The Nexus line of smartphones is quite unique in the world of tech. It has the feverish following of thousands of fans, not unlike its chief rival from Apple, and is awaited with bated breath every fall for the past few years. Some get it for the promise of swift updates to the latest versions of Android while others for the undeniable value it presents as an off-contract device. Surprisingly, for many reasons out of our control, this is Android Bugle's first look at a Nexus device but boy did we pick a great one to start off with. This is our full review of the Google Nexus 5.
For those unfamiliar with Nexus program, here's a quick rundown. Google picks a SoC manufacturer, then a hardware manufacturer and then collaborates on the vessel for the latest version of their crown jewel, Android. This year, for the second year running, LG receives the honors of building the latest Nexus device.
Earlier Nexus devices were all spinoffs of another handset in the OEM's portfolio of devices. The Nexus One was a slightly modified version of the venerable HTC Desire, the Nexus S was a modified version of the Original Samsung Galaxy S, Galaxy Nexus drew a lot of comparisons to the Samsung Galaxy S II and finally the Nexus 4 was based off of LG's own Optimus G.
This year is no different with LG doing a similar treatment to their late 2013 flagship the LG G2. However, side by side, isn't immediately easy to see the similarities. Where the G2 uses a glossy polycarbonate, the Nexus 5 (at least the black version) is more of a matte finish all around. In our opinion, this already puts it above the G2 in terms of overall build quality.
On the top and bottom of the device, the phone is curved ever so slightly. The back, as already mentioned, has the Nexus branding, a tastefully small LG logo and is covered in a matte plastic finish that feels reassuring and nice in the hand. The sides of the Nexus 5 have some width to it unlike the crop of phones with heavily tapered edges. This allows for more surface area with which to hold the phone. Depending on whether you have the white or black version, the sides will be glossy for the former and matte for the latter.
Overall, the Nexus 5 felt like an understated but yet premium device. In some way like the Moto X, the Nexus 5 shows that plastic doesn't automatically mean cheap. The overall design of the Nexus 5 is rather subdued from face value, but does a good job defining its lineage with the not so subtle Nexus branding. Considering the $350 price tag of the Nexus 5, there is no doubt that the Nexus 5 is the gold standard for build quality for phones in this price segment.
When we laid our eyes on the screen of the G2, we couldn't believe how good the display looked. To say this made us incredibly eager to see the display of the Nexus 5 would be an understatement. According to information from Brian Klug from AnandTech the display on the Nexus 5 is very similar to that of the HTC One. While this is by all means a good thing, it's a bit of a surprise given that the G2 is widely considered to be a better display.
Nevertheless, we still loved the display on the Nexus 5. It had great viewing angles, excellent sharpness with its 441DPI display and good contrast. Colors weren't as vibrant as we've seen on other phones but isn't anything to be concerned about as you'd be hard-pressed to see the difference without putting it side by side with a display like that on the G2.
Although, again making reference to Brian Klug's analysis of the display in his review at AnandTech, the Nexus 5 has the best color calibration of any Android smartphone he's tested to date and attributes the "undersaturation" of the screen by other reviews to the idea that we have become accustomed to such vibrant colors on our displays that it is almost expected despite being technically innacurate.
In any case, the display on the Nexus 5 will most certainly not disappoint the vast majority of people considering the device. We found it to be a gorgeous display and if this is where screens at the $350 price point are headed, Android smartphones have a bright future ahead of them (pardon the pun).
The buttons on the G2 caused quite a stir when they were first leaked and then finally officially unveiled. While the jury is still out on whether rear mounted buttons are the way to go, the Nexus 5 doesn't take the bold risk of going with rear mounted buttons and instead opts for the more traditional side mounted buttons. But of course for the sake of trying something new the Nexus 5's buttons aren't exactly your average buttons either.
They are in fact made of ceramic, a material that has for a long time been the subject of rumors as the material of choice for unannounced handsets. Of course this hasn’t materialized just yet, but this is the first time a manufacturer does utilize with the material for their device, as far as we know.
To be quite frank we aren't sure that there is all that much to be gained from a utilitarian point of view. We didn't feel that the ceramic had any influence at all on the way we interacted with the buttons and if our understanding of ceramics is correct they have about equivalent tensile strength to most plastics.
Nevertheless, we did find both the power and volume rocker buttons to be quite distinguishable without looking and were placed in easy to reach locations. We can't confirm whether our review unit was one of the newer versions outfitted with better fitting buttons but they most certainly didn't have the customary wobble that comes with buttons that don’t fit snug in its designated chassis cutout.
