Even though I am an iPhone user and have been since the first generation iPhone was announced by the late Steve Jobs back in 2007, I’ve tried to keep an open mind about viable alternatives. I’ll be honest: I’ve been tempted to use an Android device. Several times. In fact, my first encounter with Android OS was on a Samsung Galaxy S2, which I purchased shortly after we gave one away in September 2011. Truthfully, the experience was so unpleasant that I had to switch back to my iPhone 4 after a few days.
Two years later, I compared a Nexus 7 against my iPad mini and immediately, the improvements and refinements to the operating system were prominent, I figured that I could finally succumb to using an Android device after all these years with iOS. So when the opportunity to review the Nexus 4 presented itself, I leaped at the chance. We’ll be giving this review unit away, so stick around if you want it!
Introduction to the Nexus 4
The Nexus 4, according to my colleague Erez Zukerman, can be described as a unicorn running Android. I suppose he meant that the combination of LG-quality hardware and vanilla Android OS makes the Nexus 4 so desirable and yet, it’s almost impossible to get hold of. In fact, the Nexus 4 was in short supply worldwide ever since it was launched. Generally, it was not an easy phone to come by for the past few months. Today, things are looking better. Units have shipped out to the new owners and orders are being fulfilled in about 10 days.
If you do want one, your best bet is probably to place an order from Google Play Store. The Nexus 4 comes in 2 configurations: 8 or 16 GB; and is priced reasonably at $299 and $349 respectively, unlocked. I know what you’re thinking: 16 GB in a modern day smartphone just doesn’t seem enough, does it? 8 GB is downright laughable. And it doesn’t have a microSD expansion slot, either. However, there are a couple of nifty features that help alleviate this particular issue of space, which I will touch on later in this review.
The only thing missing from the Nexus 4, besides sufficient storage, is an LTE radio.
The Nexus 4 is quite an advanced smartphone for its price. It has a 1.5 GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro processor running vanilla Android 4.2 Jelly Bean, with 2GB of RAM; a beautiful 4.7-inch True HD IPS PLUS display with a resolution of 1,280 x 768 pixels which packs 320 pixels per inch. Camera-wise, this beast features a 1.3 MP front-facing camera, and an 8 MP camera at the rear. Other trickeries include a multitude of sensors i.e. accelerometer, compass, ambient light, gyroscope, barometer; GPS, wireless charging, Miracast wireless display, and NFC.
The only thing missing from the Nexus 4, besides sufficient storage, is an LTE radio. For those accustomed to LTE connectivity speeds, this will undeniably be an issue; probably not so much if you haven’t used an LTE-capable phone before. But the real question here is: why wasn’t it included? The Nexus 4 could have easily been the best smartphone ever made in recent times, if only it had supported LTE. If this is as much of a deal-breaker for you as it is for me, then you might want to check out the LG Optimus G — it’s essentially the same phone but includes an LTE radio, and it features a microSD expansion slot as well.
Design and Initial Impressions
The Nexus 4 has a solid yet elegant feel contributed by the sheets of Corning Gorilla Glass 2 on the front and rear, softened by the device’s curves. At 139 grams, it’s a hair heavier than the iPhone 5 (112 grams) but that’s reasonable, considering that the Nexus 4 is quite a bit larger. The glass protecting the 4.7-inch True HD IPS PLUS display tapers off on the left and right edges, and swiping feels more natural due of this.
Overall, the device looks and feels very well built. Personally, I gauge the quality of a phone’s make by how well it holds up without a case. As for the Nexus 4, if you’re careful, it does rather nicely. The rear Gorilla Glass is very resistant to scratches, and there are very few dust-trapping gaps. The chrome and soft rubber-coated side lining may get a few scuffs over time, but that’s perfectly normal. If you’re pedantic about that, I reckon you should get a bumper case.
However, I did notice that the rear Gorilla Glass panel is quite slippery. Whenever possible, avoid placing the Nexus 4 on smooth, uneven surfaces; or it will slip right off and hit the floor. This is the reason for many reported instances of Gorilla Glass shattering.
Other than that, the usual suspects i.e. volume control, headphone jack, micro SIM tray are basically where you’d expect to find them. Following in the iPhone’s footsteps, the Nexus 4 doesn’t have a removable rear panel, hence the micro SIM card has to be placed on to a tray which slots into the side of the device. Google provides a micro SIM tray remover tool, which is ever so slightly smaller than the iPhone’s — if you happen to lose it, a pin would do just fine (unlike the iPhone, paper clips won’t fit).
As it happens, I have a minor gripe about the power button, which is located on the right side of the device. This is the only button which is able to wake the Nexus 4; and because of where it’s placed, it becomes impossible to wake the device with one finger when it’s lying flat on a table — something I’ve become accustomed to on my iPhone. Like I said, it’s a minor gripe.
A more significant complaint would be the incomprehensible placement of the speaker — which is on the rear aspect of the phone. It is quite easily muted either by holding the Nexus 4 with my left hand, or by placing it on a table. When this happens, there is a moderate decrease in volume and audio clarity. The speaker itself, when unobstructed, produces reasonably clear and loud audio.
To me, the most impressive Android feature I’ve come across is automatic backup and restore. In essence, Google backs up my app data and other settings and restores it to any Android device I may own. In my experience, the process, unlike iCloud, is quite seamless. After powering on the Nexus 4, the Android operating system automatically downloads previously installed applications from Google Play Store, making the phone instantly useable. Contacts were immediately retrieved from Google Contacts, as were photos from Google+ Photos. And since I use Chrome as my desktop browser, bookmarks and passwords were instantly synced as well. The fact that I was previously an iPhone user didn’t quite seem to matter — Android 4.2 Jelly Bean makes new users feel at home.
