The Nexus 5 was perhaps the worst-kept secret in tech this year, but nonetheless, rumor and speculation built up a category 5 hypestorm around it - everything from the farfetched, like revolutionary camera tech and flexible displays, to the mundane-but-desirable, like a much larger battery or 3GB of RAM.
But now the Nexus 5 is finally here, and Google has, for the most part, built a very iterative product. As with every Nexus, the design is all-new, though the phone still carries that typically understated Nexus look. The display is just a bit larger, at 4.95", the 8MP OIS camera isn't a huge step forward, the phone isn't all that much lighter or thinner (9g and 0.5mm, respectively), and the battery has grown a paltry 200mAh. On paper, the Nexus 5 sounds a lot like most other high-end smartphones, and in some ways, even inferior to them. One might even say that going strictly on specifications, the Nexus 5 has little to offer over its competitors.
But Google probably isn't all that concerned with the competition, so much as it is with building the best phone it can to that incredible $350 price point. If you hadn't noticed, that price point has actually jumped from the previous phone by $50. Though, the $300 Nexus 4 was the rather pitiful 8GB model, whereas the Nexus 5 now starts at 16GB of storage, matching the price of last year's 16GB version.
Google has also addressed some of the Nexus 4's more obvious shortcomings with the Nexus 5. There's now a 32GB model. LTE support is standard, and works on three of the US's big four networks. The display, now 1080p though not much larger, is a massive improvement in terms of color reproduction. The camera is no longer a complete joke, and in most conditions, produces respectable photos. The awkward and often self-fracturing glass back plate has been replaced with soft touch plastic. The Snapdragon 800 processor is at the pinnacle of what the mobile SoC industry has to offer. It also remains genuinely impressive that Google can offer this phone at such an incredibly low price, and even at $50 more, the improvements made are easily worth the money.
The story doesn't end there, though, as Android 4.4 KitKat is without a doubt the OS's biggest overhaul since Ice Cream Sandwich, making substantial aesthetic and functional improvements to Google's mobile platform. Combined with the hardware of the Nexus 5, I would not hesitate to say this is the best Android experience money can buy today.
But there are shortcomings. Battery life is disappointingly inconsistent. The camera still lags behind those being made by Samsung, Nokia, and Sony (and even LG's own G2). The bottom-firing loudspeaker is just plain bad.
All things considered, though, this is the best Nexus phone yet. There's a sense of refinement and completeness both to the Nexus 5 and Android 4.4 that makes for a product Google has every right to be proud of.
Oh, and this review's a triple-header: Ryan Whitwam, Liam Spradlin, and I (David Ruddock) have authored various different sections of this piece, so look for the little byline under each major header!
Nexus 5: Specifications
- Price: $349-$399 off contract on the Play Store
- Processor: 2.3GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800 MSM8974
- GPU: Adreno 330
- Network compatibility: Quad-band HSPA+, LTE bands 1, 2, 4, 5, 17, 19, 25, 26, 41 (NA model), Sprint CDMA
- Operating system: Android 4.4 KitKat
- Display: 4.95" True HD IPS Plus 1920x1080 (445 DPI)
- Memory: 2GB RAM / 16-32GB storage
- Cameras: 8MP rear (w/ OIS), 1.3MP front
- Battery: 2300mAh, non-removable
- NFC: Yes
- Ports / expandable storage: microUSB / none
- Thickness: 8.6mm
- Weight: 130g
- We all agree: Android 4.4 is the restyle the operating system needed. The new launcher is outstanding, Wallet works out of the box, immersive mode is going to be great in some apps, and the aesthetic changes are pretty slick, too.
- The Nexus 5's display is truly excellent, a descriptor most previous Nexus phones have found elusive. Colors are extremely good, auto-brightness actually works, and sharpness is of course as good as your eyes will ever be able to appreciate.
- This phone is crazy stupid turbofast. The Nexus 5 is easily the fastest Android handset I've ever used, and my colleagues would concur with me on that - the speed is simply incredible. Apps load faster, multitasking is snappier, and every facet of UI interaction just seems quicker.
- I was prepared to be utterly bored by the Nexus 5's physical design, but I have to say, once I saw it in person my mind changed immediately. There's something very understatedly cool about the way the Nexus 5 looks - it's such a counterpoint to the fiddly textures and gloss and chrome so many other OEMs are using right now. As Ryan says, it's not a showstopper of a design, but it's eminently likeable, and from a feel perspective, Liam's dead on: "the softest touch in the universe."
The Not So Good
- We were all absolutely unexcited about the camera. It's not bad, it's just not very good, either. Optical image stabilization helps out video a lot, but the lackluster variety and annoying placement of settings in the camera app can make actually taking a photo kind of an annoyance. Autofocus is also still just too slow.
- Our collective thoughts on battery life were a pretty solid "meh." I've personally been having trouble with the phone not sleeping properly over the last few days, as has Liam, but Ryan's been managing a day's worth of usage pretty reliably. The battery life isn't horrible, but it could be so, so much better.
- The bottom-firing external speaker just kind of sucks. It's not that loud, the quality is pretty awful, and the placement means you'll probably muffle it if you're holding your phone in landscape mode. I'm pretty sure this is the same speaker found on the G2, which sounds similarly bad.
- Grumble grumble microSD cards grumble grumble removable battery.
