Hands on: What the Nexus 5 is actually like to use

Google Nexus 5

Here in the Android world, a new Nexus phone is always cause for excitement. The Nexus brand represents Android at its purest, after all -- no clunky manufacturer skins, no carrier-added bloatware, no platform-clashing button configurations -- and it usually comes at a ridiculously affordable off-contract price.

The Nexus 5, announced last week, is no exception: The LG-made device runs an unmodified version of the new Android 4.4 KitKat operating system and sells for $349 to $399 unlocked.

So what's the new Nexus actually like to use? I'm in the midst of living with the phone full-time to figure that out. Here are some of the first things I've noticed while using the device:

• Though it has a nearly 5-in. display, the Nexus 5 doesn't feel at all bulky; in fact, it actually feels less substantial in the hand than last year's Nexus 4 flagship. It's a teensy bit longer and a hair thinner than its older sibling, but you really have to be holding the two phones side by side to notice those differences.

The main thing you notice is that the Nexus 5 is lighter. Its material also has a very different feel from the Nexus 4: The new phone uses a soft-touch rubberized plastic material reminiscent of this year's Nexus 7 tablet. It feels warmer and less slippery than the glass-centric casing of the Nexus 4. All considered, I'm actually finding I prefer the way it feels in my hand over the N4.

Nexus 5 vs. Nexus 4

• In terms of design, the Nexus 5 has a more squared-off look than its predecessor. The Nexus 4 may look a little more premium, with its distinctive glass back and metallic accents, but the Nexus 5 doesn't look or feel cheap; it just has a very different and more minimalist sort of vibe. It's definitely a nice-looking, if somewhat plain and unassuming, phone. It's also presumably going to be less fragile and prone to scratching as a result of its non-glass-centric construction.

• As you'd expect, the new Nexus is fast as can be: The phone feels smooth and snappy from the second you start it up. Faster than the Nexus 4? Probably; if benchmarks are your thing, I'm sure you'll see its upgraded internals provide a measurable boost. And if I'm holding the two phones side by side and paying close attention, I can tell that some processes happen a split second quicker on the N5 than on the N4.

With most real-world use, though, we're reaching the point where high-end phone performance is (or at least should be) reliably good; from a typical end-user perspective, the difference from one generation to the next isn't really all that noticeable anymore. And that's okay. That frees us up to focus on other distinguishing factors.

• Within the Nexus universe, one area where you do notice a significant improvement is in display quality: The Nexus 5's 4.95-in. 1080p IPS LCD display looks great and is a definite step up from the 720p screen on last year's Nexus phone. I'll get into more detail in my upcoming review, but that alone may make the N5 a worthwhile upgrade for some folks.

• The camera is a pretty meaningful improvement, too, though perhaps still not at the level of some non-Nexus hardware options. I'll have more detailed thoughts to share on that subject soon as well.

Android 4.4 KitKat Home

• KitKat feels like a fresh coat of paint on a familiar friend. There's plenty of new under-the-hood functionality, but the first thing you notice with the updated OS is its all-around lighter look: The top-of-screen status bar and bottom-of-screen virtual buttons are now translucent (on the home screen, at least -- they seem to default back to black in most other places, which is a bit odd) and most of the blue accents throughout the OS are gone and replaced with white.

The blue-to-white replacement is pretty far-reaching: It's in the quick settings panel, the main system settings section, even in the People app and the visual feedback that occurs when you scroll up or down at the top or bottom of a list.

I always liked the light blue accents of the Ice Cream Sandwich and Jelly Bean era -- they were a nice visual improvement from the harsh green of Android's earlier years, which some manufacturers still inexplicably cling to, and they provided a cool and subtly robotic sort of mood -- but the white does provide a lighter and cleaner feel that's consistent with Google's ongoing move toward minimalism.

Android 4.4 KitKat Widgets

• I'm not quite sure how I feel about the decision to pull widgets out of the app drawer and put them back into a long-press-on-the-home-screen menu. As long-time Android users know, Google moved widgets out of a long-press menu and into the app drawer with Android 4.0 two years ago; the goal then was to eliminate hidden functions and make UI elements easier to discover. So reversing that now strikes me as a little strange.

That said, KitKat does present you with an easy-to-follow explainer screen upon startup. And the app drawer does look simpler and cleaner without the divided sections. Still, I'm not entirely convinced that keeping widgets and apps in different places makes sense from a user perspective.

• I do like the new native tools for managing the home screen experience. KitKat gives you just two panels by default -- presumably because most folks don't end up utilizing any more than that. When you drag a shortcut or widget past the right-most panel, the system automatically creates a new panel for you. And when you drag all the content off of an existing panel, the system automatically takes the panel away. Simple and sensible.

The home screen long-press section now also lets you drag and drop home screen panels to re-order them, as many OEMs and third-party launchers have long allowed. Nice to finally have that functionality in the stock Android launcher.

Android 4.4 KitKat Google Now

• Yes, KitKat gives Google Now its own dedicated panel at the far left of the home screen. That's essentially where Google Now lives in Android 4.4; there is no standalone app-based interface. (The Google app, which used to load Google Now, now just pulls up a search box over your wallpaper with a list of recent searches below it.) Swiping up from the virtual navigation buttons still takes you to Google Now -- and can be useful if you want to jump there quickly from another app -- but what that means in KitKat is that it actually takes you to the Google Now home screen panel.

Honestly, having Google Now on the home screen isn't as annoying as I feared it might be (well, except for one thing). I'd just as soon limit it to the swipe-up action and not have it as a dedicated panel -- and it'd be nice if Google were to give us that option -- but I can certainly understand the logic behind the more prominent implementation. It makes Google Now a more integral part of the Android experience and makes it easier for regular users (i.e. not just the shortcut-loving power-user crowd) to find.

Beyond that, it could theoretically make Google Now easier to access on devices with physical or capacitive buttons, where swipe-up gestures are often unintuitive or downright impossible, though we'll have to see how the various OEMs handle its implementation.

Android Power Twitter

So there you have it: some initial hands-on impressions of the Nexus 5 and KitKat. I'll be living with the phone for the next several days and will have more detailed thoughts -- as well as a full in-depth review -- to share with you soon.

Lots more on the way, gang. Stay tuned.

SEE ALSO:

Nexus 5 deep-dive review: Does Google's new flagship phone deliver?

How good is the Nexus 5 camera? See for yourself

Nexus 5 vs. Nexus 4: Worth the upgrade?

Nexus 5 vs. Moto X: A real-world comparison

Android 4.4, KitKat: The complete FAQ

To express your thoughts on Computerworld content, visit Computerworld's Facebook page, LinkedIn page and Twitter stream.
Windows 10 annoyances and solutions
Shop Tech Products at Amazon
Notice to our Readers
We're now using social media to take your comments and feedback. Learn more about this here.