Review of the Nexus 5


The Nexus 5 is the newest iteration of the Pure Google Experience smartphones. Like the Nexus 4 before it, this one is manufactured by LG (and it has their logo on it lest you forget). Itís roughly based on the new LG G2, but the two phones differ in a number of ways. The most obvious is that the G2 has a 13-megapixel camera and a 5.2-inch display, while the Nexus 5 has an 8-megapixel shooter and a 5.0-inch display.

Last Updated: 13-Nov-2013

Before reading this review, please read Some Thoughts on Phone Reviewing.

This time around Google has decided to officially support LTE. While there was a working LTE radio in the Nexus 4, it could only be made to work on Band 4 which virtually limited it to use in Canada, plus you had to make a change to the settings each time you booted the phone to get it to work.

RF Performance

To test LTE performance I could use my own basement, as there were enough places down there where I could reduce the LTE signal on Rogers to gain an appreciation for the phoneís ability to pull in a signal. To make sure that the phone didnít ďfall offĒ of LTE and drop to HSPA when the phone felt the signal had become too weak, I forced both the Nexus 5 and my Samsung Galaxy GS4 to stay on LTE all the time. Now that the phones hang onto LTE even when the signal become very weak, but LTE is remarkably good at retaining exceptionally useful data rates and surprisingly low latency at horrendously low signal levels.

One of my test locations was my cloths dryer, as that created a faraday cage that would block most of the signal (expect for a tiny bit that made it through the open door). To ensure that I still had a useable data connection I ran Google Maps in satellite mode and I moved the map over to areas where it hadnít yet downloaded the map squares. If there was data service, the map squares would load.

I didnít have to worry about the phones selecting Band 7, simply because it wasnít strong enough down there and the phone always chose Band 4. I could force the Nexus 5 onto LTE-only, but I couldnít specify which band, and so the penchant for the phone to prefer Band 4 was useful. I could force my GS4 onto Band 4 explicitly.

In dryer test the RF performance of the Nexus 5 and my Samsung Galaxy GS4 were approximately equal, but the GS4 hung on to the signal just a little bit longer, but not by enough to be statistically significant. The next test involved placing the phone on a piece of cardboard (to protect it) directly on the concrete floor in a corner of the basement. In this test the GS4 won by enough to consistently provide a sluggish, though useable, data connection while the Nexus 5 lost service.

So while the GS4 wins by a tiny amount over Nexus 5 in its ability to hang on to a weak LTE signal, it is unlikely that it would be detectable in real-world use. More importantly, when the phones were tested in locations where the signal was strong enough to be borderline, but perfectly useable otherwise (approximately -118 to -121 dBm with an RSRQ of between 12 and 16 dB) both phones provided almost identical transfer rates and ping times.

WiFi Performance

This aspect of the Nexus 5 performance also tied with the GS4. Both phones pull in the same signal levels and they both provide approximately the same transfer rates (up and down) for a given WiFi signal. There really isnít much to say about this.

Audio Performance

During incoming calls the audio quality through the native earpieces of the Nexus 5 and the GS4 are virtually identical. They have approximately the same volume and almost identical tonal balance. The nod has to go to the GS4 however, because it includes a volume boost option in the phone app that allows it to get much louder in situations where it is necessary (such as when it a noisy environment or when speaking with a very faint caller).

The speakerphone mode of the Nexus 5 doesnít fair so well however. The speaker on the GS4 is definitely louder and it has a nicer tone than the one in the Nexus 5. Once you factor in the volume boost option of the GS4, the Nexus 5 doesnít even come close in speakerphone performance.

Multimedia Audio

While not quite as bad as the speaker on the Sony Xperia Z1, the native loudspeaker in the Nexus 5 is fairly poor when compared to the GS4. When I played the same MP3 file on both phones the GS4 was louder, cleaner, crisper, and had more depth. The Nexus 5 sounded like a cheap piezo speaker from days of yore.

And as I noted in the Z1 review however, keep in mind that the GS4 pales in comparison to the Boom Sound output of the HTC One. This should give you some idea of how poor the sound quality is on the Nexus 5 built-in speaker. As with the Z1, it gets the job done, but thatís about the only good thing I can say about it. I rather imagined that the HTC One would have set a new standard for the industry, but seems some manufacturers (in this case LG) just donít get it.

Display

The Nexus 5 comes with a 5.0-inch LCD panel that at first glance looks really nice. However, after I made numerous comparisons to other displays, including the Super AMOLED panel on the Galaxy GS4 and a number of LCD monitors on my various computers, I couldnít escape the fact that the colors are rather inaccurate. For the most part they are a tiny bit washed out, especially the blues and grays. Other colors, such as reds, are rather dark. I doubt this is a function of the LCD panel and more a case of the ďtuningĒ of color provided by the firmware.

As the viewing angle increased the brightness of the screen decreases at a much steeper rate than you see with the GS4. However, unlike many other LCD panels Iíve recently tested, including the very disappointing one on the Sony Xperia Z1, the screen doesnít suffer from any wash-out or color shift as the angle increases. Except for the noticeable drop in brightness, the overall color balance and contrast remains the same no matter how you view the screen.

Black levels, while not quite as jet black as an AMOLED display, are actually pretty decent for an LCD panel. In fact, I felt the blacks were about AS BLACK as Iíd ever seen before on an LCD panel.

