• Design
  • Display
  • Performance
  • Software
  • Battery Life

The LG Nexus 4 is to Google a bit like the iPhone 4S was to Apple. Now, that doesn’t mean that this review is simply a comparison between the iPhone 4S and the Nexus 4. The reason I use that comparison is that it very quickly demonstrates to most people that the LG Nexus 4 isn’t a massive upgrade. No, the next groundbreaking Android smartphone is likely to be the rumored Motorola X Phone, which leaves the LG Nexus 4 as more of an incremental upgrade to the Samsung Galaxy Nexus.

Of course, just because the Nexus 4 isn’t groundbreaking doesn’t mean that the device isn’t a big improvement over the Galaxy Nexus. While still just an incremental upgrade, the Nexus 4 improves and updates almost every aspect of the Galaxy Nexus, resulting in a much better, more coherent, and competitive smartphone. When coupled with the incredible price, this makes the Nexus 4 a very compelling option, at least on paper. However, is the Nexus 4 really good enough to compete with the ever more technically impressive Android smartphones from the likes of HTC, or should Android fans pass up on LG’s offering in the hopes of something better? Read on for the full review to find out.

Quick Specs

Made by LG to showcase the latest version of Android, 4.2 Jelly Bean, the Nexus 4 is a well built and powerful device despite its low price. Powering the device is a quad-core 1.5GHz Krait Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 processor paired with an Adreno 320 GPU. The 2GB of RAM ensure that multitasking works smoothly, and the 8GB or 16GB of built-in memory store the OS and media. The 4.7-inch display has a 1280 x 768 resolution, Gorilla Glass 2, and IPS technology for impressive brightness and clarity.

An 8MP rear and 1.3MP front camera are included, as well as GPS, WiFi a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0, and NFC connectivity. The device also has the full array of sensor sincluding a gyroscope, barometer, and ambient light sensor, and wireless charging capabilities. There is no CDMA version of the Nexus 4, but the GSM version supports HSPA+ up to 42MBPS down.

Packaging

The Nexus 4′s box holds no surprises, and is designed in exactly the same way as the Nexus 7 and Nexus 10′s packaging. This of course makes perfect sense, but it is nice to see some consistency throughout Google’s products. There aren’t any surprising accessories in the box, but you can still take a look at the full unboxing if you care to see how the Nexus 4 is packaged.

Hardware

If anything, the front of the LG Nexus 4 is just a bit bland and uninspiring. Certainly, it looks quite good and very classy in the sense that is a sleek black slab, but there is almost nothing to make the Nexus 4 unique. In fact, it almost looks as if Google tried to remove all extra design elements including capacities buttons, to end up with a pure black slab of glass. The chrome trim around the edge is a minimal attempt at adding a bit of style, and it does work fairly well. Still, the Nexus 4 looks very generic. With just the speaker grille at the top of the device, the Nexus 4 is admittedly quite sleek, but it just doesn’t have much personality when viewed from the front.

At the top of the device is the very slim speaker grille, front facing camera, as well as two nearly invisible light sensors. There isn’t much to say other than the speaker grille is well designed to play into the clean and sleek look of the Nexus 4, so I’ll just leave it at that.

While it doesn’t look like there is anything at the bottom of the Nexus 4 because there aren’t any capacitive buttons, it does include one important feature: The notification LED. While small and insignificant to some, the notification LED is an important feature for many Android users, and I quite like the one included on the Nexus 4. It is subtle, looks good, and works well.

At the very bottom of the Nexus 4, directly in the center, is the device’s microUSB port. This is flanked by two Torx screws, which predict a difficult disassembly should anything go wrong. The primary microphone cutout is also found here, in a slightly off-center place.

The left side of the Nexus 4 includes just the volume rocker and microSIM card slot. Chrome accents the volume rocker, which has good tactical feedback and works quite well, while the microSIM slot is almost invisible and requires a tiny pin to access.

The top of the Nexus 4 houses the single 3.5mm headset jack, which seems to be standard placement these days. While I slightly prefer Galaxy Nexus-style bottom mounted headphone jack, the difference is really quite minor. In addition to the headphone jack, a second noise cancelling microphone can barely be seen on the right of the headphone jack.

