It might be manufactured by LG, but the Nexus 4 doesn't look like any LG phone we've ever seen before. Its symmetrical curved bezel is strongly reminiscent of the Galaxy Nexus we saw in Australia earlier this year, but its glass front and back give the Nexus 4 a more premium feel than its predecessor.
As the iPhone 4S proved, glass on the back of phones isn't always a good idea. Google and LG have opted for Gorilla Glass 2 for both the screen and battery cover, but, even still, you might want to pick up one of the Nexus 4 rubber bumpers for that extra piece of mind. Also — something that we didn't expect — the handset can get really hot during use, and the glass conducts this heat. After playing Angry Birds Star Wars for 15 minutes, we found that holding the Nexus 4 was like holding a cup of coffee without a handle.
The glass on the back of the phone has a lovely sparkle to it, but it gets hot during use and is a magnet for fingerprints.
The glass on the front is the real showstopper, though. Many will wonder why Google chose LG to partner with on the Nexus 4, and, if we could guess, we'd say it's because of the company's display pedigree. The Nexus 4 gets the best of this, with a 4.7-inch IPS LCD panel with a 1280x768-pixel 720p resolution. This really is one of the best smartphone displays we've seen, on par with Apple's Retina display for clarity and colour, and with far better white display than Samsung's AMOLED panels. The screen is impressively responsive to touch input, too, with as much credit going to Google's performance tweaking of the Android platform as to the hardware.
The exterior of the phone is pretty minimalist, however, especially without a microSD card slot on any of the edges. There are other common slots and ports missing, too. We'd have loved a micro-HDMI socket, but, without it, you will have to learn about Miracast and how to use it in order to connect your phone to your monitor or TV.
This micro-USB port is the only port available on the Nexus 4.
Jelly Bean Plus
Great hardware is only half of the story in the Nexus 4. The handset is, don't forget, the Android reference device for Google; the one for all others to aspire to. As such, it comes with the absolute latest version of the Android platform, numbered 4.2 and referred to by some as Jelly Bean Plus. It brings a host of performance improvements, according to Google's official literature on the subject, but most of this is difficult to perceive. It is easy to see that this phone is silky smooth in operation, but you'd need a high-speed camera to tell by how much.
It's far easier to spot some of the handy new interface tweaks that Google has added since the previous major update. The lock screen is now several pages of space where the user can display specially coded widgets. Our review unit allows us to install calendar, clock, messaging and Gmail widgets, but this list may grow as third-parties recode their widgets to live in this new environment. You can also swipe from right to left on the default home screen to launch the camera.
Google has also added a Quick Settings panel, which you pull down from the top of the screen in the same way you'd access the notifications curtain. To launch the settings window, though, you use two fingers to swipe down the screen, rather than one.
You access the new Quick Settings menu by swiping down from the top with two fingers.
(Credit: Screenshot by CBSi)
The primary focus of this camera is pretty obviously speed, and LG does a good job of delivering a very fast camera, even if the final result isn't always spot on. The speed works well to remove most of the focus problems associated with hands moving while a photo is being taken, but we still found that our photos were just slightly out of focus all the same. Of course, these are fine for photos you will share online, but they won't look so great if you decide to have an impromptu photo-slide night using your 50-inch TV.
We'd also like to point out the new camera setting UI found in Jelly Bean 4.2. When you press and hold on the screen, a circular menu appears, showing the various options. To access any of these options, you simply slide you finger to it to reveal even more options, like exposure settings and picture modes.
This is what you see when you hold down on the touchscreen in the new Android camera app.
(Screenshot by CBSi)
Google has also added a new Photo Sphere picture mode, which lets you take panorama photos along the vertical axis as well as the horizontal plane. Once rendered, you end up with a funky 3D view of your surroundings, which you can move around in when viewing on the phone.
Performance and battery
Making sure that it all runs as smoothly as possible, LG packs some truly powerful hardware into the Nexus 4. Starting with a quad-core 1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro chipset, with Adreno 320 graphics and 2GB of RAM, this is true class-leading hardware, and it shows in the performance across the system. Multitasking is especially impressive, switching between tasks as seamlessly as you might expect on a PC. Unlike our experience with some other Android products, this really does feel like hardware designed to work perfectly in unison with this build of Android, the way the iPhone works with iOS.
Third-party app performance has been flawless during our review, too. Even apps like Flipboard, for example, which are often sluggish on our phones, worked perfectly with the Nexus 4.
Curiously, the Nexus 4 doesn't blow past its competition in the benchmark tests we run on all new Android phones. It does exceptionally well in our OpenGL 3D graphics benchmark, thanks to the Adreno 320 GPU, but it is off the pace in other areas, like some of the web browser-based tests we run. This shouldn't worry a prospective buyer, though. The reliability of these benchmarks is so hard to gauge, and there is nothing else in the performance of the phone to suggest a deficiency.
LG is banking on a 2100mAh capacity battery being sufficient to keep all of this hardware running, and, for the most part, it is adequate. The Nexus 4 is not capable of any serious marathons of usage, but it does manage between four and five hours of consistent use, like web browsing, and between a day to a day and a half of standby charge, with services auto-syncing in the background.
Compared with the rest
If you had decided to bite the bullet and sign up for a plan to buy a Samsung Galaxy S3 or an iPhone 5, the Nexus 4 should give you pause. For AU$399 for the 16GB version, there is no doubting that this phone is a bargain, and at a price only Google can offer, because the web search giant is subsidising the rest of the cost of the phone. You will have to buy it outright, though; the telcos are not interested in ranging the Nexus 4 at the time of writing, and it is unlikely that they will be in the future. Instead of taking up a phone with nothing to pay upfront, you will need to find the cash.
There are a few key features missing, too. There's no microSD card slot, and only 16GB of storage will be a deal-breaking limitation for some users. There is no 4G networking, either, which may not seem unusual now, but it will be something of an oddity by next year. We're guessing that Google opted not to go with 4G to preserve battery life, but doing so may give you the impression that this phone isn't as future proof as it could be.
In its favour, the Nexus 4 has a best-in-class screen and fantastic hardware, putting it on par with, or bettering, its competition. Side by side, the screen on the Nexus 4 clearly represents colour much better than Samsung's AMOLED screen, which washes everything in a slight blue hue, especially whites and lighter-coloured elements.
It's not without flaws or absent features, but the Google Nexus 4 supersedes these oversights in its design with truly stand-out performance. We do wish that the camera was better, and that the handset wouldn't heat up quite so much while we use it, but there is no better handset for web browsing, multitasking and apps in the Android ecosystem. Though some, like the Samsung Galaxy S3, are just as good, none are faster or as nice to use.
There are two great reasons to buy this phone, and if these make sense to you, then we suggest that you stop reading and start the ordering process. Firstly, you will get the latest Android updates first on this phone. For some, this is the only reason to buy a Nexus, and we totally understand this. The other is the crazy price. There is no other phone with this much power that can be bought for under AU$400, and if you love value for money, this is it.