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Google Nexus 4 deep-dive review: Android at its best

November 7, 2012 12:40 PM ET

Connectivity and calling

The Nexus 4 is a GSM phone, which means that in the U.S. it'll work on either AT&T's or T-Mobile's network (which are also the networks utilized by most prepaid carriers). That brings us to one sticking point with the phone: While it does support 4G-level data speeds, its network compatibility means it supports only HSPA+ connections -- not the faster LTE connections that have become commonplace with many smartphones in the States.

That said, I found the Nexus 4's data speeds to be perfectly satisfactory while using the device on T-Mobile's HSPA+ network. I routinely clocked in near the 18Mbps mark when I checked my speeds using Ookla's Speedtest.net application. The phone is capable of speeds as fast as 42Mbps, depending on your area and connection.

Google has described the Nexus 4's lack of LTE as a "tactical" decision, noting the limited availability of LTE outside of the U.S. along with the increased cost and decreased battery life the technology tends to deliver. So is the lack of LTE a deal-breaker? That's up to you to decide.

Personally, in most typical day-to-day phone-based usage -- Web browsing, social media use and the like -- I find it tough to tell the difference. (Some analyses have actually found T-Mobile's HSPA+ network to be comparable to or faster than LTE networks in parts of the country.) Remember, we aren't talking about 4G vs. 3G here; we're talking about 4G LTE vs. 4G HSPA+.

(You may also want to consider that owners of last year's 4G LTE Verizon Galaxy Nexus have found that the carrier-dependent configuration comes with some troubling caveats -- namely, delayed upgrades and software interference -- that directly clash with the "pure Google" promise of the Nexus brand. As someone who's used both a Verizon-bound Galaxy Nexus and an unlocked HSPA+ version of the phone, I've found the latter setup to provide a much better overall experience.)

In terms of actual phone calls, the Nexus 4 performed admirably in my tests. I could hear voices loud and clear -- so loud, in fact, that I often had to turn the volume down on the phone -- and people with whom I spoke reported being able to hear my voice fine as well.

The phone's external speaker is sufficiently loud, too, with more than enough volume to handle calls and music alike. When I tested the Nexus 4's speaker alongside the Galaxy Nexus's, audio played through the Nexus 4 was significantly louder and clearer-sounding with both phones at their maximum volume settings.

The Nexus 4 supports near-field communication (NFC) for contact-free sharing and services. Those services include the Google Wallet mobile payment system, which comes preloaded on the device.

The phone also supports Miracast, a new wireless display-sharing protocol. With the right adapter, Google says you can stream both audio and video directly from the Nexus 4 to any HDTV, with the TV mirroring everything on the phone. Be warned, though: Finding an adapter that works right now is easier said than done.

I tried setting up wireless display sharing with my TV using a NetGear Push2TV Wireless Display Adapter, which costs $60 and promises support for "Miracast-capable" devices. As I discovered, though, the product is limited only to "pre-standard compliant" Miracast devices (to NetGear's credit, that is in the fine print) and consequently doesn't work with the Nexus 4.

A full line of standard Miracast adapters is expected to become available soon. LG is also expected to start shipping TVs with native Miracast support sometime in 2013.

Under the hood

Google's Nexus 4 has a 1.5Ghz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro quad-core processor along with 2GB of RAM. You can crunch benchmarks all you want, but here's what matters: When it comes to real-world performance, this phone is fast. Really fast.

The Nexus 4 flies through app-loading, Web browsing and multitasking without a single blip or stutter. Home screen swiping and system animations are smooth as can be. I've put this phone through its paces, and no matter what I've thrown its way, I've yet to see one performance-related fault.

For perspective, most Web pages loaded a solid five to 10 seconds faster on the Nexus 4 than on the Galaxy Nexus when I performed side-by-side tests, with both phones on Wi-Fi. The Nexus 4 also booted up about 30 seconds faster than the Galaxy Nexus.

The Nexus 4 has a 2100mAh battery that's listed for 15.3 hours of talk-time and 390 hours of standby. In my experience, the device's stamina was consistently solid, though not out of this world.

With moderate to heavy daily usage -- a mix of regular on-screen browsing, network-based music streaming and a smattering of phone calls and video streaming -- I was always able to make it through a full day without hitting empty. When my usage skewed more toward the heavy side, though, the phone would sometimes fall into low-battery territory by the end of the day. Save for a stamina-centric device like the Motorola Droid Razr Maxx HD, that's pretty much in line with what you'd expect from any well-performing smartphone today.

The Nexus 4's battery is technically nonremovable, by the way -- the back panel doesn't come off by design -- but if you don't mind tinkering and taking things into your own hands, you might find that opening the device up and swapping out its battery isn't as impossible as it seems.

If the Nexus 4 has one glaring Achilles heel, it's storage: The device has no SD card slot, and with internal storage going only as high as 16GB -- which comes out to about 12GB to 13GB of actual usable space -- that doesn't leave you with a whole lot of room. Google's focus here is clearly on moving people to the cloud and to a habit of streaming over storing, but not everyone's going to be happy with that setup. If high storage is a priority to you, the Nexus 4 may not meet your needs.

Cameras

The Nexus 4 has an 8-megapixel rear-facing camera that, thanks in large part to its Sony BSI sensor, is capable of capturing great-looking shots both indoors and out. If you're coming from the Galaxy Nexus, it's going to be a major improvement.

Google Nexus 4
The Android 4.2 Camera application introduces a refreshingly clean new minimalist interface.

I found the Nexus 4's camera to be excellent in well-lit conditions and darker environments (an area where the Galaxy Nexus's performance is particularly weak). The phone has a bright LED flash as well, and images taken with the flash looked natural and not at all washed out.

Shutter speed on the Nexus 4 is decent enough: I typically experienced one- to three-second delays between shots, depending on how much focusing was required. By default, the Nexus 4's camera takes photos in HDR mode, which quickly snaps shots at different light exposures and then combines them into a single image. The camera has settings for adjusting the exposure and white balance as well as a small selection of preset "scene modes." It can also record video at 1080p resolution.

The Nexus 4 has a 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera, too, for video chatting and vanity pics.

All considered, the Nexus 4 doesn't have the best camera you'll find in Android Land -- I'd say that honor still lies with HTC's One phones -- but it certainly has a very good camera that'll more than meet most users' needs.



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