Google Nexus 5 (Unlocked) Review

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Editors' rating:
The Pros

Very fast performance; Handy new features in Android 4.4 KitKat; Easy-to-grip soft-touch design; Much cheaper than competing flagship phones

The Cons

Camera needs improvement; Display a bit cloudy

Verdict

The Nexus 5 delivers fast performance, a bright full-HD screen and lots of new features in Android KitKat, all for a very affordable off-contract price.

It has all the makings of one of the best values in the smartphone world. At just $349 unlocked for the 16GB version ($399 for 32GB), the Google Nexus 5 is $250 to $300 cheaper than other flagship devices without a contract, like the Samsung Galaxy S4 and the Apple iPhone 5s. And yet this LG-made device packs Qualcomm's fastest Snapdragon 800 processor and a 5-inch full-HD screen. The other reason to want this smartphone is that it runs pure Android 4.4 KitKat, which brings new features, like voice-activated search from the home screen and a smarter phone app. Find out if the Nexus 5 is the steal it seems.

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Design

The Nexus 5 has a fairly low-key aesthetic compared with that of its predecessor. While the Nexus 4 sported a glass back with flecks that subtly danced as you held it at different angles, the Nexus 5 is more utilitarian. It has a soft-touch black back with a large embossed Nexus logo running vertically down the middle. (You can also order it in white.) The chrome edges of the Nexus 4 have given way to smooth black plastic around the Nexus 5's perimeter. This is a completely bling-free phone, which, while lacking in excitement, befits the bloat-free vibe of the software.

The right side of the Nexus 5 houses the power button and SIM card slot, while the volume rocker lines the left side. A microUSB port, flanked by two speakers, sits on the bottom, and there's a headphone jack up top.

 

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Measuring 5.4 x 2.7 x 0.33 inches and weighing 4.6 ounces, the Nexus 5 is fairly compact, given its large 5-inch screen. At 5.4 x 2.8 x 0.31 inches, the Samsung Galaxy S4 is slightly wider and thinner but pretty much the same size and weight. Unlike the S4, though, the back on the Nexus 5 isn't removable, so you can't replace the battery or add a microSD card.

We had to stretch our thumb a bit to reach the phone icon on the main home screen, but it's certainly easier to use the Nexus 5 with one hand than bigger phablets, such as the Samsung Galaxy Note 3.

Display

The 4.95-inch Gorilla Glass 3 screen on the Nexus 5 is above average but not best-in-class. On the plus side, the panel sports a full-HD resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels, which resulted in tack-sharp text and images, whether we were scrolling through home screens or viewing websites. This display is also fairly bright, registering 460 lux (408 nits) on our light meter. That's brighter than the category average (396 lux), the HTC One (439 lux) and the same as the Galaxy S4. However, the Galaxy Note 3 (539 lux) and iPhone 5s (500 lux) are both brighter.

To gauge the image quality of the Nexus 5, we watched the high-def trailer for the "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" on this device and the Galaxy S4 at the same time. In a close-up of Donald Sutherland's face, we could more easily make out the creases around his eyes and the strands in his beard on the S4. The colors were also more saturated on Samsung's AMOLED screen; plus, the blacks were blacker. The Nexus 5's viewing angles also aren't as generous; images looked a bit washed-out by comparison.

Audio

The Nexus 5's speaker is fine for listening in a quiet room, but it doesn't produce the loudest or cleanest audio. The soundtrack in the "Hunger Games" trailer sounded suitably grave with its haunting horns, but Dave Grohl's vocals on the Foo Fighters "Times Like These" were harsh at max volume. The Galaxy S4 rear speaker got louder on the same track, even though it registered the same number of decibels as the Nexus 5 on our test (81dB). This is slightly above the 80db category average. One other negative about the sound is that it's too easy to muffle the audio when playing games in landscape mode.

 

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Android 4.4 KitKat OS

Google's Android 4.4 KitKat OS doesn't bring a lot of big changes to the platform, but there are plenty of welcome improvements. For starters, a new immersive mode helps eliminate distractions when you're trying to enjoy content. When you're reading a book, for example, the top and bottom menu bars -- as well as the navigation buttons at the very bottom of the screen -- disappear. This lets you view more words at once. To bring the controls back, you swipe up from the bottom of the screen or just tap the display. KitKat also presents full-screen album art on the home screen.

