We had to buy it. Once you’ve bought your first Nexus phone and extracted yourself from the subsidised 24-month contract world, upgrading every year, regardless of whether you need a new phone or not, becomes the new Paying £36 A Month addiction. So, when the Nexus 5 was announced, we had to buy one. Had to. It took 24 hours to actually make the final decision and pay up for the purchase, but here it is.
We went for the white model, which arrived in two working days and without the sort of stress and stock shortages we’ve seen dog all previous Nexus phone launches. So that’s an improvement. Well done to Google, manufacturer LG and UK shipping partner Expansys. And it looks great in white, like a sort of retro, stylish, art deco thing from behind.
Around the front, though, it’s rather bland and featureless, and feels completely different from the Nexus 4. The Nexus 4 was solid, heavy, covered in shiny glass and felt expensive. The Nexus 5 is lighter than the 4, has that matte plastic back, shiny plastic sides and lacks the “Wow factor” you felt when lovingly groping the Nexus 4 for the first time. This lightness makes you initially question its build quality, but, in just over a week of use, we’ve not any any reason to worry about its durability.
One thing we initially rambled about on Twitter was the way the lightness and slim chassis makes the phone feel smaller than it is. Despite having a large and virtually 5-inch display, the Nexus 5 feels smaller than the Nexus 4, even though it’s bigger. It’s a reverse Tardis, much more pocketable and, thanks to the plastic rear, doesn’t have the Nexus 4’s slippery-slidy tendency to fall off things.
But we didn’t like the feel of the Nexus 5 much for the first few days, to be honest, as it feels like less of a high-end piece of tech when compared to the Nexus 4. Which is odd, as the Nexus 5 costs more. If LG and Google sold the Nexus 4 at a loss last year, we suspect both are making up for it — and raking it in — with the Nexus 5 at the lofty £299 price point for the 16GB model.
The white Nexus 5 comes with a white earpiece in the front of the phone, a nice design feature that also gives you a quick visual clue about which way is up when the phone’s lying on a table in standby mode. The display is very bright and clear, and we have no whinges about colour reproduction. Everything looks good at 1080p resolution.
And Android 4.4 is the operating system. It’s quite a change from 4.3, with enhanced Google Now integration that gives it its own Home screen if you activate it (and removes it completely if you don’t), a custom number of home screens, a reworked Dialler and quite a bit more to discover.
Rather oddly, Google has completely changed its approach to widget installation in 4.4, rolling it back to how it used to be in the olden days. Gone is the selection of widgets in the app drawer, replaced by a long-press on the Home screen and the rather swish new drag & drop UI seen above. You can re-order Home screens too, as Google nicks yet more features from the skins of its Android manufacturing partners and rolls them into the core Android experience.
There are many Good Things in Android 4.4. There’s a camera icon on the lock screen to tell unaware or casual users they can swipe the display to quickly pull in the camera (or other lock screen widgets if you enable them in the security settings), plus the redesigned dialler (right) is awesome, no two ways about that. It’s massively prettier, makes better use of the photos of your favourites and is easily searchable.
The stock email app has also been redesigned a little, now featuring the bizarre Gmail-style big colourful letter system. You can swipe to delete emails now (with an “undo” popping up after in case it was an accident), plus emails from some non-Gmail account types app can be deleted or replied to directly from the Notifications bar. That’s well cool.
However, being forced to use Hangouts as the default SMS app in Android 4.4 is a bit of a nightmare. It looks pretty, but not everyone will be familiar with Hangouts and will long for the simplicity of the old SMS format. Working out how to send someone a text message shouldn’t be this hard.
Also, the icons in the app drawer are now only listed in four columns instead of five. Surely the advantage of higher-resolution displays should mean you can fit more stuff in, not less? Presumably this is a KitKat 4.4 decision and it’ll soon change all stock Android phones to the same layout. Weird thing to do, that. There’s also support for the ART alternative runtime environment hidden inside the Developer options area. We enabled. It didn’t make the phone feel any different and made WhatsApp crash all the time, so we disabled it again. There ended our brief spell as a “developer”.
There are two image management apps on here — the standard old Android Gallery (left), plus the new G+ Photos app that offers to “back up” all your shots to G+ (therefore encouraging/forcing you to check it every once in a while). Both are nice to look at and use, although we are filled with dread about a future world in which Google+ is the default image gallery in Android. Google really needs to calm down with forcing everyone to use its social network. It’s starting to grate.
