For the Android purist, only an unlocked Nexus phone will do – since network-subsidised Android phones are somewhat compromised, thanks to their skins, carrier modifications, and infrequent OS updates. Enter the Google Nexus 4 (£239 sim-free for the 8GB model), a totally streamlined smartphone running the new Android 4.2 Jelly Bean OS in its stock form.
The phone is manufactured by LG now, rather than Samsung which made last year’s Galaxy Nexus, and the price is very tempting. Indeed, the Nexus 4 represents a great deal for what amounts to the cleanest – and in our opinion, best – Android experience you can get, despite a few significant flaws.
Design and display
From a short distance, the Nexus 4 looks almost identical to the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. But that’s an illusion; instead of the hard plastic sides and back of the Samsung version, the LG model is nicely finished in clear glass on the back, with a lovely sparkling pattern that seems to move as you tilt the handset.
The sides are finished with a grippy soft touch rubber, and there’s a smoked chrome accent ring around the front. The phone measures 69 x 9 x 134mm (WxDxH), and weighs 139 grams. It's a beautiful design that befits a Nexus: Understated, classy, and without frills.
There's not much in the way of hardware controls. The right side features a lone power button, while the left panel houses a chrome volume rocker and a micro-SIM card slot; if you want to switch SIM cards, you open it using a tiny metal key LG provides in the package. A standard-size 3.5mm headphone jack is found up top, while the microUSB port for charging and syncing the phone is on the bottom of the phone.
The 4.7in IPS LCD packs a 1,280 x 768 resolution, and is covered in Corning Gorilla Glass 2. There's less of a gap between the glass and display than before, which is noticeable when you tilt it on its side. The screen is responsive and feels great to the touch. Whites are significantly brighter than the dim, yellowish ones on the Galaxy Nexus. Web pages on the iPhone 5 still look better, thanks to better viewing angles and a still brighter screen, and the iPhone 5's fonts are also kerned more closely and easier to read. But the Nexus 4 display is a tremendous improvement, and it's considerably larger than the iPhone 5's 4in screen. In my tests, typing on the on-screen keyboard was comfortable and responsive in both portrait and landscape modes.
Performance and hardware
The phone’s voice quality was generally good, even excellent in the earpiece, with plenty of gain, and a crisp, natural tone. Transmissions through the mic were a little thin and robotic sounding, though, and the noise cancelling algorithm seemed to struggle with some moderate construction noise in the background. Reception was solid, and a huge improvement over the spotty reception I experienced with the Samsung Galaxy Nexus.
Calls sounded clear through a Jawbone Era Bluetooth headset, though it was a little unreliable; I had trouble getting calls to stay in the headset, and while I could trigger voice dialling over Bluetooth, Android's built-in voice recognition never understood the number I was trying to dial. The speakerphone gets quite loud, but it has a piercing tone at maximum volume that's uncomfortable to listen to.
The Nexus 4's 2100mAh battery was good for a solid 10 hours and 10 minutes of talk time. It's worth noting that the Nexus 4 also supports wireless charging with compatible charging pads (although it doesn't come with one of these). Wireless charging is useful, but not as perfect as it sounds; you still have to plug the wireless charging mat into the wall. But at least you don't have to plug and unplug the actual phone each time.
The Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro quad-core 1.5GHz processor (with built-in Adreno 320 GPU) and 2GB RAM pack a real performance punch. The phone became quite warm during benchmark tests, even hot towards the top of the back panel – but it never overheated. The results were about what I had expected – roughly equivalent to the Optimus G, with excellent gaming performance, though the Chrome browser wasn't quite as fast as it is on the Galaxy S III.
In terms of connectivity, there’s no LTE on board the Nexus 4, but you do get HSPA+ 42 support which can still provide some pretty nippy surfing (besides, not everyone can get on EE’s 4G LTE network yet, by any means). You get 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi, and the phone had no problem connecting to our WPA2-encrypted 5GHz office network.
