Nexus 4 Review: Cheap, Insane Specs & Android L Incoming

In this updated review, we take another look at the Google Nexus 4, which is now rocking Android 4.4

Rating: 
5
Typical Price: 
£239.00
Pros: 
Incredible value, Premium design, Great screen, Good camera
Cons: 
Non expandable storage, Loud speaker easily covered, Glass front and back can crack more easily than plastic, Video camera focus locks
Verdict: 
The Google Nexus 4 is without a doubt a landmark phone - quad-core power for a fraction of the price of other flagships, what's not to love?

The Google Nexus 4 was announced on October 29, 2012: its specs were revealed, Android 4.2 was outlined and the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. Until, that is, a moment in the press conference that left everyone dumbfounded, double-taking, even in doubt - its price reveal. Quad-core power, HD display, bleeding edge Android 4.2 (now updateable to Android 4.3), high resolution 8-megapixel camera, premium build. If indeed this Google branded phone manufactured by LG retailed for as little as £239, one thing and one thing alone was clear - it changes everything.

Fast forward to the present, and the Nexus 4 remains a solid choice for anyone looking to pick up a new Android handset - and it's just been updated to Android 4.4, the latest version of the OS. Google has now finalised its Android 4.4.3 update which is pushing out to the Nexus 4, Nexus 5, Nexus 7 and Nexus 10 inside right now.  

Google Nexus 4 review - Design

Everything? Yes. Everything.

Look at it. It’s a premium handset. It’s glass front and backed, subtly chrome trimmed, accented and even manages to pull off personality with its checkerboard backing. 

The shape is Nexus. Rounded corners, curved top and bottom, soft, but still strong. It brings a slight hint of industrial to the table thanks to the unconcealed screws at the base. Dimensions are very manageable for a large screened flagship. 133.9mm tall, 68.7mm wide and 9.1 mm thin, it’s less surface area heavy than the Samsung Galaxy S3 for example though a touch thicker.

The left side is where you’ll find the chrome volume rocker and a micro SIM tray. At the base is a microUSB port, to the right is a power button and on the top a 3.5mm headphone jack. The fascia is buttonless and free from detailing, aside from the 1.3-megapixel front facing camera and subtle, barely visible sensors. The back houses the rear-facing 8-megapixel camera and LED flash.

The back is also where you’ll find the Nexus 4’s personality. We didn’t get on with it on first sight. The checkerboard mirrored pattern beneath the glass seemed a little self-indulgent and dare we say, reminded us of a black marbled work surface circa 1998. Having seen and used it more though, the pattern, and more to the point, the whole package has grown on us.

The Nexus logo for example is positioned so that it shows extremely clearly when being used, just above the arc in between the thumb and forefinger. The speckled, glistening back draws attention to it perfectly and elevates the plastic top and sides to a point of premium. 

As lush as the phone looks, you'll invariably end up clothing it in a protective case - having glass on the front and back of the device means that any accidental drops are likely cause twice the amount of shattering. We also noticed that the back panel is prone to picking up scratches.

When using the Nexus as a camera, these flat, grippy sides provide it the perfect shape with which to hold the phone. The new Android 4.2 camera UI which we’ll come onto makes full functionality usable one-handed when coupled with its comfortable body -  something we can’t say of any other Android phone on market.

With measurements akin to other premium flagships and build just a smidgen less solid thanks to a slight hollow feel which we’re more than willing to forgive, we’re undeniably impressed overall.

Do not drop this handset though! I’ve had my Nexus 4 since launch, and boy is this thing fragile. About a month ago it slid off my coffee table and fell – all of about 14-inches – onto the wooden floor below. And as you can see below, the results weren’t pretty:

It was a minor fumble, and I certainly didn’t expect to find a bloody great big crack in the handset’s front panel. But I did – and I’m not alone. Plenty of reviewers have flagged this issue already but I had no idea the Nexus 4 was this flimsy.

To avoid a similar fate we’d strongly recommend getting a protective case. There’s plenty of choice out there, eBay and Amazon are a great place to start, and a lot of them are actually pretty fetching, complimenting the Nexus 4’s overall design and finish. 

I’ve been using Spigen’s Ultra Thin case for the past couple of months. It’s unobtrusive, doesn’t add much additional bulk and should, in the event you drop your phone, ensure it doesn’t smash into a million pieces. Don’t make the same mistake I did and leave it – once it’s cracked there’s no going back!  

