The Nexus line of products has always been defined by a lofty mission: deliver the latest version of the Android operating system without any carrier or manufacturer intervention along with cutting-edge specs. The Nexus 4, made by LG, continues this tradition with (most) of the latest and greatest technology, Available for $199 at T-Mobile and $299 unlocked, the Nexus 4 packs a 1.5-GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro CPU, a bright and sharp 4.7-inch HD screen and an 8-megapixel camera chock-full of new features. There's also a smarter Google Now on board to keep you in the know. Is the Nexus 4 a winner?
The subtle curvature of the top and bottom edges and the gently rounded corners give the LG Nexus 4 a touch of style against a straight-edged rectangle design. The front of this phone is a large piece of Corning Gorilla Glass 2 framed by a thin chrome trim, without a single button. Flipping the device over, the Nexus displays a subtle hologram design, which only shows in certain light, adding a nice touch to this smartphone.
Like other Android devices, there is a power button on the upper right side of this device and the volume toggle mirroring its location on the other side. The bottom of the device houses the microUSB port and the top the headphone jack. Below the 8-megapixel camera on the back sits a large silver Nexus logo and a smaller LG logo.
Measuring 5.3 x 2.7 x 0.4 inches and weighing 5 ounces, the Nexus 4 is just a hair smaller and slightly heavier than both the Samsung Galaxy S III (5.4 x 2.8 x 0.34 inches, 4.7 ounces) and the HTC One S (5.1 x 2.5 x 0.3 inches, 4.2 ounces). The Nexus 4 felt comfortable in our hands and pocket, despite its rather large dimensions.
The Nexus 4 has a beautiful 1280 x 768-pixel 4.7-inch with IPS Plus technology, which brings rich colors and sharp contrast to this device. We played a high definition trailer for Django Unchained and could clearly see the tiniest details in both bright and dark scenes. Django's blue jacket stood out brightly against the green grass as he took vengeance against the plantation owners. We could pause the trailer and count the hairs on Christoph Waltz's beard. Viewing angles were decent, and the image only started to darken at around a 45-degree angle.
Colors were rich and vibrant when viewed both indoors and outdoors. We could read our text messages and browse NYTimes.com even in direct sunlight. This display also uses Zerogap Touch technology to bring pixels closer to the surface of the display, providing a better touchscreen experience.
The speaker on the Nexus 4 is loud, but sound quality is lacking when it comes to the highest and lowest notes. We streamed Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now" and the music easily filled our testing room and each chord and piano key came through clearly. Unfortunately, high notes sounded tinny and the overall music experience wasn't as rich as we would have liked.
We then fired up Kanye West's "No Church in the Wild" and had a similar experience. Sound was decent, but the bass fell flat and the highest notes were tinny. Also, due to the speaker's location on the back of the device, sound became muffled when the phone was screen-up on our desk.
Software and Interface
We were thrilled to get our hands on a device running Android 4.2 "Jellybean," the latest version of Google's OS. Android 4.2 brings an updated user interface as well as new features, such as an enhanced Google Now and gesture typing to the Nexus 4. Unlike the Samsung Galaxy Note II, which runs Android 4.1 (also called Jellybean), the Nexus 4 doesn't have any proprietary interface overlayed on top of the operating system, meaning you'll get Android in the exact form that Google intended.
The Nexus 4 will launch into different applications depending on which direction the lock screen is swiped. We could swipe up to launch directly into the updated Google Now, which provides helpful information cards customized to each user's individual interests. Google Now integrates with Gmail in Android 4.2, automatically pulling in information like flight times or restaurant reservations to deliver cards just when they're needed. However, when a friend sent us an email message with a flight itinerary in it, Google Now did not add a card for that flight.
Upon unlocking our phone to Google Now, we were greeted by a 5-day forecast of the weather, local traffic information and a list of nearby restaurants and bars. Clicking on a restaurant instantly launched the Places result in Google Maps, complete with Zagat rating. Each card could be swept away, like clearing an alert, and would repopulate when the information or location changed.
The lock screen of the Nexus 4 can be customized with different widgets, allowing for quick access to information, such as the weather or emails, without unlocking the device. We weren't able to test this feature, as it wasn't available on our test device, but Google says that it will be available when the phone starts shipping on November 13th.
