On 31 January it will be exactly three months since the Google and LG’s Nexus 5 went on sale. Neither company has yet to release exact sales figures for the handset, but it is arguably the most important Android handset ever made.
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Why? Because for the first time Google launched a handset not to hang onto the coattails of the latest premium smartphones, but to leap ahead. Not only was the Nexus 5 faster than the Samsung Galaxy S4, HTC One and Sony Xperia Z, but it was also nearly half the price while promising immediate updates to the latest versions of Android.
Google was also ready this time with product. The initial wave of interest saw all variants of the handset (black or white, 16GB or 32GB) sell out, but stock quickly returned and there were few of the availability issues which plagued the release of the Nexus 4. Google was ready and, following overwhelmingly positive reviews, the Nexus 5 has become a major milestone.
That said, in keeping the price down, cuts were made and questions raised about the build quality, camera, speaker and battery life. So for those still considering whether to take the plunge it is time to re-review the handset after three months of daily use.
Note: I won’t be reviewing the handset as a new phone, rather looking at the elements that have stood out as an owner for the last three months.
Design – wear and tear
Compared to the HTC One, the Nexus 5 has been labelled bland but I’m pleased to say it has so far proved to be one of the toughest wearing handsets I have owned and I carry it around without a protective case or film.
Key to this confidence is the rubberised back and Gorilla Glass 3 screen. The former is interesting because not many people know the black and white editions of the Nexus 5 have different materials on the back (more on that below). I own the black edition which is rubberised and so far it has picked up no bumps or scuffs despite several drops, including two on the sidewalk. A downside is the rubber shows up oil and dirt, but it rubs off easily.
There is a weak spot though: the camera lens ring. Much was made of the Nexus 5 camera (again more on this to come), but its frustrating weakness is the oversized ring. It regularly makes contact with surfaces and black paint is beginning to chip away to reveal the metal underneath. This doesn’t affect the camera function, and in fact protects the lens itself, but it is the only noticeable damage to my phone in three months.
Even more impressive is the screen. While Gorilla Glass has long claimed to protect handsets in lab tests, it seems to be made of cellophane in real world use. But Gorilla Glass 3 seems to have cracked it (pun unintended). Again, despite several drops, there is not a single scratch on the handset. This is all the more impressive since the Nexus 4 was infamous for its weak screen and after a similar period my old Nexus 4 looked like it had been attacked by barbed wire.
The sides of the Nexus 5 also deserve praise. Often a weak spot on phones, notably the iPhone 5 and 5S, the black edition of the Nexus 5 wraps its rubberised back around the edges for further protection while the porcelain power and volume buttons are incredibly hard-wearing. It is notable that the buttons are also a little hard edged, but Google has fixed this in a minor hardware revision since the original launch (for more on this revision see the ‘Speaker’ section).
Note: the sides of the white edition are different with a glossy black plastic finish and, while hard-wearing, it has been known to pick up more scuffs than the seemingly indestructible black edition.
Screen – getting used to a 5-inch display
If you are a potential Nexus 5 owner who is curious about moving from a smaller screen phone don’t worry. Having changed from a 4.7-inch Nexus 4 the shift for me was barely noticeable, but I have also previously had five iPhones.
Specifically compared to the Nexus 4, the 5’s extra 0.3-inch screen is essentially lost thanks to the incredibly thin bezels. As such, its dimensions of 5.43 x 2.72 x 0.34 inches (137.84 x 69.17 x 8.59 mm) and 4.59 oz. (130 g) are barely noticeable from the Nexus 4’s 5.27 x 2.7 x 0.36 inches (133.9 x 68.7 x 9.1 mm) and 4.90 oz (139 g). In fact the Nexus 5 is actually thinner and lighter.
Also crucial is the rubberised back of the Nexus 5 which is not only pleasant to hold and hard wearing, but grips your hand making you feel more confident using the phone one handed. This is a massive improvement on the Nexus 4 which was like holding a bar of soap and even improves upon more comfortable smaller handsets such as the glass backed iPhones and slick metal HTC One.
