If Microsoft can get fed up about the state of hardware to such an extent that it’s gone and made its own, Google can sure as heck do the same thing. The guys at Mountain View haven’t gone alone, though: they’ve been hooking up with the likes of HTC and Samsung on Nexus smartphones for years, and this time with the Nexus 4, its Android stardust has fallen on LG.
And the Nexus experiment (latest version of Android for devs, high-end specs and stealth builds) has really come into its own this year. The Nexus 7 tablet (now superceded by the HD 2013 model) was our Tablet of the Year for 2012, and it’s one of the only real contenders to the iPad. With the better-than Retina Nexus 10 slate as the Nexus 4’s launch buddy, has the big G just created a gadget Holy Trinity?
design and build
Whip a Nexus 4 out of your pocket and the crowd won’t so much be going wild as wandering off to inspect a nearby lamppost – there are no dandy design flourishes, no fancy materials, and nothing on the front to distinguish it at all (the Nexus logo adorns the back).
On top of this quiet confidence, you won’t worry about scratching the Nexus 4 – it’s one of the most impressively solid smartphones we’ve seen from LG.
The sparkly holographic finish on the Nexus 4’s back cover is a shame, though, giving us flashbacks to discos circa 2000. And at 9.1mm, compared to the likes of the iPhone 5 at 7.6mm, it’s certainly sticking two fingers up at skinny smartphones. But although it’s roughly the same size overall as the Samsung Galaxy S3, the Nexus 4 is somehow easier to hold thanks to the extra depth and a few millimetres shaved off the width.
Of all the phones we’ve tested lately, the Nexus 4 hits the sweet spot in terms of screen size – at 4.7in it’s pretty darn massive, but doesn’t necessitate a chassis so big that it takes two hands to hold and operate. Next to the similarly sized HTC One X+’s sexy single piece of polycarbonate, though, the Nexus 4 still looks a little uninspired. So be warned - unless your prefer your devices on the sober side, it may not be love at first sight.
LG’s pulled out all the stops for the Nexus 4’s beautiful 1280x768 display – it’s a 5:3 ratio, which means two black slivers either side of 16:9 movies (so small you’ll barely notice), but a good amount of room for everything else.
With Gorilla Glass 2 on top to fend off scratches, fancy Zerogap Touch display tech in the Nexus 4 means that – as with the iPhone 5 – there’s barely a gap between the touchscreen and the pixels, so photos, ebooks and the like look much closer. Text is very smooth compared to the Galaxy S3, and whites are clean and bright with no unsightly tinges – though the iPhone still has the better contrast.
Side by side, we still just about prefer the HTC One X+’s display - it’s one of our favourites, with warmer colours that still remain natural. It looks slightly crisper than the Nexus 4, despite the Google handset’s whopping 317ppi, but it’s a very close call and both are brilliant, sharp screens.
One quick niggle is the Android buttons that take up some of the display – they disappear when you’re using fullscreen apps, but otherwise make the homescreen a little cluttered. We can’t help but think Samsung and HTC’s solutions, which see the Android buttons built into the lower portion of the bezel, are more useful.
Quad-core 1.5GHz Snapdragon innards and 2GB of RAM will have sub-£300 Android phones’ knees a–rattling in terror as the Nexus 4 stakes its claim as one of the most powerful smartphones on the planet.
With help from Jelly Bean (more on that later) Android has never run better, with everything from speedy swiping around Google Earth and Maps to superb handling of games like GTA III helping to convince us of the Nexus 4’s charms. A massive Geekbench 2 score of 2061 (higher than the Samsung Galaxy Note 2, iPhone 5 or Samsung Galaxy S3) and an impressive 38fps in GLBenchmarks’s Egypt HD test back up those day-to-day impressions.
Big apps and games download quickly, and aside from the odd couple of frames dropped on Need for Speed: Most Wanted (and no support for flash), there are far fewer hiccups than on other top Droids – even on the Samsung Galaxy S3 and Samsung Note 2 Sammy’s widgets can cause slowdown, while the HTC One X+ can occasionally take its sweet time loading web pages. If your first impressions lean towards tepid, its fantastic performance ensures the Nexus 4 is definitely a grower.
One of the only downsides to this is that the Nexus 4 isn’t shy about letting you know how hard it’s working: when playing Android games or downloading files, our review handset got very warm – far more than the Samsung Galaxy S3 for the same tasks. Won’t need gloves so much this winter perhaps?
And with all that processing power you’d think Google would flex its muscles a little with some pop-up browsing or multiscreen action like Samsung’s massive Galaxy Note 2, but Android 4.2 isn’t taking the bait. To fend off AirPlay, the Nexus 4 does at least rock Miracast wireless streaming tech so you can mirror your phone on a TV once you’ve bought an adapter.
