It’s been a solid year for smartphones, with many great devices coming in the months before the Google launched the Nexus 5, but that doesn’t stop us from wondering whether this phone is our phone of the year.
It’s also hard to go past the fact that you can buy one, brand new, for so cheap. If you buy one through Google you'll need to grab a SIM-only plan for the handset.
If you buy a Nexus 5 you can’t miss the fact that there is two logos on the box and phone: Google and LG. Both companies have a big part in bringing this phone to market, with LG providing the hardware, Google the software, and the design coming from a collaboration of the two.
The Nexus 5 hardware is fantastic, even if it’s not especially eye-catching. We love the soft-touch plastic chassis across the back of the phone, the way the buttons on the edges are almost invisible, and the near-symmeterical curves across the top and bottom of the phone’s face.
The only break in this seamless design is a slight bulge where you find the phone’s camera. Even though this only juts out about a millimetre, it is enough to annoy some. It is one of the phone’s only design features.
The question we can’t help but ask after handling the Nexus 5 is why can’t LG make such nice phones for itself. The LG G2 is a similar phone in power and performance, but the design of the Nexus 5 leaves it for dead.
It is a sealed unit though, so there is no access to the phone’s battery and no microSD card for memory expansion. However, in 2013, this will only put off a very few phone owners. It’s 16GB internal storage may seem small, but many file types can be stored in cloud services, like Google Drive and Dropbox.
With so little adornment across the chassis of the Nexus 5, the display takes on the burden of delivery ‘wow factor’, and it does so with ease. Google opt for a Full HD (1080p) IPS LCD screen with 445 pixels per inch. Simply put, this is a lot of pixels across a colourful, vibrant screen.
The viewing angles are excellent, thanks to the screen’s in-plane switching (IPS) technology, meaning that you will be able to easily see what is on the display, regardless of how you hold the phone in your hand.
It is also a particularly bright screen, even at its lowest settings. This makes it hard to read emails without disturbing your significant other after lights out, but it also makes the Nexus 5 one of the best phones to use outdoors. You will still need to pump up the brightness in bright sunlight, but the screen is as clear as day once you do.
Besides the excellent hardware, one of the key reasons to pick up a Nexus 5 is to try out the latest Android software. This is version 4.4, better known as KitKat, and while the changes aren’t of the ‘in your face’ variety, there are still some important and useful new features.
Perhaps the best is the new phone dialler app, which not only includes a robust search tool for all of your phone’s contacts, but it also taps into Google Maps data to find phone numbers for local businesses. Not only, but it can also offer the same in reverse and tell you the name of a business that is calling you by searching only as your phone is dialling.
This is one of the biggest and best changes to the core phone feature that we’ve seen from anyone in the smartphone game for some time. It seems like such a small thing, but it goes a long way to making the phone much more useful.
Google Now, Android’s search assistant, is now even closer to you, with Google redesigning the home screens in KitKat to position Google Now one swipe left of the default home screen. This might feel like a waste of space to people who don’t use Google Now, and there is no way to turn it off, so you might as well get used to it. Heck, maybe you might even start using the search suggestions in Google Now once you start peeking over at it.
There is also a number of other smaller changes, some performance tweaks, a new built-in WiFi printer service and changes to the camera which we will get to in a moment.
Key to the value proposition for the Nexus 5 is its ability to make connections to a whole range of different devices and networks. Google include 4G LTE hardware alongside WiFi compatible with 802.11 b/g/n/ac networks.
The Nexus 5 also includes SlimPort technology, allowing you to plug your phone into a TV or computer monitor via the microUSB port on the bottom of the phone. This requires you to have an extra SlimPort adapter (sold separately) but it could mean that you could leave your laptop at home when delivering that next big presentation.
There is also support for Miracast, a wireless screen sharing technology that connects to compatible devices over Wi-Fi. Again you will probably need an adapter for your TV, unless it is a brand new model.
Google has claimed over the last several Nexus device releases that it is working to enhance the photography experience in smartphones, and camera features are always the top-line highlights in Google’s marketing materials for its phones. Despite this, the cameras in Google devices tend to review poorly.
That said, we have been pleasantly surprised by the quality of the photos we’ve taken using the Nexus 5, especially those shot using the HDR+ shooting mode. HDR stands for high-dynamic range, and is a port-processing technique where several photos are taken simultaneously and software determines how to stitch them together to create the best shot. This process used to take time, but with the HDR+ in the Nexus 5 this only takes a moment longer than a normal photo.
What we’re suggesting is that you always use HDR+ when taking photos with the Nexus 5. To make the point, we’ve included a number of comparison photos taken using HDR+ and the standard Auto settings.
Performance and battery
There is one indisputable fact about the Nexus 5: this is a powerful computer for the price. Regardless of which country you buy it in, the Nexus 5 is half the price of any phone with comparable hardware, and its performance is second to none.
Google and LG pack a quad-core 2.26GHz Snapdragon 800 processor into the Nexus 5 and match it with 2GB RAM. In unison with the performance improvements made by what Google are calling ‘Project Velvet’, the Nexus 5 flies. Multitasking is smooth and seamless, apps open in moments and all the phones elements feel like they are working together.
This is exactly what iPhone users love about iPhones, the way all the parts feel like they are designed to work together, and it is not something you can say about all phones that run on the Android platform.
Battery life is good without being remarkable. We easily got through a work day with the Nexus 5, but not much more than that. You can probably get between 4 and 5 hours of solid web browsing between charges, which is about the average for phones of this calibre.
If you compare the Nexus 5 to any other phone with a 5-inch display, it has at least one area where it is better than its competitors. It is faster than a Galaxy S4 and an HTC One, better designed that an LG G2. Android KitKat gives this phone a few features that are not available on any other phones, and its price puts it way ahead.
The camera and battery life are two elements where the Nexus 5 doesn’t excel, but it holds it own. If you want an outstanding camera you can choose a Nokia Lumia 1020 instead, but this comes with compromises.
All in all, the Nexus 5 is one of, if not the best phone of the year. It doesn’t have the eye-tracking software in Samsung and LG phones, or HTC’s Blinkfeed software; but then, it is better for it. The Nexus 5 feels lean and fast and it just works. Any extra features you want you can add with downloads from the Play Store.