Those fearful of one-handed typing should install Swiftkey (above). It has a ‘compact’ typing mode that shrinks the keyboard for one handed use and easily docks to the left or right side of the screen, depending which hand you are using. For those concerned about reaching the top corners on the home screen I’d advise installing a larger, easily reachable widget though at times you will simply need two hands. It isn’t too much of an inconvenience for the extra screen size you gain.
As for the screen quality, it is as good as many reviews have stated. In other words: vivid and sharp though not quite as rich as the standout 1080p screen on the HTC One. Personally I prefer an IPS display (which the Nexus 5 chooses) over AMOLED used by Samsung for its greater colour accuracy and better performance in direct sunlight.
One complaint is the extent of smudging on the Nexus 5 screen. Since the iPhone 4 introduced ‘oleophobic’ screens most premium phones have minimised the prints and smudges left by our fingers, but the Nexus 5 is a step back in this regard. It doesn’t show every print, but you will need to wipe the screen regularly.
Performance – Vanilla Android
Normally a long section in a normal review (benchmarks are widely available), but here it only needs glossing over. The Nexus 5 is power packed. The Snapdragon 800 chipset at its core was a major coup at the time of release and it remains the fastest Android phone available alongside the LG G2 and Sony Xperia Z1.
This will change when the Samsung Galaxy S5, HTC One ‘2’ and more launch in the middle of 2014 but without a resource-sapping third party skin I’d be surprised to see any of them feel snappier than the Nexus 5 in use. Furthermore, while the major performance optimization made in Android 4.4 will reach these next-generation handsets, they won’t benefit from such timely Android updates as the Nexus 5 which should bring further optimizations.
One final point: with the launch of Android 4.4.2 it is well worth setting up your Nexus 5 to run ‘ART’ (Android RunTime). It controls how your apps run and replaces the ageing ‘Dalvik’ system used since Android 1.0. Initially ART had some high profile app incompatibility problems when the Nexus 5 launched, but those have now cleared up (WhatsApp was the big one). With ART your Nexus 5 will run even faster and make your battery last longer (though installed apps will take up slightly more storage space).
If you’re interested in running ART on your Nexus, here is my guide how to enable it.
Battery – upgrading to ART
Even after switching to ART, perhaps my biggest criticism of the Nexus 5 remains the battery life. Quite simply, when it comes to stamina the phone is a let-down. It isn’t awful, but if you are a heavy user you will rarely find the handset lasts a full day.
While many will blame the large screen and processing power, the real villain here is the battery capacity – it simply isn’t big enough. The Nexus 5 is fitted with just a non-removable 2300mAh capacity battery, the absolute minimum for premium Android handsets. By comparison the LG G2, which inspired the core of the Nexus 5, has a 3000mAh battery.
A further frustration I’ve found is battery inconsistency. Naturally battery life will vary depending on how you use your phone, but even on standby the power drain seems to vary significantly day to day. I suspect further Android updates will improve this, but v4.4.2 hasn’t made as much difference to battery life as its low power specification improvements would lead you to believe.
Speaker – tweaks and updates
Another area which came in for criticism immediately after the Nexus 5 launch was its speakers. While output from the earpiece is fine, the single mono speaker at the base of the handset was weak, particularly for playing back audio and video.
Like the camera (see below) Google has tried to address this with software updates. This has made minor improvements, but it remains far too quiet for a phone of its stature.
The good news is Google has moved to address this with a minor hardware change. Buy a Nexus 5 now and it will have marginally increased speaker holes. This doesn’t transform the handset into a boombox to compete with the phenomenal front speakers on the HTC One, but it does make a difference and the revised Nexus 5 is both louder and clearer. So if you held off buying a Nexus 5 you will benefit.
Camera – the 4.4.2 effect
Having initially pushed the camera front and centre of Nexus 5 adverts, Google quickly realized the handset had a problem in this area. Autofocus was slow and unreliable, HDR mode took an age to compose shots and there was a lot of blur in shots without perfect lighting.