The camera — or more specifically the camera app — remains a big weakness in the Android KitKat code. Google has finally added a self-timer to the Android 4.4 software, which is welcome, but the on-screen, overlaid, curved camera UI is just as clumsy as it was in Android 4.3. It needs chucking, it really does. It’s unbearable.
The Nexus 5 camera is also quite slow to focus, and on occasion refuses to focus at all. Plus the camera, while quick to take and save shots once up and running, isn’t entirely smooth. The viewfinder display can freeze for a second or so while opening it, which is a bit of a pain. Given the masses of power inside the phone, that’s all a bit of a mystery.
The Nexus 5’s photos are usually very impressive, though. Outdoors it’s awesome, producing shots on a par with the output of flagship models from Sony and HTC. Colours are great, it manages well with grass and distant detail, and low light situations like the one above are superb.
Indoors, it’s a bit more mixed. Low-light performance is definitely better than it was in the Nexus 4, so you’ll find more shots are taken inside without the phone setting its flash off. And when it does fire, the flash is softer than the Nexus 4’s unit too. It’s not quite so Nuclear White when it goes off. Problem is, the desire to improve low light performance results in a slower shutter time, so we found it very hard to take shots of restless, moving children without them coming out blurry. That’s your trade-off for better low light response. We didn’t notice much effect from the optical image stabilisation either, to be honest. Some shots were fine, some blurry, just like always. It’s no magic bullet. Also, the HDR mode can jazz up images, but, unless you’re being very, very still and taking photos of very, very still things, it can make a blurred mess. We’re leaving it turned off.
But… we do like the photos the Nexus 5 produces, especially outdoors. Those pics are easily on a par with photos from cheaper compact cameras, and we’d happily trust the Nexus 5 to record all our outdoor fun memories. It’s just that Google really needs to refresh the Android camera app quite urgently, as it’s a right mess. Although, we suspect, having a shitty camera app is one of the ways Google lets its other hardware partners differentiate themselves. HTC, Sony and Samsung go wild heaping the photo features into their code, so we wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a deliberate Google strategy to keep the Nexus camera app a bit on the “barebones” side.
But we digress. Here’s a 1080p video of the sea. Click through to YouTube to watch it at full 1080p resolution, else you won’t see what it actually looks like:
Video capture is where the power of the Snapdragon 800 series chipset really shines. It’s smooth, glitch-free and superb at 1080p resolution, generating bright and clear clips. It still records time lapse videos too, if you want, which is handy if you like seeing clouds moving really fast.
Battery life. It is mixed. Initially it seemed to last for ages, and certainly impressed us more than the Nexus 4. But, once the phone’s loaded up with apps and being used as “normal” (for us), it started dwindling away quicker. We feel like it’s a little longer lasting than the Nexus 4, but not by a great deal. Not a killer feature, that’s for sure. What is nice, though, is Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 2.0 integration. A clever man told us about this after we tweeted in amazement at how quickly the Nexus 5 charges its battery. The phone can go from practically zero to fully charged in less than an hour, which is a significant plus point.
In summary. The Nexus 5 is a very good phone. It’s smooth to use, the 1080p display is sharp, clear and bright, the device is extremely light and thin and therefore very pocketable and portable — much more so than other 5-inch phones we’ve used. And yet… we’re a bit unimpressed by the overall package. The Nexus 4 was a beautiful piece of kit, with its glass back, rubbery sides, gently curved display edges and heavy, solid feel. The Nexus 5 is less exciting to look at and hold. Also, it doesn’t have a killer feature aside from, perhaps, the Snapdragon 800 power that, to be honest, you’re unlikely to ever really use to its maximum potential.
If the Nexus 5 (and Android 4.4) had a better camera app, it’d be worth recommending. If it had a bigger battery, it’d be worth recommending. If it was £60 quid cheaper it’d be worth recommending. As it is, the £299 Nexus 5 only makes us realise how great the Nexus 4 was and how much of a leap that was ahead of its competition for its price last year.
BUT! The Nexus 5 is undeniably a smooth, enjoyable, lightweight phone with a great display, and a great camera if you can tolerate the awful stock imaging app. There’s nothing wrong with the Nexus 5 at all, and it’s surprisingly light and slim for a 5-inch model. We just can’t find anything to really love about it. That said, it’s at least an 8/10 or perhaps even a 9/10 if you’re into power-hungry apps and games that’ll actually use some of its immense internal power.