The Nexus range is Google’s own series of Android smartphones, essentially the reference design for ‘droids everywhere. The Nexus 4 is the newest model, and is the first manufactured by LG Electronics. Previous Nexus devices were built by HTC (Nexus One) and Samsung (Nexus S, Galaxy Nexus).
Design and build
At 9.1mm, the Nexus 4 is slim but not record-settingly so. It’s about the average weight for a smartphone of its screen size at 139 grams.
The phone’s front and rear are both flat, edge-to-edge glass. The back is slightly smaller than the front, and the two glass panels are joined by a narrow rubberised-plastic bezel. It feels very solid, and the bezel offers the glass a bit of protection at the corners.
The rear panel looks black from most angles, but contains a shimmering, almost holographic silver dot pattern visible only when viewed straight-on. It’s a cool effect, and looks a lot less tacky than it might sound.
The Nexus 4’s flat back doesn’t fit the hand as comfortably as phones with a more contoured design, such as my own HTC 7 Trophy or Samsung’s Galaxy S III. The smooth glass doesn’t provide the best grip either, and is as fingerprint-prone as the touchscreen on the front.
The only physical buttons are a volume rocker on the left side, and a power button on the right side, both near the top. The typical Android buttons are implemented entirely in software, which leaves a nice blank patch to hold the phone in landscape mode. It’s great for gaming, watching videos, and other activities where a misplaced thumb can prove a huge pain in the app.
You can’t replace the battery, but the SIM card is accessed via a slide-out tray in the side. The sealed design seems to go against the Android concept of putting users in control of their devices, but perhaps vanity won out over practicality. On the upside, the battery probably won’t come flying out if you drop the phone.
Display and camera
The Nexus 4 has a 4.7-inch, 768 x 1280 pixel IPS display, at 320 pixels-per-inch. That’s effectively as sharp as the Apple iPhone 5’s Retina Display (326ppi). Text looks superbly crisp, and images are bright and clear. The maximum brightness is high enough to make the screen viewable in sunlight, though the high-gloss surface does make it prone to reflection.
There’s a front-facing 1.3MP camera for video calling, and a rear-facing 8MP camera capable of shooting video at up to 1080p and 30 frames per second. The quality of still images and video is acceptable, as you’d expect of any good smartphone, but not remarkably above-average. The rear-facing camera includes an LED flash, which is a nice touch.
Performance and battery life
The Nexus 4 runs on a quad-core, 1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro processor and has an impressive 2GB of RAM. Results in the AnTuTu Benchmark app are high, though our AnTuTu scores were a little lower than anticipated based on others’ scores. For us, it ranked just below the Samsung Galaxy Note II and above the Samsung Galaxy S III., making it a very high-performance smartphone either way.
Games run well, transitions between menus are smooth and load-times on apps are short or non-existent. Yes, that’s exactly what you should expect of a high-end smartphone, but it’s not always what you get.
The Nexus 4 uses HSPA+, which provides data speeds up to a theoretical maximum of 21Mbit/sec (42Mbit/sec with dual carrier technology). In the US, the Nexus has been criticised for its lack of LTE/4G. In New Zealand, that’s currently not an issue. Even if you’d like to future-proof by selecting a phone with LTE support, there’s no guarantee that any current LTE phone will be compatible with New Zealand’s eventual implementation.
Battery life from the 2100mAh lithium-polymer battery is advertised as up to 15 hours talk time, and 16 days standby. With moderate use of games and apps, we had to charge the phone every two to three days. If you do a lot of mobile gaming, or make heavy use of power-hungry apps such as GPS-enabled fitness trackers, you’ll probably find yourself recharging the phone daily.
The Nexus 4 supports wireless charging in addition to its standard micro USB port, but does not ship with a wireless charging pad.
The Nexus includes 16GB of internal storage, with no option for expansion – the phone lacks a microSD card slot. 16GB should be sufficient for most users’ app needs, but if you plan to store music, video content or large games, you may have to watch storage limits more carefully. As many users now stream music and video rather than storing it on-device, it’s not as much of a problem as it may have been a few years back. Still, there’s no escaping the storage limitation for mobile gamers. Modern 3D games such as N.O.V.A. 3
, Modern Combat 3
, or the resurrected Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
can easily be 1.5–2GB in size.
Android 4.2 Jelly Bean
As Nexus devices run the Android operating system without carrier or manufacturer modifications, they can run the latest version of Android. The Nexus 4 has Android 4.2 Jelly Bean, released in mid-November 2012.
Jelly Bean brings many small but useful improvements to Android, such as the new notification system that allows ‘actionable’ notifications, with context-appropriate commands accessible from within the notification itself.
Also added is wireless display support via the open Miracast protocol. This allows you to wirelessly broadcast the content of your phone screen – web page, app, video or game – to a compatible TV or other display.
Unfortunately while the phone will recognise adapters and televisions designed to work with Intel’s Wireless Display (WiDi), it will only successfully connect to those devices which also support Miracast. The Netgear PTV-2000 wireless display adapter we use in the lab doesn’t, so we couldn’t test the feature. Apparently the latest PTV-3000 model adds support for Miracast, as do many newer wireless display adapters and equipped TVs.
Gesture Typing is a new keyboard feature, which lets you enter text quickly by running your finger from letter to letter without lifting it from the screen. This is pretty much Google’s own version of Swype. For many users, this will be one of the most useful additions in Android 4.2.
The Nexus 4 is well constructed, portable, very attractive and uncompromising in performance. It’s a smartphone that could easily cost two or three hundred dollars more, without feeling overpriced. However, it does have its flaws.
Though not a problem in New Zealand, the phone’s lack of LTE/4G may be an annoyance for frequent travellers to the US and other LTE/4G-equipped countries.
The lack of expandable storage will also prove a downside for travellers that like to carry their music and movies on their phones, along with mobile gamers who want a large collection of the latest (and biggest) titles.
Finally, the attractiveness of the design is offset by the lack of grip on the glass back panel, and the lack of a user-replaceable battery. Android phones are allowed to be attractive, but sacrificing practicality to that end? I didn’t think that’s what the little green robot was all about. Perhaps I was wrong.
If my criticisms sound like nitpicks to you, that’s because they are – the Nexus 4 really is a great phone. Just not a perfect phone. For $799, though, it’s one of the best deals you can get.