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

November 7, 2012 12:40 PM ET

Android 4.2

Software is an area where the Nexus 4 truly shines. The phone runs a stock version of Google's Android 4.2 OS; along with the upcoming Nexus 10 tablet, it'll be the first device to offer that release.

So what does that "stock" distinction actually mean? While most manufacturers modify Android with messy, cluttered interfaces and layers upon layers of bloat, the Nexus 4 utilizes Google's pure and unadulterated Android OS. The resulting difference in visual consistency, system fluidity and overall user experience is immeasurable; if you've never used a pure Google Android device, you don't know what you're missing.

Android 4.2 maintains the same basic UI introduced with this summer's Android 4.1 release but adds a handful of significant new features along with plenty of subtle polish. The end effect is a cohesive and compelling environment that's a pleasure to use.

Perhaps the most dramatic changes to the Android software (on the phone side, at least) reside within the system's Camera app. The Android 4.2 Camera application introduces a refreshingly clean new minimalist interface in which the screen is taken up almost entirely by the viewfinder. Instead of having numerous on-screen options, you simply touch your finger anywhere on the screen and a ring appears; you can then move your finger around the ring to access and adjust everything from the photo mode to the camera's flash setting.

Google Nexus 4
Android 4.2 maintains the same basic UI introduced with this summer's Android 4.1 release but adds a handful of significant new features.

Swiping your finger to the left, meanwhile, causes the viewfinder to slide away and your most recently captured photos to be revealed. You can edit any image right then and there with a couple of taps, utilizing a range of built-in filters, frames, and cropping and lighting tools. With one to two taps, you can also easily share images with any compatible service installed on your device: Gmail, Dropbox, Evernote, Facebook, Twitter or any other app that supports Android's platform-wide sharing API.

The Android 4.2 Camera app has a fantastic new feature called Photo Sphere. Expanding on the panoramic image functionality introduced in Android 4.0, Photo Sphere allows you to capture interactive 360-degree images and share them with anyone.

Photo Sphere images look exactly like what you see on Google's Street View service; in fact, they're based on the same technology. When you fire up the Photo Sphere feature, the system guides you through the act of snapping multiple photos in varying directions and angles; it then automatically stitches the images together into a single cohesive sphere. You really have to see the process in action to appreciate how impressive it is (the folks from Android Central have put together a nice collection of user-submitted Photo Sphere images if you want to check some out).

Camera changes aside, Android 4.2 includes a new "quick settings" panel that gives you easy access to basic system settings. While similar functionality has long been offered in some manufacturer-modified versions of Android, Google has actually implemented it in a way that doesn't make you want to gouge your eyes out: The panel is visually subdued and tactfully tucked away in an icon within the main notification pulldown. You can also jump to it directly by swiping down from the top of the screen with two fingers instead of one -- a handy shortcut that's fun to use.

Android 4.2 also adds native support for adding customizable widgets on your lock screen, which allows you to do things like scroll through messages or identify a song without having to unlock your phone. The feature sounds like a great idea, but unfortunately, I haven't been able to test it yet, as the function was not present on the prerelease software on my review device. Google says it'll be added via an over-the-air update on the day the phone launches; I'll revisit it in my blog once I've had the chance to use it.

Android 4.2 includes an improved system keyboard that takes a cue from the popular third-party program Swype. In addition to regular letter-by-letter typing with word prediction, the stock keyboard now allows you to type by moving your finger from one letter to the next without lifting up. I found the gesture-based typing to be very much on par with Swype's -- maybe even a bit better in terms of accuracy and ease of use. It also has some of its own original touches, such as dynamic word prediction that shows up as you're swiping letters.

Other new features of Google's latest OS include a multilayered security system that scans apps in real-time for any harmful code; a screensaver called Daydream that lets you set up slideshow-like content to be displayed while your phone is docked or charging; an improved Gmail app with automatic message formatting, pinch-to-zoom functionality and swipe-to-archive gestures; and new options for the Google Now intelligent assistant program, including the ability to have the system detect things like flight plans, package tracking and hotel reservations from your inbox and then automatically keep you apprised of their status.

At a Glance

Google Nexus 4
LG
Price: $299 (8GB), $349 (16GB)
Pros: Pure Google Android 4.2 software; guaranteed fast and frequent future upgrades; superb display; outstanding performance; excellent camera; stunning design; available at relatively low unlocked price
Cons: Limited internal storage; no option for external storage; battery not easily removable; not compatible with LTE networks; glass-centric design could lead to breakage

For all the software's positives, I have noticed a few glitches during my time with Android 4.2 on the Nexus 4. The Gmail app, for example, currently sends all new messages from your main Gmail address by default, even if you have another address set as your default. Google tells me this is a known bug that engineers hope to have resolved by the time the software ships.

A couple of nonsystem applications have given me problems, too, including Google's own Google Voice application, which closes with an error anytime I try to type a person's name into the recipient field of a new text message. Given the fact that this is prerelease software for which nonsystem apps are not yet optimized, I'm hopeful these issues will also be ironed out by the time the OS is in users' hands.

Last but not least, we can't talk about a Nexus phone without talking about upgrades. While most Android-based devices are dependent upon their manufacturers and carriers for OS upgrades -- a process that often results in extended delays and extensive frustration -- unlocked Nexus devices receive upgrades directly from Google. There's no third-party meddling or interference, which means you're guaranteed to get upgrades almost instantly, usually within a week or two of their release.

The value of that assurance cannot be overstated.

Bottom line

Google's Nexus 4 offers the best overall user experience you'll find on Android -- and arguably any mobile platform -- today. Its unadulterated Google Android 4.2 software combined with a spectacular display, outstanding performance, excellent camera and inspired design make for a compelling package that shows just how good Android can be.

The Nexus 4 does, however, demand some compromises. The phone has a low amount of internal storage with no option to add an SD card. Its glass encasing, while visually appealing, raises the risk of damage to the device. The phone's battery isn't easily removable, and its unlocked GSM/HSPA+ configuration means it won't work with LTE-based networks.

If you can live with those limitations, the Nexus 4 can give you an unmatched Android experience at a tremendous value -- and without the carrier lock-in most similarly priced smartphones require.

JR Raphael is a Computerworld contributing editor and the author of the Android Power blog. For more Android tips and insights, follow him on Google+, Twitter, or Facebook.

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