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Featured Review: Google Nexus 5 – The Best Android Smartphone Available?

November 11, 2013 - Written By Tom Dawson

Review Disclaimer: In this review of the Nexus 5, only stock software was used, out of the box. No kernels or ROMs were used in this review. Nothing was tweaked in regards to performance or camera quality. No matter how much I was tempted to.

We’ve become accustomed to seeing a new Nexus device from Google and whichever partner is lucky enough to produce it every year and 2013 has been no different. Following on from last year’s Nexus 4, LG is charged once more with developing this year’s Nexus, the Nexus 5. Needless to say, there’s a lot of excitement surrounding a new Nexus device, they’re the best way of getting hold of the latest version of Android and they’ve become incredibly good value. Google and LG have hardly kept this year’s Nexus a secret, it leaked out time and time again and then appeared seemingly out of the blue, with little fanfair.  This year’s model comes in at just $349 from the Play Store, with Android 4.4 KitKat, a quad-core Snapdragon 800 and a 4.95-inch display, but does the Nexus 5 have what it takes to show off Android at its best? Join us, as we find out in our Nexus 5 review.

Design & Hardware

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At this point, we all know what to expect in terms of looks from a Nexus device. Minimal, basic design has been the hallmark of the line since Samsung’s first, the Nexus S. It’s hard not to like the design of the Nexus 5, it might seem a little big to some people but, the slim bezels and thin profile help to alleviate that. The real charm in what LG and Google have done once again is more in what isn’t here, rather than what is.

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There are subtle differences between the white and black models of the device, with a soft touch plastic on the black model, with the white model being completely matte and smooth. There aren’t any brash logos on the front of the device, in fact there’s basically nothing at all on the front of the device, aside from a white dot adorning the speaker on the white model. On the black model, you might miss the miniscule dot that is the speaker.

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Minimalism is the aim of the game here and Google has pulled it off once more, the Nexus 5 gets out of the way to let the software shine, which delivers an understated yet very satisfying experience. If you’re fed up of all the logos and the overstated designs out there, the Nexus 5 – like previous models – is a welcome breath of fresh air.

As for the quality of the build, there’s nothing to worry about here. While it might be made out of plastic, the device doesn’t feel cheap or chintzy. It almost feels a little too light in the hand but, overall LG have built a solid device, especially when you take into account its price. If plastic isn’t your thing, then you’re out of look here but, if you take a more realistic approach to smartphone build and design and you’ll be happily surprised by the Nexus 5. It’s not going to stand up to a real beating but, it certainly doesn’t feel fragile and it’s certainly not a device you have to coddle and worry about constantly.

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The Nexus 5 isn’t all “bland” and minimal however, as there’s a very functional and pretty cool notification light at the foot of the Nexus 5. Much like previous models, since the Galaxy Nexus, this notification light is there when needed and gone when it’s not. It’s a nice touch and at first, it’s nothing to write home about but, with the right tweaks – thanks to Light Flow – it can be genuinely useful. Why Google doesn’t include an app to change the LED to different colors to different notifications is very strange. Out of the box, it only flashes white, no matter what notification it is you’ve gotten. Customizing the notification light is great, and can lead to a red light for SMS messages, a green light for e-mails, white for Google+ and more. It’s just a shame that Google doesn’t give users the tools to do this out of the box.

Display

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For $349, you’re not going to expect much from the display on the Nexus 5 but, you’d be wrong not to. LG knows how to create a great display, as they proved with the Nexus 4 and the LG G2. With the Nexus 5, you’re given a 4.95-inch 1920 x 1080 IPS display. With punchy, yet realistic, colors and pin-sharp text, the Nexus 5 is a joy to watch YouTube videos and read text on. Viewing angles are generally very good but, the backlight can wash things out when looking at the display off-axis but, in usage this is never a problem and you should have nothing but a great experience with the display.

The size of the display might be a turn-off for some users but, thanks to much reduced bezel sizes the Nexus 5 is not much bigger than the Nexus 4. In fact, it’s only a little taller and barely any wider, if at all. Delivering a device with a large, bright and colorful display without completely destroying one-handed use. It takes a little time getting used to – if you’re coming from a smaller device – but, once you’re accustomed to the size, it’s easy enough to use in one hand.

The Camera

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Over the last couple of years, the cameras that ship with Nexus devices have been panned as not worth talking about. It’s a shame but, most of this criticism is pretty fair. The stock Android camera app is still pretty poor to this day, it gets the job done but that’s about all. Meanwhile, manufacturers like HTC and Samsung create brilliant shooting experiences. Having said that, if we were Google we’d hate to work so hard on something to have a partner throw it out and create their own solution. The Nexus 5, unfortunately carries on the sad tradition of shipping with a mediocre camera. Make no mistake, this is not us saying that the Nexus 5 is a bad camera, we’re simply being fair here and in contrast to the rest of the device, that delivers an excellent experience, the camera is lacking. There are however, signs of brilliance hidden behind a middling experience.

