Nexus 4 Review: Google's Android 4.2 smartphone is a beast

Reviews 14:14, Nov 18 2012

We take a deep look at the latest, pure-Google experience from LG

The Nexus 4 updates the Nexus line from Google, and this time the new smartphone is made by LG. As many Android fans know, Nexus is the pure Google Android experience. It has no carrier apps and junk, and the software doesn't have any custom manufacturer skins and interfaces. It's also the first to feature the newest version of Android, and is often the first, and sometimes only, device to get software updates as they come. If you're an Android fanatic, and you care deeply about your smartphone experience and Google's apps and services, there are few, if any, substitutes for the Nexus devices.

LG, in partnership with Google, has built an excellent device. It's not without its faults, but for the most part this is a modern-day smartphone: It has a powerful processor and plenty of RAM, the display is sharp and has plenty of brightness and contrast, and the camera is just about as good as any other flagship smartphone on the market. The downside is that its 2100 mAh battery is fickle--on some days it will carry me through normal work hours, and on other days I regret leaving home without a charger.

Overall, it is a great phone, so let's take a deeper look into the device and see if it's the right one for you.

Hardware

The Nexus 4 has a 4.7-inch, 1280 x 768, 15:9 display, and although the display is close enough to the left and right edges, there is still a bit of room on either side and it makes the phone feel unusually wide in the hand. Most high-resolution smartphones have 720 pixels across, so the extra 48 here makes a noticeable difference. It's a minor complaint, and after a few days I'm slowly getting used to it. On the left side of the device is the volume rocker, and on the right is the sleep/power button--there isn't a dedicated camera button. The micro-USB charging port is at the bottom of the device, and a 3.5mm headset jack is up at the top. On the face of the device you'll see the front-facing camera on the upper-right corner, and on the upper-left corner are the proximity and ambient light sensors.

The back of the device is lovely. It's a glass backing layered on top of a holographic pattern that shimmers when you angle and move the phone to reflect light. There is an 8MP camera with an LED flash, and the Nexus name and LG logo are prominently stamped on the back. At the bottom right corner, there is a small slit for the speakerphone.

It's important to note that the Nexus 4 is a GSM device with HSPA+. You can't use it on Sprint or Verizon, and the Nexus 4 doesn't support LTE. Depending on where you live, the lack of LTE can be a dealbreaker. However, if you're covered by AT&T's fast HSPA+ network, or T-Mobile's faster HSPA+ network, you can see speeds and latency times comparable to, and in some cases better than, LTE. Few of you may already know about the lack of LTE connectivity, but don't let the whining crybabies of the Internet deter you from buying this device  because it's "not as fast as LTE" and that it isn't "future-proof." The Nexus 4 actually contains hardware for LTE inside it, so who knows what the future holds.

Inside the Nexus 4 is a 1.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro processor, 2GB RAM, Adreno 320 GPU and either 8GB or 16GB of storage. It is all supporting and powering Android 4.2 Jelly Bean.

Software

The Nexus 4 comes with Android 4.2 Jelly Bean, and it is a fine refinement of the Android platform. Starting with the lock screen, it now supports a few windows, which means you can swipe left or right, even if it is pattern-protected, to access features of the phone. When you get to main home screen pane--there are five customizable panes on the home screen--the changes are already apparent. Pulling the notification pane down shows some new icons and features, too. On the upper right, you have a stacked bar to clear notifications. I can understand the design now, but for many, it just won't make any sense. To the right of that is the icon that opens up some quick toggles for Wi-Fi, battery, airplane mode and others. You can quickly access this screen by pulling down the notification pane with two fingers instead of one.

When you enter the applications section, swiping through the app panes shows a nice, stacked animation. Do it slowly, and you'll see the next pane coming up from behind as you're swiping the current pane to the left. It's a nice visual trick, and it shows that Google is paying attention to these little details and making the Android platform a little more polished and flashy.

The hardware, coupled with enhancements from Google as a result of Project Butter, really makes the software fly. I received the Nexus 4 from T-Mobile several days ago and put my own SIM card in it and have been glued to it since. I haven't had any apps hang up or crash on me yet, which is a surprise for Android.

The platform is going to be incredibly familiar to Android users, but it still has a slight learning curve for new smartphone users. While Android 4.2 is now more polished and intuitive as ever, it still isn't as intuitive as iOS 6, but that gap is quickly closing. If you spend any amount of time with Android 4.2, you'll quickly learn that Android's flexibility and refinement will give you some powerful tools. After all, our smartphones aren't just for texting, calling and taking pictures anymore.