Design and Hardware
The Nexus 5, as many have already said, is an unassuming device. The general shape is a natural evolution of the Nexus line - a rectangle with rounded corners and slightly curved top and bottom edges. When the screen is off, you've got a black slab and possibly a blinking notification light. When it's on you're looking at Android.
David will address the display, but there are plenty of other points to cover in the Nexus 5's overall hardware design.
The shape of the phone, besides being an extension of the Nexus 4's general outline (and only just a little longer while retaining the same width - a feat in itself), follows the multi-part curve design we first saw with the Nexus 7, and saw carried over with the tablet's 2013 iteration. Matias Duarte, in a previous interview with the Verge, explained the curved design that's meant to feel comfortable in your hands - essentially it relies on a combination of curves and angles. A flat back with edges curved toward the front, cut off early by a sharp section that angles slightly inward. This is a design that's been refined since the Nexus 7 2012, but still works remarkably well.
In a recent interview, Duarte called the Nexus 5's soft touch material "hardcore plastic," separating it from cheap, quick plastic - this plastic was, evidently, machined and very carefully produced to result in what is the softest texture I've ever felt on a phone. The back of the Nexus 5 is positively velvet-smooth.
Picking up the device, it feels warm, inviting, almost grippy but not sticky (certainly less grippy than the Nexus 10). Like the Nexus 7 2013, the Nexus 5 has a horizontal, shiny "nexus" logo inlaid in the back. This and the subtle LG inlay are the only things disturbing the texture, but they aren't tactile enough to be disruptive or uncomfortable.
In my initial outline for this portion of the review, I had noted "the softest touch in the universe," and I wouldn't be mistaken to include those words here.
The only weak point in the "hardcore plastic" is the back, near the camera/flash array. This area seems kind of wiggly, and creaks a little bit. It's not an area I find myself pressing on a daily basis, but it would be nice to have more rigidity.
The Nexus 5 has several key design details that set it apart from other Nexus devices (and other phones in general). With such a minimal overall design, it's important to look at these, since they're the only further hints we have toward the N5's design intent. The first of these is the speaker grill.
Rather than having a section cut out of the top edge of the glass, or an oval-shaped earpiece somewhere farther down, the Nexus 5 has a simple circle punched out, with a speaker grill containing 35 teeny tiny holes drilled in concentric rings. I'll leave the speaker review for a later section, but the design is really unique. I can't recall seeing another smartphone with the same design element.
Also on the front of the device is the notification light. It seems to be a little brighter than the Nexus 4's light, likely due to a larger opening, though the opening is still the same pattern as the N4, which makes for the appearance of a glowing light rather than a simple circle like the Nexus 10's LED.
The speakers have been a point of contention on the Nexus 5 in recent days - as it happens, only one set of holes on the bottom of the phone houses an actual speaker. The other set veils a secondary microphone. The decision to move the speaker away from the back of the phone was a good one (for those using speakerphone, at least), but the design of the speaker grilles is unremarkable. They are more utilitarian than they are beautiful, but perhaps that's okay.
Then of course there are the ceramic buttons. Duarte called out the buttons as "a little nice detail," with the ceramic material being chosen because it is "precise" and "natural." The power button on my device is actually a little wiggly, but the design and feel of the buttons are pretty much spot on. They are distinguished enough, texturally, from the soft-touch sides of the phone that they feel nicer, and the whole phone feels more thoughtful because of this difference.
Around back, there's the aforementioned "nexus" logo, and the camera/flash array. The camera is actually the size of a usual mobile camera, but its lens is surrounded by a big, circular ring with glass on top, very similar to the new Nexus 7. Centered below that is the flash. To some, the ring may look a little ostentatious, but as part of an otherwise unassuming design, it makes an impression.
David's take: Online and in photos, the Nexus 5 looks pretty boring. In person, I absolutely love the sort of "stealth phone" aesthetic of the black version of the phone. It almost looks generic, but in a way that's cool. I can't really describe it - sort of like how the CR-48 in all its unbranded matte-black-everything glory looked like a secret agent's laptop. The Nexus 5 doesn't ooze style, it aerosolizes it and dispenses it with a hidden button from that sneaky little earpiece speaker grille. My only gripes would be that the matte plastic very visibly collects oil from your fingers, and the ceramic volume rocker and power button are a little too sharp for my taste.
Ryan's take: I know the Nexus 5 is not a stunningly beautiful phone, but I feel like it has the kind of design I've always wanted. The word stealth has been thrown around, and I'm down with that description. It does look nice in person, and the soft-touch back (and sides on the black model) make it very comfortable to hold. I love the matte band around the edge of the device, as opposed to metal or plastic on a lot of devices. Like the 2013 Nexus 7, it gets a little oily from your fingers, but seemingly to a lesser degree. I'm still not sold on the odd little round earpiece, but that's a minor detail.
The Nexus 5's LCD IPS display is, thankfully, not overly reminiscent of the one found on LG's G2, even if it probably is a very similar panel. The Nexus 5 appears tuned more to the warm end of the spectrum (LG's phones usually have a decided blue tint), but colors are much more accurate than those on many Motorola and LG handsets, which tend to be oversaturated. Being an LCD, though, black levels remain less than outstanding, and the display even has something of a yellowed tint to its whites, though not as much as you'd find on an AMOLED display.
