Google’s Nexus 4 isn’t just any Android device; it’s the flagship Android device. It’s the only current smartphone that wields the premium Nexus name, and the only handset running Google’s latest iteration in Android, version 4.2 Jelly Bean part deux. Moreover, the Nexus 4 undoubtedly serves as the most highly anticipated smartphone of 2012, and quite possibly the most rumored. Partnering with LG, Google has attempted to perfect the performance and design of the rather mundane Galaxy Nexus released last year, but does it live up to the hype? Read on to find out.
Hardware and Design
There’s no denying the obvious. The Nexus 4 is a re-envisioned Galaxy Nexus. However, Google and LG haven’t just iterated on the design, they’ve nearly perfected it.
The stealth black device is surfaced by two separate sheets of glass on both the front and back. Glass, you say? Yes, Gorilla Glass. Lying underneath Corning’s rear glass panel are several gold inlets which, when given the proper lighting, provide an illustrious holographic-like effect, effectively mimicking the original Nexus live wallpaper that debuted on the Nexus One. Also on the rear is the phone’s 8-megapixel camera, as well as a single LED flash. The sensor sits flush with the glass, whereas the LED flash rests a mere fraction of a millimeter above the glass surface to prevent excess light from seeping into the lens.
Since the days of the iPhone 4, glass shells have become bothersome and worrying to owners, as if they are destined to shatter or crack upon even the slightest of impacts. We’ve already heard numerous reports of the glass back of the Nexus 4 breaking after only a few days, and it still remains unclear as to what type of replacement strategy Google and LG will enact for said unfortunate owners. Personally, I see it fit to protect my device using every strategic move possible. In fact, whenever I sit my phone down, I always look around for a soft surface to place it on, so that I can avoid creating hairline scratches on the surrounding scratch-prone amorphous material. I know I can’t keep this up forever, and I’ll eventually need to get a hold of a protective case, but in the meantime I will continue my abnormal behavior.
To counter this, Google has developed an official bumper case for the device. With a unibody design, it simply slips over the outer part of the smartphone to provide full coverage on the surrounding edges without dramatically increasing the thickness. I was not able to order one of these in conjunction with my device due to limited quantities, though this could potentially prove to be a lifesaver, as nearly 99% of the time your device will land on an edge and not flat on its surface when dropped.
The front glass panel has a slight curvature which flows downward along the edges into the thin protruding plastic chrome bezel. Rather than utilize this chrome bezel to occupy the entire width of the edge, LG and Samsung have opted to include it only on the upper edge, choosing to outfit the Nexus 4 with a black, soft-touch grip alongside the entire outside of the device. The flat rubber-esque grip naturally gives the device a premium feel and makes it surprisingly comfortable to hold in the hand.
On the front of the Nexus 4 sits a monstrous 4.7-inch IPS display with an industry standard 1280 x 768 resolution, equating to an eye-soothing 318 ppi. Near the top you’ll find LG’s 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera sitting on the right side, as well as the recessed chrome earpiece in the center.
The bottom edge of the phone houses the microUSB port, as well as two small visible screws. Some users have complained that the screws seem a bit “cheesy,” but I have to disagree. Their inclusion seems to add heavily to the understated, yet elegant industrial design. Also, it’s a sigh of relief to know that opening up your phone is as easy as removing these two screws.
The top hosts the 3.5mm headphone jack, as well as a microphone for increased noise cancellation and more precise audio-pickup during video recording. On the right edge sits the plastic chrome power button, while the left is home to the volume rocker and microSIM tray. To open the tray, LG and Google have provided an ejection tool inside the box. This can be annoying at times–having to make sure you have the tool when switching SIMs from phone-to-phone. Of course this won’t be a problem for average users, but for a power user like me it can be a bit tedious.
