At one time, the Nexus line of phones had a very clear purpose in Google’s mobile strategy. It was Google’s take on their own operating system—a phone for developers, but also a phone to ensure that Android stays at the top of the game in terms of high grade hardware and software design. But between the widespread commercial success of Samsung’s Galaxy line of phones, Google’s acquisition of Motorola, and the new Google Play editions of popular Android devices, it’s been hard to see where the Nexus brand fits in lately.
The Nexus 5 is the newest smartphone in Google’s premium line of Android devices, manufactured again this time by LG and it’s a flagship device in every sense of the word—but is it good enough to make a real impact in the market? Let’s dive in.
HARDWARE: The most well-designed Nexus phone ever made
Each year’s Nexus phone is usually based on the design of some other phone. Last year’s Nexus 4 was based on the LG Optimus G, while the Nexus 5 is said to have been modeled after the LG G2. But don’t let the wonky design and cheaper build quality of the G2 scare you off—the Nexus 5 doesn’t suffer from many of the design problems that plague the G2.
First off, the Nexus 5 is has a 5” display, which is a tad smaller than the G2 and feels incredibly good in the hand. After spending significant time with the Nexus 5, going back to a smaller phone like the iPhone 5s definitely feels like a step backward. I am still partial to the 4.7” size of the HTC One but after using the Nexus 5 for a few minutes, I hardly noticed the difference.
Speaking of the screen, the panel on the Nexus 5 is a really impressive one. The 1080p display has great color accuracy and is extremely bright, making for great viewing angles. While the specs are to be assumed in a high end smartphone like the Nexus 5, Google and LG should be applauded for the massive leap from the Nexus 4’s lackluster 720p display. Furthermore, if you’re growing tired of high-contrast AMOLED displays like I am, you’ll be happily surprised to see the natural colors of the Nexus 5’s IPS screen that looks incredibly sharp, without giving up any color accuracy.
On the back, the Nexus 5 features a soft-touch, matte polycarbonate shell that looks and feels great. Yes, it’s made of plastic, but more of the kind Nokia uses on their Lumia devices— than the ultra-glossy and slippery plastic featured on the G2 or the Galaxy S4. The Nexus 5 comes in both white and black and while, both of which look great (although the white variant is bit better at not picking up noticeable fingerprints). Overall, the sharper edges and simple design choices make for a rather modest-looking phone—not nearly as gaudy as the iPhone 5s or as premium as the HTC One. And while it might not sell as well because of it, I find the simple, utilitarian design refreshing—especially in an industry that seems to indulge in whatever different design gimmick that might help them stand out from the crowd.
There are, however, a couple of places where the Nexus 5’s diversions from the G2 make for a lesser end product—namely, the battery life and the camera. Unlike the G2, which features one of the longest-lasting battery in the high-end smartphone market, the Nexus 5 is on the opposite side of the spectrum. Although it competes with the iPhone 5s in battery life, it takes considerably longer to get back up to full charge—which makes getting a full day worth of battery that much harder.
The Nexus 4 was infamous for its unimpressive camera and it’s another area where the Nexus 5 still hasn’t quite caught up to the competition. The 8 megapixel shooter on the back is on par with devices from earlier this year such as the HTC One or the S4, but gets blown out of the water by phones like the iPhone 5s, Lumia 1020, or even the G2. The camera has all the makings of a decent camera, featuring a 1/3.2” sensor and image stabilization. But in my experience, the software noticeably lags behind in load times, ability to focus in macro shots, color balance, and low light performance. It doesn’t help that the flash is painfully bright and totally blows out images. It’s a real shame that a device that otherwise feels so premium and high quality has a camera experience that feels so utterly midrange.
SOFTWARE: Pure, unadulterated Android keeps getting better
The Nexus 5 comes loaded with stock Android 4.4 KitKat, the brand new version of Google’s operating system that is currently available only on Nexus devices (although is quickly coming to others). Like most iterations of the mobile operating system, KitKat is an incremental update, but one that really touches up the design of the operating system in a nice way.
The first changes you’ll notice are the full screen lock screen, which gives immediate access to both the camera and to Google Now. This custom lock screen is unique to the Nexus 5 though and is a welcome addition to the widgets that are available for the lock screen. In general, KitKat makes Google Now and Google Search a central function of the operating system—now accessible from a variety of ways. Once unlocked, a swipe to the left of your home screen shows you your Google Now cards, which continues to be an unrivaled service. Meanwhile, the Google Search bar floats at the top of all your homescreens and can also be pulled up from a long press of the home button. Lastly, you can also pull up Google just by saying “Okay, Google”, a really nice hands-free feature brought over from the Moto X.
The other changes to the software here are small aesthetic touches that are vital to ensuring that Android maintains a clean, modern feel. The icons are now slightly bigger, the app drawer has a transparent background, animations are a bit slower, and widget options no longer clutter up the app drawer. Again, all small changes—but all things that split the difference with Apple’s massive design leap with iOS 7. Overall, it’s a fantastic happy-medium that makes me wish Apple had made a slower jump in design with its own operating system. Although KitKat doesn’t feel like much of an arrival for Android, it certainly feels like a significant step in the right direction.
Another cue that Google took from Apple this time around revolves around messaging. Gone completely is the old Messaging app—now replaced by an updated Hangouts app that seamlessly integrates SMS with Google Talk services. To call it seamless might be a bit of an exaggeration, as Hangouts has now become something of a cluttered mess that can be pretty frustrating to navigate around in. So while it’s still not nearly as smooth as iMessage, integration between these apps is—again—a very solid step in the right direction for Android.
Behind the scenes, Google has reportedly done a lot of work to make KitKat had lightweight as possible in attempts to solve their seemingly impenetrable fragmentation problem. Manufacturers seem to already seem to be jumping onboard faster than before, but only time will tell if KitKat turns out to be the version that makes Android updates available to all. If it can do that, KitKat may have a legacy more significant than a series of relatively minor aesthetic tweaks.
The Nexus 5 is a fantastic phone and a great choice for those in the Android ecosystem. It’s fast, feels great in the hand, runs what is becoming one of the best mobile operating systems in the world, and plugs into Google services better than ever before. Here’s the kicker: the 16GB Nexus 5 starts at just $349 off contract in the Google Play Store, which means you can pick one up for as little as $149 on contract with Sprint. You won’t find a more capable smartphone for that price if you’re looking to live your mobile life off contract.
There are definitely some hangups on the Nexus 5. It’s far from perfect. Google may someday commit to making a true industry-leading smartphone that’s free of cost-cutting compromises and demonstrates the true strength of the Android platform—we’re just not quite there yet. But we’re getting close.
The Nexus 5 is currently available on AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile.
Luke Larsen is the tech editor at Paste Magazine. You can find him on the tweets on @lalarsen11 and can follow all the latest tech news, reviews, and features at @paste_tech.