As far as navigation buttons are concerned, sine this is a Nexus device, you find the expected Back, Home and Multitasking buttons rendered on screen. While we do have our reservations about on screen buttons vs capacitive buttons vs hardware buttons it ultimately boils down to personal preference.
On paper the Nexus 5 looks like it would be an absolutely anemic experience as far as battery life was concerned with its 2300mAh battery. The fact that it's close relative, the LG G2, had a 3000mAh and virtually the same specs made us vary weary of the prospect of good battery life on the much smaller battery.
Fortunately this didn't turn out to be the case. The Nexus 5 got us through the day on pretty moderate use, but it definitely felt like we were throttling closer to depleting the battery than on the G2 or Note 3. If you are looking for a phone with battery life that goes on longer than a day you might not be too happy with the Nexus 5.
We do wish that LG somehow got the G2's pyramidal stacked 3D battery in to the Nexus 5 but for whatever reason (design constraints, manufacturing costs, etc.) this isn't the case. For most people who charge nightly it shouldn't be an issue so we place it in squarely in the average segment of smartphones when it comes to battery life.
If you've read our G2 review you'll find these specs very familiar as its practically identical to that of the current 2013-2014 LG flagship.
- 2.26 GHz Qualcomm Quad Core Snapdragon 800 CPU
- 2GB of RAM
- 16/32GB of Internal Storage
- Adreno 330 Graphic processor
- 4G LTE and Dual-HSPA+ capable chipset
- WiFi b/g/n
- 8 MP camera and 1080p video recording capabilities
- NFC (Near Field Communication)
- Qi wireless charging capabilities
Just like on the G2, the Nexus 5 was an absolutely silky smooth experience from run of the mill OS navigation, to App launching/switching, to browsing, to 1080p HD playback and intensive 3D gaming. There literally was not a thing we could throw at the Nexus 5 that could slow down the device.
In synthetic benchmarks the numbers aren't as high as on the G2 despite having identical hardware for a simple reason. In recent light of investigation done by several publications, it's been revealed that just about every Android smartphone manufacturers has been rigging the results of benchmarking software.
This isn't a new occurrence, as Graphics Card manufacturers in the PC world have been doing this for years. One big difference in mobile is that SoCs are "throttled" meaning they are running slower than their top rated clock speed, for battery life and heat constraints.
To get around that OEMs have been putting in code to detect when a benchmark app is running and temporarily removes the thermal throttling on the SoCs while the app is running to boost benchmark scores. This means phones that don't lift the throttling (like the Nexus 5) are at a disadvantage.
However, for those who insist on still having Benchmark scores, the Nexus 5 scored 9500 on Quadrant a far cry from the 20000 on the G2, 25000 in Antutu which is quite close to the G2's score of 30000 and finally 17000 on 3DMark which is what the G2 was able to obtain.
If there is any lesson to draw here is that benchmarks can be rigged and that there shouldn't be too much of an investment into the numbers being pumped out and that the end experience on the Nexus 5 was as good if not better than the G2. Longevity of the Nexus 5 will not be a doubt as its sporting the best hardware we've seen on Nexus device to date and has the added benefit of having guaranteed updates.
LTE 4G Capabilities
When the Nexus 4 was announce and subsequently released, there was one glaring omission that unfortunately was a dealbreaker for many people and that was the distinct lack (out of the box) of 4G LTE support. While this was alleviated (somewhat) by the fact that the Nexus did in fact have the necessary hardware to harness 4G LTE connectivity and was a simple software setting away it doesn't change the fact that for most people wouldn't be able to use the Nexus 4 with LTE speeds.
This all changed with the Nexus 5, and while it isn't the first Nexus phone to support LTE connectivity, that honour goes to the much maligned Verizon Galaxy Nexus, it's the first to ship with LTE capabilities on all handsets sold regardless of region. Our Nexus 5 was supplied to us by TELUS so naturally our speedtest results will reflect the experience on TELUS in Montreal and it was quite positive.
Like on the LG G2 we found speed of the Nexus 5 to be satisfyingly fast and very consistent. While they might not be the fastest speeds, we seldom found speeds dipping below 35 mbps and never below 30 mbps in various places in Montreal where other carriers would see LTE speeds drop to the 10-15 mbps range. As usual, this experience is limited to the Greater Montreal area and results will vary on carrier signal strength in your area.