Android 4.2 Jelly Bean makes new users feel at home.
Since most of my vital data was retrieved from the cloud, and with the automated backup process, there wasn’t really any reason to sync the Nexus 4 with my iMac. If you haven’t already realised, the Nexus 4 aims to be completely wireless, hence the wireless charging support and NFC. If you do need to retrieve files from your desktop, use Dropbox. In fact, Dropbox is so tightly integrated with Android it’s amazingly impressive; and more than makes up for the lack of internal storage space.
Transitioning from an iPhone 5 with a 4-inch Retina Display, to the Nexus 4 with its beautiful 4.7-inch True HD IPS PLUS display was like a breath of fresh air, purely due to its size — both displays have roughly the same pixel density. The Nexus 4 may look much wider, but it’s still quite comfortable to hold. Plus, the rubber-coated side lining provides the needed extra grip. The additional screen estate helps where it counts: browsing, reading emails, enjoying photos and watching videos, especially in 720p HD.
Living with the Nexus 4
Unfortunately, large 4.7-inch screen is both a blessing and a curse. Even with its brightness level set at 50%, it draws a considerable amount of power. With careful use, I managed to go just over a day without charging. Generally, battery performance was rather disappointing, albeit expected of the Nexus 4’s a non-removable 3.8 V, 2100 mAh rechargeable Lithium Polymer battery. Like most smartphones, it needs daily recharging in order to operate optimally.
I’ve also noticed that the device tends to heat up after a bit of activity requiring mobile data connectivity, particular around the earpiece. And as iFixit has illustrated with their teardown of the Nexus 4, this area plays host to the majority of vital components, including the 1.5 GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro processor and Qualcomm MDM9215M 4G GSM/UMTS/LTE modem.
I wanted to love the 8 megapixel camera in the Nexus 4, I really did. But the native camera application let me down, hard. Even though it is capable of taking panoramas and photo spheres out of the box, image quality was below par; and its extremely fickle autofocus was nothing less than annoying (issue also reported on the XDA Developers forum). While it may not be immediately evident, most of the photos I took with the Nexus 4 turned out to be out of focus. I realised it only after photographing a few receipts in Expensify, a habit which I’ve cultivated for nearly 2 years on my iPhone.
Switching the camera to panorama mode reduces its resolution, resulting in a 2448 x 584 pixel image. To give you an example of the image quality, here’s an image of Aldinga Beach in South Australia, taken with the Nexus 4:
(click to enlarge)
The image below was taken with my iPhone 5, which had to be resized because the original panaroma was 8160 x 2518 pixels:
(click to enlarge)
Overall, the Nexus 4 is a great piece of kit. I can’t say that it’s the best Android phone there is because the LG Optimus G exists — an exact replica of the Nexus 4, except it’s better. The only thing the Nexus 4 has going for it is the fact that it runs a vanilla version of Android OS, and I believe this is also what let it down.
Notifications, for example, was an issue for me mainly because the screen didn’t light up with new events, except for incoming calls. When set in silent mode, the pulse notification light and a few vibrations were the only form of alerts available. To me, that’s inadequate.
Lastly, I have some beef with the Maps application — it displayed ads whenever I searched for a location. Why, Android? I can’t, for the life of me, figure out why it needs to do this. It’s not just annoying, it’s embarrassing — Google Maps for iOS doesn’t display ads, so why must the Android version?
Switching from an iPhone
Finally, I’d like to convey my experience with using the Nexus 4, coming from 5 years of being in the iOS camp. Overall, it was a smooth process — smoother than I had originally anticipated. The fact that Android automatically retrieved my data from the cloud meant no setting up was required, hence, not requiring me to sync with my iMac. I do have to admit that I made a few preparations: my Address Book was synced with Google Contacts and I use Chrome as my desktop browser. Still, it was rather impressive.
On the surface, iOS apps seemed to be just a little more polished, based on my encounter with apps that I use in my daily routine i.e. Expensify, Evernote, Facebook, Instagram, and a couple of banking apps. But I’m equally as impressed with the number of Android app updates that occur every single day — and to top it off, updates are automatic!
If I’m brutally honest, I could have stuck with the Nexus 4 for the foreseeable future, unlike my colleague James Bruce who switched back to iOS after just a few months of using an HTC One X (sorry, James, I just had to out you). Unfortunately, it’s back to iOS for me, for now. My main reason for switching back? iMessage and Photo Stream.
There are some things I can’t live without and iMessage is one of them. For the entire testing period, I was cut off from my family and friends who use iMessage. I felt disconnected. Even with the capable Nexus 4, there was no way I could rejoin the group iMessage conversations with my family. I also missed Photo Stream — it’s probably the easily way to share photos with friends and family in iOS. While I was on my honeymoon in Hong Kong, I mostly took photographs with my iPhone 5 even though I had a perfectly capable camera with me. And it was mainly attributed to the fact that I could so easily share it immediately with Photo Stream.
Should you buy the Nexus 4?
Despite its shortcomings, which are the lack of LTE support, the poor battery life and inconceivable speaker placement; the Nexus 4 is a fantastic device. It’s fast, powerful, highly capable, and sports a gorgeous 4.7-inch HD screen. It runs vanilla Android OS, which is great if you love hopping on the latest version of Android. It’s also unbelievably affordable. I may have been extremely critical in my review, but having lived with this device for the past few weeks, I have come to love it; despite being an iPhone user.
Now the time has come to part with it, so if you’d like to be its new owner, join the contest!
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