Viewing angles are superb, though that could equally be said of phones like the HTC One or Samsung Galaxy Note 3. Brightness appears to be on par with the former handset, though, as while holding both the Nexus 5 and HTC One up in direct sunlight at the 100% level, I very much struggled to determine which was the more luminous, and both performed similarly even when held at an angle. Auto-brightness on the Nexus 5 also [thankfully] favors risking being too bright over too dim, a welcome departure from auto-brightness software on many modern Android phones. The downside, of course, is increased battery consumption than if it the setting were more aggressive, though just how much of a difference that makes is hard to really quantify.
All things considered, the Nexus 5's 4.95" panel is among the very best in any Android phone on the market today - you will not find a phone with a substantially better screen. That said, I think I still personally prefer the Galaxy Note 3's upgraded HD Super AMOLED panel, which combines the brightness of a very good - as opposed to a truly excellent - LCD (and, if you change the screen mode, the colors of one) with the deep blacks only OLED tech can provide.
The Nexus 5's display is top-notch, but it's increasingly competing with phones where this is the rule rather than the exception (looking at you, Moto X).
Liam's Take: The Nexus 5's display is gorgeous. During my time with the device so far, I've actually found myself flicking on the screen just to take a look at it. There's definitely a slight shift, and my dream of attaching a colorimeter directly to my mobile devices is as yet unanswered, but I don't think I've seen a "properly" calibrated mobile display yet. I'm willing to accept its minor inconsistencies with real world color in exchange for the excellent experience it provides otherwise. The display makes the Nexus 5 one of those devices that causes me to look at my old phone (the Nexus 4) with prejudice. Suddenly it (and its display) seems old.
Ryan's take: I think the Nexus 5 screen is my personal favorite among Android screens, if I had to choose. The clarity is awesome and the colors are certainly close enough that I'd never be bothered. I don't usually care for the color balance of AMOLED, and the 5-inch size of the N5 has proven more manageable than I expected it to be. The HTC One's screen feels oddly cramped to me, though it has a higher pixel density. I never thought I'd think a 4.7-inch screen was small, but the distain for bezels has allowed LG to pack a huge screen into a phone barely larger than the Nexus 4. I feel like the auto-brightness is a little high, and the display does suck down power. Still, it looks good doing it.
A lot of flagship phones come with huge batteries these days – 3000mAh or more is not uncommon. However, Google broke everyone's hearts by announcing the Nexus 5 with only a measly 2300mAh battery. I'll pause while you curse the heavens one more time.
After giving the Nexus 5 a few days to even out, I'm content with the battery life of this device. It's not amazing, but neither is it a disappointment. The measure for a usable smartphone for me is something I can take off the charger in the morning, and use moderately without worrying about running out of juice before I drop it on the charger that evening. The Nexus 5 can do that, but not much more than that.
I'm seeing about 3.5-4 hours of screen-on time in 16 or 17 total hours of usage. That's from 100% full to impending shutdown, including some Reddit browsing, games, Gmail, Chrome usage, a few minutes of Maps, and some messaging. The device was left on auto-brightness and was connected to WiFi about half the time (note the WiFi bar in the graph is mostly full because of the always-scanning feature of Android). In short, a pretty average day.
Standby time for the Nexus 5 is very, very good – I imagine it could easily make it through two days if you don't use it much. Qualcomm's Snapdragon 800 also has smart core management so it doesn't need to spin up to full speed unless needed. The biggest battery drain by far is the screen – this phone sips power while the screen is off, and guzzles it when it's on. Still, screen time is acceptable.
It would be nice if this phone had a larger Li-ion cell, but it does well enough with the one it has. I am, however, somewhat wary of adding too many apps to the Nexus 5 lest one of them cause issues in the background. Google changed the way the BatteryInfo service works, so my customary wakelock testing apps don't work in KitKat.
David's take: I've been having major standby battery life issues on my Nexus 5 since Thursday (update: pretty sure that was caused by switching to the ART compiler, I switched back to dalvik and all seems normal again), but my first 2 days with the phone would echo Ryan's sentiments - it's decent, but it's not great. On LTE only, I feel I could probably make it through an entire day as long as I didn't spend an hour browsing Reddit here and there or use Maps a lot. It's not where I'd like it to be, though. When phones like the LG G2 or DROID MAXX are squeezing 3000mAh+ batteries into a pretty standard 5" frame, it's time for Google to step up the game until they can actually make good on vague promises of increased power efficiency at the OS level.
Liam's Take: Like David, my Nexus 5's battery life has been all over the charts for the past couple of days. Whether that's because I switched over to ART, who knows. Still, the battery has held up about as I'd expect. I'd essentially gotten used to "meh" battery life living with the N4, and I don't pull my phone out of my pocket too many times during the day, so I am fine with battery life for now. But I know it could be a lot better.
Storage, wireless, and call quality
The Nexus 5, like the Nexus 4 before it, can be purchased in one of two storage capacities. Unlike the Nexus 4, those capacities are now somewhat respectable. You can have your Nexus 5 with either 16GB or 32GB of space, of which a little under 27GB is available on the latter, and presumably around 11GB on the former. Even I find 11GB of usable disk space to be a bit confining, though I can understand Google's reason for offering it: enticing more buyers. I also know I wouldn't be the only one asking for a "pricing revolution" at the 64GB tier. Maybe next year.
