Nexus 4: A beautiful, but hopelessly crippled, powerhouse (review)

November 12, 2012

The Nexus 4 is one of the best Android phones so far, but a crucial omission makes it an almost laughable upgrade.

The LG-built phone is a faster and overall more polished phone than last year’s Galaxy Nexus (made by Samsung), and yet it doesn’t include support for fast LTE 4G networks, which some of the Galaxy Nexus models did.

Why not? Because Google doesn’t want to be beholden to carriers. But while the reasoning might make sense for Google, it makes no sense at all for you.

And it makes the Nexus 4 seem like an oddly backwards flagship device — especially now that Apple’s competing iPhone 5 does support LTE.

On the upside, it’s one of the best bargains for an unlocked smartphone: It starts at just $299 for the 8 gigabyte version ($349 with 16GB) with no contract. T-Mobile is also offering the 16GB version for $199 with a typical two-year contract.

For those who don’t yet have access to LTE networks, or who simply don’t care about running the fastest cellular speeds (to which I say, huh?), the Nexus 4 will be a delight. It’s nowhere near a revolutionary Android phone, but LTE aside, it’s a decent upgrade over the Galaxy Nexus. It also fits nicely in Google’s new Nexus lineup, which includes the Nexus 7 tablet released earlier this year and the new Nexus 10 tablet.

Shipping without fast wireless broadband is still a shame though. It’s as if, no matter what Google does, it simply can’t release a truly no-compromise flagship phone. And as we’ve seen earlier this year, leading Android manufacturers have wasted no time in one-upping Google’s Nexus offering.

The Good: Bold and speedy

From a distance, you could easily mistake the Nexus 4 for the Galaxy Nexus. They both share the same basic shape and rounded corners, but the differences are clear upon closer inspection. Its screen is completely flat, unlike the gimmicky curved screen in the Galaxy, and its rear is made up of Gorilla Glass, instead of cheap plastic. The Nexus 4 features a slightly larger 4.7-inch screen, but it’s a barely noticeable difference from its predecessor’s 4.65-inch display.

The glass rear obviously evokes the iPhone 4’s design, but now that even Apple has moved away from such a precarious choice, the Nexus 4 looks a bit dated. The holographic grid doesn’t help much either — it’s as if it was designed by a technician trying to evoke high art, but whose only reference was 8-bit video games.

Overall, though, the Nexus 4 feels much more solid than the Galaxy Nexus. I’ve never understood Samsung’s love of plastic smartphone cases, and I felt like I was going to break last year’s Nexus whenever I removed the rear cover. In exchange for a more solid feel, you can’t remove the Nexus 4’s rear — which means you’re stuck with the battery and storage that comes with the phone.

What’s most surprising is that such a solid device comes from LG, a company that has released plenty of Android smartphones, none of which has ever stood out from the competition (Samsung, HTC, and Motorola phones). LG’s design inexperience still comes through in several ways, though: For one, there’s that holographic rear. And the soft material bridging the front and rear of the phone, while comfortable, feels uninspired — especially compared to solid case designs from HTC’s One X series, the iPhone 5, and even Nokia’s Lumia line.

Android has never felt faster

Most impressive about the Nexus 4 is its speed (except for its slow network capabilities). With a quad-core Snapdragon S4 processor running at 1.4 gigahertz and the latest version of Android, Jelly Bean, this phone is simply a speed demon. Grabbing new apps, juggling between them, and loading complex games was the fastest I’ve seen in an Android phone so far — and I’ve tested quite a few of them.

In terms of sheer speed, the Nexus 4 has been my most enjoyable experience with Android so far. I probably shouldn’t be too surprised — I felt the same way about the Nexus 7 tablet, which I called the first Android tablet worth owning. The Nexus 4 has plenty more legitimate competition than the Nexus 7 did, and even then it still manages to feel superior.

Android 4.2, which the Nexus 4 ships with, is all about polish. The overall design of the operating system feels closer to iOS than Android ever has. But by focusing on design, Google didn’t have much time to include new features. The Nexus 4 can send video wirelessly to HDTV’s supporting the Miracast standard, and you can also create 360-degree images with a new feature called Photo Sphere.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to test the video streaming feature. And from what I’ve seen, Photo Sphere still needs a lot of work. It’s simple enough to create the 360-degree images, but objects in the pictures often appear distorted. I’ve had far more luck with Microsoft’s under-appreciated Photosynth app.

