Google Nexus 4 review: Great specs, but bad battery life

At a Glance
  • Google Nexus 4 (16GB)

    PCWorld Rating

    Google's Nexus 4 offers a lot of power for a low, contract-free price, but its battery life disappoints.

Google's Nexus 4 smartphone, like all Nexus devices, represents the very best that Android has to offer. In collaboration with LG, Google has created a phone that not only looks good but is also one of the top-performing smartphones released this year. The Nexus 4 is a well-built device that feels more like an incremental update to the Nexus phone line than a complete reimagining. What is revolutionary, though, is its pricing: At $300 for the unlocked 8GB version (and with the 16GB version retailing for just $50 more), the Nexus 4 makes for a premium phone without a premium price.

Design

Robert Cardin

The Nexus 4 has a beautiful design, with chamfered edges that help the phone rest comfortably in the hand. The Nexus 4's 4.7-inch-diagonal, 1280-by-768-pixel IPS display dominates the front. Offering a pixel density of 320 pixels per inch, the display looks vibrant and sharp, and provides unusually wide viewing angles. When I compared it against the 326-ppi Retina display on the iPhone 5, the Nexus 4 held its own: Text appeared crisp, and I had no trouble viewing the screen while using the phone outdoors. The Nexus 4's display isn't as bright as the iPhone 5's, but the two are fairly close in quality.

The back of the phone has the word Nexus emblazoned upon it in large type, and features an eye-catching pattern that gives the device some personality. Covering the back is a thin sheet of glass that looks stylish and doubles as an inductive-charging surface. I found the glass back worrisome, though: After spending just a few days with the phone, I began to notice some nicks and scratches there. Even though the phone feels sturdy enough, I worry that a short drop is all it will take to send the Nexus 4 shattering into dozens of pieces.

The Nexus 4 measures 5.27 by 2.7 by 0.36 inches, which makes it roughly the same size as the Galaxy Nexus, and only slightly thicker than the Samsung Galaxy S III. The phone weighs a scant 4.8 ounces; it didn't tire out my hand after I used it for long periods of time. However, unlike with the previous two Nexus phones, the Nexus 4's battery is not removable. And to access the Nexus 4's MicroSIM card slot, you'll need to use a special tool that comes with the phone.

Performance

The Nexus 4 has the same 1.5GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro processor we saw on the AT&T and Sprint versions of the LG Optimus G. And as is the case with the Optimus G, the Nexus 4's quad-core processor and 2GB of RAM are highly capable and ready to handle any app or game you throw their way. Graphics-intensive games such as Dead Trigger and Death Dome both ran smoothly on the Nexus 4, and I have yet to encounter any lag on the device—something I couldn't say about this phone's predecessor, the Galaxy Nexus, when it first launched.

Death Dome on the Nexus 4

During my tests, the phone became very hot while playing games. I also found that battery life was below average: In our lab's battery test—in which we set the handset to airplane mode and play a loop of a high-definition video until the phone dies—the Nexus 4's battery lasted 6 hours, 52 minutes. To put that in perspective, the iPhone 5, the Motorola Droid Razr M, and the Samsung Galaxy S III all lasted closer to 8 hours in the same test.

In mixed casual use, I eked out only around 4 hours of battery life before I needed to plug the phone in to charge. The poor battery life is perhaps the Nexus 4's biggest weakness. You can charge the phone's 2100mAh battery using either a standard MicroUSB cable or a Qi-compatible inductive charging mat.

I tested the Nexus 4's voice quality on T-Mobile and found it to be adequate: Calls were even, with little static, and the people I called said my voice came through loud and clear. This was in an area with very good reception; your results will vary based on your location.

Unlike the Galaxy Nexus, the Nexus 4 does not have an LTE variant; this may be a deal breaker for many people, but after trying the phone on HSPA+ for the past few days, I can say that I didn't notice much of a difference in my real-world usage. Download speeds over T-Mobile's HSPA+ network averaged 11.6 megabits per second, with upload speeds reaching a surprisingly low average of 2.3 mbps. While those download speeds are commendable for a non-LTE phone, the low upload speeds will be crippling if you're constantly uploading HD video and other large files from your phone.

Software

A new Nexus means a new version of Android, and the Nexus 4 is no different. The phone ships with Android 4.2, an updated version of Jelly Bean that adds a handful of new features and further polishes the Android interface. The clock app, for instance, is beautifully redesigned and now features an interface that better fits the "holo UI" introduced in Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. The notification drawer has seen improvement, too: You can now access your settings quickly through a two-finger gesture. It takes some getting used to at first, but being able to toggle the phone's Wi-Fi on and off without digging through menus is worth the slight learning curve.

Not all apps, however, were lucky enough to get a face-lift: The Google News and Weather app (introduced in Android 2.2) looks woefully outdated next to apps like Gmail and Currents. Other apps, such as Movie Studio, are still clunky to navigate and confusing to use. Android 4.2 is an improvement over 4.1—but in tightening the screws, Google seems to have missed a few.

Camera

A test photo captured with the Nexus 4

The 8-megapixel camera on the Nexus 4 is only marginally better than the camera on the Galaxy Nexus. The camera's back-illuminated sensor helps it take better photos in low-light environments, but the shots still have a considerable amount of noise. Photos that I snapped in well-lit areas fared better, but I noticed that the camera took 5 to 8 seconds before it would properly focus.

Like most modern smartphones, the Nexus 4 shoots video in 1080p. The overall quality of my videos was good, with few artifacts, but I spotted a distinct jelly-like effect whenever I moved the phone.

The camera app has a new interface, one that I am not particularly fond of. You can still quickly switch between taking video and capturing still shots, but other options are buried beneath a vague circular icon. Hiding all of those settings gives the camera interface a streamlined look, but it forces you to take a few extra steps to toggle the camera flash settings, adjust exposure, and perform other tweaks.

An example of a photo sphere

Aside from the new interface, the Nexus 4 comes with a new shooting mode dubbed "Photo Sphere." This mode allows you to take 360-degree panoramic photos that the app stitches together into something resembling Street View on Google Maps. The photo spheres I created came out looking better than I expected, with only one or two minor errors occurring during the stitching process (due to my moving a little too fast while capturing photos). It's really cool for showing off rooms or your surroundings, and it's one of my favorite features of the new camera app.

Bottom line

The Nexus 4 is a lot like Apple's iPhone 4S: It's a solid upgrade to the Galaxy Nexus that adds a handful of new features, but its hardware and software do little to redefine the Nexus line. Instead, Google and LG have created one of the best and most affordable unlocked smartphones ever. Even though it omits LTE support and has substandard battery life, the Nexus 4's price, its lack of a contract, and its exceptional hardware and software make it a standout in an ever-growing sea of Android handsets. Galaxy Nexus owners may want to skip this update, but if you're due for an upgrade—or if you're looking to break away from a pricey carrier contract—the Nexus 4 is one of the best smartphones you can buy today.

This story, "Google Nexus 4 review: Great specs, but bad battery life" was originally published by TechHive.

To comment on this article and other PCWorld content, visit our Facebook page or our Twitter feed.
At a Glance
  • PCWorld Rating

    Google's Nexus 4 offers a lot of power for a low, contract-free price, but its battery life disappoints.

Notice to our Readers
We're now using social media to take your comments and feedback. Learn more about this here.