Underneath the hood lies Qualcomm’s latest quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro processor clocked at 1.5GHz along with 2GB of RAM. Google is touting the device as the fastest phone on the planet, and I have to agree (more on that later). Available in 8GB and 16GB versions, the LG-produced Nexus 4 unfortunately doesn’t feature an SD card slot for expansion, so you’re stuck with either of the rather limited storage options you end up choosing. Also inside is a non-removable 2,100mAh battery. As expected, you’ll also get the standard assortment of radios and sensors, with Wi-Fi (802.11 b/g/n), Bluetooth 4.0, NFC, and Qi wireless charging all present. Unfortunately, there’s no LTE here, so unless you’re located somewhere that offers T-Mobile’s 42Mbps HSPA+, you’ll have to look elsewhere for blazing-fast 4G data speeds.
Considering the Nexus 4 starts at just $299 contract free, it’s incomprehensible as to how Google and LG managed to stuff these top-tier hardware components into the device without taking a loss. Sure, the exclusion of LTE radios may be what balanced the budget, but besides the HSPA+-only radios, this smartphone is an uncontested powerhouse.
Google’s new flagship sports an 8-megapixel camera on the rear and a 1.3-megapixel front-facing shooter. The 8-megapixel sensor managed to produce overall vivid and accurate images with very little noise. Again, the rear camera is a major improvement over the Galaxy Nexus’ rather pathetic 5MP shooter which often composed grainy and noisy shots. Low-light situations aren’t an issue either, with photos coming out impressively clear and undistorted. Pictures won’t beat out head-to-head competitors like Samsung’s Galaxy S III or HTC’s One X, but the Nexus 4 can definitely serve as your primary go-to camera for quick shots when you’re out and about.
While the improved hardware is definitely a nice plus, the more noticeable enhancements come on the software side of things. Google has completely redesigned its camera interface in Android 4.2, opting for a more complex and feature-rich, yet innovative and intuitive user experience. At first glance, the application itself looks simple, showing the ubiquitous viewfinder along with a sidebar housing the settings button, shutter button and a toggle switch to change between the different camera modes.
In order to bring up the settings menu, you’ll need to long press anywhere within the viewfinder. This will bring up a medium-sized circle with a flurry of options lining the outer circumference. Simply slide your finger to whatever section you’d like to alter, which will then bring up the full list of options. Additionally, zooming can be achieved (up to 4X) using the same pinch-to-zoom technique you’re used to utilizing in the browser. Users can also change exposure settings and manually focus the lens by tapping the screen.
You may also notice the lack of a thumbnail image, though as you may remember, Google has introduced a much simpler way to get to the gallery. Just swipe your finger from the left and a horizontal list of images will appear, similar to offerings on iOS and Windows Phone. HDR is now native as well which provides some very interesting shots and allows users to be more creative when taking photos. Along with adjustable white balance, scene customizations, and resolution and flash settings are apparent here as well. In case you’re wondering, Panorama mode hasn’t gone anywhere.
Perhaps the biggest change to the camera software, though, is Google’s new 360-degree PhotoSphere mode. The new panoramic mode allows users to take full-dimensional images, stitching together multiple photos to create a spherical panorama. Unfortunately, when using the new mode we found the stitching process to be incredibly inaccurate, often misplacing several photos along the way. The added image depth is superb, but the overall quality is severely lacking.
For example, when used the PhotoSphere mode to capture a scene of several trees, the trunks were usually severed in multiple places and looked as if parts of them were floating in mid-air. Google executives have posted images on G+ with the same type of stitching problems, so we’re assuming they have noticed and will at least attempt to provide an improved version in a future Android update.
When the crafty folks from Mountain View called the Nexus 4 “the fastest phone on the planet”, they weren’t fibbing. This device is insanely quick; it’s the fastest smartphone ever, bar none.
The Snapdragon S4 Pro (APQ8064) SoC and Adreno 320 GPU do an absolutely stunning job in terms of performance. Navigating around the device is speedy and virtually lag-free, with apps launching quickly and fonts rendering even quicker. Gaming performance is also stellar. Graphics are unmolested and render nicely. Minor details in graphic-heavy games are also readily apparent, including fine-detailed shadows and reflections, as well as distant items like outlying buildings in games like Riptide.