The right side of the device houses the power button and nothing else. Placed at about the same location as the volume rocker and with the same chrome trim, the power button is consistent with the rest of the Nexus 4′s design. It also has good tactile feedback, and I much prefer right side placement to power buttons on the top of tall devices (here’s looking at the Droid DNA) for ease of access.

If anything, the back of the Nexus 4 is where LG makes up for the simplicity of the front of the device. A single pane of glass makes for a mostly smooth surface, but beneath the glass is a sort of glittered pattern that sparkles with life. The camera is fairly subtly mounted at the top left of the device and the speaker on the bottom right, with basic branding information on the bottom.

Of course, the really interesting thing here is the visually textured back. While at some angles and in some lighting the texture is invisible, in others it really stands out.

While at first I didn’t like the idea of a sparkling back cover, the Nexus 4 actually pulls off the look. Because it vanishes at some times and appears at others, and also because the rest of the Nexus 4 is so sparsely designed, the reflective back cover really adds just the right amount of personality to the device. As a whole, the Nexus 4 is quite well designed. It is a very solid device, that both looks good and functions well. The minimal buttons are placed predictably, the expected ports are there, and LG has made the Nexus 4 feel more solid and high-quality than many of Samsung’s products.

Although the glass back cover isn’t as durable as other options might be, the overall effect of the Nexus 4′s dual-pane setup is quite good. The matte black edge trim provides just the right contrast and grip for the device, and the very basic front contrasts nicely with the more adventurous back. Now that I think about it, it is almost the mullet of phone designs. Potentially dangerous, but if done right, it can work in a quirky sort of way. Somehow, the Nexus 4 manages to make it work, combining simplicity with style, solid design, and a good in-hand feel. In fact, from a pure design standpoint, the Nexus 4 is probably one of the best-designed Android handsets to date.

Screen

The LG Nexus 4 has a 4.7-inch 1280 x 768 display with HD IPS Plus technology all sheathed behind Gorilla Glass 2. While the resolution isn’t as impressive as some devices such as the HTC Droid DNA, it is still extremely good, especially when combined with the brightness of IPS Plus.

The Nexus 4 is another smartphone that has moved away from the Super AMOLED Plus display, meaning that it does sacrifice pure blacks. However, as I’ve discussed when looking at HTC and other device’s IPS plus panels, the tradeoff for the true blacks is a clear and bright image that almost floats off of the display. At times I am a bit conflicted and go back and forth, but in the end both IPS and AMOLED are great, and the differences are minor preference issues. I will say, though, that compared just to the Galaxy Nexus, the Nexus 4′s display is much brighter, clearer, and overall looks much better.

So, with that said, the Nexus 4′s display is very good, but not the best. The 317ppi pixel density puts it right up with the iPhone 5′s 326ppi, and brightness and colors are superb. With the proper kernel and color settings, I’ve also heard that the display can look even better. While it may not be at the top of the list on resolution alone, the display on the Nexus 4 has almost no flaws and should be sufficient for almost any use.

Software

The LG Nexus 4 runs a perfectly stock build of Android 4.2, which is not very different from the Android 4.1 software found on the ASUS Nexus 7. Mostly, the latest update just enhanced Android’s speed, added multiple users, updated the notification shade, and improved notifications. As you can see, nearly everything else was left alone, including the homescreen and widgets, are just the same as they were in previous versions.

The same goes for the lockscreen and app drawer, although the lockscreen now places the Google Now trigger at the bottom, even when using the ring unlock. Also, Face Unlock is now fairly decent, as I’ve touched on before.

While the above screenshot does include the app drawer, what you see is actually a set of custom icons I’ve installed. This is easily achievable with just a custom launcher, but isn’t the stock look. Still, the image shows what the app drawer generally looks likes, which hasn’t changed from Android 4.1.

Although I prefer to use Google Voice for text messages, the stock messaging interface is still fairly decent, and is integrated well into the rest of the OS. The new keyboard also includes a swipe feature called “Gesture Typing,” which actually works surprisingly well.

The calculator app may not be the most exciting thing to mention here, but I do like the fact that it matches up quite well with the keyboard found other places in the OS, a testament to the growing consistency of Android. Of course, I still think the calculator app could do with a graphical refresh (it looks a bit Metro), but that is beside the point.

