Nexus 5 review: A fantastic value, but not a flagship phone

Nexus_5_Main_03_TA

It’s amazing how popular Nexus phones are considering they get so little mainstream attention, but hardcore Android fanatics go hog wild for them. Each year around this time, Google releases their handcrafted phone to Android fanboys and fangirls all over the world. The Nexus phone usually sports a few killer specs along with a few not so killer specs. However, it’s the price that gets everyone so googley. Priced at $349 for 16GB or $399 for 32GB (both off contract and unlocked), it appears to be a tremendous value. I don’t think anyone can argue about that. The real question is if its flagship-worthy as everyone makes it out to be? You know the drill by now, hit the break and lets get started.

Design

Lately, Nexus phones haven’t impressed me in the design department. The Galaxy Nexus was plasticy and I wasn’t a fan of the glass back on the Nexus 4. The Nexus 5, however, is a nice looking phone. My only real complaint is the back plate is very slippery. I was hopeful it would have a more softer touch, but when I took it out of the box, I was a little disappointed. My review unit is the white version (front is black). It really stands out and is very attractive, but I’m a little worried the whiteness won’t hold up over time.

Made by LG, The Nexus 5 is based on the LG G2, however the two phones don’t look alike. The Nexus 5 actually looks more appealing, and you won’t find power and volume controls at the back of the phone like the G2. We will get into the specs in a bit, but the Nexus 5 and the G2 have very similar specs.

Nexus_5_Back_TA

Nexus_5_Back_Slanted_Nexus_Logo_TA

The top of the device sports the microphone jack. The right side gets the power button towards the top, and just below it is the micro SIM slot. The left side has the volume rocker towards the top, and the bottom has the microUSB port and speaker. It looks like two speakers, but it’s really only one. Think about it….it wouldn’t make sense to make stereo speakers that close together. The back sports the nexus logo written vertically just like on the 2013 Nexus 7. It also has the camera lens at the top left with the LED flash just below it. The lens has a rather large black ring around it, which gives it a nice contrast on the white back. Last but not least for the back, the LG logo is at the bottom. As to the front of the device, the notification light is at the bottom center and flashes a white light. You will also find the front-facing camera at the top left along with the ear speaker at the top center.

Nexus_5_Nexus_Logo_TA

Nexus_5_LG_Logo_TA

Nexus_5_Top_TA

Nexus_5_Bottom_TA

Nexus_5_Right_Side_TA

Nexus_5_Left_Side_TA

Nexus_5_Front_Top_Ear_Speaker_TA

The Nexus 5 comes in at 8.6mm thick, which is less than the LG G2 (8.9mm) and last year’s Nexus 4 (9.1mm). It also weighs 130 grams, which is also less than the G2 (143 grams) and the Nexus 4 (139 grams). Finally, it measures 5.43 x 2.72 inches making it very comfortable in the hand.

All in all, this is the most impressed I have been with a Nexus phone in terms of design, but I just wish it wasn’t so slippery. I have come close to dropping it a few times already. I know I can use a case, but it’s just not my thing. Since most phones do have the slipperiness issue, it’s far from a deal breaker.

Hardware

The Nexus 5 includes a 4.95-inch True HD (1920 x 1080) IPS+ display (445 ppi), a 2.3GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor, an Adreno 330 GPU, 2GB of RAM, 16 or 32GB of internal storage, 8MP rear camera with OIS, 1.3MP front-facing camera, Corning Gorilla Glass 3, micro SIM slot, Bluetooth 4.0 with A2DP, Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, NFC, DLNA, USB OTG, SlimPort, and wireless Qi charging.

As far as radios go, there are two models. The North American model (D820) includes GSM: 850/900/1800/1900 MHz, CDMA: Band Class: 0/1/10, WCDMA: Bands: 1/2/4/5/6/8/19, and LTE: Bands: 1/2/4/5/17/19/25/26/41. If you’re in the U.S., you can use it on either AT&T, Sprint, or T-Mobile. The global model (D821) includes GSM: 850/900/1800/1900 MHz, WCDMA: Bands: 1/2/4/5/6/8, LTE: Bands: 1/3/5/7/8/20.