Wi-Fi performance has been excellent for me, though I've been hearing mixed results from others. I know in particular that some Nexus 5 users are complaining of connection problems on 5GHz Wi-Fi networks (dropping and reconnecting constantly), but the problem doesn't seem very widespread. I had my own 5GHz issues, in that the phone seemingly refused to sleep when connected to my Wi-Fi on the 5GHz band. When I use the 2.4GHz network I haven't had any problems. In side-by-side testing with a Galaxy S4 and HTC One, the Nexus 5 was consistently faster in speed tests, and when it wasn't, it was not slower by much.
I tested Bluetooth with a wireless speaker, which worked just fine. The range is typical crappy Bluetooth range, so there's really not a lot to report there. The sound was just what I expected - pretty good, but still obviously Bluetooth.
Mobile data performance has been strong if unremarkable on AT&T's LTE network. Speeds are right where I expect them for my region (20-30Mbps down, 8-15Mbps up), and I haven't had any issues with the connection dropping or flipping to HSPA+ unnecessarily. No news is good, as they say.
Finally, call quality. I was quite surprised how good call quality on the Nexus 5 seems to be. While it's not as loud as I recall the Galaxy Note 3 being, it's very clear and not overly tinny - at least for a phone. I often worry about Google screwing this kind of thing up, so I was relieved that after 4 phone calls on the Nexus 5, at no point did I think to myself "this isn't loud enough" or "I can't understand the other person."
Liam's Take: I opted for the 32GB option, and that's exactly enough to keep me comfortable. With an LTE connection (and T-mo's unlimited plan) I don't feel a need to carry too much media around locally. I haven't had time to get an informed opinion about Wi-Fi performance, but data performance has been pretty much as I expected. T-Mobile's LTE performance kind of fluctuates depending on where I am, but the same was true of HSPA+ with the Nexus 4. Call quality, likewise, is what I'd expect. I've never been very critical of call quality, but the Nexus 5's earpiece does sound nice.
Ryan's take: I've been happy with the performance of T-Mobile's LTE with my Nexus 5, and WiFi has also been fine on my end. I've had it connected to a 5GHz N network most of the time and have yet to see any of the issues others report. Call quality has also been great for me – not that I like to take calls, but this phone sounds good.
Audio and speaker
Headphone audio from the Nexus 5 is top-notch, basically the same as you'll get from any Snapdragon 800-equipped phone, as Qualcomm provides all of the DAC / amplifier bits to produce the sound. And hey, according to Google, the Nexus 5 will use a lot less battery than normal when playing back audio, which is a plus.
This brings us to the speaker. The Nexus 5 has one loudspeaker, despite an appearance that may lead you to believe otherwise. You see, on the bottom of the phone are two identical grilles flanking the microUSB port, which you might assume are both involved in the production of sound. But you'd be wrong. Only the left side actually makes any noise - the right side houses the microphone, though the size of the grille is obviously overkill. The choice to have the grille on the right is 95% about form, 5% about function. It doesn't need to be there, it just looks nice.
Anyway, the one speaker the Nexus 5 does have sounds pretty mediocre. It doesn't get very loud, the quality is pretty gag-worthy, and the positioning of the speaker itself is really just kind of stupid. At least if it's on the back you can cup your hand around it to amplify the perceived volume, but with a bottom-firing speaker there's a substantially higher chance you're going to position your hand - especially in landscape mode - such that the speaker gets at least partially covered. It looks cool but the functional utility is questionable at best, and the performance of the speaker itself makes this aspect of the phone a substantial letdown.
Notably, the LG G2 also has a pretty subpar loudspeaker when placed up against the competition from Samsung and HTC, which leads me to believe the N5 is using the same component. It's better than the Nexus 4's, but not by much.
Liam's Take: Like David, I think the bottom speaker (not speakers, unfortunately) is pretty lame. I will say, though, that the bottom placement is better (in my opinion) than the back-placement on the Nexus 4, particularly for those who use speakerphone. I don't find myself blocking the speaker, but then again I don't use the speaker that much either.
Ryan's take: I pretty much agree with the above. The speaker is not terribly good. It does what I need it to – mainly to tell me I have a notification. I'm not as bothered by the loudness as David, though. It seems acceptable in that department.
The camera is perhaps one of the most hotly discussed aspects of any flagship phone. With the Nexus 4's poor track record (in fact the entire Nexus line has had somewhat of a problem getting the camera right), the Nexus 5's camera is a ... focus for much of the Nexus-buying community.
In an attempt to get a handle on whether Google's actually making any progress toward the Nexus devices being "insanely great cameras" (as Vic Gundotra has been famously cited for promising), I shot several comparisons between the Nexus 4 and Nexus 5.
The short version of this story is that the Nexus 5 is indeed better. Besides the obvious enhancements like OIS (optical image stabilization), the software and processing seem to handle photos better, expose more evenly, and at least try harder than the Nexus 4. That isn't to say the Nexus 5 has an excellent camera, though. It is still almost certainly outpaced by cameras like those on the HTC One or iPhone 5s.
What Does "Good" Mean?
But if I may interject my own editorial thoughts, it's hard to objectively call a smartphone camera "good." So much of what makes a smartphone camera good is the experience you get while shooting. Ease of access, a smart and thoughtful interface, and quickness are all hugely critical aspects of this experience.