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I’m no photographer but, I’ve always had a strong fondness for taking photos and getting my head around apertures, ISO and such. I grew up using film so, I’m not so used to fancy algorithms doing all the work for me here. However, here in the review all we’ve done is point and shoot. Mostly because it would be unfair to tweak a whole bunch of settings to take a great picture, and then expect everyone else to use the camera that way. In my eyes, the Nexus 5 camera is technically very capable, especially when using the HDR+ mode. Colors are rich, shadows are detailed and a scene comes together nicely. Even in this fairly generic railway scene above, the Nexus 5 did a fairly decent job. At 8-megapixels the resolution isn’t going to shine when you zoom all the way in but, it’s an admirable camera in situations like this. Framing a scene and taking your time will often result in a decent shot, no matter the camera. However, the Nexus 5 just doesn’t cut it when it comes to everyday sort of use. Raising the Nexus 5, unlocking to the camera and shooting will often result in a blurry photo or worse, a missed shot.

HDR+

These signs of brilliance that we spoke about mostly reside in HDR+ mode. Unlike other smartphone camera, Google is billing as true High Dynamic Range shooting in your pocket. On paper that sounds great but, in reality it’s only really good, again, when you take your time and wait. Below is an image taken without HDR+.

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Below is the same shot, taken with HDR+ on.

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The light seems to have caught the lens here but, shadows have more detail in them and generally look quite good.

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The camera is capable of taking some decent pictures but, the poor experience and middling results come from a lack of attention given to the camera app in Android 4.4. Or at least, the version included with the Nexus 5. Focusing is incredibly slow and when in HDR+ mode, you’ll find that the subject has either gotten bored or something has happened to ruin your shot, which is a real shame. Accessing advanced settings is also a real pain as well, it’s clunky and the whole app feels sluggish in stark contrast to the rest of the device.

There could be some hope on the camera front though, as we’re sure that Google isn’t done with the Nexus 5 or Android 4.4 by a long shot. If there are problems that need to be fixed, Google will fix them. You can take a look at some more samples in the gallery below. At this stage, it’d be best for Google to start afresh with a new camera app. It’s not as if Google has no experience in photography either, just look at the brilliant things Google+ can do with our images. Now the Android team has to seriously refine how those photos are taken in the first place, instead of leaving Google+ to fix things.

Software

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We’re going to give special attention to Android 4.4, KitKat but here we’re going to focus on some of the software that, right now, seems to be exclusive to the Nexus 5. The “Google Experience Launcher” is a fresh take on the launcher we’ve been using since Android 4.1, Jelly Bean. Swiping right from your main home screen gets you quick access to Google Now. Which means you can get a quick look at your cards and perform a quick Google search. Other changes include how your main panel is selected – the one that appears when pressing the home button. In past versions of Android, this used to be the center screen, now though, it’s the first screen adjacent to the Google Now panel. As well as this, the new launcher seems a little smarter, removing panels entirely if you remove something from them and allowing you to rearrange panels how you like them on the fly. Other such tweaks include transparency for both the status bar and the Android buttons, again these are subtle tweaks but, they work well.

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“OK Google”

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Selecting US English as your system language on the Nexus 5 allows you to take advantage of hotword detection. Basically, when on the home screen or in Google Now itself, you can say “OK Google” to call up a voice search. Which then allows you to reel off a search query or ask Google Now to do something for you, like set an alarm or a reminder. The standard sort of thing that it’s been doing since Android 4.1. The big difference here is that Google Now has become much, much faster. Queries take hardly any time to load at all – provided you have a decent connection – and location based cards and weather have become more useful thanks to their speedy appearance.

It’s annoying that you have to be on the home screen to trigger a Google search with “OK Google” but, this isn’t the Moto X and the co-processor is busy doing other things. No matter what though, being able to unlock your phone and hit the home button, speaking “OK Google” to get a search going is still very useful. It’s gimmicky at first but, once you realize you can ask things like – “OK Google, do I need an umbrella?” and be given a weather forecast are very handy, indeed. Especially for a Brit like myself.

Battery Life

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One of the weaker areas of the Nexus line has always been their battery life. However, in most cases the battery life has always been “good enough” for most users. As with a lot of things, it depends on what you expect and how you’re going to use the Nexus 5. For someone like myself, the 2,300 mAh battery gives me ample time to read, text, deal with e-mails, occasionally check Google+ and general smartphone usage. If you’re expecting the Nexus 5 to last as long as the Droid RAZR MAXX or a device with a much bigger battery then you’re expectations aren’t realistic. In real-life usage the Nexus 5 lasts for quite a while on a single charge however, if you’re looking for something to last 18 hours or more, the Nexus 5 isn’t that device.