Android 4.4 makes it easy to get stuff done with just your voice. From the home screen or the Google Now screen, you can say, "OK, Google" and ask all sorts of questions or tell your phone what to do. You can make calls to contacts or businesses (we said "Call Panera," and Google Now automatically dialed the closest location), get directions, send messages, set reminders, get the weather and more. You can even tell the Nexus 5 to play your favorite song or artist, as we did with Lorde's catchy "Royals" track on Spotify.

The Nexus 5's voice controls aren't quite as versatile as Motorola's touchless controls for the Moto X. You can't activate them with the screen off, and the device isn't trained to your specific voice. Nevertheless, we found this feature very convenient.

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Android 4.4 also has a smarter phone app. When you get an incoming call from a business that's listed in Google Maps, it will automatically be identified in caller ID. The main screen of the phone app has a search screen right up top for looking up contacts or nearby businesses, and the Nexus 5 will automatically prioritize people based on whom you call most and display their faces in the middle of the screen. Other Android phones have a similar feature, but we prefer the Nexus 5's presentation. Overall, there's much less need for the dialpad, which you can always launch at the bottom of the screen.

Another new feature of Android 4.4 KitKat is that Hangouts now combines your Google Talk messages, texts and video chats. And if you're a sucker for cute emoticons, you'll appreciate the bevy of emoji options, ranging from little devils to the Statue of Liberty.

There are lots of other enhancements in Android 4.4 KitKat, including easier home-screen switching for those who have downloaded replacements and a new Location tile in the quick-settings menu. However, we wish Google would combine quick settings with notifications, as Samsung and LG have done on their phones. And while we like that you can launch Google Now or the camera from the lock screen, other Android phones let you unlock to any app you want.

KitKat is also missing some other features that we like on other Android phones. You can't run two apps on the screen at once, as you can with Samsung's Multi Window feature, and there's no My Magazine or BlinkFeed option for aggregating a personalized news and social feed.

Performance

You won't find a swifter combination right now in the smartphone world than a pure build of Android 4.4 KitKat and a 2.26-GHz Snapdragon 800 processor (with 2GB of RAM). In side-by-side tests with the Galaxy S4 (1.9-GHz Snapdragon 600), the Nexus 5 opened apps and returned to the home screen more quickly, while the Samsung exhibited at least a second of lag. The Nexus 5 also downloaded the full desktop version of The New York Times over the same Wi-Fi connection 5 seconds faster.

The Nexus 5 also delivered smooth performance when we played "Real Boxing." The action never stuttered as we dodged and delivered a blood-splattering uppercut.

As expected, the Nexus 5 blazed through most Android benchmarks, but faltered on one homegrown test. On Geekbench 3, which measures overall performance, the device notched 2,689. That showing is more than 1,000 points higher than the category average and faster than the iPhone 5s (2,556) and LG G2 (1,873). However, the Galaxy Note 3 (2.3-GHz Snapdragon 800 and 3GB of RAM) scored a higher 2,979.

 

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The Nexus 5 similarly impressed on the 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited graphics benchmark, scoring 16,103. That's faster than the LG G2 (14,762) and HTC One (10,325) but again behind the Note 3 (18,808).

We gauged the Nexus 5's real-world performance by transcoding a 240MB 1080p video to 480p using the VidTrim app. The phone took 7 minutes and 51 seconds, which is a good 40 seconds faster than the category average but well behind such phones as the Note 3 (5:15). Surprisingly, even the ostensibly slower Galaxy S4 finished this task in a shorter time (7:27).

Lastly, the Nexus 5 opened the NOVA 3 game in 12 seconds, which is faster than the 15-second category average, a hair faster than the Note 3 (13 seconds) and on a par with the Moto X (12 seconds).

Apps

Blissfully bloatware-free, the unlocked version of the Nexus 5 comes preloaded only with Google's own array of apps. You'll find such usual suspects as Gmail, Maps, Calendar, YouTube and Hangouts, as well as newer options, like Keep for taking notes.

To help you be more productive, Google also bundles its Quickoffice suite, which lets you create and edit documents, spreadsheets and presentations. Quickoffice also integrates with Google Drive for opening and saving files, although, during our testing, we had some trouble getting our Google documents to load within the app.

Camera

On paper, the Nexus 5's camera sounds like a serious step up from its predecessor. A new lens captures more light, there's built-in optical image stabilization and a new HDR + promises better daytime and nighttime shots. Unfortunately, the Nexus 5 didn't impress in our testing.

