Nexus 5

The Nexus 5 is a software flagship for Android 4.4.

The hardware itself represents a necessary compromise, both to appease partners, and to hit the incredible price points that the Nexus program is known for, giving you powerful devices for discount prices.

In the US and Canada the 16GB model can be had for $349, while the 32GB model goes for $399. In comparison, the iPhone 5s in 16GB and 32GB form is $719 and $819 respectively — more than double the price. The 8GB iPhone 4s still retails for $450, that two year old device costing $100 more than the 16GB Nexus 5.

Google’s Nexus program hasn’t attempted to make leading devices, aside from perhaps the Nexus One that kicked the Android OEMs into gear during a period of low-resolution malaise. Were they making flagship devices, the Nexus 5 would be a no-compromise $800 device with the best available components, assembled with materials that would appease the most fanatical “build porn” advocate (where, it should be mentioned, perception of “build quality” has incredibly little to do with actual suitability to task but instead is some ever morphing, follow-the-leader subjective fashion judgment. Most smartphone reviews read like handbag evaluations, fitting better in Allure magazine than the technology industry).

But they don’t. Their actions speak louder than any words ever could.

Instead it is usually a derivative of one Android partner’s premiere device, compromised in some way. The software, of course, is premiere (the latest and greatest), but the hardware has to be reduced in some manner to achieve the incredible price point, and to appease the OEM that may be cannibalizing their own sales.

Camera sensor or lenses, screen, battery, design — something has to give.

In the case of the Nexus 5, you start with an LG G2, chop off 25% of the battery, put in a cheaper, less impressive camera sensor, and, some claim (albeit thus far in the complete and utter absence of any objective metrics), put in a lower quality screen.

You turn a $600+ device into a $350 device. The G2 is the superior hardware, if you ignore the odd placement of buttons on the back. If the G2 were available for $350 with Android 4.4, there would be no possible reason to choose the Nexus 5. But it isn’t.

For those who want the latest software in a pure, unadulterated form, however, the Nexus program is the ticket.

And right now that is the Nexus 5.

So I grabbed a couple of these, with one to replace my wife’s Nexus 4, and another to replace my own year-old, daily-driver Galaxy S3.

I had seriously considered switching to an iPhone 5s as my primary mobile device — the CPU in that device is a beast and it is a fantastic improvement of mobile computing — but simply cannot live with the smaller screen or much lower resolution. I trialed the prospect with the 5th generation iPod, finding that there are simply too few pixels (the GS3 has 25% more pixels to work with, while the new 1080p screens like the Nexus 5 have an incredible 185% more detail) and too little work surface. This is completely subjective and personal, and some people favor improved one-handed use and mobility, so your mileage may vary, everyone having different primary needs.

My wife uses her smartphone as her primary computing device. The slightly larger screen and doubling of resolution represents a big usability improvement for such a use. Add that the Nexus 4 has a notoriously mediocre camera, ruining many on-the-go shots of the kids, so any improvement there would be welcome. Battery life is a recurring issue, but with wireless charging making it more convenient to ensure that it is frequently topped up, it is not ideal but is within the bounds of acceptable.

So I got a couple of white devices, primarily because they had the shorter wait time and given that the very first thing I’m going to do is put them in a case, as I do with all devices. I honestly do not care what the device looks like outside of the actual suitability for the task, and the Nexus 5 seems to be very nicely built in that regard.

I had read some of the early, incredibly lazy reviews from various sites. My expectations were low. The general sentiment seems to border on almost negative.

My expectations were absolutely blown away.

The screen is absolutely gorgeous. Colors look colorful (claims that they are “under-saturated” sound like the sort of subjective nonsense that leads an AMOLED user to complain about a more accurate LCD), contrast looks good. Not great compared to an OLED, but decent for an LCD. It looks very accurate. It yields mind-blowing detail, and the responsiveness is absolutely brilliant. It goes bright enough that it is actually painful to look at indoors, though maximum brightness could be higher for a sunny summer day.

There are zero objective metrics I can use to back up that prior paragraph about the display, just as most reviews are just subjectively guessing. We all await the Anandtech review, it being the single and only site that doesn’t rush a “but how does it make you feel?” review, instead doing a full gamut of repeatable, objective evaluations. I feel pretty confident that it is going to give great marks to this display.

The speed of the device is incredible. The Snapdragon 800 is a beast, and while it is no A7, it competently and quickly does any normal tasks. One of the reasons I’d grabbed the N5 was to test a Renderscript prototype I’d put together, and the results are simply incredible.

The battery is middling, as expected. Reviews have seen it holding out for about 6 hours of active, screen-on use, and from my limited use I would say that is optimistic (with the caveat that I’ve only gone through a charge cycle or two. My traditional experience with devices is that battery life improves after several full refreshes), though that’s still far superior to the Galaxy S3, and many other top tier Android devices. The screen — all 2.07 million pixels and beacon backlight — is clearly a power pig, imposing a significant burden to the battery. On the flip side, the Nexus 5, in my limited use, is much better with screen-off activities, where the various improvements in the chipset and the operating system come together to ensure that you don’t pick up the device mid-day to find your battery mostly dead.

