phone, but it’s close. Dare I say it, it’s the best you can get right now. And it’s far better than one could reasonably expect for that price tag. Did I mention that it runs stock Android and comes fully carrier- and bootloader-unlocked?

Final score

9/10

 

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