Gift Guide 2013

Gift Guide: Our Favorite Android Phone

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Chris and I spent a good chunk of our last Droidcast discussing some Android-centric holiday picks, but we felt that one of those choices could use a bit more fleshing out. That said, we took a moment to stop bickering and share some thoughts on Google and LG’s Nexus 5, a device that wound up being our favorite Android phone of the holiday season.


The TL;DR

Price:
16GB $349
32GB $399

Important Specs:
+ 4.95-inch, 1080p IPS display
+ Quad-core Qualcomm 800 chipset @ 2.26GHz
+ 2GB RAM
+ 2,300 mAh battery
+ Ships with Android 4.4 KitKat
+ 8MP rear camera, 1.3MP front-facing camera

Darrell: Google’s new Nexus 5 phone, made by LG, is a little more understated in design than the Nexus 4 that preceded it. But it has design harmony with the Nexus 7 tablet, and its outer shell is more function than flash, with a matte rubberized case back that won’t slip and slide all over the place like the Nexus 4 was prone to do.

Chris: Unlike the Nexus 4 — which was ostentatious in its own little ways — Google and LG apparently strove to dial back the design of its smartphone hardware to the point where there’s honestly not that much to talk about. It’s solid and monolithic. It looks like a pint-sized Nexus 7 from behind. If you’ve got a black N5 there’s a chance your volume rocker will wobble in some mildly annoying ways. The speaker (yes, singular) is, sadly, pretty pitiful and the software didn’t help matters earlier on there. Google has started pushing tweaked versions of the phone through the pipeline that have enlarged grille holes for the mic and speaker though, so last-minute Christmas shoppers should benefit from some mild (if necessary) design tweaks. And the subtler design of the Nexus 5 has another added benefit – showcasing that gorgeous full HD 4.95-inch display.

Darrell: The display is one of the Nexus 5’s strongest features and the one that’s been complimented most often by strangers and friends who’ve asked me about the phone. LG continues to produce a display that’s far superior in terms of color rendering and accuracy than most of the other ones provided by Android smartphone OEMs, including the very capable HTC One. It’s impossible to discern individual pixels on the screen, too, thanks to very high PPI, and auto-brightness for the screen works somewhat better than it does on most previous Android phones, although I still find this is an area where Apple has managed to far outstrip its Google-powered rivals.

Chris: But all of these physical accoutrements only tell part of the story. Some will call the look “boring” without raising anyone’s hackles, but the better word is “unobtrusive”. Nexus 5 isn’t so much a star in its own right as it is a window that looks out over Android 4.4 KitKat and the updates that have already been issued to further polish the experience.

nexus5

Darrell: What’s really impressive about the Nexus 5 is that it begins to approach the point where you don’t think about Android software anymore, thanks in large part to KitKat, version 4.4 of Google’s mobile OS. KitKat doesn’t change how Android works very dramatically, but the changes it does bring make using it feel a lot more intuitive. Swiping left to access Google Now, for instance, is a much more natural and easily discoverable action for users new to Android than swiping up from the home screen button, which isn’t even a physical button to begin with.

kitkat-screens

Other small tweaks like the integration of Google’s search database information to populate caller ID information about incoming calls are similarly amazing, if minor additions. In the short time I’ve been using my Nexus 5, I’ve had a surprising number of opportunities to make use of this aspect of KitKat, and it’s made it much, much easier to do the kind of required call screening that you benefit from if you’re working as a tech reporter. Once Google flips the switch on the Google+ integration to identify incoming callers based on the phone numbers they make public on their profiles, this will get a lot more useful, too.

Chris: It’s also worth noting that Google has talked up some neat features that will add to the overall KitKat experience. Perhaps the biggest? The search giant will soon start rolling out mobile search results that deep-link into the contents of your apps – that could make for both richer search results and a push for better quality Android apps because of the potential for exposure.

For better or worse though, it’s often the Nexus 5 launcher Darrell spoke of that causes the device to stand out from the crowd — even if your, say, Moto X gets the KitKat treatment, the experience will be obscured a smidge by the lack of that launcher. Is that going to be a dealbreaker for people? Hardly, but it’s a fine reminder of the importance Google puts on its Nexus-class devices.

Darrell: People have complained about the Nexus 5’s battery life, but I did not find it to be offensive. Did it impress me? No. Battery life on the Nexus 5 is simply adequate — it can usually get me through a work day — and shouldn’t really be a huge factor in your buying decision unless you’re seeking something that really packs an unusually outsized amount of usage time between charges. The one really disappointing thing on the Nexus 5 is camera quality: it’s an improvement over the terrible camera in the Nexus 4, but not a significant one. Nexus devices are so far behind on IQ that any of Apple’s iPad tablets can produce superior pics. Also, the software interface for actually using the camera is no good, and KitKat has done nothing to change that.

Chris: Whoa there, friend. I’m just about right there with you on the Nexus 5’s camera: despite the inclusion of and Google’s own crowing about camera quality, I’ve found the photo quality is nothing to right home about. It’s far from lousy, but it’s readily outclassed by some of the competition. And to be quite honest, I’m ready for these smartphone players to start pushing boundaries that really matter. I’d argue there’s an upper limit to how big a screen can get before it finally tiptoes over the line of ridiculousness (the Nexus 5 thankfully avoids that line just fine). And cameras, useful though they may be, are purely supplementary to the smartphone experience.

But batteries? That simply has to be the next big frontier. Motorola’s the most prominent company looking to push the battery boundary, but if Google is going to use the Nexus line as a sort of ideal for what Android devices can be, pumping up longevity could be a great signpost for the rest of the industry.

Darrell: This Nexus is a smartphone that impresses at first use, but that actually grows on you with time. It’s already surpassed the HTC One as my favorite Android device, and its design, while at first seeming somewhat forgettable, has become really appealing with continued use.

Chris: At first I was tempted to call this “the best Nexus phone yet” before I slapped that repugnant urge out of myself. Of course it’s the best Nexus phone. But is it worth your money? My answer is an big yes — it’s not perfect, but it’s great out of the box and Google and LG have shown that they’re committed to making the entire package better as needed.

You can check out our complete Holiday Gift Guide 2013 right here.

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