Name: Google Nexus 4 by LG
Type: Android Smartphone
Specifications: Click here for full specs
Price as reviewed: £239.99 SIM-free for 8GB model, £279.99 SIM-free for 16GB model from Google
Looking for the smartphone deal of the century? That'll be the LG-built Google Nexus 4 you're after then. The latest flagship Android handset, it comes packing in the latest build of Google's mobile operating system alongside tech specs to make its premium rivals shudder, at almost half the price of the latest flagship Apple iPhone and Samsung handsets. But have LG and Google had to make any concessions to hit prices this low? Read on to find out!
Built by LG, Google's Nexus 4 smartphone is a solidly built handset, though by no means the flashiest. Measuring 134mm long and 69mm wide, and weighing 139g, it's quite a portly fellow when sat alongside the likes of the iPhone 5 or HTC One X. It's well put together however, feeling sturdy with no flex or creakiness in its black, chrome-edged chassis.
Very few buttons or ports sit around the edge of the Nexus 4. A 3.5mm headphone jack sits near the tiny microphone hole on the top edge, a power button on the right hand side, a volume rocker and microSIM tray on the left and a USB charging port on the bottom alongside another mic. On the rear sits the camera lens and loudspeaker. In terms of looks, the backplate is the Nexus 4's most attractive side, with a subtle, sparkly casing on show.
A luxurious 4.7 inch screen dominates the front of the phone, itself finished with a single layer of durable Corning Gorilla Glass 2 and nothing else. With a resolution of 1280 x 768 pixels, it's one of the sharpest mobile displays on the market, with a pixel-per-inch density of 320, trouncing the Samsung Galaxy S3's 306 ppi, and sitting just behind the iPhone 5's 326 ppi. If you like larger screen sizes from your handsets though you'll likely prefer the Nexus 4 over the iPhone 5, as it has considerable more screen space to play with than the 4-inch Apple device. Regardless, colours are accurate (if a little muted) on the Nexus 4, while text and videos are displayed crisply for comfortable reading, with a bright backlight making the phone very useable even under sunny conditions. To get a screen this good on a phone this chip is phenomenal.
Pushing all those pixels is a powerhouse 1.5GHz quad-core processor, backed by 2GB of RAM. This again exceeds the specs even of the Galaxy S3, for almost half the price. It helps the phone stay speedy under even heavy load, and again it's remarkable to find in a phone this inexpensive.
There's no 4G in the Nexus 4, though that's unlikely to be an issue for most people at the moment, with the EE network the only 4G option in the UK right now and it being in its (relatively expensive) infancy. You do get NFC connectivity though for wireless data transfer and payments.
Storage is potentially more of an issue. Coming in only 8GB and 16GB variants, there's no microSD expandable storage option in the Nexus 4, which means you're stuck with a relatively small amount of storage forever. You can boost it with cloud storage services like Dropbox or Google's own Google Drive, but if you've, for instance, a sizeable Spotify downloaded playlist library, there won't be much space to house it.
In terms of battery life, the Nexus 4 houses an impressive 2100mAh battery, putting it on a par with the Samsung Galaxy S3. That's not half bad, easily lasting a day with moderate usage (plenty of Wi-Fi and 3G web browsing, Spotify audio playback, Netflix movie streaming and the odd run through of the Jetpack Joyride game). Keep an eye on brightness levels and whether or not you need Wi-Fi switched on constantly and you may get even more out of it, though hammer it with plenty of video streaming and you'll easily run it down to zero power in 4 or so hours. That battery is not replaceable either, so you won't be able to swap it out for a spare if you'd planned to. On the plus side, the Nexus 4 charges wirelessly if you have a compatible conductive mat. We weren't able to test this feature, though if you've as many chargers lying around as we do, you'll welcome this feature.
Interface and Apps
The headlining feature of the Nexus 4 (barring its price of course) is the fact that it's running the latest version of Android, Jelly Bean 4.2. It brings with it a host of new features. Most of these lie within the camera app (which we'll go into more detail in later on in this review), but there are also some small tweaks and new app and interface additions.