Google Now is also slightly improved, but not vastly different on the Nexus 4. The latest update includes the new widget and several cards, as well as improved sports tracking and Google Doodle support. I still don’t find Google Now very useful as a Siri-like personal assistant, but have found it able to provide better and better real-time information before I ask. It may not be too impressive now, but I expect Google Now to get even more intuitive in the future.

The Nexus 4 includes the same gallery app as always, which also integrates with Picasa and Google+ images automatically. Other than that, there isn’t much to say about image management. It works, and that’s about all it needs to do.

In addition to the gallery software, Android 4.2 includes a video editing/movie making program that, while it works, is fairly simplistic. The app allows you to do some basic editing, add music, and add a few effects, but I don’t really find it very practical. There may be a few situations where it is helpful, but I had no need for it.

The notification shade in Android 4.2 now supports even more expandable and actionable notifications, but the real change is the quick settings area. John has discussed how Google got it wrong, and I agree that custom ROMs have been offering a better feature for some time, but at least Google has finally added the option. I don’t see why there is no rotation lock toggle on the Nexus 4 when there is one on the Nexus 7, and Google could make the area more customizable, but despite the flaws it is nice to have the notification toggles finally built in.

You won’t find the stock Android “Browser” on the Nexus 4; with Android 4.2 it has been done away with in favor of the much better Chrome for Android. We’ve discussed Chrome for Android at length here on Pocketables, so suffice it to say that Chrome works extremely well on the Nexus 4 and is a great mobile browser.

In addition, Google is pushing its Currents reader after killing the actual Google Reader, and while it does have a nice interface, Currents is no replacement. It works fairly well and certainly looks good, but simply lacks the features that many Reader power users are going to be looking for.

I don’t remember where I saw it, but back when Android 4.2 was just a rumor, I remember hearing that part of the update would be a new dialer with a transparent background. Sadly, the Android 4.2 dialer is still bland and has a blue gradient background. It works and looks fine, but could have been updated to look a little better.

The app switcher in Android 4.2 is the same one most Android users should be familiar with, and hasn’t changed in this version. You can still swipe apps away, although it doesn’t always kill them.

Android 4.2 still has the same settings display as the previous version, as well as the two toggles. The Data usage and Storage graphics are both quite helpful, and as you can see it is a good thing I decided to go with the 16GB version of the device, otherwise I would be quite pressed for space.

The software powering the Nexus 4 is certainly an upgrade over the previous point versions of Android, but the key here is that it is a very slight one. We have a few new features, better Google Now, an improved notification shade, and support for multiple users. However, there isn’t much here that really makes a huge difference in how you will likely use the device.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that Android 4.2 isn’t good. It is a fast, smooth, coherent OS with plenty of good features despite the few remaining problems. However, it is hardly any different in any big way that makes it so much better than previous versions. Android 4.2 is great, but I’m more interested in the next version, whether it is 4.3 or 5.0. Either way, it should be on the Nexus 4 a few days after the announcement, which is one of the biggest software advantages this Nexus device has.

Performance

Powered by a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 15GHz Krait processor and with the Adreno 320 GPU, the Nexus 4 is no slouch when it comes to performance. With 2GB of RAM to ensure there’s always enough memory, the Nexus 4 zips through all tasks, apps, and games. More than on any other device, I don’t feel like there is any lag navigating the OS, opening apps, browsing the web, or playing games. An iPhone-owning friend even commented on the “peppiness” and responsiveness of the OS on the Nexus 4. Everything is fluid and smooth, and hiccups are almost nonexistent. Subjectively, the Nexus 4 is a very fast smartphone.

Benchmarks

Quadrant

Vellamo

Linpack Single (left) and Multi (right) Thread

Antutu

Phone Calls

Usually, I don’t have very much to say about how well a smartphone makes phone calls, because there really isn’t very much to say. The Nexus 4 is no exception, because while it works just as well as any other Android smartphone, there was nothing particularly striking about its performance. Call quality is good on both ends, and the noise cancelling microphone seems to work well. The only complaint I have with the Nexus 4 is that the device’s speaker, when used for speakerphone, isn’t really loud enough. I don’t use speakerphone much, but I used it even less on the Nexus 4 because the speaker was so weak. Otherwise, the smartphone works quite well for making calls, and in my case T-Mobile’s coverage was also superb.