Google Nexus 4 review - Screen

HD displays don’t come cheap, well, they didn’t until now. The Google Nexus 4 by LG pulls off IPS technology with an HD resolution of 768x1280 pixels. With its 318 PPI, that’s spec-wise alone, extremely respectable. What’s even more impressive is seeing it in the flesh.


Google Nexus 4 - Design image

Pixel density is better than that of the Samsung Galaxy S3. Visually it’s ever so slightly less eye-popping and superficial than the HTC One X though about on par with the LG Optimus 4X if not a touch richer.

Viewing angles are strong and outdoors, everything looks very good indeed. The colour calibration delivers a very slight purple hue though this won’t detract from the overall user experience per se; the overall experience is pleasing, although we missed the punch of an AMOLED panel, if we're honest. 

Google Nexus 4 review - Operating system and user interface

The fundamentals of Android 4.2 - and 4.3, which the Nexus has now been updated to - are the same as Androids of old. Five home screens, a pull down notifications bar, applications drawer. Simple.

Jelly Bean 4.1 brought with it smoother visuals, two finger gestures and smarter widget deployment. Jelly Bean 4.2 takes two finger gestures a step forward, introduces lock screen widgets, a new accessibility feature and Daydream, Google’s take on the screen saver. 4.3 includes a raft of new improvements, including enhanced notifications and profiles which allow you to restrict content.

Android 4.4 KitKat: What It Is & What It Does

 

As we said, KitKat is now up and running on the Nexus 4 and Google has now released 4.4.3. KitKat brought with it a whole host of optimizations, bug fixes and visual changes. It’s also the first Android update designed to work on just 512MB of RAM, meaning it runs lighter and is more battery-friendly.

Check out our Android 4.4 KitKat review for a full break down of what you can expect inside the Google Nexus 4. 

This tiled grid of shortcuts gives you access to brightness controls, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and Airplane mode settings, not to mention mobile network and battery information. These big tiles are easy to press, information is displayed as symbols and words and we’re thankful for quick settings being a part of stock Android. For anyone who doesn’t take to the two finger gesture, an icon in the top right of the notifications menu toggles between that and the quick settings.

Lock screen widgets are less of a necessity, though do help the user experience along if you use them. Google has done away with the lock screen camera / Google Now shortcuts. Instead, a swipe right will take you into your camera module. A swipe right and you’re presented with a + symbol. This gives you the option to add one of four widgets: calendar, clock,  email or Gmail. These can be re-sized with a long press and drag, with all but the clock being scrollable.

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Accessibility is something that’s rarely oversold on smartphones, however ever since Microsoft bigged up its accessibility options in Windows Phone 8, we’ve certainly paid more heed to innovation in the field. The addition to Android comes in the form of a triple tap to zoom function. This works on any screen within the UI, magnifying it so even the smallest menu can be comfortably read.

Finally, it’s all about Daydream: Google’s take on a mobile screen saver. When we reviewed the Nexus 10 just a week ago, Daydream was nice to have with a couple of 3rd party apps like Appy Geek taking advantage of it. Now there are a number of live wallpapers and utilities that can overtake your Android as it’s charging, either conveying Google Current like information or handsome, albeit digital sceneries. It makes more sense on a tablet's large screen. That said Daydream showcases the sharp LG display off beautifully and will please many looking for rich RSS ticker functionality on their Android.

Elsewhere, the Nexus is all about smoothness. Thanks to project butter, it’s 60 frame per second smoothness is airy, the S4 Pro’s quad-core power results in responsive lightness to the touch and the visuals of ICS and Holo are still fresh enough to keep everything current.

The app ecosystem on Android has become a force that’s even standing up to Apple’s App Store in the phone sphere. As the Nexus 4 is an Android flagship of sorts, it should also be getting amongst the best app support of any device out there. 

Android L Coming To Nexus 4

Google officially revealed its next iteration of Android, dubbed Android L, at its Google I/O conference in June. As expected, the company confirmed the software would come to all its current Nexus devices, including the Nexus 4.

It's not known whether the public build will retain the Android L name, or if it will revert to Google's convention of confectionery-based monikers - many are expecting Android "Lollipop".

Google is giving its software an extensive overhaul to improve the way users interact with it and to make it a more cohesive experience across phone, tablet, PC, and the crop of new wearable devices. Part of this is a visual change using Matias Duarte's "Material Design" - Google's offering developers the same set of tools it uses to make its own UI and apps, which now features depth layers and dynamic lighting sources to cast shadows and highlights.

Material Design is inspired by the tangible qualities of physical objects, such as paper, the argument being that people intuitively know how to manipulate physical objects based on their immediately observable physical qualities - Google is attempting to bring that same ease-of-use to its mobile UI.

