Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Best Affordable High End Android Phone, Period: My Nexus 5 Review

Another year, another Nexus. It's been an amazing journey for the series. We're closing in on five years of Nexus and this year's Nexus could easily be one of the best. Let's get down to it then shall we?

First off, while the Nexus 5 is still made by LG, it's vastly different in appearance. While the overall footprint of the Nexus 5 is similar to its predecessor, the Nexus 4 (5.43 x 2.72 x .0.34 vs. 5.27 x 2.70 x 0.36), the materials used to construct them are completely different. The Nexus 4 was made of plastic with glass coating both the front and the back. This gave it a weight of 4.9 oz and what most would describe as a premium feel. It was a fragile thing and there was several reports of breaking the back glass just like the iPhone 4/4s.

The Nexus 5 forgoes this for a polycarbonate shell similar to the Nexus 7 2013 (which I will review later). My black version has a matte finish and its weight is 4.59 oz which worried me that it would be cheap. This is not the case though. The Nexus 5's body is rigid and sturdy with no signs of creaking. In the end, because of its slightly longer body and reduced weight, the Nexus 5 feels more balanced in the hand than the Nexus 4 did.

The front of the Nexus 5 is consumed by the 4.95 inch (marketed as 5 inches) screen with a 1.3 MP front facing camera on the left, an inconspicuous ear piece speaker only slightly bigger than the front facing camera sits in the top center, the top right has well-hidden proximity and light sensors, and finally the now standard three color LED notification is hidden in the bottom center.

On top you have a headphone jack and noise cancelling microphone. The left side contains the volume rocker while the right has the power button and micro-SIM card tray. On the back you have the Nexus word logo etched into the case with the 8 MP camera and flash on the top left. The bottom of the device has what looks like stereo speakers. In truth, it's a microphone port on the right and single loudspeaker on the left.

Overall, first impressions of the device will leave most people underwhelmed. The device is fairly plain looking compared to the more gaudy Nexus 4. The curves are a bit sharper on the corners too which makes it a bit more angular in appearance. Still, I found the device's chameleon like appearance pretty nice. People often ask me what type of phone I'm using when they see it. The only issue I had was the matte finish is prone to smudges. However, they are wiped away pretty easily.

Internally, the Nexus 5 packs the Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 chipset running at 2.26 GHz with the Adreno 330 running at 450 MHz. Little needs to be said about this chipset that hasn't already been done on many other sites. Simply put, it tears through everything. Everything from the loading apps, shutting down the phone, overall animations, and installing apps are smooth and quick. The Nexus 5 has 2 GB of LPDDR3 RAM at 800 MHz with a bandwidth of 12.8 GB/s compared to the LPDDR2 RAM running at 533 MHz with 8.5 GB of bandwidth in the Nexus 4. The significant step up in hardware is certainly worthwhile even for someone with the Nexus 4. However, those with Snapdragon 600 chipsets and other similar level processors won't find the upgrade that necessary.

Aside from the processor, the Nexus 5 comes with all of the standard things you should expect in a high-end smartphone. It includes Bluetooth 4.0 LE, GPS, NFC, Barometer, WiFi with ac support in the 2.4 GHz range, etc. In addition, Slim Port support and Qi wireless charging returns from last year.

New to this model are a few things missing in the Nexus 4 that I wanted it to have. The first is LTE support. The Nexus 4 only had LTE unofficially on Band 4 whereas the Nexus 5 has it on all the major American bands save Verizon's. I experienced LTE speeds roughly the same as my HSPA+, but with better latency. However, signal strength in my town is weak in my house (compared to full bars of HSPA+) and ultimately it consumed more battery because of it. Still, there's hope for potential tower upgrades and thus the phone is futureproof in this regard.

The other additions I wanted was a 32 GB storage option and USB-OTG support. The Nexus 4's internals couldn't do OTG support without an external power source, but the Nexus 5 has no problem with this. However, although the phone recognized something had been plugged in, you still need a file browser from the Play Store in order to view what's on your OTG storage.

I've already went into detail about Android 4.4.2 in another post, so I'll spare you that. The screen for the Nexus 5 is a 1080 x 1920 Full HD IPS screen with 445 ppi. Simply put, it's the best screen I've ever seen. The colors are very even with maybe just a little over-saturation. It's pretty much impossible to see any pixels at this high of definition. The clarity is really just that high. However, I think this might be the top end of what I'd be interested in so far as resolution. I don't think you can make the screen any clearer than this and any more will just push the processor harder for less battery. The screen is also made of Gorilla Glass 3 and is smooth and silky under my fingertips. Smudges on the screen are easily wiped away.

The cameras on the other hand, aren't all that amazing. They are very good, but you're not getting the same level you would with a Galaxy S4 or iPhone. Outdoor shots with either standard shooting or the HDR+ mode the Nexus 5 has turns out solid shots as to be expected with the HDR+ shots showing better lighting. Indoors, things can take a hit. With no flash, regular shooting in normal indoor light has noise and a yellowish cast to it. Switching to HDR+ mode fixes the color, but the mode itself has to use a lot of post-processing to do it. Basically, it corrects the color, smooths the image, and reduces the noise.

A shot taken with no settings or flash in regular indoor light.

Indoor shot taken with HDR+ on under normal lighting.

Outdoor shot with no settings or flash taken late afternoon.

Outdoor shot taken with HDR+ late afternoon.
The results with the flash are actually not too bad. I was expecting a washed out photo, but it's much more passable than I expected. The front facing camera is your standard 1.3 MP affair. It's good for the occasional selfie or video chat which is pretty much all they are good for anyway. Overall, the camera is pretty decent. The OIS (Optical Image Stabilization) the Nexus 5 and its sister phone the LG G2 appears to do a good job for low light photos. It's a much better step up from the Nexus 4, but Google still has a way to go with their cameras if they want to be at the top. A start would be updating their painfully bare camera app with more options.

Indoor shot of Bat Bearry with regular settings and flash in low light.

Indoor shot of Bat Bearry with HDR+ mode in low light.

Your standard selfie with the front facing camera.
If there was one thing the Nexus 5 did terribly wrong though, it would be the loudspeaker. In an age when we're getting amplified stereo speakers on smartphones, LG opted for the weakest sounding speaker on a phone I've ever heard. Thankfully I wear my Pebble or I might not even realize the phone rang sometimes. Even worse, placing your finger over the speaker port nearly completely mutes it. This was poor design on Google and LG's part. Hopefully, the next Nexus will rectify this.

In the battery and data speed department, the Nexus 5 runs above average. Data in my area can vary from 3 Mbps all the way to 20 Mbps depending on traffic. Ping speeds with LTE ran at about 33 ms with HSPA+ at about twice that, which is pretty normal.

For battery, provided there are no background programs keeping the phone awake, the Snapdragon 800 is a real power sipper. I don't lose more than 1% an hour which is quite good. I've yet to give it the full range of tests, but I've not had any issues making it through a full day. I may update this in the future after I run some more tests.  

In the end, what puts this phone as the perfect package is the price. Since the tail end of the Galaxy Nexus' life, Nexus phones have gone for $350. My model costs $400 for the 32 GB version, but the 16 GB version still runs this pricing model. For the cost, there's really no better unlocked, no-contract phone. If you prefer a contract version, I'd say go for the LG G2. It packs the same specs and a better camera. Otherwise, you really can't beat this phone if you overlook the bad loudspeaker.

The Good: Phenomenal price point, fast performance, great crystal clear screen, improves upon last year's version considerably, solid build quality, good battery life.

The Bad: Weak loudspeaker, camera performance is average.

Final Grade: A

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