Performance

Say goodbye to Project Butter and hello to Project Svelte. With the Snapdragon 800 and the latest version of Android, KitKat, the Nexus 5 is blazing fast. I know it’s getting to be a cliche to say a phone is fast, especially right out of the box, but it just is. Now I still say that the average person can’t tell the difference from one phone to another, especially the quad-core ones, but it can be comforting for many to know that every time you pick up your phone, you have the best processor in the land. Unfortunately with the rapid growth of mobile technology, that doesn’t last too long. I remember thinking the same thing when I bought the DROID DNA with the Snapdragon S4 Pro. One year later, and it can be a little sluggish at times. Trust me when I tell you that the Nexus 5 won’t be any different 52 weeks from now. It will just have faster hiccups if you know what I mean. Now benchmarks are worthless in my opinion, but I always run the AnTuTu with every review, and the Nexus 5 came in at 26,959, which is a little lower than other Snapdragon 800 devices.

For the first time ever, a Nexus phone gets a 1080p display. HTC displays have always been a favorite of mine, and as I mentioned in my LG G2 review, LG is now a serious contender for the top spot. Unfortunately, you won’t be getting the LG G2 display on the Nexus 5 as it actually sports the same display as last year’s DROID DNA. Now that was an amazing display, but the Nexus 5 seems to be tuned differently as in the colors are a little blah and lacking a “wow” factor. The blacks just don’t seem as deep and the colors seem washed out, but it has great viewing angles and performs very well in sunlight.

As far as the sound goes, don’t be fooled by the speakers, or shall I say speaker. As I mentioned, it appears the Nexus 5 has two speakers at the bottom, but it’s really only one speaker feeding those holes. Even if it were two separate speakers, the placement would be way to close to get anything beneficial out of them. So no, you aren’t going to get BoomSound. It’s just an adequate speaker, nothing more nothing less.

Battery

Remember in my opening when I said that Nexus phones have killer specs and some not so killer specs? Well here’s the the first one of those “not so killer” specs. The LG G2 sports a 3,000mAh battery, but the Nexus 5 only has 2,300mAh. I assume it was to keep the cost down, but 2,300mAh is not enough to power a phone with a 1080p display. On the flipside, the Moto X has a slightly smaller 2,200mAh battery, but it only needs to power a 720p display. The end result is close to 24 hours of battery life. That is flagship performance. Unfortunately, the Nexus 5 doesn’t come close.

I conducted my usual video rundown test in which I play continuous video from 100% down to 0% while the display is set to about 2/3’s brightness. I do this while connected to LTE and Wi-Fi (not connected), Bluetooth (not connected), and GPS are turned on. I was only able to get 6 hours and 10 minutes. This is an improvement over last year’s Nexus 4, which barely yielded 5 hours, but this is still pretty bad. Now I know that normal usage isn’t playing video all day, but it is a guide. How does it perform on a basic day? You can expect to get about 12 hours with moderate use over LTE. Now if you spend most of your day on Wi-Fi, you could get between 15 and 18 hours depending on how much you use it. One thing I will say is the battery discharges very slowly when idle, so if you do find that you have a lot of idle time, this phone might work for you. If you’re someone who is always on the go and using mobile networks, you better carry around a portable charger.

Software

Usually this spot is reserved for all the proprietary software that manufacturers install on their phones to separate their devices from competing manufacturers. With Nexus devices, we generally don’t see anything like that, just the newest version of Android, which happens to be 4.4 KitKat in this case. However, Google is offering one thing that is exclusive to the Nexus 5 and that is the Google Experience Launcher. Other Nexus devices are getting KitKat, but without this launcher (at least officially), it won’t feel as much as a difference as with what you get on the Nexus 5.

There are some things about the launcher that is really good such as the ability to add widgets easier and add unlimited home screens, but it’s a radical change in navigating. Google Now becomes the leftmost home screen and the default home screen is the next one to the right. This means every time you tap on the home key, you are positioned all the way to the left (just right of Google Now). If you only have two or three home screens, that is okay, but if you utilize anything more than that, it’s a royal pain navigating. Traditional layouts have the default home screen right in the middle so that you can swipe right or left to get to what you want quicker. This newer setup forces you to swipe a lot more.