Other features include more interactivity in the lock screen notifications - you'll be able to respond to messages here without unlocking your phone. Google's introduced "Personal Unlocking", which allows you to designate specific conditions as "safe" where a configured lock can be overriden - for example, the GPS coordinates of your house.

A remote "kill switch" is also being hardwired in, allowing you to disable, wipe, and brick your phone should it fall into the wrong hands.

Google Nexus 4 review - Camera

And now, onto the Google Nexus 4’s 8-megapixel camera. For starters - Hoorah! A Nexus with a camera above 5-megapixels coupled with a decent f/2.4 lens. Finally.

What’s more, Google has updated the camera UI and added a photo editor. We’ve said it before and will reiterate once more - it’s a revelation when compared to other stock photo editors out there. 

The main camera UI looks infinitely simpler than any camera interface out there with three icons on the right side of the screen. These consist of a settings button, shutter release and shooting mode switcher.

A tap of the settings icon in the top right though and you'll soon see, it's far more comprehensive than the demure first impression makes out.

The long press integration in Android 4.2 is what makes it really come into its own though. Taking touch to focus one step further, a long press pulls up settings. Keeping the thumb held down, a simple slide over a settings icon enables you to quickly make image adjustments, creating a camera experience that's easy to control whether you're holding the phone in one hand or two.

Like the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, the Google Nexus 4 by LG’s speed of shot is impressive. As far as shots go, clarity is once again better than its predecessor. Significantly so. Being a couple of megapixels more shouldn't make the world of difference, but there’s more discernible detail.

Exposure is pretty good, though the camera has a slight tendency to overexpose when outdoors. Thanks to the user interface changing exposure however is a doddle, so you’ll want to get comfortable with its long press functionality to get the most out of your Nexus 4.

Low light shots look pretty good despite evident noise pretty early on into dusk. The on board flash remedies nighttime grievances very well delivering accurate colours when used. It's not an entirely positive experience, however. We did notice that certain shots had a blue tint, requiring us to tinkering with the white balance to solve the issue. The camera's focus is also inconsistent, and it often fails to track moving objects effectively.

Android 4.2 also brings with it a new shooting mode called Photosphere. Offering a full around the world panorama that you can make your self, it totally won us over.

Results can be panned in streetview style on the phone itself or exported as an image. There's even talk that users will be able to upload their own Photospheres to Google Maps, upping the service's user generated content pool nicely.

You can see our efforts below of both this, and the traditional sweep Panorama which was introduced in Ice Cream Sandwich.

For more examples of the Google Nexus 4 in action, check out our in depth first-look at the camera where you can read our opinions on the photo editor and see some examples of the on board HDR in action.

We’re less enamoured by the video performance than that of stills. In spite of a very smooth frame rate and full HD video recording, what really let down video on the Google Nexus 4 by LG was the dodgy focus system

In the middle of a scene it would track focus unnecessarily and when tested with macro shooting, actually locked focus for a good 10 seconds. Without the ability to change your focus mode, there’s no out of the box fix for this.

This is likely a software issue that will be fixed down the line, and when it is your expectations of the Nexus 4’s video camera can be considerably higher.

Google Nexus 4 review - Multimedia and storage

It goes without saying that a phone with a screen as good as that of the Nexus 4 will deliver a great movie playback experience. What makes it all even sweeter is the fact that the quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro inside manages to make absolute mincemeat of even full HD DivX files using third party players such as MX Player. This is pretty unparallelled playback performance, leaving us pretty bowled over.

It isn’t just movies that the Nexus 4 handles well - music plays back commendably through the 3.5mm headphone jack. The Play Music applications is both slick and comprehensive. With the recent Google Music launch here in the UK, there’s also a mountain of music to sink your teeth into out of the box. This is paid, so if you're after 30 days of free music discovery, we tested out the Spotify app and it worked perfectly. 

Games play back pretty perfectly and are showcased exceptionally well on the 720p 4.7-inch display. With ample room for thumb controls and screen quality being so good, there are few phones out there that do a better job. We admittedly prefer the Note 2 with its additional inches, though along with the S3 and HTC One X, the Google Nexus 4 comes in at the top of the runners up pack for gaming.

The phone’s loudspeaker serves up enough volume, but its design throws up a slight issue. Being so smooth a speaker opening on the reverse, when a finger or thumb covers it up - which happens relatively frequently - loudspeaker volume is as good as muted.

Storage options are simple with a 16GB and 32GB version available through the Google Play Store. 16GB will store about 4000 songs or about 20 movies, 32GB doubles that.