Simply put, playing games like Asphalt 7 and Need for Speed: Most Wanted is a blast. Occasionally, we ran into a skipped frame or stutter in a graphically intense level, but in no way did this have an effect on gameplay, though it was inherently noticeable. Google and LG have no doubt had the time to ensure that Android 4.2 was optimized for the latter’s hardware, and it clearly shows.
For the most part, the 720p panel provides superior viewing angles, offering a near 180 degrees of unadulterated field of vision. Text is crisp and clear while colors appear vibrant and accurate. Color reproduction can, at times, appear a bit washed out, but overall this is a major improvement over last year’s Galaxy Nexus. Blacks appear deep during daylight, however, once the sun goes down or the lights go off, their inaccuracies become easily visible. This is much less noticeable at lower brightness settings, which is one reason why I tend to keep mine set at around 50 percent.
LG’s in-house panel features the manufacturer’s Zerogap Touch technology, which dramatically decreases the gap between the glass and LCD. Essentially, the Gorilla Glass is molded directly to the LCD, so that the display appears as if it is floating in-line with the rest of the device’s surface. While I can’t say the gap has been minimized completely, it has definitely been reduced a great deal over most modern handsets.
If you’re used to the breathtaking Super LCD 2 display on the HTC One X+ however, this will be a very minor step down. On the plus side, the wider panel makes it much easier to navigate around the homescreen, offering up generously more room to swipe left and right. This may seem like a small detail, but it’s one that becomes readily noticeable after just a few minutes of use.
One area where the phone is severely limited however, is in the performance of the 720p IPS display. When scrolling between homescreens, a noticeable ghosting appears on widgets as you swipe left to right. It’s unclear whether this is simply a software problem, or due to the limitations of the display’s refresh rate. Either way, it is absolutely ghastly to look at, and once you notice it, there’s no going back. This is unfortunate too, because with the introduction of Project Butter in Android 4.1, these types of performance issues were supposed to become much less apparent.
As with past Nexus devices, Google has committed a brand-new build of Android to the Nexus 4. Sure, version 4.2 may just be an incremental “dot” update, remaining disenfranchised under the ubiquitous Jelly Bean moniker, but it still brings with it several key enhancements and features that make it feel like an entirely refreshed OS.
Android 4.2 Jelly Bean isn’t about any one big change, but rather an array of smaller ones. For starters, Google has tweaked its Gmail application, now allowing for automatic scaling of messages to fit within a single window. This means you’ll no longer have to agonizingly slide your finger around left and right to read a full-width email, something that iOS and Windows Phone have been able to do since the get-go. Additionally, users can now swipe to delete or archive messages, similar to the functionality of the notification pull-down menu. This is another one of the minute details that makes an enormous difference in day-to-day usage.
Another important feature is a new Quick Settings menu which resides in the notification window. This handy menu lets you access your most used toggles, including Bluetooth, brightness, Wi-Fi and airplane mode. These new toggles can be accessed by swiping two fingers down on the notification bar.
A new input method has also been included within the stock Jelly Bean keyboard. Gesture Typing gives you the ability to move your finger from one letter to another as you would with third-party keyboard replacements like Swype. The new keyboard will learn to auto-predict things like email addresses and telephone numbers too. Yeah, one-handed typing just got a whole lot easier.
There are plenty of small tweaks like this all around various aspects of the new software. For example, Google has completely redesigned the outdated clock application in version 4.2. Android’s tired clock app was in need of a refresh, and the brainiacs from Google have done a magnificent job of updating what used to be a rather boring and unintuitive productivity application. The new elegant and simplistic design mirrors Matias Duarte’s strategy to construct a modern-looking and easy-to-use mobile OS.
Improved Emoji support has also been added, with Google choosing to give users an easier way to use an Emoji-friendly keyboard in just a few simple menu clicks. A new call log menu has also been added, offering the ability to sort calls by missed, voicemail, and outgoing types. This particular feature has been around for a while on other platforms, and quite frankly, was a long time coming.
Of course, what would a new version of Android be without improving Google Now? The WebOS-esque card-based app has been outfitted with all new algorithms, now able to creepily delve through your email to discover tidbits of information like flight numbers, hotel reservations and package shipments, and then provide that information to you when the appropriate time rolls around (i.e. when your package has arrived).
