LG's Nexus 4 is the best Google-branded handset since the Nexus One, and if you live in the UK, Europe or anywhere else LTE coverage isn't yet widespread, then you should buy one at your earliest convenience.
If you were wondering whether the Nexus 4 is worth your money, there's your answer. But you probably already knew that if you've read Phil's exhaustive review of the phone.
So I'm not going to re-hash everything we've already said about the Nexus 4 -- instead, this "second opinion" piece is going to focus on a few interesting aspects of the phone, and pick out some less-discussed areas for comment.
Read on after the break. You just might learn something.
Industrial design - the best we've seen from LG
When it first became apparent that LG was to be this year's Nexus phone manufacturer, there was dismay among some sections of the Android world. Memories of lackluster LG efforts like the Thrill 4G and T-Mobile G2X led some to believe that there was no way an LG phone could lead Android into 2013.
Fortunately, these concerns have proved to be unfounded. LG brought its A-game, in a way it could be argued Samsung didn't when it designed the Galaxy Nexus.
There's plenty of Optimus G DNA in the Nexus 4 -- from the style of the front glass plate and earpiece, to the two-tone trim and reflective glass back. But there's also a lot of Google to be found, and the Mountain View influence is plain to see when you line up the LG's model with previous Nexus handsets. The curved chassis, prominent Nexus branding and minimalist front face are common design traits. As the Nexus 7 represents a window into Google Play, the Nexus 4 is little more than a screen in your hand, and a portal to all your other Google services -- no buttons, no excessive chrome. (Google didn't name it "Nexus" just because it sounds cool.)
The use of two different materials for the phone's trim might seem a little arbitrary, but it makes perfect sense if you think about how phones are actually held. If you're holding the Nexus 4 normally, you're gripping the back side of the trim, perhaps with an index finger on the back glass. The use of rubbery soft-touch plastic around the back and shiny plastic on the front checks two important design boxes. The front of the phone gets to look pretty, while the back fits firmly in your hand, avoiding slippage.
The screen's left and right edges are gently tapered downwards, making edge-of-screen gestures -- like Android 4.2's lock screen pages -- easy to perform.
Front and back - a delicious glass sandwich
glass "crystal reflection process" back was a little contentious in the run up to release, for a number of reasons. In many of the leaked Nexus 4 photos that emerged, and even some press photos that followed, the back looks like a disco ball. In reality, the effect a lot more subtle -- it shimmers when it hits the light just right, but most of the time the reflective pattern is invisible. From a purely aesthetic point of view, it's a significant step up from the plastic rears found on most smartphones. The presence of cold glass on the front and back makes it feel more substantial, in the same way the iPhone 4 and 4S felt better in the hand than the 3G/S.
But there's been some concern over how durable the back will prove to be if it's dropped. The obvious answer is that it's glass, so it's going to be more damage-prone than an equivalent plastic back. After a week of normal use, the back of my Nexus 4 had picked up one or two hairline scratches. So has the back of Phil's review unit. I haven't dropped it yet, and I'll try to continue not dropping it for as long as I'm using it. If you do drop it, bad things might happen, that's true of any phone. I know people who've dropped Galaxy S3s from waist height onto a hard floor and ended up with a cracked screen. Luck, as much as design has to do with whether a fall results in breakage. This is one of the reasons drop tests are dumb.
Nevertheless, the fact that there are two pieces of glass on the phone makes it statistically more likely that at least one of them will shatter if it's dropped. That's a risk you'll take if you buy a Nexus 4. Fortunately, the design of the trim makes it easier to grip than most plastic phones, which should help avoid drops in the first place.
