Google’s Nexus 5 could well be the best value smartphone released all year, packing in one of the fastest chips of 2013, a 5 inch screen, and a price that makes it really hard to pass up.
The fifth product in Google’s own series of smartphones, the Nexus 5 continues where the Nexus 4 left off and aims to improve the concept considerably, building a true Android smartphone the way that Google — the creator of Android — envisions it.
Like the last generation, this model has been built by LG, with the specs and some of the features lifted right out of a model that competes with it, though doesn’t incorporate all the same features.
In the Nexus 4, we saw Google change the LG Optimum G to match its own needs, and in the Nexus 5, it does so again with what is essentially the LG G2 smartphone sitting inside a shell that looks like an evolution of the Nexus 4, except with rubberised plastic and glass replacing the all-glass body of last year’s model.
Outside of the material change, very little of the design is different, but the specs have totally changed, and that’s where people will see the heart of LG’s G2 underneath.
That starts with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor, a quad-core chip clocked at 2.3GHZ, paired with 2GB RAM, and working alongside the Adreno 330 graphics processor.
Storage on the Nexus 5 is locked to either 16 or 32GB, with no way of expanding the memory, just like on the previous Nexus model.
The screen is close to 5 inches, sitting at 4.95 inches, hence why we’ll mostly refer to it as a 5 inch display. It’s not the 5.2 inch display of the G2, but it is using the same technology, with IPS+ here, though there is a switch from Corning’s generation 2 scratch-resistant glass to the newer Gorilla Glass 3.
Connection options are all pretty up there, hardly surprising given the G2 was the template, and you’ll find 802.11 a/b/g/n and even ac WiFi here, as well as Bluetooth 4.0, Near-Field Communication (NFC), Miracast wireless display technology, GPS, and support for 4G over the Cat4 connection technology, capable of a maximum downlink of 150Mbps.
The camera side of things is a little different, with an 8 megapixel rear camera with autofocus and optical image stabilisation, and a 1.3 megapixel front camera.
One other thing makes it very different to the LG G2, and that’s the software, with Google opting to use the stock version of Android here.
There are no overlays and no special things thrown in from the company that made the hardware, as the Nexus 5 runs Android 4.4 “KitKat” the way Google intended, with an interface complete with colourful icons, a gesture keyboard, new drop down menus, multiple homescreens, lockscreen with widgets, and on-screen soft buttons.
With on-screen soft buttons, you can imagine how few hard physical buttons there are, with merely a power button on the right side, and a volume rocker on the left.
A speaker port sits at the top front above the screen, while the remaining speakers are below the phone at the bottom edge, flanking the micro USB port on the very bottom. A 3.5mm headset jack sits at the top.
The Nexus 5 takes a microSIM in the executable microSIM tray on the right edge, and the battery for the handset is rated at 2300mAh.
Built by LG, the Nexus 5 can more or less be interpreted as a slightly smaller LG G2 smartphone with a more obvious design.
We say “more obvious” because the G2 was the first time LG really broke out and changed the mould, shifting the power buttons and volume rocker from the regular position of the sides, and relocating it to the back. It took some getting used to, but some how it worked.
In the Nexus 5, LG has pushed the buttons back to the sides again, putting them in a position where anyone can use the phone easily, not just those who are getting used to LG’s unorthodox positioning.
This design is easier to get your head around, is quite comfortable, and together with the rubberised back, makes for an easy hold.
It’s still not a metal chassis like what we continually hope for, but the rubbery finish makes the Nexus 5 perfect for hands, without too much grip that pushing it into a pocket is impossible.
Even the edge where the screen is found isn’t remarkably sharp, with an obvious change from the sides to the screen occurring, but not sharp enough to hurt your hands at all.
Since we’re there, though, we’ll start with that, and the 4.95 inch screen is close enough to 5 inches to make that “Nexus 5” name more than about the fifth generation of Google’s own phone brand, but also about the screen size.
Like most flagship handsets this year, there’s a Full HD 1920×1080 panel at work here, which manages to pull in a pixel clarity of around 445 pixels per inch, well over 100 higher than Apple’s Retina-grade screen on the iPhone 5S and 5C.
In the flesh, the screen is bright and clear, with excellent viewing angles from all sides.
It’s also highly responsive as a touchscreen, which you’d definitely want because there are no soft buttons on the handset, or no printed ones anyway, as these are all built into the operating system and change location based on how you hold the phone (landscape or portrait), as well as functionality when they need to, such as disappearing while you’re watching a movie or viewing a photo.
Spec-wise, it’s like taking a page out of the G2’s book, because it’s more or less an identical area here.
Hardly a surprise, mind you, since LG built both handsets, but you’ll find the quad-core Snapdragon 800 processor lets you fly between apps quickly, with multitasking easily possible, and very little lag showing up.
Benchmarks don’t exactly prove that the Nexus 5 is the best of the bunch, which is interesting given how well the Snapdragon 800 normally performs, but benchmarks can also be synthetic and don’t necessarily give a real world example of what the handset is doing.
