Google Nexus 5 phone review: Big features, small price tag

Google's new Nexus 5 phone is fast and well-made, but the low price comes with a few compromises, writes Anand Ram.

Review: New flagship device is fast and well-made, but low price comes with a few compromises

Anand Ram takes a look at Google's new Nexus 5 smartphone. 2:15

There’s a dirty word that not many consumer technology companies like to embrace: cheap. Call the product inexpensive, they say. Call it a product for the budget-conscious.

Indeed, cheap is a loaded descriptor. When it comes to cellphones, it often means a phone that has 2013 branding, 2012’s software and top-of-the-line hardware ... from 2011.

Enter Google’s Nexus 5.

This is the company’s newest flagship device, designed to be the standard bearer for the latest version of its mobile operating system, Android. And it's also designed so that it won't break the bank.

Well dressed smartphone

In North America, shoppers know that buying the latest and greatest phone outright is expensive. It’s part of why the carrier model exists: You don’t have to shell out $700-plus all at once for a new smartphone, but instead pay a few hundred up front and the rest across the length of a service contract.

Nexus 5 at a glance

Network technology: GSM: 850/900/1800/1900 MHz CDMA: Band Class: 0/1/10 WCDMA: Bands: 1/2/4/5/6/8/19 LTE: Bands: 1/2/4/5/17/19/25/26/41

Operating system: Android 4.4 KitKat

Size: 69.17x137.84x8.59 mm

Weight: 130 grams

Screen size: 4.95" | HD 1080p | IPS display with Gorilla Glass 3.

Memory: 16GB (standard), 32 GB available | RAM 2 GB

Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 2.26 GHz | Graphics: Adreno 330 450 MHz

Battery life: Talk time up to 17 hours, internet use up to 8.5 hours

WiFi: Yes, dual-band (2.4/5 Ghz) 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac

Bluetooth: Yes, 4.0 Low-energy

Camera: 8 megapixel back, 1.3 MP front

Price: $350 for 16 GB / $400 for 32 GB (unlocked and off contract)

The Nexus 5 is an alternative, offering cutting-edge features at a price of around $350 for the phone alone through Google's Play Store.

The previous Nexus phone was even cheaper, but had far more hardware tradeoffs (including a lack of LTE). The Nexus 5 offers LTE, as well as better looks and performance than its predecessor.

When the Nexus 5 was unveiled two weeks ago, the hardware came as no surprise because of several leaks. It’s a nearly 5-inch (12.5 cm) slate that looks very unassuming, a modesty that works in its favour. Barring the giant Nexus logo and the tiny LG branding (LG is the manufacturer), the Nexus 5 looks understated. Sleek and professional, especially in black.

The body is very light, thanks to its hard plastic housing. Some might find plastic cheap, but the Nexus 5 is crafted quite beautifully, sacrificing only the ability to open it up. It is sturdy yet comfortable, and you don’t worry about breaking it.

Even the screen is made of the latest tough stuff out of Corning, Gorilla Glass 3.

The 1080p display is nothing short of gorgeous, helped by high-quality computing and graphics processors. It also has LTE connectivity, a feature sorely missing from the previous generation of the Nexus.

In short, it’s fast on many fronts, with a battery life comparable to other modern smartphones.

Chocolate for everyone

The body of the Nexus 5 is very light, thanks to a hard plastic housing that is crafted quite beautifully. (Anand Ram/CBC)
The big deal with Nexus devices is that they traditionally launch with the latest version of Android. With the Nexus 5, Google debuted Android version 4.4, codenamed KitKat. A partnership with Nestlé makes this the most branded version of Android, in a storied history of alphabetical confectioneries.

It’s also the best version of Android so far. It feels lighter, with floating user interface elements and a more refined look. The icons are bigger, the fonts look better, and the phone's dialer is much improved.

Search, being Google’s wheelhouse, is also improved. With its acquisition of Motorola, the company is pulling over voice-activated search functionality from that company’s flagship device, the Moto X. Search is now as easy saying “OK, Google”, then asking a question. Disappointingly, this can only be done from the homescreen and not while in other programs.

One potentially confusing part of KitKat is the merging of SMS into Google Hangouts. Texting and chatting is done through the same app, but as two different functions. It’s not a continuous thread of a conversation.

Overall, KitKat running on the Nexus 5 is a smooth experience, and adds to the phone's premium feel.

Images and sound

The camera on the Nexus 5 has some difficulty taking photos in low-light situations, such as this night shot. (Anand Ram/CBC)
There’s a but, and it’s the camera.

The Nexus 5 is as close to Android perfection as you’re going to get, but there are still some deficiencies.

The 8 MP camera, for one, can be slow to take pictures and when rushed it will take blurry ones. In low lighting, or situations requiring flash, you’re out of luck.

That being said, with the right lighting and a few seconds to focus, you’ll probably get some decent shots.

The built-in speakers can also sound poor, with some music tracks sounding muffled, others as if they're playing from inside a cave.

Like previous Nexus devices, the volume also doesn’t get that loud.

The price is right

The camera on the Nexus 5 takes good photos in full light when you have a couple of seconds to let it focus. (Anand Ram/CBC)
But these hardware issues are a caveat of an enticing offer: an unlocked, off-contract price of $350. This is where consumers need to think about the value proposition. For this price, you’re not going to find a new smartphone of this quality. 

Offering lots for less than the competition charges is not a new strategy for Google, but it’s one the company is employing quite heavily this holiday season. The Nexus 7 tablet, at $229, is one of the best 7-inch devices on the market this year. Even Motorola is going the affordable route since it was acquired, announcing its mid-range Moto G for $200 off-contract.  

As the CRTC’s new Wireless Code takes effect in a couple of weeks, there’s another consideration for Canadians. The end of the telecom industry's common three-year contract means carriers are going to have to adjust prices to suit new two-year contract lengths. That could mean prices going up. With an unlocked, off-contract option from Google, you could bring your own device and negotiate a better monthly bill, with the added option of walking away from your carrier at any moment.

Also, note that the price for the Nexus 5 is only $350 when it's purchased from Google. It’s being sold without a contract for a whopping $500 at Bell, Telus and Rogers.

So call it cheap, call it inexpensive, call it a low-cost device in an ever-widening sea of consumer technology. Call the Nexus 5 whatever you want. The bottom line is that the latest Google phone has great operating system on a device that’s light, pretty to look at and will be supported by Google. Nexus 5 is a solid smartphone for people who want the option of choosing not to be tethered to a telco's contract.


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