In this department, it seems Android is actually kind of taking one step forward and two steps back. The camera (as I'll discuss in GTKA later) largely has the same interface as in Jelly Bean, but now shooting in HDR gives you quick feedback as if it's already taken the photo, then a freeze while it actually takes the photo, then you see your photo. This is silly.
And Jelly Bean's camera interface was no looker, either. There are smart and thoughtful features in there, but they aren't easy to get to. They are obscured by multiple layers of this weird thumbnail swipe-up secondary interface...thing, which puts too many actions between you and the things you might actually need to do.
The camera interface hasn't seen a lot of really smart features in a while, either. Photo Sphere is great, and panorama is neat, but the lack of any additional "nice to haves" is lamentable. It may be unfair to call out certain features as being absent when they were never promised in the first place, but some of Google+'s new photo features would be welcome, and even Samsung's "best shot" feature is a nice-to-have that would bump up the experience a notch.
Doing It All For Me
Part of the "smart"ness I discussed earlier is the ability for a camera to just take the shot for you without any monkeying. My personal opinion as someone who is used to DSLRs and compact mirrorless cameras as primary shooting devices is that making the shot excellent is up to the photographer.
A smartphone camera, in my mind, should be able to carry out two separate trees of action - one tree in which the goal is to "capture the moments that matter" (whatever that means to you), and one tree in which the goal is to take really nice looking photos. In my universe, an ideal smartphone camera would have the software power to produce really decent results with absolutely zero involvement, but also the ability to produce excellent results with a little effort. This means making adjustment features more transparent and accessible, and really optimizing software for the phone.
Neither of these things has happened yet.
Can really good results be produced with the Nexus 5? Yes. In order to do that, does one have to put in an unnecessary amount of thought? In too many instances, also yes. On a bright sunny day I snapped a pretty great exposure of the Javits center in Manhattan with HDR+. But had the conditions not been right, it would have certainly taken more effort.
All of that aside, let's see how Google has improved their flagship smartphone's camera since last time.
Left: Nexus 4 Right: Nexus 5
From left: Nexus 4, Nexus 4 HDR, Nexus 5, Nexus 5 HDR+
Left: Nexus 4 Right: Nexus 5
Left: Nexus 5 Right: Nexus 5 100% (3.9x) zoom
From left: Nexus 4, Nexus 4 HDR, Nexus 5, Nexus 5 HDR+
One area where there has been notable improvement is video capture. This is where the OIS camera module really shines. As a quick test, I recorded the same horse race with the Nexus 4 and Nexus 5 stacked one on top of the other. The amount of shake present in the N4 video is definitely noticeable compared to that in the N5's sample. Audio capture was also impressive, given the level of background chatter present.
Addendum: Android 4.4.1
The headline feature of the Nexus 5's update to Android 4.4.1 was a set of tweaks to the phone's camera. Primarily, these included changing the decision-making process that balances gain and shutter speeds to get an optimal photo, autofocus and startup speeds, and a number of changes to the Camera app's UI.
I detailed these changes in What's Really New, so I won't repeat them here, but it's worth re-examining the experience here in light of the update.
In the original review (above) I explained that the real issues with the Nexus 5's camera had almost nothing to do with the camera itself. The hardware is capable of producing good (even really good) images, but it was held back by software and user experience that just felt plain lacking. The hardware/software combination didn't fit what I considered to be a good mobile camera experience, or one that approached the "do it for me but let me choose to do it myself" vision I described for the ideal mobile camera.
Those opinions have remained largely unchanged with 4.4.1 (and, subsequently, 4.4.2). Using the camera is more reliable, and overall better now, but the actual Camera app is still the experience's fatal flaw. The camera's viewfinder is still woefully inaccurate, settings are hidden high in swipe-activated trees, and as a whole, capturing a great photo still requires a lot of thought.
This isn't necessarily a problem unique to the Nexus 5 - as Director of Engineering for Android David Burke said to the Verge, people expect DSLR quality out of a phone camera for some reason, so actually accomplishing that while also reducing the experience to one that requires the least involvement from users is next to impossible. As daunting a goal as that is, the camera app keeps Nexus devices' cameras from reaching their potential, which itself is likely still a far cry from the quality we see in our wild imaginations.
David's take: Nexus phones have never had a great camera experience, and the Nexus 5 doesn't change that. It's not bad per se, but overall I feel like the camera really gets the short end of the stick on Google's priorities, both in terms of hardware and software. Pictures are decent, but autofocus still feels slow and unreliable, and I really cannot stand Google's overly minimalistic camera app. It just kind of sucks, in my opinion. That said, I think this is the best camera on a Nexus to date, though that doesn't really say a whole lot. It's adequate.
Ryan's take: I didn't go into this expecting amazing pictures, but a modest improvement over the Nexus 4 seemed plausible. That's really what we got. It takes nice images in good light, has improved low-light with less noise, and records video nicely. I'm a little concerned with how long it takes to focus before taking a shot, and Google's camera software isn't helping. The camera is fine, but that's it.
Stability And Performance
Let's get this out of the way: the Nexus 5 is insanely, stupidly fast. I'm sure you've used an Android device that seemed responsive at the time, but the Nexus 5 is at least as good, and probably better. Swiping through the homescreen is buttery smooth in a way that Project Butter could never touch, and apps launch incredibly fast.