Speaker and microphone
Like on the G2 the earpiece and microphone performance of the Nexus 5 was par for what one would expect from a flagship Android smartphone. Also just like on the G2, the external speaker for conference calls and media consumption was pretty dreadful. Recent updates and tweaks can and have improved the quality a bit but really the sounds is quite woeful compared to leaders like the HTC One/One Mini.
While this is our first official review of a Nexus device, you need not search long to see that Nexus devices have historically done pretty poorly in the camera department. This is a stark contrast to Apple's iPhone, or Nokia's PureImage equipped phones or just about every other Android OEM, including the very same ones that manufacture the Nexus devices.
We saw a plethora of improvements to cameras across the board, from improved low light to mind blowing 41MP sensors camera performance was a huge selling point for many flagship devices. Sadly for the Nexus 5, it shipped with a dud camera (keyword is shipped as we get into later). Many had hoped that since it was going to be so closely related to the G2 in hardware it would also inherit the phenomenal camera that came with it.
This isn't the case as the Nexus 5 instead ships with an 8MP camera but thankfully keeps Optical Image Stabilization. While Megapixel count is all the rage for people to judge on a camera's performance, most people know that it simply isn’t the best way to judge the quality of a camera. On the Nexus 5, it just happens that Google struck a balance between pixel size and resolution. Where HTC went all in on pixel size, Nokia went all in on resolution with vastly different results. The Nexus 5 finds a good balance.
What really hurt the Nexus 5's performance in stills was the software that it shipped with at launch. Not unlike the Pre-updated Moto X camera software, the Android 4.4 stock camera was inexplicably producing poorer pictures than the hardware should have been producing based on specs. This is without mentioning that it was quite a bit of difficulty getting the right focus. Thankfully, the 4.4.1 update brought significant improvements to the quality of the stills, but on the other hand we still find that the camera of the Nexus 5 to be over simplified.
At the end of the day, once updated to the latest software (which is easy given that it is a Nexus device after all) stills quality is passable with decent color, good sharpness and pretty good low light performance and will probably be satisfactory to most prospective buyers. But to power users expecting the type of still produced by phones like the LG G2, iPhone 5S or Nokia Lumia 1020 we can't recommend the Nexus 5.
As far as video is concerned, 1080p quality was certainly good. In comparison to other flagships we found video recording to be about on par and better in some cases thanks to the Optical Image Stabilization. Videos came out clear, and sharp with minimal motion blur despite recording at 30fps.
SoftwarePure Android 4.4.2
With Android 4.4, Google looked to bring tweaks to and already solid base in Android 4.3. Since it isn't Android 5.0 as most media outlets had been reporting, KitKat is more of an incremental update than a huge overhaul of the mobile OS.
In terms of design, Android 4.0+ was a coming of age for Android with a unified design language that many referred to as the "Holo" theme. With KitKat, Google steps away slightly from the "Tron"-ish color schemes of dark hues and electric blue in favor of soft transparent gradients and white as the choice of base color.
This brightening is found across the entire UI, from the now persistently white icons in the notification bar, to the white background for many of Google's core apps. This is really the first time that we can see not only a cohesive design language across the most prominent parts of the OS but even into the apps we might not see as often like the Downloads manager.
Stock Android now looks less like a nerdy (but polished) science experient, and more like the fully matured OS that we know and love. To make a really bad analogy, Android 4.4 KitKat is like the fresh out of college grad who is now settling into his new job and embracing adulthood by changing things up with a new mature looking wardrobe.
Of course not all the changes are superficial, as the Nexus 5's launcher bring a totally new experience to the table. While this is a big visual change, it is equally or even more so a functional change as Google Now takes a more prominent role in the Android experience by finding its way to the left most homescreen.
Swiping all the way left from the homescreen brings up Google Now much like the swipe up from the home button did, and still does. It also happens to carry a new trick in tow as it mimics the Moto X's "always listening" capabilities by answering to the familiar voice command "OK, Google" that we saw on the Motorola flagship. Unlike the Moto X however, this can only be triggered when on the homescreen, meaning that Touchless controls aren't present on the Nexus 5.
Finally the last biggest change in the launch is in the app drawer itself. Gone is are the tabs separating apps from widgets and in is a clean 5x4 grid of icons sorted in alphabetical order and paginated horizontally. We never really understood the idea of grouping widgets with apps in the App drawer so this is a welcome change. This also means that widgets are now back to their original pre-ICS location, behind a revamped homescreen longpress menu.