As for the fresh version of Android the Nexus carries, Jelly Bean 4.2 is an evolutionary but nonetheless welcome upgrade over 4.1, thanks to its new Photo Sphere and Miracast features (more on those in a moment). You can also swipe over the keyboard when typing, similar to the venerable Swype keyboard, but with improved predictive text capability. The Nexus 4 fits five icons across the app tray instead of four, and there are five home screens you can swipe between and customise.
Google Now and apps
Google Now delivers improved localised results in Android 4.2, such as restaurant and hotel reservations, flight schedules, and package tracking. With Android, you get stellar voice-enabled GPS navigation, as well as public transport directions. The Nexus 4 is perhaps the best fit to run any of the 700,000 apps in Google Play compared to any other Android phone, thanks to its totally stock, up-to-date OS. There's no bloatware here. And without confusing, redundant app stores or music and video streaming services, you're best positioned to take advantage of what Google Play has to offer. The phone also supports NFC.
In the £239 Nexus 4, you get 8GB of internal storage; a 16GB version costs £40 more. The 16GB version we were sent for review had 12.72GB free out of the box. Music tracks sounded clear and punchy through Plantronics BackBeat Go Bluetooth headphones, and the stock Android 4.2 music player is easy to navigate and displays large album art thumbnails.
Full screen videos up to 1080p played smoothly, though Xvid files wouldn't play, and stereo audio was out of sync over Bluetooth, which was disappointing. The Nexus 4 also supports Miracast, an open standard that lets you mirror your phone's display wirelessly on an HDTV, similar to Apple's AirPlay or Intel Wi-Di. To use it, you'll need a Miracast-compatible receiver like the Netgear Push2TV.
Camera and Photo Sphere
The 8-megapixel rear-facing camera offers autofocus, face recognition, and an LED flash. In my tests, photo quality was good, though not quite up to iPhone 5 standards; outdoor shots looked balanced, but not particularly crisp or detailed. Indoor shots were fairly noise-free, but a little soft in focus. There are some basic built-in editing tools as well. Shutter speeds were reasonably fast at 0.3 seconds, but the auto-focus was a bit fiddly and adjusted itself almost constantly. Since none of the controls are labelled, the camera interface is a little confusing, but eventually I figured out where everything was.
Recorded videos were a bit of a disappointment; 1080p and 720p videos I recorded outdoors played at just 22 frames per second (fps), and brightly lit indoor videos maxed out at 19 fps. They were all softly focused and a little dark, and there's no image stabilisation either. Overall, the camera is an improvement over the Galaxy Nexus, but not enough of one. You also get a 1.3-megapixel front facing camera for 720p video chats.
On the bright side, there's Photo Sphere, which lets you take fun 360-degree immersive photos as well as panoramas. It's buggy, though. I had no problem capturing a nice photo sphere outside – it only took about one minute. It was basically like playing a video game, where you have to line up the cursor with the dot in different locations as you spin around slowly; each time I did, it snapped another photo. It then assembled the results into a single file, which was fun to view but had some bizarre jagged edges in places. You can upload spheres to Google+ or view them on the phone, but you can't otherwise view them on a PC.
LG’s Nexus 4 certainly outshines the previous Galaxy Nexus from Samsung. It has a stronger reception, brighter screen, a classier design, and HSPA+ 42 data speeds instead of HSPA+ 21. It’s also ideal for the kind of phone user who values a pure Android experience, and the most up-to-date OS.
That said, the lack of 4G LTE support may be a downer for those who want to get on board with EE’s new super-fast mobile service, and the Nexus 4’s camera is disappointing. Given the price tag of £239 sim-free, though, this is a superb value for money phone, and one deserving of our Best Buy accolade.
Manufacturer and Device
(LG/Google) Nexus 4
1,280 x 768-pixel IPS capacitive touchscreen
850, 900, 1800, 1900, 2100, 1700
EDGE, HSPA+ 42
Qualcomm Snapdragon S4