I've found Google's previous attempts to create a "pure Android" flagship smartphone uninspiring. Last year's LG-built Nexus 4 didn't support LTE, for example, and the previous year's Samsung-built Galaxy Nexus marred its nice hardware with a series of software flaws. The first Google-branded device, 2010's Nexus One, ended up a big disappointment, with iffy 3G connectivity and no distinct features -- so much for being a flagship.
Thus, I wasn't particularly eager to test the LG-built Nexus 5, released in small quantities on Halloween (a second batch is now available for purchase from Google's website). But I was pleasantly surprised by the Nexus 5. This is a nice Android smartphone, with hardware that's pleasant and capable, as well as software that feels more polished than previous "pure Android" attempts.
A nicely polished, restrained software designIt's the first Android device to run Android 4.4 KitKat, but that version is a minor update to the more commonly used Android 4.2/4.3 Jelly Bean. What's notable about the Nexus 5's software are the polish and simplicity evident in the home screens, Settings app, and common apps like Email and Calendar. The polish is similar to that of the HTC One -- and it's a marked contrast to the feature jumble evident in the Samsung Galaxy S 4. The changes are subtle -- mainly around clean, restrained design -- but they lead to a very nice experience.
Case in point is the use of icons in mail messages to indicate the sender. It works like iOS 7's Phone and Messages apps, with the person's image displayed if available and the letter of the first name if not. It's a very quick way to find messages from a specific person. The Email app also shows more context at the top of a message, such as what folder it's in and controls for displaying images in the message. That often pushes the meat of the message down below the visible message window -- but the same is true in the Galaxy S 4's Email client, which feels less polished despite having essentially the same information displayed.
Likewise, the Calendar app in the Nexus 5 is simpler than that in the Galaxy S 4. The Nexus 5 doesn't copy Samsung's use of side tabs to switch among views (such as Month and List), but instead uses a menu at the top that leaves more space for your calendar entries to appear. But the Nexus 5 does copy iOS 7's ability to scroll horizontally from week to week or vertically from month to month, a convenience the Galaxy S 4 does not offer.
Moving to a Google services worldAndroid KitKat drops the GoogleTalk instant messaging app for Google's Hangouts app. That's emblematic of the Nexus 5's focus on Google's own services. It's clear to me that Google is slowly deprecating Android into Chrome and its services, so it can offer its personal-data-mining services across as many platforms as possible, as that's how Google makes its money.
The Nexus 5 also incorporates the Google Now service more deeply, in the same way that Google subsidiary Motorola Mobility did in its uninspiring Moto X device earlier this fall. Like the Moto X, the Nexus 5 is always listening for you to say "OK, Google," so it can take your voice commands. But as in the Moto X, the palette of voice commands is limited compared to that in Apple's Siri, and most requests open a Web search you probably didn't want. The good news: I had more success getting the smartphone to do more than open search pages, so I suspect Google's been tweaking its voice-recognition engine to understand more permutations of common requests, such as those related to weather information.
But I still struggled to get Google Now to realize when I was dictating text messages -- it often stops listening after it opens an app that supports additional dictation. Overall, the always-listening feature is a convenience, but Google Now still needs to be more flexible in what it can process and what it can deliver; its heavy search orientation is too limiting.
As with Apple's Siri, when you get Google Now to open an app rather than a Web page, you have to switch back to finger input, as few apps accept voice commands. That dissonance is one reason I rarely use Siri on Apple devices, and it's even more of a reason to skip using Google's voice commands, as they do less than Siri's in the first place. At the end of the day, the voice-command features are not that useful except while driving.
Google Now is about much more than voice-based search, of course. It tracks your searches and where you go (based on GPS data) to build profiles of your preferences and behaviors. I personally find that level of tracking abhorrent, but it's the core of Google's business, so if you use Google products, that's the price you pay.
The Nexus 5's Android KitKat OS provides the Google Now home screen that holds cards of what Google thinks you want to know, as well as what it wants you to know to further its income -- such as nearby restaurants. For example, it shows the current traffic conditions to your home or office, the current weather where you are, nearby events, and nearby places to take photos. I find most of this information useless, so I deleted all the cards but driving conditions and the weather.
I did find a strange bug in Google Now. I had loaned a Google Nexus 7 tablet to a friend last summer, and he configured it with his information and his Google ID. Even though the Nexus 5 is set up with my account rather than his, Google Now decided that his home and work address are mine, despite the fact that our Google IDs are different and my own card in the Nexus 5's People app has my actual addresses. As a result, Google Now keeps telling me the drive times to my friend's addresses, not my own, and I can't figure out how to fix that mismatch. It just shows how pervasive Google's tentacles are into personal information and how thoroughly, if not always accurately, it syncs its services together.
Otherwise, Android KitKat is like Android Jelly Bean, with the same capabilities and limitations, such as its capable navigation service and inability to connect to Cisco IPSec VPNs.
The Google Nexus 5's Email app (left) makes good use of images and icons to identify senders. It's both cleaner and more polished than the Samsung Galaxy S 4's Email client (right).
Current-generation hardware with a Galaxy S 4 feelIf you put the Nexus 5 next to a Samsung Galaxy S 4, it's easy to confuse the two given their similar appearances. True, the Nexus 5 is all-black, whereas the S 4 is dark gray with a metal rim. The S 4 is also more rounded, whereas the Nexus 5 has a more angular feel. But the size of the body and the screen are the same. Both are comfortable to hold and view, with nice 5-inch screens bearing comparable resolutions and color gamuts. The Nexus 5 and Galaxy S 4 are similar in other regards: Both weigh the same, support Bluetooth 4.0 and 802.11b/g/n/ac radios, and run about the same speed.
Of course, the Nexus 5 does not support pen input or have the iffy eye-tracking feature or infrared beaming capability of the Galaxy S 4. The Nexus 5 has a merely good rear camera versus the S 4's very good one. And the Nexus 5 has no SD card slot for storage expansion, unlike the S 4.
The Nexus 5 is much cheaper, though. The Nexus 5 lists for $349 (16GB) and $399 (32GB). The Galaxy S 4 lists for $600 (16GB) and $700 (32GB) -- unless you commit to a two-year contract with your carrier. That's a key difference in the Nexus 5: It's available only as an unlocked, contract-free device. Another difference is carrier compatibility: In the United States, the Nexus 5 works on AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile, but not on Verizon Wireless as the Galaxy S 4 does.
All in all, the Nexus 5 is a very nice Android smartphone and a worthy competitor to Android's other two flagships, the Galaxy S 4 and the HTC One. The differences are mainly about style and user experience, plus the greater flexibility (though higher initial cost) of being an unlocked device.
This article, "Review: Google gets it right with Nexus 5 Android smartphone," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in mobile computing, read Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog at InfoWorld.com, follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter, and follow InfoWorld on Twitter.
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