Google Nexus Devices

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

Google's Nexus 5 offers a high-end Android experience at a low unlocked price -- but is it worth owning?

Google Nexus Devices

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Google's Nexus phones have never been known for having stellar cameras. While the Nexus 5 still isn't going to be a phone you buy explicitly for its imaging performance, the good news is that the camera is a marked improvement over past Nexus devices and is capable of capturing some commendable images.

The phone's rear-facing camera is an 8-megapixel shooter with optical image stabilization to help keep shots steady. In addition, the Nexus 5 features a new HDR+ mode that snaps multiple images at different exposures and then instantly stitches them together to create more vivid and finely detailed results.

Without HDR+ mode on, the phone's photos have been hit and miss for me: Most shots I've captured have been decent and some have actually been quite good, including those in low-light conditions. Others, however, have looked a little lackluster and washed out (though nothing a quick after-the-fact software-based enhancement couldn't fix -- something the Nexus 5 makes easy to do).

Switching on HDR+ mode makes a world of difference: With that mode activated, photos look crisp and brilliant. When viewed zoomed in at their full resolution, I can often detect areas of noise in the images -- especially in the out-of-focus background portions of the shots -- but with typical uses like online sharing and regular-sized printing, that generally isn't going to be noticeable.

(I assembled a large gallery of photos taken on the Nexus 5, including several direct HDR+ and non-HDR+ comparisons, if you want to see some images and judge for yourself.)

One nagging issue with the Nexus 5's camera is that it's curiously slow; even without HDR+ mode enabled, the phone frequently takes a second or two too long to lock in on a subject and snap the photo. Another problem is that the camera sometimes struggles to capture moving objects without showing motion blur (which, to be fair, is a common issue with many current smartphone cameras). Representatives from Google tell me a software update is in the works that should address some of these shortcomings.

The stock Android camera interface is also starting to feel a little stale compared to what we're used to seeing on smartphones these days. The controls -- everything from options for activating the flash and HDR+ to settings for picture size, white balance, and scene-specific enhancements -- live in a multi-level semicircle menu that's tricky to navigate. There's also no burst mode for capturing multiple images in a rapid-fire style.

Nexus 5
The stock Android camera interface lives in a multi-level semicircle menu.

The camera app does, however, offer easy-to-use tools for capturing panoramic images and Photo Spheres -- Google's term for interactive 360-degree images. Those are both nice touches.

The Nexus 5 is capable of recording 1080p-quality HD video. The phone also allows you to snap a still image while recording by tapping anywhere on the screen, which is handy.

In addition to its main camera, the N5 includes a 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera with 720p-quality HD video for all of your selfie-snapping and video chatting needs.

Android 4.4 KitKat

As mentioned earlier, the Nexus 5 runs the latest version of Google's Android operating system -- the brand new Android 4.4 KitKat release.

At a glance, KitKat is pretty similar to the preceding Jelly Bean Android platform, but there are quite a few new elements both visually and under the hood. Some of them add polish and fresh functionality to the platform, while others feel like backwards steps from the focus and simplicity Android has achieved over its past several releases.

(It's worth noting that Google has said some of KitKat's elements will remain exclusive to the Nexus 5, for now at least -- an unusual and slightly mystifying move. For the purposes of this review, I'll be focusing on the software as it appears on this phone.)

The biggest visual change in KitKat is its lighter all-around look: The top-of-screen status bar and bottom-of-screen virtual buttons are now translucent (on the home screen, anyway; they default back to black in most other places). Icons are larger and fonts have a thinner, crisper appearance. Most of the blue accents throughout the OS are also gone and replaced with white highlights.

The result is a cleaner and more minimalist -- if somewhat more anonymous -- feel to Android. It's an evolution that's consistent with Google's ongoing move toward minimalism in its product designs; little by little, Android is starting to feel more like a Google product and less like its own island within the Google universe.

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