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If you want an Android smartphone that's unencumbered with vendor or mobile operator skins and bundled apps, and receives timely OS updates, Google's Nexus range has been available to fill this role since January 2010. The latest in a line stretching from the HTC-made Nexus One, through a couple of Samsung devices (Nexus S and Galaxy Nexus), is the Nexus 4. This time, Google has partnered with LG for its showcase Android handset.
The Nexus 4, which runs the latest Android 4.2 (Jelly Bean) OS, comes with 8GB or 16GB of internal storage. There's no external expansion, so choose your model carefully. The 8GB version costs UK£239 (inc. VAT) from Google's Play store (US$299, AU$349), while the 16GB version costs UK£279 (US$349 or AU$399).
We were sent the 16GB model for review, and it rapidly turned out to be a hot ticket — Google's UK store sold out within 30 minutes of opening for Nexus 4 business on 13 November (a pattern repeated in other countries). At the time of writing, the store's message remains "We are out of inventory. Please check back soon", although it's still available (at a premium) from O2 and Carphone Warehouse in the UK.
Until now, LG hadn't exactly set the smartphone world alight, although its recent high-end Optimus 4X HD and Optimus G (on which the Nexus 4 is based) handsets were well received. So let's see what the fuss is all about.
Design The £279 16GB Nexus 4 doesn't look like a device that costs £250 less than Apple's 16GB iPhone 5, or around £120 less than Samsung's 16GB Galaxy S III, but that's because Google makes little or no margin on the device — O2, by contrast, charges £399.99 for the 16GB model on Pay As You Go, for example. Hence the feeding frenzy at the Play store and the thriving eBay market — a quick survey of the UK site showed the 8GB model going for around £371 and the 16GB model fetching around £428 at the time of writing.
This is a classy-looking smartphone, built around a 4.7-inch Gorilla Glass 2-protected screen, measuring 68.7mm wide by 133.9mm deep by 9.1mm thick and weighing 139g (that's 2.7in. by 5.27in. by 0.36in. and 4.9oz in imperial measurements). For those who care about such things, it's 0.5mm thicker than the Galaxy S III and 1.5mm thicker than the iPhone 5. Weight-wise, it's 6g heavier than the S III and all of 27g heavier than the iPhone 5.
It may be thicker and heavier than the iPhone 5 and Galaxy S III, but the Nexus 4 — which is slightly rounded at the top and bottom to counteract its otherwise rather angular appearance — feels comfortable in the hand and will fit into most shirt or jacket pockets. The chamfered sides have a rubberised finish that helps with grip, and even the metallic-finish band framing the screen doesn't cheapen the overall look — largely because it's reasonably understated. The back is a flat piece of Gorilla Glass 2 with a near-unique feature (it's also used on LG's Optimus G): Crystal Reflection etching that polarises incident light to give a jewel-like sparkly effect. This sounds as though it could seem tacky, but in fact, like the rest of the design, it's relatively discreet. The back carries the main 8-megapixel camera and an LED flash, Nexus (rather than Google) plus LG branding and a small vertical speaker grille.
There are no physical buttons on the front of the Nexus 4 — instead, there are on-screen buttons for back, home and a list of recent apps. This not only takes up screen space, but also leaves a fair amount of unused bezel above and below the display (there's just a notification LED in the middle of the bottom bezel). The edges are pretty uncluttered, too. On the left side there's a volume rocker and a slide-out Micro-SIM tray, while the right side has the on/off/sleep button. At the top is a 3.5mm headphone jack and one of the two microphones; the other mic is at the bottom, to the right of the Micro-USB 2.0 charging/PC connection port.
The Micro-USB port can also be used with SlimPort adapter cables to connect to an external display — while simultaneously charging the phone via a second Micro-USB port on the adapter. You can buy an HDMI cable on Amazon for UK£23.95/US$29.95, with VGA, DVI and DisplayPort versions to follow at the end of November.
Strictly speaking, the battery isn't removable, but if you're determined it's possible to get inside the handset by removing two small Torx screws at the bottom and prising the back off.
We've been carrying the Nexus 4 for a week or so, and found it pretty resistant to scratches and minor bumps. It's not suffered any drops from significant height onto hard surfaces, so we can't comment on its ability to withstand serious mistreatment.
Features The Nexus 4 is powered by a state-of-the-art SoC — the Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro, comprising the quad-core APQ8064 CPU running at 1.5GHz and the Adreno 320 GPU. It's backed by 2GB of RAM and, in our review unit, 16GB of internal, non-expandable, storage. Out of the box, 12.92GB of this storage was available for user apps and data.
The screen, as mentioned above, measures a sizeable 4.7in. across the diagonal and is a 1,280-by-768-pixel IPS unit protected by tough Corning Gorilla Glass 2. The high pixel density (318ppi) makes for sharp images, and the display can go very bright if turned right up — although you'll pay for this in battery life. Contrast is good, colours are reasonably accurate — at least to the naked eye — and the touchscreen is very responsive.
Connectivity is good — with one proviso that may or may not be significant depending on where you live and which mobile operator you use. I refer, of course, to LTE support, which is not enabled on the Nexus 4 — despite the presence on the motherboard of a Qualcomm LTE chip (WTR1605L) and an LTE-compliant modem (MDM9615A). What you do get is quad-band GSM/GPRS/EDGE, penta-band 3G (WCDMA/UMTS) and DC-HSPA+ support (up to 42Mbps download). In the UK (where this review was conducted), the recently launched EE (Everything Everywhere, formed from the merger of T-Mobile and Orange) LTE network has limited coverage and is currently experiencing teething troubles, so the lack of LTE support is unlikely to trouble many users. Elsewhere, things may well be different.
