Google Nexus 4 – a bargain in disguise

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The new Nexus may not turn heads, but with a feature set that’s full to bursting and the sort of hardware more commonly associated with top-of-the-range handsets it’s the best value Android phone we’ve tested

The Google Nexus 4 has an awful lot to live up to and, put simply, it doesn’t quite meet those expectations.

Three times now Google has teamed up with a hardware manufacturer to create a phone that sets a new benchmark for Android – with HTC for 2010’s Google Nexus One, and with Samsung for the Nexus S and Galaxy Nexus in the years since.

Each has paired the very latest version of Android with cutting edge hardware, giving you a handset you can shove in the face of your iPhone-toting friend the next time he harps on about “fragmentation”.

Sure, they’ve never sold in the same numbers as a top-notch HTC or Samsung Galaxy S, but that’s almost never been the point: they serve as high watermarks, or sources of inspiration. Android’s open-source model means vendors are always going to hack at it to their heart’s content, but they’d better try and surpass the current Nexus, or what point is there in doing so?

So even if the Nexus has never been a spectacular sales hit, LG’s been entrusted with a serious honour handling the hardware for the Google Nexus 4: this is the phone early adopters need to want for the next year. And it’s perhaps telling that price is the only way that’s been achieved this time around.

Sexless, but functional
There’s a party going on on the back of the Nexus 4, but it’s not one you’d want to be seen at. At a glance, this solid black slab looks just like the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, but flip it over and the bizarre, glittery backplate suggests a company with far less taste.

It’s a curious addition to what is an otherwise rather bland design: at 9.1mm deep and 68.7mm wide, the Nexus 4 is sturdy but not svelte. It’s simply functional enough, with a well-placed lock button on the side, 3.5mm headphone socket on the top and micro USB charger on the bottom (you can use this to share its screen with a SlimPort adapter, sold separately).

But in a world of machined metal iPhones and polycarbonate Nokia Lumias, it’s remarkably boring, even a step back from last year’s Galaxy Nexus, which at least had an easily removable backplate – you need a screwdriver to prise this one off.

A party animal behind those drab looks
That said, the internals are about as cutting edge as they get. A 1.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro CPU paired with 2GB of RAM makes for a seriously flying, multi-tasking beast of a phone, even with a 4.7-inch 720p HD display to push pixels to.

The LCD display looks ever so slightly more washed out than the panel on the HTC One X+, but it’s still super crisp, and makes reading at length surprisingly viable with the Kindle or Pocket Android apps, for instance. It’s all running off a hearty 2,100mAh battery like the One X+’s, which we found easily let you clear a day of constant use.

What’s remarkable about this is that LG and Google have pulled it off at an incredible price: the Nexus 4 starts at just £239 unlocked on the Google Play store, about £200 less than you’d typically pay for a new flagship smartphone.

Cheap – so what shortcuts were made?
Now, as you can imagine, LG employees don’t live off vapours, so there have been a few shortcuts taken to get the price down so low. But they’re tactical ones that LG and Google are banking on you not being sorry to see go: there’s no 4G for instance, for super-speed downloads on the go. Since there’s only one network, EE, offering it in only 18 cities in the UK, this may well be a moot point.

On-board storage is frugal too. The £239 model comes with just 8GB – with no means of expanding it via a memory card. Even the £279 model only totes 16GB. But if you rely heavily on cloud services for your digital needs – Spotify rather than MP3s, say – you might start to ask why you’ve been paying extra for something you didn’t need all this time.

The first Jellybean 4.2 phone
The LG Nexus 4’s real differentiator, however, is its software. It’s running the latest version, 4.2 (Still codenamed Jelly Bean), but also the true version, the pure one. This is Android as Google’s legendary mobile UI designer Matias Duarte means it to be, without any modifications from manufacturers keen to fix things that aren’t broken – and that’s very rare outside the Nexus program.

Android 4.2 on the Nexus 4 is clean, spritely, beautiful and stuffed with options that make it the go-to OS for anyone who wants to get more out of their phone. The core Jelly Bean features remain the same: a big speed boost and smarter notifications you can pinch to expand in the pull-down notification drawer.

But 4.2 offers some extra new goodies too: the clever stock keyboard now offers a Skype-like gesture mode, which lets you drag your finger across the keyboard to spell out a word. It’s very accurate, and particularly useful in situations where you can only type one-handed (on the bus or train, say). Of course, there are plenty of other keyboards you can install on Android like SwiftKey – but with this you might not ever feel you need to.

You can now easily access connectivity options from the notification tray in stock Android (one thing manufacturers have been rightly adding to their phones for years).

The camera boasts a pretty impressive eight-megapixel sensor (for under £250, it can’t be beaten), it’s every bit the rival to the amazing burst mode camera software on the One X+.

Really though, it’s the lack of interference with Google’s vision that early adopters and Android addicts will love here: there are no redundant services or spamware.

This is pure Android, pure Google. It’s a pity that the hardware isn’t so desirable or ahead of the curve as previous Nexus models have been, but who cares when you’ve got Android 4.2 and the near-guarantee of future updates first?

The Nexus formula has served Google well, and LG doesn’t deviate from it, delivering fresh, untarnished Android as the search giant intended.

Though Android 4.2 is phenomenal, the number of new features is small and the hardware not quite inspiring – if you had your heart set on a HTC One X+ or a Samsung Galaxy Note II, you wouldn’t be missing out on much. That said, if you’re prepared to buy SIM-free and can cope without 4G, the Nexus 4 is the bargain of the century.

Verdict
Android 4.2 is phenomenal, yes, but hardware-wise the Nexus 4 is a little disappointing – it is not quite as ‘ahead of the curve’ as we’d expected. Having said that, getting this kind of feature set and hardware that compares to top-flight Android phones, it is truly a bargain that we can’t help but recommend.

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