Review: Google Nexus 5

Google Nexus 5 leads the Android 4.4 'KitKat' charge (November 11th, 2013)

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Product Manufacturer: Google

Price: From $349

The Good


  • - Thin, light design
    - Fast processor, graphics
    - Excellent 5-inch display
    - Outstanding value for money
    - Runs Android 4.4 'KitKat' with new features

The Bad


  • - Low-end plastic materials
    - Non-descript styling
    - So-so call and speaker quality
    - Average battery life
    - Stuck with legacy 32-bit technology

The Google Nexus 5 is the standard bearer for Google's latest version of Android, version 4.4 'KitKat.' It is also representative of Google's egalitarian vision for technology, which is to make advanced technology as widely available to as many people as possible. To do this, it has priced the Nexus 5 from an incredibly low $349 off-contract for the 16GB model or $399 for the 32GB model, rumored to be achieved by selling the handset at or below cost. For this you get the fastest chipset currently available for Android smartphones as well as beautiful 5-inch display. As good a deal as it is, is the best technology and software that Android is able to offer able to match or beat the current gold standard for smartphones, the 64-bit Apple iPhone 5s?

Design and construction

The Google Nexus program has its origins in getting low-cost, but powerful, devices into the hands of developers. However, the popularity of the stock Google Android experience, coupled with the low starting price, has seen the Google Nexus product line become among the most highly sought after Android devices. Google has partnered with several handset makers on its Nexus smartphone line, including, HTC, Samsung and now LG. Together, Google and its partners have focused on functionality first and foremost, so the key aspects of the Nexus smartphones have always been about the quality of the processor and the display. To help keep costs down, the design and choice of external materials continue with a 'function-first' outlook, meaning that the design aesthetics of the Google Nexus 5 keep things very simple and relatively non-descript.

The design and choice of materials of the Nexus 5 clearly do not challenge high-end smartphones for materials, style and overall finish; however, the build quality is high. Despite its plastic build, the Nexus 5 feels well-constructed with no sign of flimsiness and very good overall torsional rigidity. Overall though, the fit and finish of the polycarbonate iPhone 5c, by comparison, conveys a greater sense of quality and style than the Nexus 5. Yet at the same time, the Nexus branding carries with it considerable cache, and plenty of people we have shown them black model to thought that it looked quite slick, while the large Nexus branding across the rear ensured that it received its fair share of attention. The Nexus 5 is exactly what you would expect a developer-focused device to look and feel like. It is also one of the most comfortable and compact 5-inch smartphones on the market thanks to a narrow bezel, thin plastic body and a soft touch (and somewhat slippery) plastic rear shell. However, the bottom corners are not quite as rounded off as the Nexus 4 and it can feel a little bit sharp in the palm without a case on it.



The Nexus 5 comes in two color choices: an all-matte black model, and a two tone white model with white back and glossy black front and sides. The matte black finish is nice, but prone to picking showing up greasy fingerprints particularly, while the white model switches to a glossy plastic for the black components and could end up showing scratches more visibly if not protected by a case. Both are smart looking devices but the choice of plastic materials does betray the Nexus 5 pricing to some extent. Other distinguishing features of the Nexus 5 include a headphone jack sits on the top of the device, while the ceramic power button resides on the top right of the device, and the volume rocker slightly further down and positioned on the left hand side. Two speaker grills flank the microUSB port on the bottom of the device. It's arguable, though, that superseded Nexus 4, had a more upmarket look with its glass back and curved glass on the display. The net result of the Nexus 5 is that its body exhibits such a neutral design language, that it quickly fades into the background when you fire up its stunning 5-inch 1080p IPS LCD display. The Nexus experience is all about the specifications and showcasing the latest Android operating system, and that is where the Nexus 5 shines.


Display

The Nexus 5 display technically measures 4.95-inches, but the slight reduction in its diagonal width means that compared to other smartphones with a display that actually measure 5-inches, the Nexus 5 display is slightly more pixel dense. The 5-inch display on the Sony Xperia Z1 has a pixel density of 441ppi, while the Nexus 5 edges it out with a pixel density of 445ppi, although the 1080p 4.7-inch display on the HTC One remains the current reigning pixel density champion with 469ppi. However, if anyone can tell you the difference between any of the displays for sharpness, they are either simply lying or from another planet. Pixel density is of course not everything, but the display on the Nexus 5 is one of the very best that you will see. If we are pressed to make a call, we would say that the display in the HTC One edges out the Nexus 5 for color gamut, but only by a narrow margin. Webpages are beautifully rendered on it, while HD movies look sensational and overall viewing angles are excellent.



