Hands on: Google Nexus 5

By Pat Pilcher

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The Nexus 5.
The Nexus 5.

Android fans have been salivating at the prospect of the Google's latest smartphone, the Nexus 5 for good reasons. Not only is its parentage solid (the Nexus 5 is the love child of both Google and LG), it also runs an uncustomised version of Android and has an unlockable bootloader (which in theory means they should be much easier to modify and tweak).

Equally compelling is the fact that they're also the first cab on the rank to receive Google updates and are also running Android's latest confectionery (4.4 KitKat). Capping things off, the Nexus 5 also packs some top shelf specs and nifty features but won't break the bank.

Design

Perhaps the most noticeable design feature of the Nexus 5 is its 5" 1080p IPS LCD display, which with a pixel density of 445 PPI, makes it almost impossible to pick out individual pixels. This translates into an incredibly crisp display with great viewing angles and accurate colour reproduction (which thankfully also resulted in on screen images not being garishly oversaturated).

In theory, the Nexus 5's large display should translate into it being a big phone, but this wasn't the case. Even though it measures 137.9 x 69.2 x 8.6 mm - which isn't small - an almost non-existent screen bezel and slim design meant it could still be easily pocketed and operated one handed.

Another pleasant surprise with the Nexus 5, is its weight (or lack thereof). Building flagship phones out of alloy and glass might add wow factor, but the inevitable trade off usually comes in the form added heft. LG opted for plastic, which meant that I could put the Nexus 5 in a jacket pocket and not hear the sound of tearing fabric or feel as if I were carrying a brick all day.

LG and Google have also cleverly designed the Nexus 5 so that it disappears when in use. This may sound like a bizarre or counter intuitive statement, but in practice it makes a whole lot of sense. Where a lot of other phones scream "look at me, admire my design!" the Nexus 5's clean, almost minimalist design allows users to focus where it matters - on its screen. It mightn't be a biggie, but in use it made a big difference.

The Nexus 5's design language is understated yet well executed. Above its display, there's a small round earpiece grill, which provides some relief from its uniform slab-like front. Also tucked away on the Nexus 5's front is a white notification LED. Hidden under the screen, it only grabs your attention when required, seemingly springing up from out of nowhere. Breaking up the plastic feel of the Nexus are ceramic volume and power buttons. These buttons feel sharp-edged. In short the Nexus 5's design is clean yet clever and definitely wins points for execution.

In Use

Packing a 5" display, the Nexus might feel a tad large for those with small hands. For one-handed use, getting at everything on its sizeable screen might involve some thumb stretching, but it isn't impossible.

Size however mightn't be everything, but performance definitely is and this is precisely where the Nexus 5 really shone. The lack of bloat in Android and the Nexus 5's muscular spec, literally saw apps flying on the Nexus 5.

Having a vanilla version of Android is pretty cool. The first hint of this comes when powering up the Nexus 5, which reveals swirling bubbles decked out in Google colours. Although the Nexus 5 is running Android KitKat, It isn't too dissimilar to Jelly Bean so there isn't a huge learning curve involved getting to grips with the Nexus for existing Android users.

A long press on the home button or a swipe from the left also reveals Google Now, which intelligently lets Gmail and Google Calendar users know of traffic, weather, and other looming reminders often before you even realise you need to know about them. KitKat also confers the ability to use voice commands, simply say "OK Google" and you can set appointments, get directions, make phone calls or dictate emails and text messages. As cool as the whole voice commands thing sounds, there are caveats.

For a start, language settings had to be set to "US English" before it'd work. Enabling this saw me heading to Settings, Language & Input, Voice Search, where I selected the "Language" option, then "English" and then "English (US)". Sigh.

Equally annoying, was the fact that the Nexus 5 couldn't hear voice commands when asleep or locked. The Nexus 5 has to be powered up, unlocked AND on the home screen before you can issue the magic "OK Google" command to stir it into action. Having fluffed about with the phone to get it to the point where it can hear me, pretty much defeats the purpose of talking to it. Motorola realised this and added separate silicon to allow usable voice commands in sleep mode without killing battery life.

Another feature that took some getting used to with KitKat was SMS messages being bundled into the Hangouts app, rather than in their own app. This explained why I couldn't initially find a text messaging icon (it'd been replaced by the Hangouts app next to the phone icon). Heavy texters might finds this approach takes some getting used to, but in practice it seemed to work ok.

