Nexus 4 is here - Has Google cracked the code?
Nexus 4 is here – Has Google cracked the code?

Against all my better judgment — and even my own advice — I upgraded my trusty Galaxy Nexus (Samsung) to Google’s new Nexus 4 (LG). I have a good excuse though. Having fetched $289 via eBay for my 2011 Nexus, I only had to pitch in $20 or so for the new Nexus 4 (8GB) when I was able to somehow wedge my way into the ridiculous Play Store order process a few weeks back. So the upgrade seemed like an easy call.

There’s been plenty of positive reviews for the Nexus 4. For someone coming from a GNex, how does it fare? Finally after a few weeks in the Baja (and I have a fishing tale), I’ve been able to return to Silicon Valley, slip in my T-Mobile sim and get some hands-on with Jelly Bean (unrooted that is!). Here’s some initial impressions after 24 hours with Nexus 4.

Immediately familiar

If you’re coming from a Galaxy Nexus (2011) you’ll feel right at home with the Nexus 4. The dimensions are virtually the same (I even discovered the $5 car dock I bought from China works just fine), the overall design aesthetic including the rounded corners are basically the same, as are the softkeys, and understated look. I like the consistency of the placement of the volume keys (left side) and power button (right side). I never had any issues with them as some have reported.

Some differences

The headphone jack is now up top. I prefer it at the bottom, next to the micro-USB connector. In that configuration when I dock the phone in the car in portrait orientation both cables run inconspicuously at the bottom. However, I know some who prefer otherwise; at the gym, for example, when you have the phone resting on a holder, it makes more sense for it to be up top.

Unlike GNex, the battery is non-removable. Also the Nexus 4 is essentially sealed with no removable cover. This means you’ll need to slide in a sim card via a small tray discretely located on the left side – easy enough using the included tool. I suppose one often overlooked advantage of a sealed device is that you don’t need to worry as much about dust and contamination of the interior – though that’s never been an issue in the past for me.

Then there’s the glass sandwich design everyone’s been talking about.

Oddly, I much prefer the Samsung plastics (though I wish they’d use higher quality variants as seen on the Nokia and HTC Windows 8 phones). Glass is fragile, and will crack – just ask Joshua Topolsky of The Verge who found his quickly cracked after hitting a hardwood floor (which would likely be a non issue with the plasticy GNex). I’m not one to complain about smudges and fingerprints, but I immediately noticed after unboxing the Nexus 4 and handling it only briefly to install the sim that the rear Matrix-like glass was smudge-fest. Again, in theory glass and metal sound nice, but I’ve never had any issue with plastics, and when it comes to sell (which could only be a matter of months for this early adopter given I’m hearing the S IV is just around the corner) phones made of plastic if well-cared for, can look virtually brand new. As far as design goes I’d actually prefer something like the new Droid DNA over the Nexus 4 – yes, I even appreciate tacky red accents.

I was surprised to discover a small sticker on the rear. Located just above the LG logo, it contains the phone’s IMEI in a small font with a narrow bar code. Presumably this is because the phone is sealed, and so LG had to put it here instead of in the battery compartment. I would take it off if it weren’t for two reasons: (1) I like to keep my phones original and in mint condition to maximize resale; and (2) apparently even if I were to remove it, there’s a border surround that seems non-removable. This all surprised me as I never noticed it in photos on any of the review sites (though it could very well be there, and I overlooked it). Regardless, not a big deal, but it does prove to be a blight on what is otherwise a sexy butt.


There’s not much to say about setup. Whether it’s an Android or Windows phone, or iPhone, I’m continually amazed at how fast I can get up and running on a new device, and feel right at home in a matter of minutes. We can thank the cloud for that; “transferring contacts” is a wistful memory, kind of like walking three miles (with -30C wind chill…) in 5-feet of snow (in shoes…) to school.

Because I test so many devices, and regularly swap sims across phones, I am used to the routine. I enter my Google credentials, then add accounts for Facebook, Twitter, Dropbox, LinkedIn, Skydrive, Box. In a matter of minutes everything looks familiar. My calendar is there, contacts (people), email, Chrome bookmarks/history, etc.