Despite this, our test of the handset in real-world situations found little to no slowdowns, and a speed working through the menus, web browsing, and app usage that made it just as good as everything else.
Mobile performance is one area where the handset totally flies, with the Cat4-capable device pulling down speeds over the 100 mark.
Most people will see between 30 and 60Mbps, but for the first time, we’ve seen a smartphone pull just over 100Mbps in Sydney, which is mind-blowing. Well done.
Software is another plus, because unlike any other phone released in Australia this year, the Nexus 5 truly is the way Google wants Android to be, and that’s a good thing.
There are no special interfaces that mimic the way other handsets look, there are menu options that make everything more frustrating to use, and there isn’t even a wait for the proper updates like how you get on every other phone.
Rather, this is the very latest edition of Android right now: version 4.4 also known as “KitKat” — because of the partnership with Nestle’s chocolate bar — working on a device immediately, while Android 4.3 “Jelly Bean” is just beginning to be rolled out to handsets from other manufacturers, if you’re lucky.
So what does 4.4 bring?
Smoother, cleaner icons that make the operating system feel a little more modern is one thing, and a more integrated Google Now interface is another.
That last one is particularly important, as similar to HTC’s BlinkFeed, a swipe across to the left-most homescreen will now being this up, and Google’s location sensing software will now provide you important information, such as bus schedules to and from work, recent news from websites you like the sound of, weather updates, calendar notifications, and so much more.
Working with the US language is “OK Google,” a new voice activated search mechanism that works similarly to Siri.
Just like Apple’s virtual assistant, you merely say “OK Google” out loud, and then ask a question, ditching the need to press a button, though you can press the Google microphone button if you so choose. From here, you can ask “what’s the weather like tomorrow” or “who is the prime minister of Australia,” or even totally useless questions like “what is the answer to life the universe and everything” or “what is Benedict Cumberbatch’s Bacon number.”
Interestingly, this feature doesn’t work with the UK voice language input option that most Australians will likely select, so make sure to select the US language if you want to try this out. We suspect Google will roll this out to people who use UK English later down the track, but like all voice technologies for other devices, US English gets to see the cool stuff first.
Most of the other improvements to Android 4.4 that are noticeable include cleaning up how the apps look and feel, including the combination of your SMS app with Google’s Hangout app for chatting, with an SMS label appearing over the icon when it’s a phone message rather than a Google Chat, the phone app now working out who your favourites are based on common call frequency, a clearer dial-pad with transparency behind it, and a much better keyboard with hyper-fast gesture typing (it’s roughly 95% accurate, and if we used the Nexus 5 full-time, we’d probably switch to SwiftKey, but that’s us).
Over on the camera side of things, the 8 megapixel shooter takes decent and clear images, and the app even has support for PhotoSphere technology, in case you feel like adding to the vast virtual world that is Google Earth.
The camera app is now very minimalist, with only a smattering of controls available to you, such as HDR, flash, geotagging, and scene modes. Some of these options force you to dive through screens of barely described icons, and these make us think Google may have cleaned thing up in this area a bit too much, but there’s always a replacement camera app available on the Play Store if you need it.
At least the camera is quick and snappy, and the images are generally clear. The camera won’t likely win any awards for always being the sharpest or best at autofocus on the block, something we imagine Google will improve as time goes on, but you won’t likely be dissatisfied here.
Overall, the improvements really make Android stand out on this handset, and combined with the big screen, make the Android experience bright, colourful, and insanely clear.
Another positive for this handset is the price, with Google’s Nexus 5 grabbing a 16GB model for $399, while the 32GB model costs $50 more at $449.
That’s something virtually no other company has been able to match, offering what is essentially high-end technology found in other flagship devices (like the LG G2 and Samsung’s Galaxy Note 3), but at a price close to half of what the other brands charge.
It’s an impressive price, and there’s really only one negative to the package: the battery life.
While the phone can pull a day of life, that’s about all you’ll get from the 4G phone, which is really the minimum life we expect from a 4G phone these days.
In fact, if you use your phone more than for the average thing of social networking, making the odd phone call, web surfing, listening to music, web browsing, and camera taking, the Nexus 5 won’t even last the full day.
The battery is one area where the Nexus 5 differs immensely from that of the G2, though, because while LG has managed to pack in 3000mAh in its very, very similar handset, the Nexus 5 has only 2300mAh, which no doubt is one of the reasons where the shortfall can be found.
Google can — and probably will — find a way to squeeze more life out of the handset with subsequent Android updates for the Nexus 5, but right now, a day max is all you’ll get.
For the latest Nexus handset, Google and LG have literally crafted a slightly smaller version of the G2 smartphone with buttons in the typical places that can be had for under $500.
That’s a price that makes it very hard to pass up, and while the battery could be better, the Nexus 5’s inclusion of an excellent screen, bloody fast processor, 4G speeds, and a comfortable build makes it a really top product. Highly recommended.