Comparing to the 2013 Nexus 7 – which is no slouch – the Nexus 5 easily launches most apps twice as fast. This is one of the few things on modern smartphones that still leaves me feeling like I'm waiting on the phone, but not with the Nexus 5. Switching apps is also snappy – nearly instantaneous.
If you put stock in benchmarks, here are some.
Chrome has notorious responsiveness issues on most devices, and this is one of the few places the Nexus 5 falters a bit. It's smooth most of the time, but there is an occasional hitch on heavy pages – I should stress occasional. The overall experience is still improved. The widget list is another place I always encounter a spot of lag on Android devices, and the Nexus 5 again improves on things, but doesn't get it perfect. The momentary hesitation while the widget list populates is much shorter than with other devices, though.
The takeaway when it comes to performance is that Android has been tightened up considerably and the hardware is super-powerful. The things that were smooth on the Nexus 4 are even smoother on the Nexus 5, and the handful of laggy bits have been eliminated, or at least drastically reduced.
Moving on to stability, I have very little to say because there's nothing to complain about on my end. I haven't had a single app hang and the device hasn't done anything bizarre like restart or bootloop. There are a few apps that aren't compatible because of changes in Android 4.4, but that's not really the phone's fault. The experience using the Nexus 5 is simply killer.
David's take: Good god this phone is fast. Easily the fastest phone I've ever used - it's really no contest. As Ryan said, opening and switching apps is much more snappy than it used to be, and every aspect of the OS really seems to have been sped up. The only device I've used that feels this quick is the NVIDIA Shield, but that has a CPU heatsink, fan, and a 720p screen. The Nexus 5 hauls ass. Stability has also been great for me.
Liam's Take: I don't have too much to add here. The phone is really, really responsive, and it's an absolutely wonderful experience in that regard.
Android 4.4 KitKat
Google has served us three helpings of Jelly Bean in the last year and a half, but now it's moved on to a new treat-themed OS. Android 4.4 KitKat is probably the biggest revision to the platform since Android 4.0 brought Android out of the dark ages. This version brings a plethora of tweaks, feature additions, and UI changes. Still, no software is perfect, right? It's time for a KitKat taste test.
The Launcher Is Swoon-Worthy
From the first time the Nexus 5 leaked, the launcher was a major topic of discussion. For all the behind-the-scenes changes Google has made in recent years, the home screen looked almost the same from Android 4.0-4.3. KitKat shakes things up, and I think we're coming out of it much better off.
Google has recently indicated the 4.4 launcher on the Nexus 5 is going to be exclusive to that device for the time being, but I'm going to treat it as a part of Android 4.4 as a whole. This UI feels like the future of Google, and it's easily the most user-facing improvement for KitKat. From the moment the device is switched on, the transparent navigation bar and new icons are inviting and let the UI really shine. This is just scratching the surface of the new launcher, though.
The Nexus 5 comes with only a few home screen panels instead of the customary five. If you want more, you can just add more icons and widgets to create additional panels. Want fewer screens? Clear them off and Android deletes the panel completely. I think this approach is fabulous – it gets to the heart of what a home screen is supposed to do. It contains your most important content, but if you don't have five screens worth of vital stuff, why have all that wasted space?
I wondered exactly how far Google would let users take the dynamic home screen count and I got bored at 25 panels. It's a little bit bizarre, because who has that much stuff? Still, it's also kind of amazing Google engineers didn't feel the need to impose an arbitrary limit.
The left home screen is now the "main" one, and the others trail off to the right. This places Google Now one swipe to the left from the main panel. I wasn't sure how to feel about this placement at first, but now I'm sold. It makes accessing Now much more smooth and it feels like an integral part of the OS. You're not using a phone that happens to include Google Now in the search experience. You're using a phone, and Google Now is just part of the deal. My only complaint here (and it's a minor one) is that Google Doodles look kind of crappy with the search bar placement.
Google Now voice search is also built into the home screen, so saying "OK Google" will trigger a voice search. That's great, but why only the home screen? It baffles me a little. I can only hope this is just the first step for a more expansive voice search experience throughout Android.
The app drawer now has the device's background behind the icons instead of just black, which is a nice touch. Something is missing, though – widgets have been given the boot from the app drawer. This cleans up the UI in the drawer nicely (helped by the transparent navigation and status bars), but some folks might not notice widgets are even around. In general, it's not a good idea to hide features from the user, but they're not that hard to find.
The widgets, wallpapers, and a settings shortcut are behind a long-press on the home screen. Even if you've filled up all the spaces on your screen, you can press on the screen indicator or at the very edge of the display. That strikes me as a very "engineer" approach, but gets the job done. From there you can grab widgets and drop them on any screen. The home screen panels can even be rearranged – finally. This is a wonderful addition.
Google nailed the launcher, and I really, truly hope this comes to more devices.
Your Files From Everywhere, And Also Printing
One of the coolest features of KitKat sounds incredibly mundane when you first hear it. Try to get excited about this: New storage access framework! See? Not riveting, but it is going to really streamline file management. The idea is that a cloud storage app (or anything else that connects you to files you have stored elsewhere) can register with the system as a storage provider. Then any app that wants to access all your files can implement the framework to bring all those locations together.