The Nexus 5's KitKat flavoured dialer is however a huge improvement over Jelly Bean. One particularly handy feature is the ability to type in the name of a business and have the dialer search your local whitepages. Once the number is found, tapping the search result dials the number. Simple yet oh-so-handy.

At its overseas launch, the Nexus 5 attracted some criticism over its 8MP rear camera, yet in use I found it to be more ample as a basic phone camera. In my experience I found it wasn't so much a case of the Nexus 5's camera being particularly bad, its just that other phone makers, notably Nokia or even LG with their G2 are simply offering better performance.

Although there's plenty of shooting modes including HDR+, panorama and Photo Sphere mode (which allows you capture 360-degree panorama photos), the Nexus 5's camera sometimes struggled to focus in low light conditions and sometimes shutter lag was noticeable (this was strangely intermittent). Most of these issues appear to be software based and Google have already committed to pushing out Android 4.4.1 (which is said to include bug fixes for Nexus devices to deal with these issues).

Camera grizzles aside, I really rated the inclusion of optical image stabilization, as it made a huge difference to shooting video and sometimes helped me avoid blurry photos.

Behind the screen

If the Nexus 5 was a car, it'd be a curious beast - for a start it's priced as a very reasonable mid-spec runabout, yet packs the oomph and extras of a luxury muscle car. This translates into a quad core 2.3GHz Snapdragon CPU, Adreno 330 GPU, 2GB RAM with a 2,300mAh battery, 5" 1080p display and 16GB or 32GB of storage. Compared to similar offerings from other handset makers the Nexus sports a very reasonable $699 sticker price.

The muscular spec and lean OS combo also translates into zippy apps. Multi-tasking felt silky smooth with no log jitter or other slow downs at all. Graphically heavy games also performed really well. In short, there's probably not much in Google Play that the Nexus 5 can't handle.

About the only (albeit minor) blot on the performance front was battery life. After a weeks typical use with a strict charging regime I was disappointed to note that the nexus gave out in just over five hours, This was understandable to some degree however as I was spending quite a bit of time exploring and tinkering with it.

After 2 weeks battery life seemed to settle. With normal use, the Nexus 5 typically lasted just under 12 hours before issuing me with low battery warnings, which isn't actually all that bad.

Verdict

The few issues I had with the Nexus 5 were relatively minor, and easily outweighed by the fact that the Nexus sports a reasonable price tag, a great spec and is first in line for any future Google updates.

The build and design of the Nexus 5 also impressed and it is incredibly slick to use thanks to KitKat and a lack customised clutter.

While its camera wasn't ideal. It is likely to be sorted via software fixes. Bang per buck-wise, the Nexus 5 offers plenty thanks to its 2.3GHz Snapdragon 800 CPU, roomy 5" HD display and $699 sticker price.

Equally important is the addition of Kit Kat, which is excellent. Its revamped dialer is also extremely useful and things are only let down by the lack of voice command capabilities when the Nexus is asleep, locked or not on the home screen. This sadly marginalises what should otherwise have been an insanely useful feature.

That said, the odds are high that existing Android smartphone users will find themselves both right at home and deeply impressed with the Nexus 5, which despite a few quirks, ticks a whole lot of the right boxes.

Tech Specs

Connectivity: (2G) 850, 900, 1800, 1900Mhz, (3G) 800, 850, 1700, 1900, 2100, 900Mhz (4G) 800, 850, 900, 1800, 2100, 2600Mhz
Wi-Fi: 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, dual-band
Bluetooth: v4.0 A2DP
NFC: Yes
Dimensions: 137.9 x 69.2 x 8.6 mm
Weight:130 g
Display: IPS LCD, 1080 x 1920 pixels, 445 ppi
Storage: Internal 16/32 GB,
RAM: 2 GB
CAMERA:(Rear) 8 MP, autofocus, optical image stabilization, 1080p video (30fps) (Front) 1.3 MP
OS: Android 4.4 (KitKat)
Chipset: Qualcomm MSM8974 Snapdragon 800
CPU: Quad-core 2.3 GHz Krait 400
GPU:Adreno 330
BATTERY: Li-Po 2300 mAh battery (Non-removable, wirelessly rechargeable)

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