The display panel is covered in Gorilla Glass 3, which features Corning's native damage resistance, so it resists scratches better than ever before and does a better job of masking them should you pick up mark. In our general use over the past week, it has not picked up single mark that we can see. However, even more important than the quality of the glass protecting it, Google and LG have integrated significantly more responsive touch sensor technology into the layer immediately beneath and bonded to the glass. Coupled with improved sensor software algorithms in Android 4.4 'KitKat,' the touch screen responsiveness in the Nexus 5 is getting very close to matching the touchscreen experience that Apple has offered for some years. So not only is viewing content on the Google Nexus 5 an absolute joy, its touch technology also works better than any other Android device on the market.




Camera

Google and LG have aimed to deliver an improved camera experience in the Nexus 5, which is welcome, as there was plenty of room for improvement over the camera in the Nexus 4 although both use 8-megapixel sensors. The most notable new feature is the inclusion of optical image stabilization, which helps to ensure that your snaps are less blurred by incorporating a gyro mechanism into the optical system. The Nexus 5 also incorporates a new larger lens letting more light in for better low light shots, although Google has not specified the size of the new aperture. However, due to some software related glitches in the current version of the Android 4.4 for the Nexus 5, we can't make a definitive judgement about the overall quality of the photos that the device is capable of shooting. Google says that it is working on a patch and when we have it installed, we will update this review with some more definitive judgements. As it stands, the image quality is somewhat disappointing as even images shots in optimal lighting conditions exhibit more noise than they should.



Camera niggles aside, Google has also added some additional functionality to the Camera app in the Android 4.4, including a mode it is calling HDR+ that automatically snaps a rapid burst of photos at different exposures and combines them to into an automatically selected best shot. During our testing, we found that this worked quite well producing richer looking images, although there is a noticeable lag between taking the photo and creation of the shot while it gets processed. This is in addition to established functions including Photo Sphere and Panorama. Google's excellent cloud-based photo features including Auto Backup, that saves and automatically enhances each of your photos and videos, supplement these functions. Added to this is Auto Awesome that creates animations, photo booth shots and panoramas your cloud-saved photo collection and lets you know when it has generated them in the background with a notification. Even though Google may not have yet hit a sweet spot for its Nexus smartphone cameras, its overall photography package is a very solid and competitive offering.

Nexus 5 photo samples - unedited





Performance

The Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 quad-core processor clocked at 2.26GHz matched with 2GB of RAM powers the Nexus 5. It currently the fastest chip on the market available for Android devices, outpacing the Nvidia Tegra 4, which has been well and truly beaten in the marketplace by this generation of Qualcomm chips. Like Apple, Qualcomm has an ARM licence that allows it to create its own customized cores, in this case, the Krait 400 architecture. Currently, both Nvidia's Tegra 4 and Samsung's Exynos 5 Octa chips use off-the-shelf ARM chip cores featuring the Cortex-A15 architecture, but the Qualcomm design is currently the fastest making it the ideal choice for the Nexus 5. Further, Google partner for the Nexus 5 LG, already has a well-established relationship with Qualcomm, helping to ensure that Android 4.4 'KitKat' runs as well on the Nexus 5 as is possible. Of course, even this relationship is suboptimal compared to the Apple's total control over its chip architecture and software code.



Regardless, there is no question the combination of the Nexus 5 hardware with Android 4.4 ensures that this it the fastest and most responsive Android device on the market in every day use. In terms of the benchmark data, however, the Nexus 5 is no faster on the Geekbench 3 test than the similarly Snapdragon 800-equipped Sony Xperia Z1 and Z Ultra handsets. The Nexus 5 returned a single-core score of 900 and a multi-core score of 2710 against a single-core score of 913 and a multi-core score of 2766 returned by the Xperia Z Ultra running Android 4.2.2 'Jelly Bean.' The bottom line is that any device running the Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 chipset is going to be more than fast enough. The older Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 quad-core chipset clocked at 1.7GHz in the Google Play Edition of the HTC One returns a Geekbench 3 single-core score of 629 and a multi-core score of 1880. This was the fastest chipset available in Android devices in the first half of 2012, so performance has increased markedly since then.



However, perhaps for the first time in the last couple of years, Google and its Android partners are significantly behind the technology curve. Apple has made a generation leap over the best that Android currently has to offer with its new one-two combination of the 64-bit A7 chip and the 64-bit iOS 7 operating system. In the Geekbench 3 test, the iPhone 5s achieves a single-core of 1406 and a multi-core score of 2541 despite only being clocked at 1.3GHz (1GHz slower) and running two-cores and incorporating 1GB of system RAM. The iPhone 5s comprehensively outruns the Snapdragon 800 chipset in single-core performance, which is the more important of the two tests as the vast majority of apps only utilize one core. The most obvious example of this performance gap is the way the iPhone 5s runs through the cross-platform Geekbench 3 benchmarking suite in just 35 seconds against the 55 seconds it takes the Nexus 5 to complete the same suite of tests. The key to the Apple performance edge is the 'Cyclone' architecture of the Apple A7 cores, which runs the ARM v8 instruction set against the older ARM v7 instruction set running on the ARM Cortex-A15 like Krait 400 cores in the Snapdragon 800.