Google Now is a great addition to search, brining up "Cards" of information prior to your searches, with live information based on your location and day to day activities. It'll give you driving directions to work, local restaurant suggestions and more, and learns the things you're most interested to tailor results to you over time. It's great if your stuck for things to do nearby.
The notifications bar gets a slight update, adding a few new quick settings buttons for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, as well as screen brightness. These sit in a panel a tap away from your email, messaging and download notifications. Notifications now have more actions associated with them too beyond simply closing or opening them - event reminders for instance now have the option to send an email out to all associated guests. Sure, they're commonplace features in some custom Android builds, but it's great to see them finally added to stock Android.
HDTV's with appropriate wireless adaptors benefit from improved screen mirroring, making it easier than ever to share what's on the Android display with a host of people.Lastly, there's newly implemented gesture typing controls, letting you slide a finger across letters on the keyboard with the phone intelligently figuring out the words your looking to input, working much the same as the popular Swype app.
Android as a whole has been optimised further too; everything reacts more quickly and smoothly with the new update, noticeable when using the Nexus 4 side by side with similar hardware running older versions of the OS.
The core Jelly Bean experience remains the same. Multiple homescreens can be totally customised, letting you add app shortcuts across the device from the app drawer. There are also resizable Live Widgets available through Android; these are larger icons spread across the homescreens that offer live updating information at a glance. These may come in the form of condensed Twitter or Facebook feeds, email inboxes or weather reports, for example. It's a great looking OS and incredibly flexible, though it's slightly more complex than Apple's iOS, which idiot-proofs all access to settings and customisation options.
Apps come courtesy of Google's Play Store. Over 600,000 apps are available through the store, and unlike Apple, Google are open to more wacky (sometimes dubious) submissions. While this makes it slightly more prone to attracting hackers and unsavoury apps, there are also loads of really incredible apps for unlocking the full potential of your hardware. The standard of Android apps has greatly improved in recent times; whether you're a gamer, a reader, someone hunting news stories or recipes, a photographer or a blogger, there's something for everyone. Many are free too, and few cost more than £3 or so. The pre-installed suite of Google-built apps (including YouTube, Gmail, Maps and cloud storage through Google Drive, among plenty of other apps), is impressive too, offering a wide array of functionality right off the bat. When it comes to mapping, Google's Maps app is far and away the best navigation solution available, particularly in comparison to the woeful Apple Maps.
Contacts, Calling and Messaging
Contacts integration is standard Android Jelly Bean, which is no bad thing. That means you get a clearly presented white-and-blue-on-black list, highlighting key acquaintances with larger thumbnails, all of which can be pooled from an existing Google account online if you keep a well-maintained address book in Google+ or Gmail. Contacts can be put into groups or favourites lists, and there's also a recent calls tab for jumping back historically through numbers. Sadly, there's no built-in social network contacts integration, as is found with HTC phones. You're going to have to add those details manually, and download an appropriate app if you're looking to contact Twitter or Facebook chums. The same goes for Smart Dialler functionality, which in other phones allows for the dialler to double up as a keyboard for alphabetic searching through contacts, a really great feature that we hope Google add to stock Android soon.
Call quality was excellent throughout testing (though we did experience an abnormally long wait before our SIM card was recognised upon initially setting up the phone), being clear and loud with consistent signal levels.
The messages app likewise shares the same Tron-style design. It's a clean and simple SMS messaging system, using predictive text to quickly let you piece together messages, and offering a conversation-style view of older messages, letting you easily review older chats with pals. The addition of Swype style text input helps churn out texts super fast, though there's still the option to tap away at the software keyboard if you prefer.
Moving onto email, there's the aforementioned Gmail app pre-installed, which is a fantastic mobile build of the desktop variant. Gmail users will be totally at home labelling and starring emails and scrolling through long chains of messages from the same recipient. There's also great search functionality built in, meaning you can easily dive into an inbox brimming with thousands of messages and pull out the one you're after.If you're looking to attach a POP3, IMAP or Exchange address to the smartphone, there's a Google-built app for that too, almost identical to the Gmail app, though omitting Gmail-specific functionality such as "starring" emails.