The Nexus 4 has five available home screens, which can be filled with apps, app folders or widgets. There is also a shortcut bar, where users can dock frequently used apps and easily access all other installed apps. At the top of the display is an always-available Google search, where search queries can be typed or asked aloud by speaking the word "Google" first.
A screen containing quick settings adjustments can now be accessed from within the notifications pane. The icon for Quick Settings is in the top right, and a quick flip animation pulls up a series of tiles, allowing access to brightness, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and other frequently adjusted settings.
The Nexus 4 also supports Miracast, a manufacturer independent wireless screencasting technology, allowing users to mirror their Nexus 4 onto Wi-Fi enabled TVs. The handset connects to the external monitor via Wi-Fi direct, so Wi-Fi Internet connectivity is not needed.
Also new to Android 4.2 is automatic text reflow in Gmail, which means users will no longer need to manually zoom in on messages. There's a new analog clock all with a built-in world clock, stopwatch and timer. An active screensaver, called Daydreamer, pulls pictures or news headlines directly to the sleep screen, which is perfect for when the phone is docked or wirelessly charging.
Even with all the new capabilities of Android 4.2, there are not as many innovative features as some competitors who have added their own skins on top of Google's OS. The Samsung Galaxy S III, which is also available on T-Mobile, doesn't yet have Android 4.2, but its TouchWiz UI includes S Beam, which allows users to share files by tapping phones together, Pop Up Play for watching video while performing other tasks and Smart Stay, which detects eye contact to keep the screen from locking.
The keyboard on the Nexus 4 provided gentle haptic feedback and felt comfortable even when we composed longer emails. It also supports Gesture Type, a new feature that allows users to slide their fingers from letter to letter to compose words. We found the Gesture Type experience to be very similar to Swype, and is a welcome addition to Android 4.2.
We found the keyboard's next-word prediction feature surprisingly accurate. We typed "how" and the Nexus 4 predicted the next two words as "are you," which was correct for the sentence we planned to type: "How are you doing?"
The Nexus 4 supports voice recognition for text input, which, unlike Apple's Siri, works offline. Even in Airplane mode, our sentences were quickly and accurately transcribed.
The Nexus 4 has a 1.5-GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro with 2GB of RAM, providing plenty of pep for most activities, while its Adreno 320 GPU promises an improved gaming experience. In everyday use, there was no delay when navigating between screens and apps opened immediately. Using the device felt smooth and natural. We opened the recently used apps screen while in the middle of a "Fruit Ninja" game and switched applications without delay.
When we played the jet skiing game "Riptide," graphics were smooth and the response times was fast. We effortlessly bounded from wave to wave while passing the other jet skiers and tilting the device to turn with no drop in frame rate. The Nexus 4 also held up during the first person shooter "ShadowGun," where we traveled around a 3D world shooting down our enemies.
We ran into a few problems running certain apps, such as the game "Judge Dredd versus Zombies" and "ShadowGun: DeadZone". With the former, the entire phone reset after we chose all our settings and pressed play, and the later instantly crashed whenever we tried to load the application. Google will, however, be issuing an over-the-air update on November 13, the Nexus 4's release date, which may fix these problems.
The Nexus 4 notched an above average showing on the Benchmark CPU test, scoring 3,326 against our smartphone category average of 2,947. The Samsung Galaxy S III, with a 1.5-GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 CPU, performed much better, scoring a 4,536 on the same test and the HTC One S (1.5-HGz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4) blew them both away with a score of 4,994.3.
On the An3DBench graphics test, the Nexus 4 also topped the average score of 7,150 by clocking 7,318, which is just slightly less than the Samsung Galaxy S III's mark of 7,332.
The Nexus 4 turned in a similar performance on Quadrant, a synthetic test that measures overall system performance. The device scored 4,670 against the average of 3,128. However, the Galaxy S III scored slightly higher, with a 4,964, and the HTC One S got 4,857.
T-Mobile's HSPA+42 network delivers fast 4G speeds, but is still no match for AT&T's or Verizon Wireless' 4G LTE networks. Unfortunately, even with an unlocked Nexus 4, there's still no LTE support, so there's absolutely no way to match the download and upload speeds of competing devices.