The graphics performance of Adreno 330 GPU in the Nexus 5 is also currently the best on offer in the Android world at the moment too. As expected, it returns similar performance results to the Sony Xperia Z Ultra with near identical frame rates in the Egypt HD off screen test of 59fps and 23fps in the T-Rex HD off screen test. The Nexus 5 completed the GFX Bench suite of tests in 10 minutes and 16 seconds. It positively smokes the performance of the Adreno 320 GPU found in the Google Play Edition of the HTC One, which returned 41fps in the Egypt HD off screen test and 15fps in the T-Rex HD off screen test, while it also took 16 minutes and 30 seconds to complete the GFX Bench suite. The iPhone 5s uses the latest Imagination Technologies PowerVR quad-cluster GPU featuring the new 'Rogue' architecture. It produced a result of 64fps in the Egypt HD off screen test and 27fps in the T-Rex HD off screen test, completing the suite of tests in a time of 10 minutes and 22 seconds. So the Adreno GPU in the Nexus 5 is much more of a match for the PowerVR GPU in iPhone 5s than is its Snapdragon CPU, although the iPhone 5s still edges it out for graphics performance.



How did Apple manage to get such a jump on the best CPU architecture over the chipmakers in the Android world? Apple has previously used its position to leverage an advantage with Intel when it has come to gaining access to certain chipsets for its notebooks and desktop computers in the past. Having helped to found ARM way back in 1990, it is possible that it was able to get advance access to ARM's next-generation 64-bit chip architecture ahead of its rivals through some kind of deal. It also acquired low-power chip specialists Intrinisty and PA Semi during Steve Jobs' tenure as Apple CEO, which has ultimately positioned Apple to have a unique competitive advantage of its competition. In most real-world contexts, the high-clock speed of the Nexus 5 helps to ensure that Android runs quickly and that multitasking, launching and running apps work beautifully. However, it does highlight that clock speed isn't everything, with a trade-off being the requirement for a larger battery. The Nexus 5 is no slouch, but its Snapdragon CPU is now a generation behind the A7 in the iPhone 5s even though it has launched just over two months later.




Software

The Nexus 5 exists to showcase the latest version of Google's Android operating system, Android 4.4 'KitKat.' It as Google advertises offering a more polished design, improved performance and new features. It is, however, a complete overhaul of the Android OS, but rather builds and refines on Android 4.3 'Jelly Bean.' There are some interface changes to get your head around, the most notable of which is that a swipe to the left of the Home screen launches Google Now instead of offering additional home screens. This will change the way that you currently organise your apps; for example, if you liked to put your games to the right of the Home screen and your utilities and productivity apps to the left of the Home screen, you will no longer be able to do that. Previous swipe gesture from the bottom of the screen still launches Google Now as well, but positioning it to the left makes it more obvious and certainly has the effect of immersing you in Google' services.



The integration of Google's services is the reason Android exists as a Google platform in the first place and Android 4.4 certainly continues with the trend of putting Google's services front and centre in many of the Nexus 5's functions. Another example of this deeper service integration is the way universal search is now embedded in the revamped Phone app, which will also return local business results as you start to type in phone numbers. Likewise, when incoming phone calls are detected, a search is run against Google's search database. Throw in Google Drive integration and the free QuickOffice suite, and you start to see where Google is headed with its Android platform. If you already use many of these services, then you will love the level of integration that Google has built into Android 4.4. If not, Android still offers plenty of value, you just won't be getting as much out of the experience. For privacy nuts, you may need to look for an alternative platform.



We will give Android 4.4 a closer look in a separate feature story, but for now, suffice to say that it is very stable and very fluid. Google has embedded memory optimization technology that delivers a very fast app switching experience, while also helping to ensure that Android 4.4 will also run quite effectively on low-end to mid-range devices as well. (Google hopes that this will help to minimize Android fragmentation moving forward, but don't expect that older Android devices will see manufacturers release Android 4.4 updates for superseded handsets.) Other enhancements in Android 4.4 include a great looking Lockscreen for the Music app, less intrusive UI elements in apps like Play Books and a more functional notifications panel. From an end user perspective, the other aspect of Android 4.4 that stands out is the integration of SMS messaging, MMS messaging and Google Hangouts chats are all integrated into the all-new Hangouts app. It is good in theory, but conversations are started in Google+ for example with a person, are not integrated with SMS messages exchanged with the same person as is the case in Apple's Messages app.