When I first booted the Nexus 4 I was informed about the 4.2.1. It required a restart, which took less than a minute. Strangely I prompted again to install the update, and I had to restart again. Aside from that oddity, I felt as if the Nexus 4 had been my daily driver for months.

Nexus 4 is Fast

Though I predicted that we’d see quad-core processors in Androids at the outset of this year, it didn’t really happen until Q4. But they’re here, and the Snapdragon S4 Pro chip in the N4 is, as we now all know, a demon; paired with Jelly Bean 4.2.1, this phone flies. Whether it’s downloading apps from the Play Store, launching apps such as Gmail, Facebook, News360 or surfing the web via the Chrome browser, everything is virtually instantaneous – and this coming from a guy that was already pleased as punch with the GNex performance. This is the ultimate expression of Android yet, and it just absolutely brilliant thanks to the smooth and fast performance.

Android refinement

All the things that make Android so great are still here of course. I love the widgets (though I wish Google would make a stock holo-themed clock/weather widget); News360, CNN, NYT, calendar and Google Voice all find places on one of my five home screens. Notifications are still best in class. Nobody does it better than Google. The icons at the top left give you the need-to-know at a glance, and the now second nature pull down gesture reveals details. Google’s expanded on this with a two-finger swipe that gives you quick access to various toggles (brightness, settings, wi-fi, network, battery, airplane mode, bluetooth). It works great, and saves me having to use a widget, or create shortcuts on the home screen.

Small things matter

I like the multi-colored notification light on the bottom of the front bezel. White = email. Green = messaging. Red = Google+. Blue = Facebook.

I also like the simplicity of the on-screen navigation softkeys. Google’s got it right. Three simple buttons: back, home, running apps.

Another nicety about Android is haptic touch. Subtle vibrations when you perform certain actions – typing, touching a softkey for instance – provide reassuring feedback. It may just be me, but it seems like Google and LG have tuned it perfectly on the Nexus 4. On past phones and tablets, haptic has been too buzzy for my liking. Not so here. There’s a nice, low-key and soft vibration that I can only liken to nice shag carpet baby.

Those dissatisfied with the speaker volume on the GNex will be pleased to know it’s much improved. Given that I was accustomed to having the volume loud, I was slightly startled at how loud my alerts/ringers were. Understanding the voice when using in-car navigation should no longer be an issue with the N4.

LTE who?

I’m unlocked, and run T-Mobile’s $30 plan. I can tether. I get unlimited data. I can swap sims between devices. So ask me: do I really miss LTE and Verizon?

Ah… they tried to take me to contract, I said no, no no…

T-Mo’s HSPA+ network, at least here in the San Francisco Bay Area, has been plenty fine. I do all the usual mobile stuff: stream music, surf the web, check email, check social networks, take photos. I don’t have an issue with do any of these tasks without LTE.

Oh, and let’s not forget the battery-draining ways of LTE. It resulted in a HUGE difference between the Verizon version of the Galaxy Nexus and the unlocked Google one. I found Verizon’s battery life appalling, while the non-LTE version quite good.

Still, I do find it circumspect that Google chose to only release one version of the Nexus 4. If you want LTE you’ll obviously need to go elsewhere (the Droid DNA looks pretty good to me, but speaking of bad battery life…).

Android and me

Google Now is accessed with a long-press-up on the home button. There’s great potential here. The more time I spend with Jelly Bean devices the more I can appreciate where Google is going with this predictive, context-aware technology. It’s not always perfect (it insists I drive home or to work throughout the day – I would think it should learn from my past behavior when I actually commute), but I expect this to be a battlefield going forward. Forget about maps. The real future of mobile will be about predictive/AI with Google and Apple leading the charge.

Screen impresses

The display on the N4 is very good; colors are vivid, contrast is good. But, you know what? Don’t fret if you’re on a GNex. The differences despite what you might read are not that big a deal. Yes, the N4 is better, but it’s not a retina display iPad3/iPad2 kind of deal. I wouldn’t base any upgrade decision around the display alone.

Worth the upgrade from a Gnex?