The good news is has Google quickly addressed this with not one, but two updates. Android 4.4.2 followed 4.4.1 so quickly that my Nexus updated from Android 4.4 to 4.4.2 directly. Bugs in 4.4.1 were blamed for the quick-fire update, but regardless of the motivation the camera has been transformed. Shots are fast, sharp and well composed while the optical image stabilisation (OIS) can also come to the forefront and its HDR shots are now particularly effective in dark environments.
Despite these improvements the Nexus 5 still doesn’t have the best camera on the market. The Nokia Lumia 1020 easily takes that honour, followed by the iPhone 5S and Samsung Galaxy Note 3, but the Nexus 5 is no longer out of place in their company. In fact, given the lack of OIS in both the 5S and Note 3, the Nexus 5 actually has the edge in low light and shoots far smoother 1080p video.
This hierarchy may well change with the arrival of new flagship handsets, but for what you pay you’re at last getting a handset with excellent camera and camcorder credentials.
Which brings us to what is undoubtedly the Nexus 5’s biggest selling point: price. While price varies from country to country ($349 and $399 for 16GB and 32GB versions in the US; £339 and £399 in the UK) three months later no premium handset still comes close to offering the same value for money.
This is most obvious in a comparison to its direct rivals: the 16GB and 32GB iPhone 5S cost $649 and $749 respectively, the 16GB Samsung Galaxy S4 retails for roughly $500 and a 16GB HTC One retails for $530. This is a remarkable gulf and means the entry point for the Nexus 5 is even cheaper than its cut-down alternatives, the HTC One Mini ($439) and Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini ($399).
It is worth pointing out that long term contracts for a Nexus 5 aren’t so competitive. Telcos have ruthlessly cashed in on the handset’s popularity and tend to ratchet up prices close to the Galaxy S4 and iPhone 5S. This means the real value comes from purchasing a Nexus 5 directly from the Google Play store, if you can afford the upfront cost.
As such it is no surprise that I’m very happy with my outlay for the Nexus 5 three months later. What you get on paper is one thing, but its durability has been a big surprise along with the fast tracked efforts to deal with the initial camera issues.
Where a question remains is Google’s long term commitment to the phone. Previous Nexus models have not gotten major Android updates after 18 months. Google must break this disappointing trend if it is to inspire the same confidence as Apple, which delivers iOS updates to handsets up to four years old.
In working closely with Google for a second time, LG has produced the definitive Android handset to date. The HTC One may have an edge on stylish build materials and the Samsung Galaxy S4 has a slightly better camera, but the Nexus 5 is faster than both, comes with the latest Android software and is almost half the price. In fact it is even a more comfortable, usable and much more affordable version of the premium LG G2 upon which it is based.
Furthermore the key thing is this is a budget phone which looks set to last. Three months of intense use without any form of case or screen protector has seen the Nexus 5 survive a variety of drops with no obvious visible marks and it has continued to work flawlessly. One exception is the paint on the protective camera ring which has a couple of chips, but it is simply doing its job shielding the lens.
Battery life will be the main issue for Nexus 5 owners. Do switch to ART at the earliest possible opportunity, but still be prepared to spend a short time plugged into a power socket late afternoon if you want it to last all day. You’ll have a similar experience with an iPhone 5C/5S and HTC One, but the Samsung Galaxy S4 and – in particular – the LG G2 are better in this regard.
Then again we have hopes software will improve matters. Certainly the tweaks in Android 4.4.2 have made the Nexus 5 camera genuinely impressive while those who buy a Nexus 5 now will get a model with improved speaker performance.
Living with the Nexus 5 has confirmed its qualities as the best all-around Android phone. Buy one and you’re bagging not only a bargain, but a bargain that will last.
Useful Android Links:
Android Run Time: An Easy Hack To Make Your Phone Faster And Its Battery Last Longer
Google Experience Launcher – An Easy Hack To Get The Look Of The Nexus 5 On Any Android Phone Or Tablet