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Google Nexus 5 Review

Google Nexus 5 Review

Google hits the sweet spot with its latest handset

For the past three weeks, I've used Google's new Nexus 5 as my daily driver smart phone. And while I will be returning to the Lumia 1020 I prefer, the Nexus 5 is powerful, inexpensive, and attractive. It is the first Android-based handset I feel comfortable recommending.

Indeed, the Nexus 5 is notable for a number of reasons.

It's the first handset to utilize the Android 4.4 mobile OS, codenamed KitKat. This software is starting to head out to other Android device, including the Nexus 7 mini-tablet I use regularly (and also recommend). Android 4.4 provides a number of useful new features, including the excellent "OK, Google" voice search functionality, an immersive full-screen mode for apps, a new phone app, and much more.

Like other Nexus devices, the Nexus 5 of course provides a clean Google Android experience with none of the clutter than other handset makers add to the system. I happen to prefer this approach greatly—it's like what Microsoft does with its Surface and Signature PCs—as it provides a clearer view of what Google is trying to accomplish with its mobile OS.

It's also more of a real flagship device, and roughly comparable to what we see with Apple's iPhone 5S and the Nokia Lumia 1020. That it comes with a truly affordable price tag—$350 sans contract for a 16 GB version and $400 for the 32 GB version—makes the device all the more incredible. It also comes in both white and black versions—I got the white, 16 GB—though that color is only on the back of the device.

From a specs perspective, the Nexus 5 offers some truly modern features. The processor is a quad-core 2.26 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800, almost exactly the same processor found in the Nokia Lumia 2520 tablet, and 2 GB of RAM (again, just like the 2520). It has a stunning, though somewhat dull and matte-like 5-inch screen running at 1920 x 1080 (1080p). Having spent some time with a variety of device types, I think this is the near-ideal screen size. But the screens on the Lumia 1020 and iPhone 5S are superior, with brighter and richer colors.

Apple iPhone 5S (left), Nokia Lumia 1020 (middle), Google Nexus 5 (right)

Unlike its Nexus 4 predecessor, which I found lackluster overall, the Nexus 5 offers true LTE networking capabilities, though you will need to be on AT&T in the United States to get the best speeds. (I am, and experienced 40 Mbps download speeds recently in Boston.) The device will work well on T-Mobile as well, but not on Verizon, which continues to be an issue. It also supports Bluetooth 4.0 LE and 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, and NFC too. It has Qi-based wireless charging, just like the Lumia 1020 and other Nokia devices.

I don't do formal battery tests, but I've been impressed by how well this device lasts throughout the day. I wasn't able to travel during my testing, which would have been a better test, but on a series of day trips into Boston, roughly analogous to a typical commute and work day, or a day off sightseeing, the phone kept chugging along. No issues there at all.

The only minor letdown, really, is the camera. It's not horrible by a long shot, but in this age of spectacular smart phone optics, the Nexus 5 offers nothing special. It's a stock 8 megapixel unit (1.3 MP in the front-facing unit) that does at least offer HDR+ capabilities where two shots are taken with each click of the (virtual) camera button, resulting in a modicum of better color. But the resulting shots are nothing special and the camera software is needlessly convoluted with non-obvious icons. And there's no quick way to access the camera roll from this app, which is odd. (You can do so briefly after taking a shot only.)

Coming from Windows Phone, I find the Android UI to be basic but functional. Like iOS, it offers a grid of icons, though it also has some (now harder to find) widgets that provide Windows Phone-like live updates for the subset of apps that support such a thing. Android provides an excellent notification system—which I discussed previously in Android for the Windows Guy: Dealing with Notifications—which slides down from the top of the screen.

The big pull with Android, of course, is the ecosystem, and here you'll find an excellent collection of apps and services that are second only to those offered by Apple on iOS. There are even many Microsoft apps available, which I'll be writing about soon, and one might logically argue—as I have—that Android is the mobile OS equivalent to Windows back in the day, the place where everything is happening. That is, people use Android for the same reasons they used Windows for decades.

I used to be openly ambivalent about Android, but with the 4.4 release included on the Nexus 5, I'm starting to come around. There's nothing horrifically wrong with it anymore, and Google does get a lot right. Where voice control started off as patently silly in Apple's Siri, the new "OK, Google" functionality in the Nexus 5, which brings a Google Now feature to the Android home screen. You trigger the feature by saying "OK, Google" from the home screen. Then you can say something like, "what is the weather?" and you'll get a nice visual display while a voice tells you the weather.

Say "call Paul at home" and it will dial the phone. Or, if there is more than one Paul in you contacts list, it will give you a choice. (And yes, "Call Paul Thurrott at home does just work.)

Compared to today's other flagship handsets, the Nexus 5 is far more affordable than the iPhone 5S ($649 to $849 without contract, depending on model) or the Lumia 1020 ($600 without contract). The problem is that most people only see the $99 to $299 starting price for handsets with two-year contracts. And of course Verizon users are again out of luck.

I prefer Windows Phone, but Android will be a selling point for most. From a build perspective, the Nexus 5 doesn't feel cheap per se, but it's plastic, and not solid, bulletproof plastic like that used on Lumia devices, but rather thin plastic panels. The metal and glass iPhone 5S looks and feels like a high-quality museum piece by comparison.

Apple iPhone 5S (left), Nokia Lumia 1020 (middle), Google Nexus 5 (right)

But the iPhone 5S screen, while gorgeous is also far too small. The screen on the Lumia 1020 is an improvement, size-wise, but the Nexus 5 screen size is even better. I really like the way this device feels in the hand as well, and while it's technically a bit thicker than the iPhone 5S, it doesn't feel like it.

The Nexus 5 is a great handset and a great value. I'll be returning to the Lumia 1020, but I'm a Windows Phone guy. I suspect the Nexus 5 offers the right combination of features and functionality for most people. It is highly recommended.

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