Arguably, the more important sheet of glass is the one found on the front. The 1280x768 LG IPS panel isn't quite the best we've ever seen, but it's damned close. It looks like we're on course to see several 1080p smartphones in 2013, though I doubt this will instantly obsolete the current crop of 720p-level screens. In any case, the Nexus 4 screen's weaknesses don't lie in pixel density but color quality. The display is ever so slightly washed out, particularly at lower brightness levels. If you're coming from a Galaxy Nexus, this is a difference you'll notice. But when it comes to color accuracy, the Nexus 4 probably presents more natural-looking images. AMOLED displays are prone to color distortion and wild, excessive saturation, especially when they use a PenTile subpixel arrangement. Contrariwise, IPS panels often trade saturation for clarity and brightness.
In every other area, the Nexus 4's screen trounces the Galaxy Nexus, and comes close to matching the HTC One X's sublime SuperLCD2. The display is brighter and clearer, and easier to use in daylight, and auto-brightness seems to ramp up more aggressively than it does on the Gnex.
Performance and connectivity - unrivaled, with one crucial omission
The inclusion of a quad-core Snapdragon S4 CPU and 2GB of RAM means the Nexus 4 absolutely screams. Ignore the benchmarks. In the areas where it really matters -- scrolling speed, touch response, load times -- the Nexus 4 is faster than any Android phone. The second gigabyte of RAM might seem excessive, but it helps the phone better manage memory-hungry apps like Google Chrome, and keep more small apps loaded in the background, meaning fewer pauses while multitasking.
Speaking of Chrome, it's flawlessly smooth on the Nexus 4. It's a shame that's not true of Chrome on the Nexus 7 and Nexus 10 at the time of writing.
Plenty has already been said about the storage situation on the Nexus 4. If you live in the cloud and want to save some cash, the 8GB model is for you. I'd recommend you spend the extra $50 and go with the 16GB model for a little more breathing room, however. The one thing you can't stream from the cloud is games, and they'll quickly fill up the 8GB of storage on the cheaper Nexus 4.
By now we all know the Nexus 4 lacks LTE support, and that's going to be a deal-breaker for some, especially in the U.S. That sucks, because if there was an LTE option, the decision to buy would be a no-brainer. We've heard rumors than LTE versions are in the works, but that doesn't make the decision any easier for folks looking to buy right now. If you absolutely must have LTE, well, this is a phone without LTE, and that means you probably shouldn't buy it.
The Nexus 4 does have DC-HSDPA (42Mbps) support, meaning you've got access to the fastest flavor of HSPA available. I've surpassed 22Mbps down and 4Mbps up on the Three UK network, which is well above average for a 42Mbps device. Carrier friends tell us a similar story -- the Nexus 4 trumps other 42Mbps phones. This means in markets like the UK, with widespread DC-HSDPA coverage and comparatively few LTE areas, the Nexus 4 is an attractive proposition. You'll get the best speeds current HSPA+ networks can offer.
Wifi reception too is improved compared to the Galaxy Nexus, and faster throughput is provided thanks to its support for 40MHz-wide channels.
Camera - it's not just good, it's good enough
The Galaxy Nexus's camera really struggles in anything other than ideal lighting conditions. Whether it was economics or design restrictions that resulted in a bog-standard 5MP shooter ending up on last year's Nexus, the result was crappy photos on a flagship phone. Thankfully the Nexus 4's rear cam is a marked improvement, rocking an 8MP Sony BSI sensor and a re-vamped camera app.
This means daylight and night shots on the Nexus 4 are now acceptable. Decent. Good enough that at a push I'd feel happy taking event pictures on the phone and publishing them on the site. That's not something I could say about earlier Nexus cameras, or most phone cameras in general.
Highlights of the Nexus 4's camera include HDR mode, easily accessible from the new camera app, and dynamic range in general, which was an area of weakness for Samsung's Galaxy S3 and Note 2.
Same story with video. It's pretty good. There's nothing terribly wrong with it. It won't blow your socks off, but equally it doesn't look like it was recorded on a potato.
Panorama recording seems improved from the Galaxy Nexus days, and the enforced wait while processing panoramas has been lessened, likely due to the beefier hardware powering the Nexus 4.