Overall though, Android 4.4 'KitKat' is shaping up as a substantial point release, however it, like its 32-bit CPU, also remains stuck in the 32-bit world when its Apple has already jumped into the 64-bit future of mobile computing. Google has not given any indication if or when it plans to make the same move, so for the time being, the Apple iPhone 5s and iOS 7 is well in front on the technological front. Does it really matter that much? At this point, probably not, as the Nexus 5 still produces a high-quality smartphone experience. But Google is now playing catch up and has a major task ahead of it to position Android for a 64-bit mobile computing world that will position mobile chips and software architecture as the major computing platform for most users going forward in the post-PC world. Of the current crop of smartphones, the iPhone 5s is the smartphone that is the most future-proof. In the Android world, the Nexus 5 is leading the Android pack as the first to run the latest version of Android.



Connectivity and Battery Life

The Nexus 5 incorporates all of the latest wireless technologies. The most notable inclusion is 4G LTE cellular connectivity, the first Nexus smartphone to support the standard. Google has only made the one model of the Nexus 5, so you will need to check compatibility with your carrier's network. In the US, for example, the Nexus 5 LTE support extends to bands 1/3/5/7/8/20 meaning that Verizon customers are out of luck. As a point of comparison, the iPhone 5s supports nearly double the number of LTE bands. However, having LTE support on the Nexus 5 is a welcome addition and will make a lot people of happy. Unlike the iPhone 5s, the Nexus 5 offers support for dual-band Wi-Fi 802.11ac, which is something Apple didn't add this time around, favoring expanded LTE support instead. The Nexus 5 also incorporates Bluetooth 4.0 LE, NFC and its microUSB port is SlimPort-enabled, meaning that it will output over HDMI with the appropriate adapter. It has of course, also been optimized to support streaming to Google's Chromecast TV dongle.



Google claims that 2300mAh battery in the Nexus 5 will deliver up to 17 hours of talk time and standby time of up to 300 hours. Internet use over Wi-Fi overs up to 8.5 hours of battery life, while users are said to expect up to 7 hours of Internet use over LTE. We found in our testing that like all devices, what you will actually achieve will depend greatly on how you use your device. If you occasionally check your email and surf the Internet over LTE you can get a full day out of it, but if you start playing games, watch videos and engage in heavy Internet browsing you will want to have access to a wall charger, or carry an extra battery pack to charge it up on the go. Google has also integrated wireless charging support into the Nexus 5 that will make it quite convenient to charge the device when it makes the companion accessory available for sale. There is no word on whether it works with standard Qi charging stations, but this is also a possibility.




Phone calls and new Phone app

As smartphones have evolved into pocket computers, the use of smartphones as phones is something that has become just one of the many functions that you can do with them. Which probably explains why the Nexus 5 is just average when it comes to call quality, earpiece quality and overall speaker quality. Call quality on the iPhone 5s is superior as is its speaker, similarly the HTC One offers an outstanding call quality and speaker experience as well. For most people though, this is hardly a deal breaker given that the price is so reasonable and that most of us are inclined to send text messages, messaging services or use email for the vast majority of our communications. In upgrading Android 4.4 'KitKat,' however, Google has taken the opportunity to revamp the Phone app. The new dialler interface is clean, while as we mentioned earlier, search functionality and location awareness is now deeply embedded, for better or worse.






Final thoughts

The Google Nexus 5 is the current standard bearer for the Android platform, leading the Android 4.4 'KitKat' charge. When it comes to pushing the world of smartphone technology into the hands of the masses, Google is clearly the leader. Its egalitarianism is epitomized in the pricing structure for the Google Nexus 5, which represents outstanding value for money by offering users high-end specifications for a low to mid-range entry point coupled with the very latest version of the Android mobile operating system. Google, of course, hopes that its egalitarianism will also reap financial dividends in the long term by doing good in the short term. While many refer to the Nexus 5 as a flagship device, its choice of plastic materials, its average camera, ordinary speakers, earpiece and call quality betray its low price. There are definitely more attractive Android devices on the market that equal or exceed its specifications and offer higher quality components throughout. However, they cost considerably more.

As the standard bearer for Android, it is certainly a highly sought after device, particularly for Android aficionados and developers alike. For consumers who can make the upfront payment, it is a very tempting deal. Right now though, if you want the best overall smartphone on the market, the iPhone 5s offers the best overall technology and the best integration of devices and software. This of course, comes at a price, while Google's range of web services and content delivery is also excellent. Further, its open architecture, flexibility and hackability means that for many power users, Android remains the only choice. However, it is hard to shake the reality that the Nexus 5 is 2013 technology, while the iPhone 5s is still anywhere up to 12 months ahead (perhaps more depending on Google's 64-bit plans), of where Android Is as a platform right now. As far as Android devices go, the Nexus 5 is one of the very best in just about every way that really counts and is certainly worthy of your attention - if you can get your hands one.

by Sanjiv Sathiah


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