When it comes to photos, the Nexus 4 finally brings a great camera to Google’s flagship lineup. I’ve been disappointed and mystified by the limitations of the past few Nexus cameras: The Nexus S, for some reason, didn’t have HD video recording, and the Galaxy Nexus had a better 5 megapixel camera with HD video, but it still produced merely average pictures. The Nexus 4’s 8-megapixel shooter is solid for both photos and videos, and it easily stacks up with HTC’s One X camera and the Galaxy S III. It’s not as miraculous as the iPhone 5’s camera or what I’ve seen from Nokia’s Lumia 920, but it’s a solid step up.

The Bad: The LTE problem as to be fixed

It’s simply tragic that, despite everything the Nexus 4 has going for it, the lack of LTE holds it back from being something I can easily recommend. I’ve tested plenty of LTE phones over the past few years, and it’s clear the technology has come far. LTE isn’t the battery hog it used to be, thanks to larger batteries and more efficient chipsets, which makes it perfectly suited for modern ultrathin smartphones.

So why doesn’t the Nexus 4 have LTE? It boils down to politics with cellular carriers and the economic reality of building a single device that appeals to the majority of the world. (The Verge has an in-depth exploration into the topic that’s well worth a read.) Google can’t use LTE networks without working with the carriers, and it doesn’t make much sense for it to spend the money to build in LTE when it’s primarily a feature for the U.S. But no matter the reason, missing out on such an essential feature will be inexcusable to consumers who have access to LTE.

The Nexus 4 supports HSPA+ networks, which both AT&T and T-Mobile are marketing as “4G.” But make no mistake, it’s a completely different level of 4G from LTE. I saw download speeds of around 2 to 3 megabits per second on AT&T’s HSPA+ network and upload speeds slightly below that. In comparison, both Verizon and AT&T’s LTE networks in New York City get me download speeds of 10 to 15 Mbps and upload speeds around 10 Mbps. Depending on where you are, LTE speeds can get even higher.

I can’t fathom why AT&T customers would want to buy a new phone that offers them slower speeds than LTE-equipped alternatives for the same monthly fee. T-Mobile users may find the Nexus 4 tempting since they don’t yet have access to LTE.

Last year’s Galaxy Nexus didn’t ship with LTE, but Google eventually released newer models that included the technology. Google had to give up some freedom with those LTE Nexus devices, though. Both Sprint and Verizon were slow to offer Android software updates, and Verizon initially blocked Google Wallet to promote its own alternatives. Since the Nexus devices are supposed to be “pure Android” experiences, where Google can control the entire software experience, it may be hesitant to be beholden to carriers once again.

I’ll admit, the LTE issue is primarily U.S.-specific. The Nexus 4 will work just fine on plenty of international networks, and if they support HSPA+, it should be plenty speedy. But I can’t help but think that U.S. consumers are getting a bad deal.

Wrapping up: A solid phone with a critical flaw

After seeing the glory of LTE, there’s no way I can recommend a phone without it. LTE isn’t just about being able to download massive files, its low latency makes almost anything you do on your phone happen instantly and effortlessly. For me, that boils down to a crucial email before I hit the subway, or a quick restaurant search without breaking conversation. Simply put, LTE means no more waiting.

Another year, another Nexus. There’s certainly plenty to like about the Nexus 4, especially if you’re not in an LTE-equipped area. If you’ve skipped the Galaxy Nexus, or are just looking to jump aboard the Android bandwagon, the Nexus 4 is a solid option.

But I’m hoping that with its next Nexus phone, Google finally offers us a flagship device that doesn’t leave us wanting. Now that it has a full Nexus lineup, Google should make sure that all of its flagship devices demonstrate the best Android has to offer. That means no more missing features, solid design, and Apple-levels of obsession (which we’re already seeing from Microsoft with the Surface).

Copyright 2012, VentureBeat

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