So long as screen-off battery use is minimal, which it seems to be, it’s completely adequate for my use where I’m always surrounded by tablets and computers, having a wireless charging pad nearby at most times.

For my wife the limited battery life presents somewhat more of an issue, hers being a case where the superior battery life of the iPhone (the iPhone actually has a significantly smaller battery than the Nexus 5, but endures through great engineering) would be ideal, but in active use the biggest cause of battery problems again isn’t because of active use, but instead is egregious standby drain.

I can’t report on that yet, but suspect that the N5 will be an improvement.

The Nexus 5 is light, smaller than I expected, seems to look fine to me, but looks great in a case that I subjectively chose based upon my own tastes and needs. It is absurdly fast and responsive, and the greater integration of Google Now is welcome. The screen is absolutely heavenly. The speaker doesn’t get very loud and doesn’t sound that great, but that has never been something I really use on smartphones. As for voice call quality…do people still make voice calls on these? It’s a portable computing device that happens to hang on what once was a voice network.

But what about the camera? This is the area that most reviews seem to fault the Nexus 5 (the Verge giving it a 5 out of 10. Note that they gave the iPad Air’s camera an 8 out of 10, just for comparison).

At this point I am seriously wondering whether they failed to remove the protective plastic that comes on the lens’ glass cover. I hold this as a very real possibility given their narrative.

My own experience with the camera has been quite positive. As with every review you’ve seen, I’ve had the device for limited time, however taking pictures and video of my dog, my children, indoor and out, fish and the dog food aisle at the pet store, trees, various other subjects. The camera is most certainly much better than my Galaxy S3, and it was fairly well regarded for its camera. Taking pictures of my children lit by the glow of tablets yielded extremely nice, usable pictures, where even my Canon T2i has difficulties.

Low-light seems to be a significant strength of the Nexus 5, courtesy of the optical image stabilization. In good light the camera seemed to be a completely standard 8MP camera, taking competent, sharp, colorful pictures without burden. HDR+ yields surprisingly good results in difficult circumstances.

Perilously few reviews have galleries that show shots of the same scene and situation from a variety of cameras side by side, but of those that do I would say that the Nexus 5 absolutely holds its own with the iPhone 5s, and then beats it in low light situations. That is quite an accomplishment, and makes you wonder where all of the negativity about the camera is coming from. Low light is generally considered the Achilles heal of smartphones, so to make improvements there is a fantastic step forward.

I would prefer a big 35mm sensor and F1.0 lens with full manual controls, but there are limits of what is possible in a smartphone for $350.

One warning of the camera, though, is that it has a glass protective cover (several reviews have called this a “lens”. It is not there for refraction and is merely protective). As with lens filters on an SLR, this can increase incidents of indirect light washing out or causing flare in images.

The camera software could use significant improvement, however. It has some bizarre, self-destructive traits that undermine decent optics and a decent sensor. Primary is its infuriating, time-sucking, shot-missing desire to refocus pictures when you snap the shutter (which you can do with the volume button). If I’ve pre-composed the picture and selected the focus point on the screen, it just needs to take the picture as is, and would instantly yield a dramatically better shutter time. And if it insists upon refocusing, why does it do it from scratch instead of hunting based upon the already set focal point, the latter which would yield a dramatically faster focus?

The camera software is over simplified, needing much more overrides and customization. There are available replacements so I’ll give some of them a look.

For video I find the results very good, including in low light. The one complaint is that in varied depth scenes (for instance through a car window, or in dense trees) it can’t make up its mind, and will regularly hunt back and forth between the focal points. In such a scenario it should either simply make a decision and stick with it, or provide on screen hints that let you choose between the options. The hunting is simply distracting and can ruin an otherwise good video

As with the picture functionality, the video software has been over simplified.

In the end I am very impressed with this device. It represents remarkable value, yet offers fantastic speed, a simply stellar display, and a very decent camera (that could nonetheless see some software improvements).

EDIT 2013-11-11 – After several more days with the device, I am extremely satisfied. The screen is stellar (could use more contrast, but it is worth it for the resolution), the performance is simply amazing, especially with the ART runtime, and the oft criticized element — the camera — is actually fantastic: The number of difficult situation shots that have turned out beautifully adds up. One of the primary situations where smartphone cameras are brought to task is low light, and this device simply does that remarkably well. I do wish for some software improvements, however: For instance a simple advanced “if I’ve prefocused, do not focus when I press the shutter” option.

Video capture has a couple of critical faults, however — the hunting when you’re shooting, the inability to choose a focus point during shooting (on screen functionality is then limited to taking pictures that are really frame grabs), and the fact that it doesn’t stop notification vibrations while shooting video (which completely throws off the focus). Hopefully the software fixes will not be far out.