Nexus smartphones are not unlike concept cars at an auto show. They’re ogled and admired but rarely owned. Typically cutting edge in design and software integration, they’re models intended to showcase the “next generation” experience rather than necessarily become mainstream bestsellers.
So it has been with nearly every Nexus handset to date. The new Nexus 4, built by LG, is in every way (but one) the best Nexus handset so far. I own the Galaxy Nexus, from Samsung, the previous “Android flagship.” And it’s amazing how this phone handily trounces the Samsung “Next Big Thing.”
The Nexus 4 feels more solid, its screen and 8MP camera are better, it has a much faster processor and Android 4.2 adds a range of subtle changes and improvements to make it an overall superior experience to the Galaxy Nexus. In short Nexus 4 generally “kicks Galaxy Nexus’ ass.”
Perhaps the Best Smartphone — But
In many ways the Nexus 4 is a candidate for “best overall smartphone on the market.” Now for the “but” part. As has been widely pointed out, there’s no 4G LTE support. Instead it runs on 3G and HSPA+ networks. The latter can offer fast speeds in optimal situations — T-Mobile calls its HSPA network “4G” — but not quite at true 4G levels.
The previous generation Galaxy Nexus does offer 4G LTE support. Consequently many phone geeks and reviewers are characterizing the Nexus 4 as a “step backward.” Yet Google believes that the Galaxy Nexus, with its support for multiple radio frequencies (2G/3G/4G) compromised the user experience. In the Nexus 4 Google was seeking to develop an optimized experience that would be compatible with as many global carrier networks as possible. (LTE can also compromise battery life, which was apparently a consideration here as well.)
HSPA a Global Play
Google is trying to make the phone as broadly appealing and viable as possible on a global basis.
While LTE networks are being deployed rapidly in the US, that’s not universally true in the rest of the world. HSPA and HSPA + networks have a larger global footprint and are much more common. So this device won’t “disappoint” as many people outside the US. For some in the US, notably the early adopters, the lack of 4G may be a deal breaker.
That’s a shame because in all other respects it’s a great phone. Google is selling the Nexus 4 (8GB) for $299 unlocked — a great price for this phone. To buy an unlocked iPhone 5 (16GB) you would have to spend over $600.
I’m not going to do an in-depth feature and spec review here; you can read those at Engadget or The Verge. I’ll point out a few additional, noteworthy things that make the Nexus 4 a very appealing — even compelling — device.
Android 4.2 brings a range of new features and improvements to the Nexus 4. Some standouts are:
- So-called “gesture” typing (Swype-like experience)
- Photo Sphere: the ability to take a series of 360 images and have them knit together automatically into a Street-View-like interactive panorama
- Wireless display sharing (miracast)
- Widgets on the lockscreen (not unlike Windows Phone’s live tiles)
- Actions within the pull-down notifications (e.g., respond to mail)
- Quick settings: upper-right icon with access to basic phone features (e.g., brightness, WiFi, battery life, etc.)
- Beefed up Google Now “predictive search” capability
Much Better Keyboard
I have always found Android keyboards to be lacking, especially compared with the iPhone. As a result I’ve typically bought Swiftkey as a replacement keyboard on Android handsets.
The new “gesture typing” capability is a great addition and substantially remedies the deficiencies with the native Android keyboard. It mimics what Swype does. (Swype was acquired last year for roughly $100 million by speech services powerhouse Nuance.) The Swype-like capability and improved predictive text now make it unnecessary to buy or install replacement keyboards and will probably kill that market unless there’s some dramatic new innovation from third parties.
Improved Google Now
Google Now, Google’s “predictive search” utility offers an expanded range of content and “cards” for Android 4.2. It also uses Gmail (in addition to calendar, search history and location) as an input and source of content recommendations.
Google Now is currently an imperfect tool but can surprise and be highly useful in certain situations. For example it will calculate traffic and tell you when to leave your current location to reach the airport or your meeting location.
During the US baseball playoffs Google Now determined that I was interested in certain teams, from my search queries (“SF Giants score”) and offered those scores and schedules up to me automatically with a single swipe on the home screen. That was great.
It can also do things like show weather and offer nearby restaurant information without requiring the user to initiate a search. I’ll have a separate discussion of Google Now over at Search Engine Land.
Should You Buy One?
If you’re in the market for a new Android phone, this one is the best hands down — except for the pesky issue of the missing LTE. That won’t be as much of an issue or drawback if you’re outside the US. Domestically, the Phone is compatible with the T-Mobile and AT&T networks although it seems better suited to T-Mobile’s HSPA+ (3.5G) network.
Although Google is going for broader success with its HSPA network strategy and aggressive pricing, like its predecessor the Galaxy Nexus, the Nexus 4 is probably unlikely to sell of ton units in the US. However it may be poised to do extremely well around the world.