I’m still sticking with my original suggestion, with one caveat. If you have a Galaxy Nexus (2011) and are enjoying it, and/or are still under contract, then I see no real reason to contemplate an upgrade. With the GNex you get Jelly Bean, you get a great display, decent battery life (for the non-LTE version) and, to boot, the battery is removable. I prefer the plastic build (I know,  know, I’m likely a minority when it comes to that preference) and — don’t forget! — there’s an incredibly robust developer community working on GNex roms so you can go custom crazy if you feel the need.

That caveat…

Resale price. If you can get almost $300 for your GNex like I did, then I don’t see why you wouldn’t upgrade. The only thing stopping you now, unfortunately, is inventory. It appears the Google Play Store is sold out for weeks on end. Instead, I’d suggest running your GNex through Q1 2013. See what comes out of CES. It appears the unlocked trend is going to continue come 2013, and there’s a strong possibility we’ll see carriers/vendors adopt a similar strategy to counter Google’s contract-free model.

I will miss those POGO pins

Sounds ridiculous to say, but the POGO pins on the GNex were pretty sweet, if under utilized by third party accessory makers. I will miss the Samsung desktop dock. Plunking down the phone into the dock without having to fiddle with a cable or line-up a micro-USB connector was a simple pleasure, and the dock was a great bedside clock. Apparently they are in short supply I was able to eBay mine for more than the $50 I paid to Google Play. Nexus 4 has a traditional connector, and no POGO pins. However, it does have wireless charging; I will be looking at wireless accessories soon, and testing some products.

N4 is the definitive Android experience

Nexus 4 raises the bar and is the ultimate showcase for Android. It’s fast, slick, easy to use. These are hallmarks normally associated with the iPhone.

Thanks to continual upgrades to its Play Store, both in terms of content, and apps along with quantum improvements to aesthetics and usability, Google has erased the wide lead Apple had in years past in terms of user experience.

Both the iPhone and Nexus are fine choices. We’re living in a mobile world of Diet Pepsi (iOS) and Diet Coke (Android); it’s a personal preference. Both are cultural. Both represent leading edge manifestations of technology as they do personal statements.

I’d take Android every time over the iPhone. Notifications are essential to me, and Google’s got that figured out brilliantly. Maps are the best on Android, as are integration with Gmail, Calendar.

I went with the 8GB edition (at only $299 without contract, a screaming smartphone bargain) – not by choice, but because it was the only one I could get. My Galaxy Nexus had twice the memory, so I was somewhat concerned. Turns out I needn’t worry. I store almost everything in the cloud. My music collection is on Google Play (and Amazon MP3 as well), and I never copy over videos to my phone. With 59 apps currently installed in just 24 hours of use, Android tells me I still have 4.55GB internal storage available.

Nexus 4 strikes a perfect balance between size and usability. The 4.8-inch display is large enough to make things like surfing the web, or using Waze for navigation a pleasure. The design – though perhaps somewhat underwhelming – is solid. I don’t miss the removable battery, nor do I miss the microSD card (though I do realize that for the many that like to carry loads of media such as music and videos on their phones, this omission will be a non-starter). It’s still early to report on battery life – watch this space. Same with the camera; though I’ve been really impressed with the Photo Sphere app, which I’ve been running on a Galaxy S II running the JellyBam quasi-4.2.1 Android ROM.

Coming from a GNex, this Android is evolutionary; there’s definitely not that wow factor associated with the original Samsung version that hit the market at the end of 2011. But I could argue the same could be said for the iPhone 5 over the iPhone 4S. My contention is that we’re entering an incremental era of mobile design. Apps- got it. Slick design- got it. Fast data- got it. Now the emphasis will turn to the futuristic stuff. Look for the bezel to completely disappear. Look for flexible screens. Look for amazing contextual AI (Google Now could lead the way). Yes, it’s going to be great. For now, though, until that “Nexus 6” replicant arrives I’m very impressed with the Nexus 4. I figure it’ll last me, oh, at least 2-3 months…

UPDATE ON BATTERY LIFE 12.04.2012 3:50PM PDT: So far I’m not too impressed with battery life on the Nexus 4. It’s not atrocious like the LTE-equipped Verizon Galaxy Nexus by any means, but anecdotal evidence so far suggests that the unlocked Galaxy Nexus (i9250) managed longer battery life.