Wallpapers are also a little different since they get displayed from left to right, but Google has some sort of algorithm that recognizes that you have something centered in the image so it automatically places that part of the image on your default home screen and divides the rest of it accordingly to the right. For images that don’t have something in the center such as a pattern, they get left alone.

Here’s a video showing you the new launcher along with some of the Google Now features.

The rest of the new stuff in KitKat will be available on other phones.

Probably the biggest upgrade is the dialer, which is way overdue. It happens to be the one area in which manufacturer skins were actually an upgrade, but the KitKat dialer is finally up to par. Not only does it look good, but it’s functional. You can search your contacts or businesses from within it, and it will try to tell you what company is calling you if the number isn’t in your contacts.

Wireless printing is now native in KitKat. At first thought, you might not think you have much use for it, but it’s actually quite convenient. Lets say you just came home from an outing in which you took some pictures. You can easily send a few shots right to your Wi-Fi printer. The same goes for web pages. Now you can quickly print stuff that you find on the web such as recipes. It’s compatible with HP wireless printers or Google Cloud Print. Out of the box you can use this printing feature with Drive, Chrome, and the Gallery. You can expect a lot more apps soon because developers can easily add the feature.

Here’s a video showing you how easy it is to setup and use.

Hangouts is now the default SMS/MMS texting app. There are a lot of people that have been clamoring for this, and Google finally delivered. I think the most important thing about this feature is that you can select another third party text messaging app as your default app so you don’t have two apps keeping track of the data. It takes a little getting use to seeing all these extra threads in Hangouts, especially when you have both SMS and Hangouts with the same person. I know you are thinking just use one or the other, but you try telling mainstream folks how to do things and get back to me. It’s just a tad cluttered, but it works well.

There are a lot of other subtle changes in KitKat that we have gone through in other posts so I won’t bore you guys here, but if you are a lover of the pure stock Android experience, the Nexus 5 is the phone for you.

Camera

Nexus_5_Back_Camera_Lens_Closeup_TA

The camera is the other “not so killer” spec on the Nexus 5. It’s actually a mixed bag with everyone you talk to. I have heard things like, it’s very disappointing to that it’s not as bad as everyone says it is. Unfortunately, one thing you don’t hear is that it’s damn good. I guess I am on the “it’s not as bad as everyone says it is” fence, but that doesn’t necessarily give anyone a warm and fuzzy feeling does it? This is a big letdown for me since Vic Gundotra said Google is committed to making sure Nexus devices have insanely great cameras. That might still come with a new API they are working on, but for now, it isn’t insanely great.

Is the Nexus 5 an improvement over past Nexus devices? Yes. Can the Nexus 5 take decent photos? The answer is also yes. The Nexus 5 sports optical image stabilization, which makes it a much better camera than what we saw on the Galaxy Nexus and Nexus 4, but it’s just isn’t up to par with other Android flagships like the HTC One and the Galaxy S 4.

Actually one of my biggest complaints on the camera isn’t even the quality of images, it’s the speed. It’s horrendously slow. Here’s an example of just how slow it is. The first image is my son going down a slide, but by the time the N5 grabbed the image, he was already off the slide. In the second shot, he’s still on the slide, but at the very bottom. If you want to take photos with any motion, you are going to have to have impeccable timing.

Nexus_5_Example_Photo_Outdoor_Action_01_HDR

Nexus_5_Example_Photo_Outdoor_Action_02_HDR

HDR+ is on by default, which I was hoping was the reason for the sluggishness, but even when you turn it off, it’s still too slow. It’s even laggy when toggling HDR+ on and off. Speaking of HDR+, there seems to be a trend in utilizing it full time. Back in the day, you would turn it on when you want to capture a special image, but now it seems as though Google, and even Motorola, want to utilize it all the time in order to help improve low light images. Motorola’s setting is more of an auto HDR where the scene will determine if it’s actually needed. HDR+ will take multiple shots and stitch together the perfect photo using special algorithms. I am no photographer, but from what I can see, you almost have to leave it on all the time in order to get good photos with the Nexus 5.