Connectivity

I won’t spend too long in this section because I’ve already discussed it in another post, but suffice it to say that I don’t miss LTE on the Nexus 4. As far as data goes, HSPA+ 42MBPS is perfectly fine, and T-Mobile does a good job in my area. The Nexus 4 also seems to have slightly above average Bluetooth and WiFi range, although I didn’t run any scientific tests.

The Nexus 4 also includes NFC and wireless charging, but I have yet to find much use for the former or buy the necessary accessories for the latter. Interestingly, my Movulate NFC tag doesn’t work with the Nexus 4 (it did with the Lumia 822), but the Nexus 4 did work fine with other NFC devices.

Wireless charging is a feature that I would like to take advantage of and think would be quite useful, but I just haven’t gotten myself to spend the money on compatible accessories. I still like the idea of wireless charging, but at $50 for the basic charger, I’m conflicted about using it just yet.

Camera

I dislike talking about smartphone cameras for two reasons, the first being that I don’t know much about cameras, and the second being that basically any smartphone camera that isn’t rubbish is good enough for me. As a result, I’m not a great judge of smartphone camera quality.

However, I can say that the Nexus 4′s camera and software made it fairly easy to take good pictures, even if the shutter wasn’t as fast as the Galaxy Nexus. In addition, the HDR mode worked wonders and resulted in some very good images. The camera on the Nexus 4 is certainly an upgrade from the Galaxy Nexus, and makes taking good pictures much easier.

Below I’ll let the images speak for themselves, but since the Nexus 4 also includes the very interesting Photo Sphere feature, you should be able to see one here on my Google+ page.

     

Battery Life

The Nexus 4 seems to be sort of variable when it comes to battery life, fluctuating between just enough and fairly decent battery life. I don’t think I’ve had it die on me yet in one day, but I’ve had it get close frequently. Depending on how I use the phone, I’ll get the low battery alert around 5:00 in the afternoon, which is much too early if I need to do anything that evening. Other days, the Nexus 4 will be fine powering through until 10:00 PM.

Obviously, a lot of the variability comes from usage, but the bottom line is that the 2,100mAh 3.8V battery powering the Nexus 4 ends up feeling just a little bit underpowered. The Nexus 4 will generally last for a day, but depending on usage it seems like it is about to give out just a little too early. I wouldn’t say that the Nexus 4 has bad battery life, in fact I would say that it is about average or decent, but it isn’t quite as good as I was expecting or hoping it would be.

Conclusion

There really isn’t too much to say about the LG Nexus 4, when it comes down to it. The hardware is much more solid than the Galaxy Nexus and seems to be of higher quality, but the fragile glass back cover detracts from the overall durability of the device. The included software is a slight update on the tried and true Android 4.2, but doesn’t change very much and just adds a few small features.

In short, the Nexus 4 is a very incremental upgrade, and not one with a major “wow” feature. In fact, I often think that I might have been just as happy keeping my Galaxy Nexus. However, I always seem to immediately reconsider. While the Nexus 4 has only minor upgrades, it is a much more coherent device, and just feels like a higher quality smartphone. From the build to the OS, everything is a little bit smoother, the rough edges have been removed, and the result is a smoother and higher quality experience.

Of course, this wouldn’t be worth it at an exorbitant price, but fortunately price is one of the best features of the Nexus 4. At $299 for the base model and $349 for the 16GB version (which I recommend everyone get), the Nexus 4 is quite a deal when most unlocked smartphones of the same caliber cost much more. When combined with one of T-Mobile’s no contract plans, the Nexus 4 allows you to have a high-end smartphone without spending too much money. For that alone, the Nexus 4 seems worth it.

In addition, although other devices are now being rumored, announced, and released with much more impressive hardware than the Nexus 4, I’m really not too interested. The Nexus 4 is a great smartphone that works well for me, and since it will have the latest version of Android for at least the foreseeable future, I’m likely going to keep it until the Nexus 5 comes out.

While the Nexus 4 isn’t a major new feature of hardware or software, almost all of the changes were for the best. I do miss the microSD slot and removable battery, but Google has given its reasons for the change, and I don’t think the features are worth buying a more expensive smartphone. The Nexus 4 is a polished, modern, high-end smartphone on both the inside and outside at a great price, and just like Android, this is thanks to Google focusing on the little things.