In a move that leaves us scratching our heads, Google has decided that this new "Google Experience Launcher" is exclusive to the Nexus 5. The Nexus line is, for the most part, a symbol of unity and forward progress for the platform and the idea of a feature being "exclusive" to the Nexus 5 just doesn't ring well to us. Nevertheless, the "GEL" could make it to other Nexus devices or even the Google Play Edition devices someday, but that's all in the hands of Google.
While Google Now is a rather new Mobile Experience, SMS and MMS are not but in previous versions of Android, the stock Messaging app was rather bland, especially compared to iOS's iMessage offering. Google does seems to want to address this by not only adding SMS and MMS support into hangouts, as well as adding SMS and MMS specific APIs to Android but goes on to make Hangouts the default messaging application on the Nexus 5.
While this is all and well, the end execution is pretty typical of Google, as it seems to have the potential but feels a tad half-baked and very beta. While support for SMS and MMS is undoubtedly there, it's not the seamless experience we had hoped for. In messages from contacts you can either see messages from Hangout or SMS/MMS but not both on the same thread of messages. We aren't sure how Google will go about approaching this in future updates but for now we are a bit lukewarm on its current implementation.
Since SMS and MMS got some attention, its only natural and fitting that the Dialer get a bit of love as well. Here improvements to the dialer are a bit more subtle but have a significant impact on what is more or less the same phone experience we've known from feature phones of old.
By leveraging the tons of data the Google has on local businesses, you can now turn your phone dialer in to a "smart yellow pages". Just look up a business or service as you would in the Search app and the new dialer shows a listing of possible places to contact as well as contextual photos to go with the entries as you look through them. This also works in reverse where if a business that is listed in Google's databases give you a call on your Nexus 5, the dialer displays contextual information.
Those are the major changes that will likely impact the largest amount of users, but there are other additions that are important but target different groups of people. For power users, QuickOffice is now preloaded which is natural after their acquisition by Google last year. NFC has been updated to be able to emulate the secure element that is required to make wireless payments, although they face an uphill battle of adoption in Canada where carriers will probably want a cut of the action.
Overall, this is a nice set of changes that will eventually trickle down to other users as older phones get updated to Android 4.4 and newer flagships ship with KitKat.
Reviewing the Nexus 5 was an interesting experience. Having only previously dealt with non-Nexus devices, it's quite obvious to that the Nexus line has a distinct focus on software over hardware. While this seemed obvious from second hand knowledge it's something to be experienced to fully understand. While we don't expect that to change overnight, there are glints of hope that Google will bring (or at least demand from the OEM) the hardware up to the same level of detail and attention that is found in the software as this is the most cutting edge we've ever seen in a Nexus device.
With this the Nexus 5 finds itself in an interesting spot. Do we think it has the best hardware? No, but it's damn close to the best. Does it have the most/best features? To power users who want clean unadulterated Android, yes but to the masses maybe not. Is it the best value on the market for $350? Without a shadow of a doubt.
Ultimately, the Nexus 5 is easily the best $350 smartphone ($50 on contract depending on the carrier) you can buy period and really you can make a solid case for it to be considered the best Android smartphone out there. The mix of guaranteed updates to the latest software, excellent internal hardware, a decent camera and decent battery life make the Nexus 5 the defacto choice for people who just want a good all-around experience.
Overall Appearance: 9/10
- Understated design, solid construction and decent ergonomics
- Fantastic 1080p Display, falls short of G2
- Solid ceramic buttons, the original (and arguably best) Software navigation keys implementation
Internal Hardware: 10/10
- Lightning fast hardware, silky smooth performance, good LTE speeds
Battery Life: 7.5/10
- Pedestrian 2300mAh battery on paper, surprisingly decent battery life but falls short of the 3000+mAh batteries in competing devices
Speaker and Microphone: 8/10
- Good call quality in earpiece and microphone. Loudspeaker was anything but loud
- Less than stellar camera quality, software still needs work, still were average video was good
UI Changes: 10/10
- Stock Android, need there be more to be said? Changes to Android UI in 4.4 both functional and tighter in terms of aesthetics
Addition Enhancements: 8/10
- Google Experience Launcher is a stark change from other Nexus devices with 4.4 but adds interesting functionality. We don't like that it's exclusive to the Nexus 5 (for now)
Included Apps/Bloatware: 10/10
- Clean Android installation
Final Score: 8.8/10