If Google takes the Nexus 4 down the Galaxy Nexus route, you can expect a 64GB version in the near future - which will please some given the fact that the Nexus 4 isn’t expandable.

Google Nexus 4 review - Connections and web

Google has made an active decision not to go with LTE on its Google Nexus 4. This has turned off many of our stateside peers, but we really couldn't care less - at least not right now. 

Here in the UK, LTE hasn't taken off in a big way just yet, price plans are too expensive for mass adoption and the omission has helped to keep the cost down, we’re all for an LTE free Nexus. What’s more, we found data speeds and signal quality in general to be commendable on the phone.

Besides, the phone still supports 3G, DC-HSPA, Wi-Fi, NFC, Bluetooth 4.0 and has a GPS on board, leaving you with pretty much every other wireless connectivity option out there.

With Chrome being your default means of browsing the internet, you’re in a prime position to stay in sync with your Chrome desktop browser. It also manages to perform well in benchmarks, though HTML 5 scores were interestingly lower than the competition.

On a practical level though, whites are pure, text is crisp, loading is snappy and swiping is smooth. 

Google Nexus 4 review - Performance and battery

In case you hadn’t guessed, the quad-core 1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro performs commendably. It benchmarks better than any smartphone out there in its price category, nested in between the Asus Transformer Prime and Samsung Galaxy S3 on Antutu. Quadrant however places it at the top of the rung and on Open GL performance is isn’t far off. 

In terms of day to day smoothness and once again, you really have no cause for concern. We experienced no slowdown of the core UI in the week we were using the Nexus 4. There were a couple of force closes, though not enough to alarm us in any way.

The Google Nexus 4’s 2100 mAh battery matches the Samsung Galaxy S3’s like for like in terms of capacity which is a good start. Being a pretty similar spec device - quad-core, 4.7-inch 720p display - it’s little wonder that battery life isn’t too different either. The non-removable battery will last a full day with relative ease even if sync is on. Just be mindful of screen brightness and you’ll be fine.

Take a few power saving measures and you’ll easily be able to get a day and a half out of your Nexus 4, but if you're a power user then you won't want to leave home without a charger - we've had several days where out fully-charged Nexus 4 was ready to give up the ghost well before bedtime.

SIX MONTHS LATER...

I’ve noticed something rather disturbing in this regard, considering my handset is only six months old. The battery life is no way near what it once was. When I first got the Nexus 4 it’d usually go right through a full day, no problem. Nowadays it barely makes it past 7pm. 

I know batteries degrade somewhat over time, but surely not this much? And worst of all it seems to have gotten worse since the rollout of Android 4.3. I’ve also noted a lot of over-heating issues, usually when watching video, whereby the back of the handset gets so hot it’s actually uncomfortable to hold. 

Google Nexus 4 review - Conclusion

What makes the Nexus 4 so incredibly compelling is its price. £239 for a very good quad-core smartphone in 2013? Unimaginable. What makes the device even more attractive for smartphone lovers is that despite launching over half a year ago, it's still unmatched in its price range, and to top it all off, it's getting Android 4.3 before any of its more expensive rivals.

The phone looks great, certainly giving the illusion it costs a lot more than it does. The screen is a sharp HD panel that rivals the best out there and the UI is bleeding edge Android - even more so now that 4.3 is included.

With fantastic multimedia and connectivity options not to mention class-leading power, aside from the Nexus 4 not being expandable, we’re left wanting for very little.

But this is more than just a well priced, fantastic phone. The Nexus 4 is a spanner in the works for other OEMs. Who could compete with such a strong device at this price point? Not even the mighty Samsung can deliver this kind of value with the considerably less premium Galaxy S3 mini retailing for £60 / 24% more.

If you can find a Nexus 4 in stock on the Google Play store and you're due an upgrade, there are very few reasons not to at least consider it. Hyperbole aside, when it comes to the current smartphone market, this phone breaks all the rules and has well and truly set a new price-point precedent.

Specifications

Typical Price £239
UK Launch November 2012
Network O2, Orange, Three and Vodafone
Phone Style Touch screen
Thickness 9.1mm
Length 133.9..
Width 68.7mm
Weight 139g
Built-in Memory 8GB / 16GB
Connectivity 3G, DC-HSPA, Wi-Fi, NFC, Bluetooth 4.0, GPS
Screen Size 4.7-inches
Designer Lens 8-megapixels
Video Resolution Full HD
Browser Chrome
Battery Standby 390 hours
Talktime 15.3 hours

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