This shows up as a slide-out navigation menu on the left. It can be used to browse recent files from all the listed sources, individual services, or local files. Other apps that don't list themselves as storage containers can still show up at the bottom of the list as a separate link.
Google Drive supports the file management system, of course, but Box is also ready out of the gate. App developers should get on board, because this is a killer feature.
Google also added printing support to the core of the OS, which I guess people are excited about. I hate printing things and will avoid it at all costs, but you can do it more easily from the Nexus 5 as long as you've got a printer on your network or hooked up to Cloud Print. It works, and it's nice to have, but it won't set the world on fire.
Immersive Mode And UI Tweaks
Continuing the theme from the home screen, Google has included a way for developers to call for the transparent navigation and status bars. Right now, most apps will just use the standard black bars – even Google's own apps usually do this. The status and navigation bars can also be completely hidden in any app. For a demo of this, check out Google Play Books or the Gallery's video player UI. It really lets you take advantage of that giant screen.
A quick edge gesture will return the navigation buttons so you can leave the app – this is also how you check the status bar and notifications. We had a demo of this a few days ago, but it's so cool it bears repeating. If you get a notification while in an app or game that hides the status bar – whether it takes advantage of the new immersive mode or not – you can drag down from the top of the screen to see the status bar, and again to pull the notification shade down. This alleviates a major pain point in Android.
The idea is that apps will be able to create more attractive interfaces with the system UI completely hidden or just transparent. The transparent bars do look awesome, but you can't just overlay them on anything – a busy background looks messy with the buttons overtop.
The general look and feel of KitKat is more modern, and I think, a step forward for Android. There are a lot of little things that make the platform feel more complete. Google has committed itself to making white icons and accents work in Android, and I'd say it has been successful. The UI doesn't look bland after the removal of #33b5e5. In fact, the blue might have been a crutch.
I don't want to give you the impression that the UI is perfect, though. There are still foibles sprinkled throughout the OS. For instance, the signal bars don't form a perfect slope, and are actually positioned lower than the WiFi icon. Some of the shades of gray used in Android 4.4 apps are also slightly different colors. Then, there's that holo blue, which still shows up from time to time on buttons and in text – it seems oddly out of place.
The gray haze at the top of the app list on the right is the white edge glow
While Google has excised #33b5e5 from almost all parts of the system, it still shows up in a few widgets and apps. However, the edge glow has been changed to white (except in the Gallery, oddly). On dark screens this looks great, but in mostly white apps – like most of Google's card-style interfaces – the glow effect is hard to make out and actually looks a bit dingy because the gray tones are all that come through.
Google Wallet works out of the box with the Nexus 5 and KitKat despite the lack of a secure element. This signals a new era for Google's contactless payment system, and this is actually one of the most important things in KitKat – it's just not that flashy. Android 4.4 includes support for Host Card Emulation (HCE) that allows the device to manage payments using the standard non-secure hardware.
When you open Wallet, the setup process takes about three seconds. On older devices with a secure element, the activation process took at least 30 seconds as the app accessed the NFC chip. Not to mention the process sometimes failed or resulted in a frozen phone. Once the abbreviated setup is complete in KitKat, Google Wallet will show up in the Tap & Pay system menu. It is the only option there right now, but I sincerely hope more apps start adding support for HCE.
Google added a native screen record function, which was nice of them. It's not entirely there yet, though. It only works over ADB with a computer, and there is no sound. It will get the job done for a quick app demo, but it's not what enthusiast users have been hoping for.
Google seems to have again neglected the camera app in KitKat. Sure, it has HDR+ in the place of regular HDR, but the feature set is still woefully behind the apps provided by Samsung and HTC. Google really needs to pay some attention to the picture taking experience in Android going forward, even if the sensor itself is just middling. A good app can make up for a lot.
There are already some third-party apps that utilize root to trigger the screen record function from the device itself, but these are still in the early stages. I do have some hope these apps can give us at least a little more functionality.
Sensor batching is also a nice thing to have, once apps begin to properly support it. The idea here is that apps will not stream sensor input constantly while the device is asleep, but will only do so periodically. That allows the phone to stay asleep more of the time and save battery. Apps will have to be updated to support it, but some of the new sensor types will require hardware support.
I know opinions are divided on the new dialer app, but I lean tentatively toward liking it. It's nice to be able to rearrange the top contacts, and I also dig having recent calls right on the main screen. The popup number pad is also fine by me. However, the lack of swiping navigation is confusing. It doesn't seem to fit in with the rest of Google's design language. It's okay, but could use some work.
Oh, and you want IR blasters? Android has that now. The Nexus 5 doesn't have IR, but future devices with these components will be able to take advantage of IR natively. However, this doesn't include reading IR signals, just sending them.
Lastly, I just want to point out the cool new location settings in Android 4.4. You can choose the type of location mode used system-wide from a simple menu, and it also lists all the apps that have recently requested your location and how they went about it.
Is KitKat Tasty?
Google has made Android more attractive and faster, which you can't really complain about. The immersive UI features are also going to be stunning if developers utilize them properly (imagine Timely with transparent system bars), and the death of #33b5e5 isn't as sad as we might have thought.
Features like Host Card Emulation and the file management framework might not be sexy, but they could make a big difference to a multitude of devices as KitKat makes its way into the world.
