Nexus 4 Review: A Beautiful Android Phone With a Major Tradeoff

PHOTO: The $299 Nexus 4 is made by LG and Google.
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A year ago, I bought the Galaxy Nexus. At the time it was the best Android phone out there – it had a big screen with a very high resolution, a dual-core processor, the brand new Android 4.0 operating system, and Verizon LTE.

Also, like all the Nexus phones – which is a line of phones made with direct input from Google – it didn't have any major software tweaks, like some of the other Android phones made by LG, Samsung, or Motorola. Google also promised that its Nexus phones would get new software updates first.

It was an early adopter and tech addict's dream.

Except it wasn't. The phone while fast at first, got slow in some places, the camera quality was subpar (especially compared to iPhones) and the phone itself wasn't the most durable. And then, when Android 4.1 came out this June, it didn't hit the Verizon version of the phone until September.

Earlier this week, Google announced its Nexus 4 made by LG. And it promises to fix everything wrong with my Nexus -- the camera has been upgraded, it has a faster quad-core processor, a new glass back. But it also loses one of the best parts about the previous phone.

WATCH: NEXUS 4 VIDEO REVIEW
Goodbye Plastic
LG, which makes the phone hardware, took away one of my major complaints I had about the previous Nexus – the plastic and flimsy feel. It's something I mentioned in the Galaxy S 3 review too – Samsung's phones aren't cheap, but the plastic makes them feel cheaper than they are.

The Nexus 4 is covered on the front and back with Gorilla Glass 2, a very durable type of glass that can withstand bumps, bruises, and most drops. The back plate of glass has a slight sparkle to it too. But similar to the Gorilla Glass on the iPhone 4S, the glass on the back of the Nexus picks up more fingerprints than Sherlock Holmes.

The phone is attractive but not as compact as the iPhone 5. Part of that is the larger screen, but part of it is also has a thicker, 9.1mm base.

It also has a slightly better screen than the previous Nexus. The 4.7-inch, 1280 x 768-resolution display looks really crisp and it also felt smoother on my finger than other screens. I also prefer the screen quality to the one on the Galaxy S 3; colors just look truer to form. Still, the phone's screen is big enough for my friend to ask, "Whose big phone is this?"


A Camera With a Wide View
The improvement I appreciate the most is the camera. The 8-megapixel camera takes noticeably better shots than the camera on the previous Nexus and on par with the new Samsung Galaxy S 3. But, unfortunately, it still isn't as good as the one on the iPhone 4S and iPhone 5.

(See a comparison between two photos here with our handy slider tool.)

Shots were crisper, but lower light shots were still a bit dark and it seemed to have a problem adjusting the white balance fast enough. The result was images with a yellowish tint. Other photos I took were really clear; I even uploaded one or two to Instagram without applying a filter!

Google has also tweaked the camera features in the latest version of Android 4.2. Photo Sphere lets you take 360 degree photos. You take a series of photos on a grid and the software stitches them together. You can view them as a panorama on a computer or tablet or view them as an interactive image on Google Plus, similar to how you view Google Maps' Street View. (You can view one of the photos I took using the feature on my Google Plus page.)

I still really enjoy Android's customization options, the Google Now search and speech feature, and the Google service integration (Gmail, etc.), but Android is still harder to use in many respects than Apple's iPhone operating system. When I handed the phone over to a friend, she had a hard time figuring out how to e-mail a photo. For other features, Google places instructional pop-ups.


Fast Processing Power, Slower Data Speeds
But while the software hasn't changed much, the way it runs on the phone has. The Nexus 4 has a fast quad-core processor and things appear much smoother than they do on the Galaxy Nexus or other Android phones. Apps open swiftly and there's no delay when swiping between menus when multiple apps are open.

There is one thing that is slower, however. And that's browsing and data speeds. The Nexus 4 doesn't support LTE in the US – it's only available for T-Mobile and AT&T's 4G networks. An unlocked version of the phone costs $299 on Google's site, and that will work on any GSM network, including the AT&T and T-Mobile network here in the U.S. T-Mobile will also sell the phone directly on its website.

Webpages load slower and YouTube videos don't render as well. Much of my testing was done in New York City during the days following Hurricane Sandy, which impacted performance, but still, T-Mobile's HSPA+ 4G network hasn't been as fast as AT&T or Verizon's respective LTE networks as a whole.

There is a plus side to that LTE loss though: better battery life. Google claims that you can get 10 hours of talk time. I didn't test that just yet, but I did get through a full day of heavy use and testing on a single charge. By 8PM the phone was at 14 percent.


Bottom Line
Google fixed every feature I have complained about on my Galaxy – the camera, the build quality, and the performance issues.

The Nexus 4.

It also fixed the update issue, but as a result of that it lost a major feature: LTE. What do I mean by that? "We work so hard on the latest innovations, this was the fastest way we could get them to people," John Lagerling, director of Android Global Partnerships, told me when I asked about the choice to not make it available through an LTE U.S. carrier.

Ultimately, that's the choice you end up making with the Nexus 4. For $299 (without a contract) you can have the best hardware and software experience of any Android phone out there, but you lose the fast speeds to enhance that software experience. Those looking for the best smartphones with LTE support would be better suited by the iPhone 5 or Galaxy S 3.

To sum it up: the Nexus 4 is a big, beautiful, well-rounded phone with one big tradeoff. One that's holding me back from replacing my older Nexus with it.

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