Similarly, photo sphere is a neat little gimmick that allows you to create impressive 360-degree panoramas if you happen to have the right combination of lighting, location, skill and luck. If you're after photo sphere samples, we posted an entire article dedicated to the feature a couple of weeks back. My own efforts can be found here and here.
Finally, in news that will surprise no-one, the front-facing camera still sucks.
Android 4.2 - lots of good stuff, some dumb stuff
Android 4.2 is a maintenance release to Jelly Bean, and as such there's not a whole lot of major changes to be found. Though after a week playing around with Google's latest OS, I'm still finding minor, undocumented tweaks that make Android more enjoyable to use. Improved text rendering and kerning will please design nerds. And new animations in the task-switching menu will make the process of navigating through Android a little more fun.
But back to the broad strokes. The most visible software changes in are the new camera app and and widget-enabled lock screen. The former is a vast improvement upon earlier stock Android camera applications. The menus are centered around a circular control, and you can drag in various directions to navigate between items and make selections. A quick swipe up will enable HDR mode. A swipe downwards will bring up an additional menu. Five o'clock is your white balance menu. It's a much easier, faster alternative to the usual maze of scrollable menus presented in many Android OEM camera apps.
But the new lock screen has divided opinion, and my own thoughts towards it are ambivalent, drifting between nonchalance and outright hostility. The main problem is for a stock Android feature, it's neither intuitive nor necessary. I don't recall the cry for lock screen widgets being particularly loud at any point in the past year. It isn't entirely obvious how you're supposed to navigate your widgets or switch between widget mode and unlock mode. Some widgets, like the clock widget, can be expanded even though doing so just reveals blank space. The motion required to activate the camera means doing so takes longer than in Android 4.1. From a design standpoint, it's a mess, and I suspect there'll be some changes coming in this area in the next version of Android.
Other additions like notification settings shortcuts and the gesture-enabled keyboard are nice touches, but certain to be replaced by manufacturers in their own skins.
In many ways, Android 4.2 seems to make more sense on the Nexus 4 than it does on the Galaxy Nexus, and a lot of that comes down to performance. Android 4.2 was clearly designed for the Nexus 4, and in certain areas, the Galaxy Nexus seems to run into a hardware wall. That's particularly true in the Chrome browser, the camera app and the new lock screen. For that reason there's been an understandably confused reaction to the new 4.2 lock screen by many Gnex owners.
The Nexus 4 flirts with perfection in many areas, most notably performance. Between the quad-core Snapdragon S4 chip and stock Android 4.2, it's hard to imagine how smartphones can get much faster than the product Google and LG have delivered.
LTE remains the major bugbear for U.S. buyers, and there's no easy answer for that that isn't also a cop-out. Right now it's a choice between the fastest performance and quickest updates on one hand, and the fastest data speeds on the other. Understandably, that's a painful choice for some folks.
So the Nexus 4 is not perfect, but I'd argue that even without LTE, it's less of a compromise than the Galaxy Nexus was, and a better fit for general consumers as a result. The highly attractive Google Play Store pricing also comes into play here, though that's resulted in the phone being almost impossible to obtain at these Google-subsidized prices.
On that note, it's also worth mentioning the shambolic Nexus 4 (and to a lesser extent, Nexus 10) Play Store launch. Launch day was a world of hurt for just about everyone who tried to order. Customers were mired in error messages, duplicate orders, emptied carts and shipping delays. This shows Google still doesn't quite know how to launch such a high-profile product. It's getting there, but in this instance massively underestimated demand or massively low stock levels (or, from what we've heard, a combination of both) resulted in a really bad buying experience for consumers. That's got to change if Google wants to be taken seriously as a mobile device brand in its own right.
All of that aside, is the Nexus 4 the best Nexus yet? Absolutely. You could look at the software and external similarities and dismiss the Nexus 4 as an incremental upgrade, but while the software hasn't taken a quantum leap, the hardware certainly has. And if you can live without LTE, this is a phone you're going to love.
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