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Review: Nexus 4 Hardware Impressions

It isn’t easy to get his hands on a Nexus 4 these days. When Google released the Nexus 4 on the Playstore it was sold out in a few minutes, and the second time it didn’t last much longer. It seems like Google didn’t anticipate the huge interest, which makes me wonder what they expected after releasing a high-end device for effectively half the price of the competition. Of course this was going to sell like hot cake. At the moment the device is sold out again, and many angry customers are still waiting for delivery of their ordered device or the chance to finally buy one. I was lucky the second time around and got my Nexus 4 before christmas, so let’s see if this device is worth all the hassle.

The front looks very clean and elegant sporting an impressive 4.7 inch IPS display without any hardware buttons, similar to last years Galaxy Nexus. It doesn’t have a curved display this time, but instead an interesting touch where the left and right display edges are wrapped around the corners. This makes touch gestures like scrolling horizontally feel much more natural, when you start at the edges.

A front facing camera with 1.3 MP is also there as well as the regular ambient light sensor, but I really appreciate the multi color notification light which is positioned beneath the screen. There is an app called light flow which allows you to specify notification colors for each app seperately, this is a great feature to let you know what the context of the notification you just received is without even turning the screen on. I was very happy to hear that LG used an IPS full RGB matrix screen for the Nexus 4 and turning on the display besides an Galaxy Nexus makes it clear why. This is a real HD resolution screen without any PenTile Matrix garbage that was responsible for grainy and fuzzy text replication on previous Nexus models. Whenever it was possible (Nexus One and Nexus S) I bought an SLCD version instead of the regular AMOLED device because I consume a lot of text on my phone and therefore want the clearest result possible to keep eye fatigue at the minimum.

Furthermore colors look much more natural without being washed out, while the colors on the Galaxy Nexus have been to bright and had way too much contrast. This is indeed one of the very best smartphone screens I have ever seen, as it is up to par with the iPhone 5 and HTC One X displays. It’s a joy to check emails, social media streams and to play games with this device. There is one issue though that most smartphones with huge display have, it consumes large amounts of battery.

So while the screen itself creates outstanding results, you can literally see the battery level drop by the minutes you keep that screen turned on. Even though I mentioned earlier that i’m a resolution fan, and I want the highest resolution possible, I think that we have reached a point where the pixel density is high enough. The next big thing I would like to see is the manufacturers tackling the battery issue. Can you remember the old days with our dumb phones, that could be used for days and weeks without recharging? It would be incredible to have something like this for current smartphones, but I know that this is not realistic at the moment. So let’s start with a battery that easily lasts more than one or two days on moderate usage. That would be enough for me. Sadly the Nexus 4 battery doesn’t last more than a day if you use it above average, which is up to par with most phones out there and nothing special. In order to get better results you should deactivate NFC in the settings and turn off instant upload (or set to ‘upload only when charging’) on Google+.

There was also quite a bit of controversy regarding Googles decision to accept LG as the Partner for the new Nexus device. LG wasn’t exactly a big name in the Android market, as most of their devices have been mid-level phones which never gained the attention of other manufacturers high-end phones. One specific thing which got many people worried was the glass back of the Nexus 4 that could be seen on the first leaked images. It looked like the back has a glitter effect to it like the famous Billie Jean glove of Michael Jackson. Luckily the final product is much more unobtrusive than it appeared on the first images.

Basically you won’t notice any glitter effect at all most of the time, as it will only be visible when the light hits the back on the right angle. And even then the effect is very subtile and only adds to the stylish looks instead of looking over-the-top. It’s not possible to open the back cover without the use of screwdrivers, so you won’t be able to switch your battery on-the-fly. And there is also no Micro SD card support to upgrade the storage of the Nexus 4. So this is another manufacturer following the footsteps of Apple, and it seems like Google is happy with this approach for their Nexus lineup too as the last Nexus device providing an Micro SD card slot was the Nexus One.