Like vanilla Android? Well you’re in the right place. Some might prefer the gentle prodding and tempting of Samsung, LG or HTC widgets and customisable extras, but sometimes you want the Zen-like calm of an empty homescreen. With a solitary ‘recommended from Google Play’ widget, it’s good to see Google isn’t pushing the Amazon model too far.
Icons and the drab notifications dropdown don’t help to show off the Nexus 4’s gorgeous display, but Android 4.2 is seriously slick. It now rocks built-in Gesture Typing (basically Swype) and there’s lots of attention to detail from neat transitions like closing web pages, swiping through open tabs in Chrome and a dimming screen as you pull down notifications.
Unfortunately, Google Play isn’t quite ready for Android 4.2 yet – perhaps because we’re testing a pre-release Nexus 4 – but essential apps like BBC iPlayer and MX Player aren’t compatible yet, while slowcoaches like Sky have yet to make the leap to Jelly Bean.
UPDATE: We've just updated our Nexus 4 review unit – it's customisable lockscreen widgets a-go-go – and after it's had a video close-up we'll be carrying out another battery test to see if there's any improvement.
Google Now is much more useful on a 3G device than a Wi-Fi-only tablet, and 4.2 brings some new tricks – as well as the usual weather, travel and calendar updates it can now alert you to nearby ‘photo spots’ as well as let you know what bands or movies are showing that you’ve been searching for or watching on YouTube.
We saw 7-8 hours of normal usage from the 2100mAh battery (during out testing we blew through a third of the Nexus 4’s life in an hour and a half), and chances are you’ll be re-juicing late afternoon.
That said, much depends on how you adjust sync settings for both default and third party apps. This is something we'd like to see Google sort in future: freshly installed apps tend to have sync settings set to on and frequent, and finding the off button can be a tortuous process.
The Nexus 4’s 8MP rear snapper gives the Samsung Galaxy S3’s excellent camera a run for its money, with similarly detailed and bright results in daylight, although the Samsung did seem to let in more light and capture slightly more accurate colours.
In lower light, the Nexus 4 reclaims the edge somewhat, offering better night vision skills, although not to the extent of the Nokia Lumia 920. Video is more disappointing – compared to its rivals, footage is anything but smooth. Even taking photos while you're filming won't redeem it.
Android 4.2 also comes with PhotoSphere, a fun 360 panorama tool that stitches together your shots quickly, but requires patience in the capture stage. Be careful of rogue fingers and subjects moving, too, or you’ll end up with odd deformities and unidentified skin-coloured objects in your mobile works of art.
Google didn’t send us a wireless charging kit for the Nexus 4, but we’re mighty excited about this next-gen tech – look out for a review update once we try out the Nexus 4 with Nokia’s colourful, Qi-compatible wireless charging plate (£45), which we’ve been very impressed with in combination with the Nokia Lumia 920.
The 4G mystery
4G isn’t bothering Google at the moment – no sign of it for the Nexus 7 and, more importantly, it isn't enabled by default in the Nexus 4.
Tech heads who’ll get giddy over the rest of the Nexus 4’s specs and performance might be disappointed at this bizarre decision. Not to fret, though, Google could announce an LTE Nexus 4 any day, and there’s excellent Wi-Fi, 3G, Bluetooth 4.0 and NFC to keep you occupied until then.
UPDATE: We say that 4G isn't enabled by default, because it transpired that there was actually a 4G chip inside the Nexus, and - until the release of 4.2.2 - it could be enabled via a hack.
The Nexus 4's release date is 13 November and you’ll be able to pick one up from Google for just £240 (8GB) or £280 (16GB) so that’s probably the cheapest way of doing it. Time to say ‘goodbye’ to our mid-range Android friends, we suppose, though it’s not as cheap on contract: you can get it for free from £31 a month.
The Nexus 4 comes dangerously (for other tech titans) close to achieving Android phone perfection, hence its respectable position in our Top Ten list of the best smartphones. The combination of stock Jelly Bean and that powerful Qualcomm chip makes for a great everyday experience, the overall size and screen hit the much-desired sweet spot, and let’s not forget, it’s almost half the price of the Samsung Galaxy S3 or HTC One X+.
We’re a little disappointed with the wee storage options, while the lack of enabled 4G is a bit of shame. The humdrum looks will put some people off, too. We rather like the idea of having a beast of a phone in a stealthy, humdrum shell, though. It’s like dropping a Nissan GT-R engine into a Juke, and we’re big fans of that kind of behaviour, which is why, all told, we’re big fans of the Google Nexus 4, especially given how ridiculously affordable is. Now to the Nexus 10…
UPDATE: The 4's replacement is due any time now.
Catch up with the latest Nexus 5 rumours.
Review by Sophie Charara