The new homescreen looks and works great. The improved screen management is excellent, though I have to wonder why you can add so many home screen panels. Having Google Now right there makes the feature seem more relevant to my interactions with the phone, and the improved voice control is at least a step in the right direction. I wish there was more detail on how this launcher was going to be integrated into the larger Android platform for other devices – frankly, the lack of information makes me slightly uneasy. It would be a bummer if future KitKat devices didn't have the new homescreen UI. Android 4.4, as implemented on the Nexus 5, is a very good bit of software.
David's take: Oh boy, a big Android version bump. I always tell myself that I'm not super concerned about OTA updates and such, but when a new and exciting version of our favorite OS arrives, I have to admit I still want it immediately. And for once, I think there's really strong justification for that desire. Android 4.4 is the most beautiful version of Android to date. The redesigned launcher is outstanding, and I absolutely love that Google Now is a bigger part of the launcher experience. I love the transparent navigation buttons (even if I'm pretty meh on software buttons themselves) and notification bar, the uncluttered app drawer, and just the look and feel of it all. But it's not perfect.
The new dialer app is just way, way too busy visually. Extremely cluttered. It needs more contrast or fewer elements. Or both. Either way, I sort of spaz out every time I open it trying to find stuff. The camera app still sucks. OK, Google, I get it: you want the camera app to "get out of the way" and just have a big beautiful viewfinder so you can snap photos to your heart's content and then send them to Google+ for auto-awesomeing and vignettes and crap. I just want to be able to tell the camera what to do. I'd also like non-sucky auto-focus. Until you come up with a magical camera app that captures a great photo every single time, it seems a bit cocky to provide your users such limited control over the photo taking experience.
Oh, and is it me, or does the unlock gesture have a longer minimum throw distance than it used to? I've adapted, but I just sort of noticed that. Overall, though, KitKat was the freshening up Android needed at this time in its life, and I'm really enjoying it.
Liam's Take: We have a new Getting To Know Android segment coming soon, so without going into all the gory details from that post, I will say that, leading up to 4.4, I was wondering what the next big move would be for Android from a design/UX perspective. KitKat answered that question - Google is working on refining the great core ideas they had with Ice Cream Sandwich, while providing additional goodies to encourage developers to craft great user experiences as well.
The KitKat launcher takes some getting used to, and there are still plenty of things to clean up (I'll save those for Stock Android Isn't Perfect), but KitKat is definitely a huge step in the right direction for Android.
Overall, my impression is that KitKat is a more modern, mature version of ICS/JB, largely ditching the bright-blue-on-black of versions past for refined, white iconography, simpler imagery, and a heaping helping of delightful animations and UI touches that not only make stock Android better, but encourage developers to craft better user experiences as well. Stock Android really stands on its own these days. It's a major selling point for the Nexus devices, and at this point feels more thoughtful than just about any third-party skin I can think of.
All of that being said, I will echo David's sentiment about the Dialer app - I am still bumping into a huge learning curve with the Dialer. There are a lot of interactions in that app that simply go unexplained, so I am almost always left wondering how to do exactly what I want. I'll get used to it, but - for all its good intentions - the Dialer app is not designed on par with Android's other apps.
Ryan's take: Can we just step back for a moment from grumbling about mediocre camera performance and a less that stellar speaker? This phone costs $350, and I don't think there's another Android device out there I'd rather use. After having this phone in my hands, I'm sold on the design. I was worried it would feel cheap compared to the (admittedly fragile) Nexus 4. However, it feels incredibly well-put-together. There's no give to the soft-touch back, and the entire frame is solid yet light. By the way, it's only $350.
Android 4.4 is a refreshing change to the platform, and it's an absolute joy to use backed by the insanely powerful hardware in this phone. Likewise, the screen is among the best you can get on a smartphone, and did I mention it's $350? Sometimes I just turn it on and stare at the screen for a moment because it's so stunning – the new transparent system bars really help with that too. There are so many features in KitKat that have potential to make Android better on a lot of devices. I really love the launcher, immersive mode, and the more mature design sense. I'm excited to get a first look at them on the Nexus 5.
David's take: The Nexus 5 is a phone I would, and will, happily call my own. I'm cautiously optimistic an OTA update will iron out some of the battery life issues, and to be honest, I don't take a lot of photos, so the camera is less of a disappointment for me than it might be for other people.
For the price you're paying, this is the best phone you can buy. Even without the value allure, it's pretty clear this is also the best Android experience on any device currently available, period. It's extremely fast, has a lovely screen, and it's an elegant hardware showcase for the biggest update to Android since Ice Cream Sandwich. I think this is the phone Google has always wanted to build - corner-cutting and compromised design have been hallmarks of Nexus phones in the past, but the Nexus 5 feels so much more focused, and so much more Google.
Liam's take: The Nexus 5 is undoubtedly a great phone. As Ryan said, the flaws that it does have (many of which may or may not be fixable via software update) are far outweighed by how well-designed, thoughtful, slick, and - oh yeah - affordable this phone is. The fact, of course, that Google was able to make this one of the absolute best options out there for those wanting an Android phone is due in large part to the functional and aesthetic improvements in KitKat. It's a new direction for Android, and the Nexus 5 makes the perfect vehicle for it.