Google Nexus 4: When Good Isn’t Good Enough
In the Android ecosystem, the Nexus line has carved out an important, special niche for itself: It’s the pure Google experience. Gone are UI skins such as HTC’s Sense or Samsung’s TouchWiz. Gone too are wireless carrier add-ons and software bloat.
More than just offering the pure Google experience, past phones in the Nexus line (which include the Nexus One, Nexus S and Galaxy Nexus) have also served as harbingers for the future devices on the platform. In other words, Nexus set the tone for future Android devices.
So how does the Nexus 4 stack up?
Looking at the specs, the Nexus 4 is a compelling device. It has a 1.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 processor, which Google says is the fastest on the market.
This is the same chip that’s inside LG’s Optimus G — that makes sense too, because LG is also the company that manufactures the Nexus 4.
In fact, comparing the Nexus 4 against the Optimus G on both Sprint and AT&T, the specs are nearly indistinguishable.
The Nexus 4 (and the Optimus G) has a 4.7″ IPS (in-plane switching) LCD display with a resolution of 1,280 x 768. That gives the phone a resolution of 320 pixels per inch (ppi), just a hair below the 326 ppi of the iPhone 5.
The phone also has 2GB of RAM and can be configured with either 8GB of 16GB of internal storage. Like the iPhone 5, the Nexus 4 is not expandable with microSD.
It has an 8-megapixel rear and 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera. Like the Nexus 10, the Nexus 4 ships running Android 4.2 “Jelly Bean.”
In my tests, the phone was fast and responsive — the extra RAM and optimizations made to Android 4.2 left me with very few force-quit errors, and I found myself not worrying about shutting down apps running in the background.
Mammoth Screen, Long-Lasting Battery
The Nexus 4 continues the Android tradition started in earnest with the Galaxy S III of having a huge display. With a 4.7″ screen, the phone is more than five inches tall and nearly three inches wide.
For some users, this is fine — but for my small hands, it’s a bit too much. The screen itself is beautiful and I love that LG opted to use IPS and RGB, rather than the PenTile pixel arrangement favored by so many other OEMs.
In my tests, colors were vibrant and lifelike. The display worked well at nearly all angles and the only times I had issues were under direct sunlight.
The most impressive part of the phone to me was the battery. It’s the same battery that’s inside the Optimus G but I found that the Nexus 4 has even better performance
On my iPhone 5, I’m lucky if I can get through 10 hours with heavy to moderate use. With the Nexus 4, I was able to go 14 hours before needing to recharge the phone — and this was with tons of open apps, lots of online communications, tons of data downloads and even some quality time with Grand Theft Auto III.
I’m not sure if it was Android 4.2 and Google’l own optimizations that led to the increased battery life — or if it was the lack of a 4G radio (more on that below) — but this is one smartphone that won’t leave you searching for a place to get extra juice.
No LTE, Big Problem
Let’s get this out of the way — the biggest problem with the Nexus 4 is that it lacks an LTE connection. In 2012 — at least in the United States — this makes the phone a non-starter.
Every major carrier in the U.S. other than T-Mobile has or is in the process of rolling out an LTE network. Even T-Mobile has announced its plans for LTE — even as it pontificates on how fast its HSPA+ speeds are.
In New York City, the difference between HSPA+ on T-Mobile and LTE on AT&T or Verizon is night and day. It’s not even comparable. It really is like going from dial-up to broadband and going back to slower speeds is not fun.
Using T-Mobile on the Nexus 4, I got up to 6.51 Mbps down at Mashable’s offices in Manhattan — compared with over 30 Mbps on Verizon LTE on my iPhone 5. The LG Optimus G on AT&T showed speeds nearing 40 Mbps in our offices (AT&T has better signal here).
From a practical standpoint, the difference is really apparent when in areas without Wi-Fi. On the Nexus 4, streaming video from Hulu Plus or Netflix is choppy, video conferencing is a non-starter and transferring photos to Dropbox or Google Drive takes a lot more time.
Android chief Andy Rubin explained the decision to forgo LTE on the Nexus 4 to The Verge, calling it “a tactical issue.” On the technical end, there are challenges for Google with building a phone that can support the various flavors of LTE — not to mention the impact on battery life.
The bigger, more pressing issue, however, is control. In essence, to get LTE on the Nexus 4, Google would need to make compromises with carriers, especially regarding software and software updates. Releasing a non-LTE device and sticking with unlocked HSPA+ means that Google can keep its OS the way it wants and not have to deal with some of the issues that plagued the Galaxy Nexus on Verizon — including lack of support for Google Wallet, slower Android updates and more.
Perhaps if the Nexus line had been more successful in the past, Google would have more leverage with carriers. By omitting LTE, however, for whatever reason, customers lose. It also immediately takes the device out of contention for everyone except for T-Mobile customers.
Apple was criticized for not releasing the iPhone 4S with LTE in 2011 — and this was before AT&T’s network was fully rolled out and before Verizon expanded its footprint. It’s almost 2013. Releasing a phone without LTE — especially a “flagship” phone — is inexcusable.
The lack of LTE may matter less overseas — for now — but it’s still hard to recommend buying a phone that won’t work with the new networks when similar phones (including LG’s Optimus G) are available with LTE support.
Who Is This For?
Using the Nexus 4, the one issue I kept coming back to over and over again was, “who is this phone for?”
From a pure technical level, the phone has some of the best specs in the Android space. It doesn’t shift the bar for Android the same way the Nexus One and the Nexus S did, but it’s a very compelling device, LTE issues aside.
However, by shipping without LTE and subsidized pricing only with the smallest national carrier, Google has ensured that the Nexus 4 will not be a blockbuster success in the United States.
So who is it for? Most Android users aren’t swayed by the “pureness” of the Nexus experience and those that are would just install stock Android on the device of their choice anyway.
The no-contract price on the Nexus 4 — $299 for 8GB, $349 for 16GB — is great for the user looking for an unlocked device, but the lack of LTE still leads me to believe that the Nexus 4 is destined to be a developer-only device.
The Nexus 4 is a good device. The reality, however, in 2012 is that being a good Android device is no longer enough. Right now, consumers have tons of good to great Android devices to choose from on a plethora of carriers.
The pure Android experience might have been enough to edge the Nexus line over the competition in years past, but without LTE, it’s much harder to do.
My advice: If you’re tech savvy and committed to getting the Nexus 4 experience but on LTE, consider LG’s Optimus G. It has the near-identical hardware specs. Pop a new ROM on it and enjoy a Nexus 4 the way it should have been.
For everyone else, Samsung’s Galaxy S III remains the leading Android device available on all carriers.
The Nexus 4 will be available on Nov. 13, 2012.