Camera

Let's start talking about the camera by diving into the software. This is one of the more unintuitive bits of camera software I've ever encountered on a smartphone. Once you learn it, it's fine, but first discovered some of the settings by accident. For example, the focus indicator on the screen looks like a Nikon lens cap, and it spins around to indicate that it's focusing on something, then it flashes green to let you know that it has focused. Depending on your scene or subject matter, the focus can sometimes take a while before it locks on. If you want to change your flash settings, switch to the front camera, or do much else, you press on the screen and hold and you'll see these options pop up in a ring around the focus ring. It's a nice trick, but totally unnecessary. Your finger will sometimes block your view of some of the options. The other method is to press on the little ring on the upper corner to bring up these options.

If you press the camera icon, a list of shooting modes will come up: stills, video, panorama and something new called Photo Sphere. Photo Sphere is like a panorama, except it lets you take a 360-degree image and it doesn't limit you to a single plane--what I mean by that is that you can shoot up, down, left and right and capture the street, sky and everything in between. The camera does a fine job of stitching the images together, and it will even crop your Photo Sphere image so that it turns out to be a perfect rectangle. But if you upload the image into Google+, you'll be able to see it in its full, jagged-edged glory.

Image quality is O.K. It's not as good as the iPhone 4S or iPhone 5, but it can certainly hold its own against the better smartphone cameras out there. Images are sharp, the saturation and contrast are good and the dynamic range is decent. There is no red-eye correction for flash photos, but using the flash in dark areas is good and isn't over-powering. You can edit images within the gallery app, so any changes that need to made can be done in the phone. There is also a number of filters that you can apply to images to give them some vintage looks, if that's your bag.

Videos are good, too, although I wish it had better image stabilization. The Nexus 4's camera records videos in 1080p HD video, and performs well enough in well-lit and dark scenes.

See below for image samples.

Performance and Battery Life

Because the Nexus 4 is beefed up with its hardware specs, it features the newest version of Android, and the device was built in close partnership with Google, its performance is absolutely solid. Android and Android devices have come a long way in terms of performance, build quality and battery life, and I'm no longer convinced that the iPhone has any substantial edge on the highest quality Android devices. Opening and switching between apps on the Nexus 4 is nearly instantaneous and smooth, and nothing crashes or freezes. Phone calls sound great, and I can generally get reception in some areas where my other T-Mobile devices can't.

Battery life is a real complaint, though. The Nexus 4 doesn't have a removable battery, and for some reason the battery is inconsistent. As I said in my introduction, the battery can last up to an entire day, or 9-12 hours depending on your usage. Sometimes the battery needs to be charged just after five hours on similar usage with equally good reception or signal. Perhaps my experience is unique, but I don't always have the confidence I'd like to leave home without a charger. If you're a power user, you'll always want to have a charger or external battery pack with you. But if you're a casual user, and you're not constantly checking social feeds, watching videos and taking hour-long phone calls, you may be O.K. without a charger.

Final Thoughts

The Nexus 4, like all Nexus devices before it, sets a benchmark of sorts for future Android devices. It's the first Android 4.2 Jelly Bean device (you can also update the Galaxy Nexus to Android 4.2), and so it marks the start of a new crop of next-generation Android devices. What I love about the Nexus line is its purity--it is Android as it was intended to be. Of course, one can argue was that Android was intended to have the flexibility of slapping ugly user interfaces on it and pre-loading it with shit carrier apps, but I prefer to think of the unadulterated version as the true and pure version.

Vanilla Android, or Android without any carrier/manufacturer tweaks and mods, coupled with the excellent hardware made by LG makes a great smartphone that should more than satisfy smartphone fanatics and casual smartphone users alike. The lack of LTE isn't really a deal-breaker, and I can live without having a user-replaceable battery. It almost doesn't feel right to end this review without some serious gripes or concerns, but I'm not going to nitpick just for the sake of doing so, and I'm not going to complain about issues that aren't reason enough to put the device on my Do Not Buy list.

What's more is that you get this entire package for just $299 or $349 for 8GB and 16GB versions, respectively, unlocked! Having that kind of flexibility and freedom with brilliant hardware at these prices is insane.

By now I hope you can decide whether this is the right phone for you. If you buy it, you won't have any real regrets, and if you choose not to, you can rest assured that excellent Android devices come every few weeks. That's the great thing about Android now--it's rare to buy a flagship device that feels old as soon as the next model comes out, but the new models come out so often that timing is increasingly becoming a non-issue for Android users. That's a good thing. Trust me.

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