When it comes to screen brightness however, the Nexus 5 has it all over the GS4. The maximum light output of the Nexus 5 screen is noticeably brighter than the GS4 and this makes for easier viewing in direct sunlight. Itís about on par with the HTC One.

Camera

The Nexus 5 comes with an 8-megapixel shooter that is remarkably similar in its overall performance to the 13-megapixel camera in the GS4, but with a little less detail. They both do about equally in low light, though the Nexus 5 handles noise a bit better. They both produce approximately equal quality pictures under most circumstances (with a slight nod to the GS4 for having more pixels, and to the Nexus 5 for having slightly less noise). However, where the GS4 shines is in its Samsung camera software, which is just light years better than the rather vanilla software that comes with virgin KitKat.

The Nexus 5 does include an HDR mode, which works quite well in brightly-lit outdoor conditions, but seems to have little effect used indoors. Itís not quite as good as the HDR on the GS4, but it still manages to do a nice job of balancing bright and dark area in sunlit photographs.

So the camera on the Nexus 5 is pretty good, but hardly top-of-the-line. However, compared to the cameras that have come on some of the previous-generation Nexus models, this one is certainly a step in the right direction.

GPS

As I usually do, I ran numerous side-by-side comparisons of the GPS accuracy by using Sportstracker Pro to record various drives. I sat in the passenger seat and I held both the GS4 and Nexus 5 in my hands so that they had the same clear view of the satellites though my carís front windshield. To cancel any possible bias that having the Nexus 5 in one hand or the other might have caused I switched hands frequently throughout the drives.

The accuracy of the GPS in the Nexus 5 is quite good and it almost matches that of the GS4. However, it produces more oddball errors and the paths are less straight when the car was travelling in a straight line. However, the small magnitude of error and the low frequency of their occurrence was enough to declare the Nexus 5 GPS as one of the better ones out there.

However, overall GPS sensitivity seems to be detectably lower in the Nexus 5 than the GS4. When I took the phones into my basement I got faster locks on the GS4, with higher accuracy, and more satellites involved.

Processor and Chipset

Like the Z1 the Nexus 5 comes with the new Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 chipset, which includes the Adreno 330 GPU. This chipset is detectably faster than the Snapdragon 600 in the GS4, especially if you test it using graphics-intensive apps. Aside from games, one such app is Google Maps when it displays a plethora a 3D buildings viewed at a severe angle. As the map is moved you can see that the Nexus 5 generates a higher frame rate than the GS4, but the difference isnít huge.

Apps consistently open a tiny bit faster on the Nexus 5, but itís difficult to know for certain how much of the performance difference is a result of the CPU/GPU and how much is KitKat version of Android. A number of reviews of KitKat have suggested that itís faster and smoother than Jellybean 4.2.2, which means some of the increase in performance can be attributed to it.

Battery Life

When the screen is off and the phone is idling (even with the WiFi off and the phone is on LTE) the battery life is quite good. However, the moment you turn on the screen and start to use the phone the batteryís charge drops like a rock. The phone comes with a 2,300 mAh battery, which is 300 mAh smaller than the one in the GS4, but running a more power-hungry processor and GPU.

To get a feel for the battery drain I installed one of my favorite apps, namely Battery Monitor Widget. Once you ensure it has the battery capacity right (which it usually does, because it gets it from the O/S) and give it a little time to track the performance of your battery, it can estimate how long the battery will last under a variety of different scenarios. The one weíre interested in is real-time drain, in which it projects how long the battery will last at the current drain rate. Compared to the GS4 this rate of decline is shockingly steep. These figures are born out by a seat-of-the-pants feel based purely upon noting the battery percentage from time to time.

The Pure Google Experience

If you like to be on the bleeding edge of Android releases, then the Nexus line is the way to go. However, one of the prices you pay for being right out front is that you get all the bugs in your teeth (pun intended). While most apps will run just fine under KitKat, I observed a number of problems as I played with the phone. For example, few of apps display an ugly pixilated outline font instead of nice filled-in font they show on older versions of Android. Iím sure the list of problems goes on and on, and Iím equally sure they will all eventually be fixed as the developers of these apps release versions that work correctly under Android 4.4. Unlike that time you get the pleasure of putting up with these bugs.

Conclusions

The Nexus 5 is a pretty decent Android phone at a pretty decent price. While nothing really stands out, nothings really disappoints, plus the price-to-performance ratio is about the best youíll find anyway. One aspect of the Nexus line as a rule can be both a curse and a blessing, depending upon your point-of-view. Running pure Android means you get snappier performance and no bloat, but you also loose many of the really great tweaks that manufacturers usually include in their versions of the O/S. In the case of the GS4, you get a first-rate camera app that makes the one in the Nexus seem amateurish by comparison.

I wouldnít recommend a Nexus 5 to people who arenít explicitly interested in the pure Google experience, but the price is hard to ignore. If you are interested in getting that experience however, the best phones to compare the Nexus 5 to would be the special editions of the GS4 and the HTC One which come with pure Android in them. However, you still have to wait for Samsung or HTC to update the O/S, whereas the Nexus 5 gets its versions of Android directly from Google. In addition, the Nexus 5 is now ahead of the GS4 and HTC One in the processor/GPU department and they both cost markedly more.

I generally enjoyed the time I spent with the Nexus 5, but I found plain-Jane Android to be a little bit disappointing in a number of ways. I guess Iíve just gotten used to the tweaks that Samsung puts in their versions of Android.

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