The service now integrates into your search results. For example, if you’ve recently searched for an upcoming movie, Google Now will remind you of the film’s opening day. Other things like dinner reservations are also shown in the notification bar to remind you of your plans.
Voice search has also been vastly improved, offering enhanced voice recognition and a more tight knit experience to that of Google Now. Nearly every question I asked was recognized and answered correctly by scouring through various websites in the expected search results, which gives me hope that Google’s new platform may actually be worthy of the hype.
Also new is the introduction of lockscreen widgets. These widgets allow you to glance at specific information without having to go though the trouble of unlocking your device, effectively saving you valuable time. The idea is great, but in actuality it just doesn’t work. The UI is incredibly difficult to understand at first, and you’re limited to just one widget on each of the 6 lockscreens, regardless of their size. It took me about 60 seconds to realize that this functionality is pointless, and that I won’t be using it. One feature I did like however, was the ability to swipe left for quick access to the camera, something that at least seems to at least make some sense.
Sure, these changes are nothing earth shattering or groundbreaking, but as a culmination they serve as a huge improvement to an already wildly superior mobile operating system. It is by far the most complex, sleekest and sexiest version of the OS to date, and it’s apparent that Google is simply continuing its development of the most innovative and feature-rich platform on the market.
As I had expected, the battery life on the Nexus 4 is nothing spectacular. We ran our usual video rundown test while connected to AT&T HSPA+, and we barely got 5 hours. Brightness was set to 67%, GPS on, WiFI on (not connected), and Bluetooth on (not connected). The only recent phone that was more dismal was the Atrix HD.
What about day to day use? With moderate use (a few short phone calls, a couple of photos, some emails, text messages, some web browsing and a bit of social networking), I managed to squeeze 7 hours out of the 2,100mAh battery with brightness set at 50 percent. Keep in mind your own mileage may vary depending on what activities you are conducting and what level you have your brightness set at, but overall I wasn’t impressed. We also ran our usual video rundown test while connected to AT&T HSPA+ we barely got 5 hours. GPS was turned on as well as WiFI (not connected) and Bluetooth (not connected).
Usually, the consensus for buying a new smartphone illustrates that it should last you from when you unplug the device in the morning to when you get home from your 8-hour work day. Unfortunately, the Nexus 4 hardly fits that bill, and unless you don’t spend much time using your device during your daily grind, you’ll probably want to invest in an extra charger or wireless Qi-supported charging mat for the office.
Call Quality and Reception
Most people don’t exclusively use their phones for calls anymore, but call quality and reception remain important factors in any smartphone purchase. Unsurprisingly, call quality is average on the Nexus 4. At times the earpiece can give a sort of “tinny” sound, providing faint echos and slight distortion. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a deal-breaker. It’s definitely on par with some of the more recent Android handsets on the market, but it’s nothing that will blow your socks off.
I tested my device on AT&T’s HSPA+ network, and for the most part my reception was fantastic. I managed to average around 7mbps down and 2mbps up. Of course, these speeds aren’t even relatively close to what 4G LTE on Verizon and AT&T can provide, but for “enhanced 3G,” the speeds are bearable. Keep in mind this is coming from somebody who doesn’t have access to LTE on any carrier, so this was really a non-issue for me.
There’s no doubt Google and LG have put together an incredibly solid handset, but it is not a smartphone aimed at the general consumer. Despite its fatal flaws like no LTE or expandable storage, the Nexus 4 deserves to be crowned champion of the Android universe. Not because of its impressive performance, its beautiful 4.7-inch IPS display, or even its top-notch build quality. It deserves the title because Android 4.2 is incredibly innovative, and since it’s a Nexus-branded device, you can rest easy knowing that you will be among the first to receive future software updates.
The fact that Google is offering the device for as low as $299 off-contract is simply icing on the figurative cake. In short, if you’re in need of a new handset, can live without faster data speeds, and you’re on a GSM network, there’s no reason not to pick up an LG Nexus 4.