Here are some examples of images with and without HDR+. Even in outdoor settings, the images benefit from HDR+ being turned on.

Outdoors

HDR+ On                                                              HDR+ Off

Nexus_5_Example_Photo_Outdoor_Light_01_HDRNexus_5_Example_Photo_Outdoor_Light_01_No_HDR

Nexus_5_Example_Photo_Outdoor_Light_03_HDRNexus_5_Example_Photo_Outdoor_Light_03_No_HDR

Nexus_5_Example_Photo_Outdoor_Light_02_HDRNexus_5_Example_Photo_Outdoor_Light_02_No_HDR

Medium Light

HDR+ On                                                              HDR+ Off

Nexus_5_Example_Photo_Medium_Light_01_HDRNexus_5_Example_Photo_Medium_Light_01_No_HDR

Nexus_5_Example_Photo_Medium_Light_02_HDRNexus_5_Example_Photo_Medium_Light_02_No_HDR

Nexus_5_Example_Photo_Medium_Light_03_HDRNexus_5_Example_Photo_Medium_Light_03_No_HDR

Low Light

HDR+ On                                                              HDR+ Off

Nexus_5_Example_Photo_Low_Light_01_HDRNexus_5_Example_Photo_Low_Light_01_No_HDR

The next issue isn’t an issue with the Nexus 5 hardware, but more of and Android issue. It’s the confusing issue of having a Photos app (Google+) and a Gallery app. I won’t even get into Snapseed, which is basically a third option. Word is they will merge the Gallery and the Photos app, but for now, you have to deal with separate apps. The Gallery app has all sorts of editing options, but the Photos app is part of Google+ and doesn’t offer the same features. The Photos app has limited editing, but you can make an Auto Awesome movie out of your videos and images with it. However, that’s not in the Gallery app. As you can see, each app has its own advantages and disadvantages, so you have decide what you want to do and choose the right app that suits your needs.

My last complaint is the fact that you can only capture 4:3 photos. I guess that is fine in itself, but the display shows widescreen, so it’s a little odd why Google would continue to do this.

Closing

Priced at $349/$399 off contract, the Nexus 5 is an incredible value, but don’t mistake it for a flagship phone. I know that no phone is perfect, but a flagship phone should at least deliver in all categories. Sure the Nexus 5 has a very good display, the latest and greatest Snapdragon 800, and a decent amount of RAM, but it lacks in the battery and camera department.

Google will tell you that Nexus devices are for developers, but it’s the hardcore fans that drool over them. Google always gives a few cutting edge features, but skimps on others in order to sell them at an amazing price. With most flagship phones costing $600+ off contract, there is still room to make the Nexus 5 a little better and still be a great value. I would rather pay $449 and get a much better battery along with a better camera. Now the camera might be fixed at a later date with a software update, but the battery cannot. Still, priced at $349 off contract, it’s cheaper than any other mid-tier let alone high-end phone, so you will have hard time finding something better for the money.

I like to think of Nexus phones like Honda cars. You get a great value with a fully loaded Honda, but it’s not a Mercedes even though it kind of feels like it is. The same goes for the Nexus 5……It looks and feels like the best phone in the world, but it isn’t. Owners of Hondas love them and swear by them, which is exactly what will happen with the Nexus 5.

 

 


About the Author: Robert Nazarian

Robert lives in upstate New York where he was born and raised. Technology was always his passion. His first computer was a Radio Shack TRS80 Color that used a cassette tape to save programs, and his first laptop was a Toshiba T1200FB that sported a CGA greyscale screen and two 720kb floppy drives (no hardrive). From the early 90’s through late 2011, he only owned Motorola phones starting with the MircroTAC all the way through to the Droid X. He broke that streak when he bought the Galaxy Nexus. Now he's sporting a Galaxy Note 4, and absolutely loves it. He has a wonderful wife and a 6 year old son. In his free time he enjoys sports, movies, TV, working out, and trying to keep up with the rapid fast world of technology.


