Friday, January 11, 2013

Nexus 4 Review: Is it the perfect phone?

So, I am back again. The last month or so was spent in a state of flux. I couldn't even bring out a December edition of 'Which Phone to Buy Right Now'. The reason was not that I didn't have the time. The reason was that the mobile market was in such a state of flux that I had a hard time recommending any phone. The month was also spent pursuing the Nexus 4.

Nexus 4, as you all know, is the latest flagship device from Google. The Nexus branding means that it will have the latest version of Android from Google (currently 4.2). Throughout the last year or so the Samsung Galaxy Nexus has won my unconditional acclaim, and it has been the phone I recommend anyone to buy if they can spare Rs30k or so (and it holds that position even now).

During December, the Galaxy Nexus mysteriously disappeared from local market. It has magically reappeared at dramatically higher prices, shooting from Rs30k to around Rs37k. Even at that price it remains the best solution on the market in absence of Nexus 4.

Ah, the Nexus 4. It is as enigmatic and elusive these days as Elvis sightings, or UFOs, or Yeti. See, Google launched Nexus 4 on its own Play Store (available in 5 countries in the world) and every batch has sold out within hours. The launch fiasco has gone down in history as maybe the worst product launch of 2012. Conventional wisdom led one to believe that LG will be throwing the set in the market through their own channels as well.

Guess what: LG's sales channels are not as wide as those of the now monolithic Samsung. Also, LG don't seem to be terribly interested in selling Nexus 4 at its very affordable price of $350k, maybe because their almost identical Optimus G (the Optimus UI and memory card slot being the only material points of difference from Nexus 4) is likely to make more margins. Whatever the scenario, it means that consumers don't have access to Nexus 4 right now.

That also means that if one owns a Nexus 4 right now, they own a rare product. Like I do. (Drumroll).


Nexus 4 in the flesh is a total knockout. Its shape is wonderfully symmetrical, harmonious and elegant, with no lumps or extrusions other than the power and volume keys. The front and back both are huge expanses of Gorilla glass. The front is dominated by the stunning IPS display of HD resolution, and the back by something even more interesting: a 3D pattern that is visible at an angle.

The phone, despite weighing just 140g, feels substantially heavier. Everything about it screams quality. It has been a long time since a phone has fascinated me with its physical attributes. The last phone I recall as being bowled over by was the somewhat controversial Nokia N82.

Hold it in your hand and you will get the sensation of holding a much bigger and more substantial iPhone 4. Android fans have long ridiculed iPhone 4 and 4S for having glass backs - before learning that the flagship droid of 2012 would have one too.

The display of the phone has also attracted much controversy. I will summarize it thus: not as good as that of One X/One X+, better than anything else. Colours are somewhat washed out, but accurate, text is pin sharp and most importantly, whites are brilliant whites.

As for internals, the phone sports the fastest commercially available mobile processor on the market, Snapdragon S4 Pro. Coupled with 2 GB of RAM and vanilla Android, the phone just flies through anything you throw at it.

All in all, Nexus 4 may just be the best Android phone EVER in terms of hardware.


Given my professed unconditional love for pure AOSP Android, it may be a foregone conclusion that I will see this phone as having the best software bar none.

It's a little more complicated than that.

See, Nexus 4 ships with Android 4.2.1. The main points of difference with 4.1.1 are the revised lockscreen, photosphere camera, new camera software and...and...maybe some things under the hood. Out of those three things, I absolutely hate the first two. I can't believe what Google did to Android lockscreen. The 4.1.1 lock screen was an epitome of simplicity and cool. You unlocked the phone, below the clock at the bottom of the screen, you had a glowing circle. Slide it to the top, you get Google Now. Slide it to the left, phone, and for right, you got the camera.

Now, with 4.2.1 lock screen, if you slide the circle anywhere you unlock the screen. Slide to the right, and you see a screenshot of the camera app which transforms into actual camera. For Google Now, there is a SEPARATE, smaller circle at the bottom. And it has widgets. Now, if you are putting widgets on 4 or 5 panes of the lock screen, is it a lock screen anymore? Isn't the lock screen about having one pane so that you can glance at relevant info and proceed into the phone?

The Camera UI, meanwhile, is vastly more complicated. See, you get one circle to focus in the middle of the viewfinder, while there is one circle to the right for click, and one smaller one on the top. On clicking that, you 'activate' the middle ring, which now sports 4-5 settings such as HDR, white balance etc. Suffice it to say that this UI is hard to understand even for experienced Nexus users, let alone someone coming from another phone.

That said, the rest of the UI is simply spectacular. You won't find such a blend of elegance and sheer cool anywhere else. The colours, the fonts, the slide-based navigation convention within system apps - everything is just so refined. You can use this phone for years without the UI even once getting in your way. The navigation is smooth, the phone never misses a beat no matter how many apps you open. Everything glides in and out with a smooth animation.

The pure Android keyboard, while now much close to the commercial solution, cannot beat SwiftKey in terms of predictions and general accuracy. So you'd be well advised to invest in that.

Google Now remains amazing. I can simply say to my phone, 'locate the nearest Italian Restaurant' and it wil give me all the options in my city, along with reviews and ways to get there. It's still mind-boggling, and you never tire of it.

The camera itself is reasonable if not top of the class. The gallery app, as always, is a picture of understated elegance that has every feature imaginable, just not screaming in your face.

The power, flexibility and, if I say so myself, nerd appeal provided by AOSP Android is not paralleled by any of the manufacturer skins such as Samsung's TouchWiz and HTC's Sense. Most of the additional features they provide can now be easily duplicated via apps available on Play Store, albeit without the cumbersome UI of those skins.

Other than that, it's a blank canvas. You are free to build on it and even modify it. It's your playground, and Google won't get in your way. Even if you leave it as-is, you are still getting full-featured OS that caters to your every need, while being faster than anything else.


So. Availability issues, 16 GB limited and slightly irritating lock screen and camera app. Go ahead and blow these foibles into gamebreakers if you like, the truth is, Nexus 4 might be the best Android phone available at the moment. Forget your Galaxy S3's, Notes, or One X's - this is the real deal. Do look out for the exorbitant prices some retailers are charging for this, you might be able to get it in the neighborhood of Rs50k if you are patient. So wait a few weeks and get this without any hesitation