Make no mistake though, this is an 4.7 inch device which means it’s pretty big. I have been using an iPhone 4S as my second smartphone for a while now and the screen looks tiny in comparison, I can’t understand how somebody could work with this small screen for more than 15 minutes. But on the other hand the Nexus 4 size has also setbacks. It’s a little bit too wide for my taste, which makes it a somewhat uncomfortable to hold and use in one hand, as you can’t reach all areas of the display easily. The good thing is that LG got most of the basic stuff right, as the power button is not located at the top but at the side of the phone which makes it much more convenient to turn on the display compared to other phones like the HTC One X which have the button positioned at the top. On the other side you can find the volume controls as well as the micro sim card slot, which can only be opened using a pin. The buttons feel good and give nice feedback when pressed. If there is one hardware decision that I don’t like (besides the non-existence of an Micro SD Card slot) its the earphone plug being at the top and not the bottom of the device. I just don’t get how you are supposed to put the Nexus 4 in your pocket and take it out comfortably when you are listening to music. I always put my phones upside down into my pocket, as it seems the natural thing to do when you want to be able to take it out quickly and in the right orientation so having the earphone plug at the top makes this nearly impossible as the cable gets into your way all the time.

Interestingly you can see the screws at the bottom very clearly, and LG made no efforts to cover them up somehow. This is only a minor gripe to the overall excellent look though. Being made of a glass panel on the front and the back side makes the Nexus 4 prone to scratches and worse if you ever let it drop. So you better get a case or a bumper (just don’t try to get the official one, because its even harder to find than the Nexus 4) if you are one of those persons dropping their phones every now and then. I actually never have dropped my phone in the past 10 years on a hard surface, but only at home on carpet from short height. The Nexus 4 changed this. Well, I didn’t really drop it, it was more like the Nexus 4 jumped off my shelf on its own like a Lemming. When I put it on the shelf on top of an iPad sleeve, everything looked fine. But after about 20 minutes i heared a bang and saw that the Nexus 4 somehow slid extremely slowly down the iPad sleeve and dropped on the next smaller shelf. Luckily it didn’t get any scratch but one thing is for sure, the Nexus 4 is slippery like hell. And I also don’t like the fact that the glass back directly sits on the surface beneath, there is no offset at the edges that would prevent the glass to touch i.e. the table it sits on. So just some sand on a table is enough to scratch the back. I guess that’s one reason why the official Bumper was sold out immediately after being available for just a few minutes.

I still love the way this device feels in your hand, the glass panels look great and are perfectly manufactured. The Nexus 4 is generally build with such a high quality that it can compete with the iPhone 5, this clearly wasn’t the case with the Galaxy Nexus and Nexus S plastic build approaches.

Most US blogs mainly criticized the absence of LTE, but as the LTE coverage is pretty small at the moment I don’t see this as huge setback. Especially considering the price and overall hardware quality of the Nexus 4.

The Verdict

Google did it again. After going all-in with the Nexus 7 that came with great specs and a competitive price tag, they followed up with their Nexus smartphone lineup. Incredible build quality and hardware that is up to par with the iPhone 5 and other current flagships like the HTC One X, but for only half the price. Google is serious with their latest Nexus offerings, and they seem determined to shake the market. While the first estimated sales figures are still quite behind iPhone or Galaxy S3 sales, the demand is clearly ramping up and i’m pretty sure that Google would have sold much more if the Nexus 4 wouldn’t have been sold out all the time.

Generally I love the 4.7 inch IPS HD display, which can easily keep up with Apples iPhone 5 retina screen. This is especially noteworthy as it wasn’t the case with the previous Nexus phones since they all used AMOLED screens with Pentile Matrix layout that effectively created a much worse resolution, even if all the marketing material was talking about AMOLED HD screens. It wasn’t real HD, it was wannabe HD hoping that nobody would see the clear resolution difference between PenTile Matrix and traditional full RGB displays. Don’t believe me? Just put the Galaxy Nexus side by side with a Nexus 4 or an HTC One X and you’ll see that the latter display images and text crisper. Not having a Micro SD card slot doesn’t come as a surprise since all Nexus devices except the Nexus One didn’t have that, but i’d still love to see this option again at some point. I understand that Google wants us to put as much as possible into the cloud, but even if I did that the current games and apps get bigger day by day approaching GB sizes, and 16GB is just not sufficient anymore. A 32 or 64GB option should be offered, and there are some rumours that Google plans to update the Nexus 4 hardware similar to what they did with the Nexus 7. Missing LTE doesn’t really bother me at the moment, but i can understand that this might be a major setback in some countries like the USA.

So is it worth all the hassle? If you want a high-end smartphone with great hardware, nearly perfect build quality and stylish looks, all the Android updates first in line, pure Android UI, the best of Google apps and don’t mind to pay only half the price of other comparable devices out there, then you should order a Nexus 4 as soon as it’s available again. Just make sure that you get the 16GB version as 8 GB doesn’t make sense if you want to use the Nexus 4 to its full extend.