We loaded NYTimes.com in 9.6 seconds, ESPN.com in 6.4 seconds and Laptopmag.com in 7.3 seonds. On Speedtest.net, the Nexus 4 turned in an average download speed of 5.2 Mbps and an upload rate of 1.5 Mbps while walking down the street in Brooklyn. The Samsung Galaxy S III, over the same network, clocked 9.5 Mbps down and 1.3 Mbps up. However, the network may have been overstressed due to Hurricane Sandy so we will test again in a few days. Stay tuned for further results.
Google's own browser, Google Chrome, is the default Web browser on the Nexus 4 and all other Android 4.2 devices, providing a sleek user interface, easy tabbed browsing and the ability to sync passwords, browser history and bookmarks across devices.
Camera and Camcorder
The 8-megapixel rear camera on the Nexus 4 has a back-illuminated sensor, which helps to improve image quality in low-light environments. Images were crisp and clear, but colors weren't vivid during our walk around our Brooklyn neighborhood. In a picture of the Gowanus canal the water seemed greener in-person than in the captured images and the reds and oranges in the surrounded buildings seemed washed out.
One of the features of the Nexus 4's camera, Photo Sphere, allows users to snap pictures in every direction as the software stitches all these images together into one large scene. The interface was easy to use, but the final images still had glitches and not all borders were lined up perfectly.
The front camera is 1.3-MP captured images with minimal noise and bright colors, plenty good for video chats.
We were impressed by the Nexus 4's 1080p video recordings. Cars were clear as they drove past, and we could easily see the gentle ripples in the water filling the canal. However, much like the still images, colors fell flat.
Because it's a Google-branded phone, the company has put its own apps front and center on the Nexus 4. By default, there is a folder on the bottom right corner of the main home screen with quick access to Gmail, Google+, Maps, Play Music, Play Movies, Play Books, Play Magazines, YouTube, Google Talk, Calendar and People apps. At the bottom right of the home screen is an icon for Google Play, Google's digital store filled with apps, music, magazines, books, music and videos.
The Google Play store now offers more than 675,000 apps, many of which are free. Applications can be grouped together into folders by dropping one icon onto another. Unlike iOS, Android allows you to leave these folders unnamed if you want.
Unlike other Android devices, Google doesn't load the Nexus 4 with any third-party applications, allowing the user full control over which apps to download and use.
Call quality on the Nexus 4 was crisp and clear on both ends. Volume was loud as well. There's no doubt that these extra notches of volume would come in handy in noisy environments. Quality held true on both a call to another mobile phone as well as to an out-of-state landline.
Battery Life and Wireless Charging
The 2,100 mAh li-polymer battery is rated for up to 250 hours of standby time and up to 10 hours of talk time. Unfortunately, on the LAPTOP Battery Test (Web surfing via 4G), the Nexus 4 lasted just 4 hours and 36 minutes, an hour and a half less than the category average (6:01).
The Nexus 4 also takes a cue from the Lumia 920 and supports wireless charging via Google's new Wireless Charging Orb or any Qi-compatible charger. There's no word yet about the cost of the Orb, but most wireless charging mats start at around $50 and go up from there. While we appreciate this feature, it would have been great to have a charging mat included with the Nexus 4.
Our model of the Nexus 4 features 16GB of internal storage and works on the T-Mobile network, which costs $199 with a T-Mobile contract. There are also two unlocked and contract free versions of the Nexus 4, one with 8GB and costing $299 and one that has 16GB that costs $349. If there's a possibility that you might want to travel abroad with your phone or switch to another carrier that supports HSPA+, we recommend spending the extra money for the unlocked version so you can switch SIM cards anytime you want.
For those wanting a pure Android experience, as Google intended, the Nexus 4 is a strong choice. The 1.5-GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro processor and 2GB of RAM make applications run quickly on an already buttery smooth OS. The Google Now and camera app enhancements are also welcome, even if the camera itself doesn't wow. We also look forward to using the new lock screen widgets. Ultimately, though, the Nexus 4 doesn't feel as cutting edge or as innovative as the Samsung Galaxy S III.
While T-Mobile customers may be satisfied with HSPA+ speeds, those interested in purchasing the unlocked version of this device will need to weigh having the latest and greatest software versus not being able to take advantage of 4G LTE speeds. iPhone owners don't need to make that trade-off. Still, for $199, the Nexus 4 delivers an always-up-to-date Android experience running on solid hardware.