Media Playback and Gaming Performance
The Nexus 4's display is large, accurately coloured, bright and a joy to watch. Whatever we threw at it's quad-core processor was played back without a stutter, even with demanding HD content. Playback over the loudspeaker was clear and detailed, and never distorting, though the the relatively low top volume level is likely somewhat responsible for this - we usually can't help but crank a phone up to its maximum volume when watching shows or movies.
You'll be able to drag-and-drop your own media from a PC over a USB connection, or use a cloud storage service such as Dropbox which can easily be downloaded from the Google Play store for free. Otherwise, you can download streaming apps like Netflix or BBC iPlayer, or purchase media from Google's Books, Music and Movies Play stores.
All videos are housed in Google's own Play Store video player, whether you've downloaded them or grabbed them from your computer's personal collection, separated by tabs. It's a solid player that makes it easy to browse your videos, though third-party apps offer more extensive features like web-sourced video data and clever bookmarking options. It's a similar story for MP3 playback; Google's stock offering is fine, easily navigated and managed with large artwork displayed, but third-party apps offer more extensive ways to manage your music, and better information to accompany your tunes. Shop around; there are plenty of excellent alternatives, though the stock options here will serve most users just fine regardless.
Gaming is equally impressive, with the quad-core chip making mincemeat of any app we threw at it. Our favourite graphically intensive apps (RipTide GP and Bard's Tale) ran buttery smooth, with not a hiccup our crash to be seen. The phone got reasonably hot after extended play sessions, but considering most Android gaming fodder is of the casual, far less system-intensive variety (here's looking at you Angry Birds), the Nexus 4 will suit all gaming needs perfectly.
Still Camera and Video
NOTE: This section of the review was revised at 00.00am on Friday 29 November to reflect new findings with the camera's low light performance. The final verdict now also reflects this.
The Nexus 4 houses an 8MP with LED flash, and introduces a host of new snap-happy features to get creative with.
Top of the list is the Photo Sphere option. Working a little like shooting a wide-angle panorma shot, it lets you snap a series of images in a complete sphere around you, directing you where to point the camera to create the effect. Once you've snapped the two-dozen or so images needed, the phone then stitches them together, giving you a strange warped view of the world around you. These images can then be further tweaked into little "globe" images, making your surroundings look like their own miniature world in the cosmos. It's a fun, if perhaps a little pointless, feature.
More useful are the editing abilities now housed directly within the camera app. No longer will you need an external app to crop or add retro filters to your Android images, as it can all be done natively within the camera app. It's more than a match for what's offered by Instagram, though of course lacking the latter's social networking features.
As for the image quality itself, the Nexus 4 is nearly on a par with its top-tier smartphone peers. Exposure is even and colours are captured accurately, if perhaps ever-so-slightly over-saturated. Images are clear and detailed, though can't match a dedicated compact camera when examined closely, lacking the clarity a dedicated camera system can deliver. Compared to the HTC One X and iPhone 5, the camera also loads a little slowly, and can struggle to find detail in low light scenarios.
Video is captured in full 1080p HD quality, and the results are for the most part good. Again, colours are reproduced accurately, and images are clear and detailed. They do suffer however from quite a bit of judder, with the image stabilisation options not really up to much. Invest in a tripod if you're hoping to use the video features here in even a remotely professional capacity.
The Google Nexus 4 is the best smartphone bargain we've ever seen. God only knows what sort of subsidised deals the search giant has lined up in order to deliver a smartphone just as powerful as its premium rivals at almost half the price. But we're not complaining; for the cost of a mediocre smartphone, the Nexus 4 delivers the latest version of Android, a super-fast processor, a beautiful display and superb new camera functionality. At its £239.99 entry price it's a steal, and one we can't recommend highly enough. The problem is, at the time of writing, both the 8GB and 16GB SIM-free models from Google are currently sold out. While the smartphone is also available from networks, none offer a deal half as good as buying direct from Google. But even at the network's inflated prices this would still be a phone we'd strongly recommend. Its camera issues, lack of expandable memory and slightly plain design prevent it from being perfect But if you've got the patience to wait for fresh low-priced stock from Google (if it ever comes), you'll bag what's certainly the tech deal of the year.