The new Google Nexus 5 is an appealing smart phone modestly equipped with a 5-inch 1080p display, a fast Snapdragon 800 processor, and an 8-megapixel camera with an optical image stabilizer for better pictures under low-light conditions. The phone's most noteworthy feature is Android OS version 4.4, dubbed KitKat. It attempts to make cloud-based files more accessible to phone-bound apps, present more info on calls from strangers, and even reprioritize your contacts according to how often you call them.
The traditional role of a Nexus phone is to provide a no-frills showcase for the Android OS it runs, and the Nexus 5 continues that tradition. It has none of the interface tweaks, camera tricks, or unique wireless-sharing options that phone makers throw on top of Android to leverage their brands. Nor does it have any of the nifty gesture and hands-free controls we've seen on the most recent models from LG, Motorola, and Samsung. But the Nexus 5 does work with wireless chargers out of the box, and KitKat does add support for the step detectors and step counters of fitness apps such as Protego, Noom, and Runtastic.
Overall, the Nexus 5 and its camera performed well, though our engineers found the camera's auto focus stumbled in certain situations. KitKat adds some useful touches, such as allowing you to summon widgets, wallpapers, and Google settings by long-pressing a clear spot on the desktop. And it conveniently presents Google Drive files in Quick Office's directory. But its new phone-call-related features didn't work well—at least for me—and some core phone controls, such as SMS messaging and Quick Settings, are actually harder to access than before.
The Nexus 5
Comfortable grip. The Nexus 5 wedges its 5-inch, 1080p IPS display (445 ppi resolution) into a case that's only 2.72 x 5.43 x 0.34 inches, stretching the screen to within 0.12 inches of the phone's left and right edges.
Decent display. The phone's LCD display, while not as dazzling as the Super AMOLEDs we've seen on phones from Samsung and others, presented text and images crisply. And I had no trouble viewing e-mails and the phone keypad in sunlight.
Competent, though confused, camera. The Nexus 5 took very good still images under most lighting conditions, on a par with the iPhone 5 S. In low light, its optical stabilizer helped it take cleaner, less noisy stills that were properly exposed, comparable to those taken by the cameras of the Nokia Lumia 1020 and LG G2. Also, the timer has a very short shutter lag.
But the Nexus 5 camera's auto-focus had trouble zeroing in on low-contrast subjects, such as our lab's color checker test chart. This problem became more acute at close distances. The phone's camera has no notable editing or image-enhancement tools to speak of, but controls are simple and access to HDR, exposure, flash settings, and more is never more than one or two menu levels away.
Video quality was good overall, though under low-light conditions the camera downshifted the frame rate from 30 frames per second to 19. This made images appear choppy and blurry, especially when panning the camera.
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Re-arranged interface. Google has a penchant for tinkering with controls, even those that are already perfect. Case in point: On Jelly Bean, the previous version of Android, you access Quick Settings by flicking your thumb to the right while on the home screen. Now it's a two-step process: You have to pull down the notifications bar, then tap its icon in the upper right corner.
Flicking your thumb to the right now launches the Google Now assistant—a curious change, because you can also launch Google Now by swiping your finger up from the screen base. One change I liked: Long-pressing a blank spot on the phone's desktop produces options for adding widgets or changing wallpapers and Google search options and notifications.
Caller I Duh. One of KitKat's most trumpeted additions is Caller ID. When you receive a call from someone who's not in your address book, Caller ID is supposed to scour Google Maps for more information about the caller, such as the name and a photo of the business, and present it on screen. It didn't work for me. My informal tests involved having acquaintances call me from such companies as Bank of America, Sony, and even Google. In all cases, a phone number was the only thing Caller ID showed me.
Questionable priorities. Android's new phone app replaces the recent-calls list familiar to most smart-phone users with Frequents, a new type of list that rearranges your contacts based on the people you talk to the most. At the top of Frequents are photos of your three most-called contacts, with a list of runners-ups supposedly prioritized according to caller frequency. But in my trials, the feature didn't work very well. In fact, Frequents listed contacts I haven't spoken to in years. You can clear the Frequents view, but you can't rearrange it on you own. Verdict: Bring back the Recent Calls view, which actually lists your last calls and texts in chronological order.
Hangouts hangup. Whether you want it to or not, Google's Hangouts app now also handles all of your SMS and MMS messages so that your carrier-serviced communiqués and Google account can mingle on the same screen as your Google-based conversations and video calls. Yeah, well no.
From the very beginning the new Hangouts app annoyed me because it automatically linked the phone number of my press sample phone to my personal Google account. What I hated more was what it did to my message threads. I rarely use Google communication tools, but I frequently use SMS, so I often found myself weeding through 7-month Hangout exchanges to respond to a text message someone just sent me. Also, I was uneasy about the constant prompts to share SMS content with others in "my" Google Circles. Attention, Google software developers: Kill this new Hangout arrangement or make it an "opt-in" option. As Facebook found out with the disastrous HTC First "Facebook phone," most smart-phone users don't want a social-network app meddling with their messages.
Bottom line. The Nexus 5 appears to be a solid-performing phone, and it's relatively affordable: Without a contract, the 16GB model costs $349 and 32GB version costs $399 on Google Play. Sprint offers the 16GB model for $50 with a two-year contract. On T-Mobile, you can get the Nexus 5 for $41.99 down, plus $17 a month for 24 months. That comes out to $449—$100 more than if you buy the phone outright from Google Play. But some users may find the KitKat OS it runs on a bit frustrating, especially when they've just mastered the many niceties of Jelly Bean.
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