  • Dt Bell

    Neither was the N4, but at the end of a years regular use, I got more than $230.00 on eBay towards my N5.

    • tiger

      Good luck with that next year when everyone will be on 64-bit processing….

  • Keith0606

    This article made me laugh, I have an N5 and a honda, and I do love them both, and i’d probably swear by them too.

    I am however hoping for a little better camera software (speed) via software update, Ok with the quality personally at least in HDR mode.

    Personally, as a whole, I would not trade the N5 for any other smartphone available today.

  • dinmab

    if this phone is slippery, i dont want to shake hands with u :P battery lasts for 2 work days for me now.

  • Pedro Fernandez Ruiz

    bad article from Mr Nazarian, N5 is a great phone, as good as S4, HTC One or LG G2…. and for that price….oh God, it´s a steal!

  • ieuvbiuf

    Even with the disappointing battery life, it’s still the #1 or #2 Android Phone today, the other being Samsung Galaxy Note 3. About the camera: as long as the lenses are smaller than on DSLRs(or bigger compacts), the image quality will always be a compromise, regardless of a brand.

    • tiger

      Nexus 5 camera is much more of a compromise than other 1st tier smartphones. Don’t confuse yourself.

  • sam

    can I swap the sim card between the N5 and my S4 on Sprint? if so do I just switch it and reboot?

  • adam lamb

    so u think the nexus 5 isn’t a flagship because every feature doesn’t blow u away? Stop trolling please. When is the last time u seen a flagship that was better than the nexus 5? Only phones that come close to it is the note 3 and g2. This article talks about what makes a phone a flagship in your eyes, but the price alone on this phone makes it the best flagship out right now in most peoples eyes. I Just think u are trying too hard to find things that it doesn’t have and in the process your missing all the good stuff that makes it the best phone out right now. I don’t like u anymore. Eat rotten hammers!

    • tiger

      Well, a flagship is that…it excels in most (if not all) categories. YOUR definition is not a flagship…you are describing a value leader. And this is true. Nexus 5 is a value leader by a long shot! But is it a flagship? No. It is a flagship of the Nexus program only.

      Compared to current flagships (LG G2, Note 3, iPhone 5S), Nexus 5 is 2nd tier. Yes, you can compare to Galaxy S4, but that came out 5-6 months ago. Some GS4 now has S800 chip, which makes it a better flagship than Nexus 5.

      And even now, you can see that other Android makers are making updates to their phones fairly fast…at most, a month or so behind Nexus. So, the Nexus promise of quicker update is still there but not as exaggerated as before.

      And as we all found out about Galaxy Nexus, Nexus phones are not supported any longer than other Android…15-18 months is the life span.

    • Jillxz

      It has an inferior camera to the LG G2. And that isn’t the ony thing .

    • Idon’t Know

      The iPhone 5s destroys it in every way.

  • Jillxz

    There is no surprise here. Nexus brand phones are seldom flagship phones. They most always fall below the mark of a flagship. If it isn’t the pixel density , it’s the camera , and if it isn’t the camera then it’s the resolution etc etc. Always something to lower it. But my friends , that’s the Goolge way.

    • tiger

      You get what you pay for….

  • Revas

    If you think the Nexus 5 isn’t a flagship phone you’ve either A.) trolling B.) have never used one or C.) you don’t know what a flagship product is.

    • Idon’t Know

      Poor battery, camera, washed out screen, joke of a speaker. That’s your idea of a flagship?

      • Revas

        No I was referring to the super-fast processor, vivid screen, buttery smooth OS and all day battery life.

        If you need more than 4 hrs SOT from one charge you should buy another phone. And, just because it isn’t for you, doesn’t mean it isn’t a flagship device. Arguing the point is just silly. Or you don’t understand what a flagship is.

  • fredphoesh

    why is the whole camera test about HDR?? As if HDR means a thing to most photographers… it does not, in fact many of the G+ photography communities ban HDR because it is a HACKNEYED form of photography!