What’s worse is that the Nexus 5 seems to be somewhat erratic when it comes to battery life. One day, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how much battery you have remaining at the end of the day but, another you’ll be scratching your head at what’s been eating your battery life. The battery usage in the settings doesn’t appear to be much help, either. One thing can be said with some certainty though, while idle, the Nexus 5 sips battery life (when on WiFi in our testing), which is a vast improvement on previous devices and versions of Android. Battery life is subjective and will vary depending on what you’re doing with the device. In “everyday” use of browsing the web, a handful of phone calls, moderate texting and a photo here and there I was fairly impressed with the Nexus 5’s battery life.

Storage

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The Nexus 5 comes in either 16GB or 32GB options and as you might have come to expect, there’s no expandable storage. This being a stock Android device thought, there’s little else on the device to take up the space on your new device. Which is great because 16GB isn’t really that much but, if you don’t go crazy with transferring local media to the device and don’t keep apps or games you never play on the device, it’s ample room. Besides, if 16GB isn’t enough for you, there’s now a 32GB option so for an extra $50, you get twice the amount of storage. Affording users a fairly large bucket to fill with whatever they wish to.

Performance

There’s a Snapdragon 800, clocked at 2.2 Ghz and 2GB of RAM inside of this year’s Nexus, bringing some serious speed with it. We’ve tried out a large amount of devices here at Android Headlines and the Nexus 5 is definitely one of the fastest. There’s been improvements to how Android handles touch, which brings with it a new level of responsiveness. In use, the Nexus 5 feels like it’s stuck to your finger, scrolling in Chrome is precise and fluid, swiping from screen-to-screen is satisfying and there’s not a hint of lag in sight. Applications load quickly, web pages load in an instant and the whole device generally feels like Android has been put on steroids.

Stock Android has always been considered “lighter” and “quicker” and while it’s true that it demands less memory, other devices have proven themselves to be faster than Nexus devices in the past. This time around, Google have a strong horse with the Nexus 5, one that’s going to be tough to beat. The detail that’s gone into better optimizing Android is finally apparent. There was a big boost with Project Butter but, after that versions 4.2 and 4.3 of Jelly Bean seemed to get no quicker, despite claims from Google. Android 4.4, KitKat is a real return to form for Android. At no point in my usage did I feel like the Nexus 5 couldn’t keep up and even looking up search queries and app updates over the same internet connection is much faster than similar devices on the market right now. If speed is your primary concern, then you’ll be wanting a Nexus 5 as your next smartphone.

Call Quality

Smartphones are still cell phones and talking on the phone is still a thing. Honest – it is. There’s something that takes a little time to get used to with the Nexus 5 and that’s the very small earpiece that’s more of a circle than anything else. Unless you place it on your ear at the right spot, your caller will sound faint and quiet, once you get used to it though it’s not an issue. Call quality is generally could and those I asked said that I sounded clear and distinct.

The Final Word

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The Nexus 5 has some brilliant features going for it, a super-fast CPU, the latest version of Android unfettered by skins, a minimal design that’s satisfying and familiar. When you add all these up the Nexus 5 shines more than any of these single elements. It’s easy to see the Nexus line of smartphones as “budget”, “affordable” devices but, that couldn’t be further from the truth. The Nexus 5 is aggressively priced and compromises had to be made, such as the mediocre camera and disappointing speaker. What Google and LG have managed to deliver at a price starting at just $349 is commendable and presents the best value for money in the industry. Other tech sites will decry the Nexus 5 as “cheap plastic with a poor camera”, we however think the Nexus 5 is built well, doesn’t feel cheap and has an OK camera.

The Nexus has never meant to be a device that you walk into a carrier store and walk out with but, it’s never meant to be and despite the fact that the average user would be very happy with the Nexus 5, it’s not meant for them. Instead, it’s meant for the discerning user that doesn’t want to wait for the next version of Android, wants the freedom to go to whatever network they want and isn’t concerned with flashy designs and features. Google’s Nexus 5 is a demonstration of what the next generation of Android is capable of and it succeeds in that effort, it’s great value and perfectly serviceable by any user.

Is it the best Android smartphone out there? That’s a difficult question to be answered but, ultimately it’s a no, the Nexus 5 is not the best Android smartphone out there. That’s because today’s smartphone market is filled with so much choice that “best” is no longer “better than Smartphone A” but more, “best for you”. Those looking for a pure Google experience, with stock Android, a super-fast CPU and a generally good experience across the board might consider the Nexus 5 best for them, as I do. However, there’s the Droid RAZR MAXX for those that need to keep going, the Xperia Z1 for those with an eye for photography, the Galaxy Note 3 is available for larger hands and more productive minds. The Nexus 5 is a fine device that shows off what Android is capable of and at $349 unlocked for one of the fastest devices on the market, a lot of users might find themselves thinking this year’s Nexus is “best for me”.