Not only was the Nexus 5's camera slow to focus and fire (sometimes a little more than a second), an image of a flower and some Halloween decorations took on a yellowish tinge on an overcast day. The same photos taken with the iPhone 5s looked cleaner and sharper, with more accurate colors. The Nexus 5 fared much better on a sunny day, capturing a crisp shot of a tree with orange leaves and a bright blue sky.

The Nexus 5 fell flat when we took a photo of an American flag and porch in low light. The photo was fuzzy and out of focus, with noticeable flare from a nearby light. The iPhone 5s' shot under the same conditions exhibited some noise but looked much clearer overall. An indoor shot of a bowl of apples with the flash on looked good but almost too warm.

The good news is that Google told us that it's working on an update to improve the camera experience.

The 1.3-MP front camera fared better when we made a Google Hangouts call to a colleague. He said we looked a little washed-out but relatively clear.

 

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Footage we captured of a golden retriever and some surrounding trees looked warm and colorful, with not too much shake as we walked. However, the Nexus 5 had some trouble focusing.

We're not big fans of Google's minimalist camera app's interface. Pressing the button above the shutter button fans out multiple options, including HDR +, Exposure, More Options, Flash and the option to switch to the front camera. Unfortunately, once you drill down into, for example, More Options and then Scene mode, there's no way to get back to the previous menu. You'll have to start all over by pressing the main Settings button.

Those looking for nifty camera features -- like sequence shots, eraser mode and animated photos (found in the Galaxy S4 and HTC One) -- will be disappointed. The only gee-whiz feature here is the Photo Sphere mode, which captures 360-degree images.

Battery Life

The Nexus 5 packs a 2,300 mAh battery, which supplied decent but not great battery life in our tests. On the LAPTOP Battery Test, which involves continuous Web surfing over 4G LTE (we used AT&T) at 40 percent brightness, this handset lasted 6 hours and 11 minutes. That runtime is better than the iPhone 5s' 5:46, but below the smartphone average (6:30) and Moto X on AT&T (6:34). The Nexus 5 isn't in the same league as the LG G2's 10:42, which has a 3,000 mAh battery.

With light to moderate usage throughout a day -- including checking email, participating in a 30-minute conference call, taking some photos and streaming music on Spotify -- the battery got down to 15 percent after 9 hours and 11 minutes. So, you may be able to make it through to the evening on a charge, depending on your usage patterns.

 

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Verdict

Nexus phones have always been about winning over Android purists who detest software skins and carrier bloatware. That's still the case, but Google has managed to broaden that appeal with the $349 Nexus 5. For significantly less money than competing smartphones, you can walk away with an unlocked LTE handset that packs the fastest processor, a full-HD screen and handy voice-search tools in a slim and light package. The design doesn't wow, but at least the soft-touch finish is easy to grip and resists fingerprints.

The biggest weakness of the Nexus 5 is its camera. The image quality, performance and functionality don't measure up to the best smartphone cameras, so you might want to wait for Google to supply an update before snatching up this device. But it's really hard to beat this Nexus on value. For example, the LG G2, which has similar specs, costs $175 more off contract. Overall, the Nexus 5 is a great choice for those who want Google's latest software and cutting-edge hardware for a low price.

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Author Bio
Mark Spoonauer
Mark Spoonauer, Editor-in-Chief
Responsible for the editorial vision for Laptopmag.com, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.
Mark Spoonauer, Editor-in-Chief on
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Laptop Mag & Tom's Hardware
Carrier Unlocked
Alternate Carriers T-Mobile
Alternate Carriers Straight Talk
Alternate Carriers Sprint
Alternate Carriers Red Pocket Mobile
Alternate Carriers AT&T
Phone Display Size 5
Display Resolution 1920x1080
Form Factor Candy Bar
OS Family Android
Operating System Android 4.4
Networks 2G, 3G, 4G LTE
CPU 2.26-GHz Snapdragon 800
Processor Family Qualcomm Snapdragon 800
RAM 2GB
Internal Memory 16GB or 32GB
Memory Expansion Type
Display (main) 4.95", 1920 x 1080
Display (secondary)
Bluetooth Type Bluetooth 4.0
Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/nc
Front Camera Resolution 1.3MP
Camera Resolution 8 MP
Talk / Standby Time
Ports SIM card slot
Ports microUSB
Ports 3.5mm headphone
Size 5.4 x 2.7 x 0.33 inches
Weight 4.6 ounces
SAR Rating (Head)
SAR Rating (Body)
Company Website http://www.google.com/nexus/5/