Completing the wireless lineup is dual-band 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 3.0, NFC (Android Beam) and GPS/GLONASS. There's also support for external monitors via Wireless Display (based on the Wi-Fi Alliance's Miracast standard) and wireless charging via the Qi standard. Unfortunately we were unable to test either of these features as we had neither a Miracast-compliant display nor a Qi-compliant charging station.
Like all high-end smartphones, the Nexus 4 is bristling with sensors — accelerometer, compass, ambient light, gyroscope and barometer (the latter's primary purpose being to deliver altitude data for faster GPS lock-on).
Android 4.2 During the review period, our Nexus 4 received the Android 4.2 (Jelly Bean) OS update, which brings a range of useful new features. We won't plough through all of them here, but here's a brief rundown of our favourites.
First up has to be the quick settings addition to the pull-down notifications panel, accessed via a new icon in the top-right corner. The ability to add widgets to the lock screen is also handy, although there are only four stock ones available at the moment — Calendar, Digital clock, Gmail and Messaging (the camera interface is also present by default on the right-hand lock screen).
On-screen typing gets a boost with the introduction of the Swype-like Gesture Typing which, with a little practice, works very well on the Nexus 4's relatively small keyboard. Google Now, introduced with Android 4.1 and tweaked in version 4.2, looks as though it could become a useful 'personal assistant', but frankly we haven't had enough time for it to embed itself into our lifestyle to deliver a firm judgement. The Voice Search component works well though.
If you are visually impaired, the new Accessibility features will be very welcome: triple-tapping the screen zooms in (to whatever magnification you last used), whereupon you can use the standard pinch gesture to adjust the zoom; you scroll around by dragging with two or more fingers, and can temporarily zoom by triple-tapping and holding. You can also pinch to zoom within Gmail messages — once you've turned on 'Auto-fit messages' in Gmail's 'General settings' dialog.
The most eye-catching new feature is called Photo Sphere, which takes the idea of a panoramic image to the limit by guiding you through the creation of a complete view of your surroundings. After rendering, the image appears as a 2D projection in the camera's filmstrip or grid views; clicking the Photo Sphere icon launches a 3D viewer for exploring the image. Photo Spheres can also be uploaded to, and 3D-browsed in, Google Maps and Google+.
Performance & battery life With a 1.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro and 2GB of RAM on-board, the Nexus 4 ought to deliver decent performance. We ran a selection of benchmarks and compared them to some iPhone 5 and (European, quad-core) Samsung Galaxy S III numbers recently generated by ZDNet Germany.
Geekbench 2 is a system benchmark based on four tests — Integer, Floating Point, Memory and Stream. The overall score shows the Nexus 4 at the head of the pack, with the component tests identifying particularly good floating-point performance (a score of 3603, versus 2911 for the Galaxy S III and 2095 for the iPhone 5):
We used Passmark's Performance Test Mobile to examine 3D graphics performance. This shows the iPhone 5 well ahead of the Nexus 4 and the Galaxy S III:
We tested mobile broadband speed on T-Mobile UK's network, which is theoretically equipped to deliver DC-HSPA+ download speeds of up to 42Mbps. No-one should expect anything like that in practice, of course: in our tests during the middle part of the day in central London, we got an average download speed of 2.1Mbps, an average upload speed of 73.4Kbps and an average ping time of 108ms.
A mixed bag, to be sure, but in everyday use (most of which is on a Wi-Fi connection), we had no serious complaints about the Nexus 4's performance — although it's worth pointing out that we don't do a lot of 3D gaming.
Battery life The Nexus 4 is powered by a non-removable (under normal circumstances) 3.8V 2,100mAh Lithium polymer battery, which means you can't carry a spare battery and drop it in on long mains-free journeys. You'll have to rely on a separate portable battery charger in these situations (these are always handy to carry anyway). Google makes no battery life claims on its specs page, and we haven't completed any formal rundown tests. However, the data we've gathered so far (see graph below) suggests you'll typically get around 6 hours' everyday usage with 3G, Wi-Fi and GPS on most of the time and screen brightness set to auto. That should get you through most of a working day, although heavy usage will leave you looking nervously at the battery gauge towards the end of it.
As far as audio performance is concerned, we had no problem with call quality, or speech recognition using Voice Search. Our only complaint is with music playback volume using a headset, which we found to be on the low side for noisy enviroments such as commuter trains.
Conclusions The Google/LG Nexus 4 is currently the most sought-after smartphone on the planet, selling out within hours — even minutes — as stocks become available, and trading briskly on eBay. It's nicely designed and well specified, but by no means perfect: some will find the lack of LTE support a deal-breaker, and we'd prefer longer battery life and more volume on music playback. However, it's free of mobile operator interference, will get timely OS updates and, above all, sells at an unbeatable price — at least on Google's Play store.
Unless you're a die-hard fan of an alternative mobile platform, or an implacable opponent of Google and all its works, the Nexus 4 looks like a great smartphone deal. We'd give it an Editors' Choice award if you could actually buy it from Google right now.