By Peter Z. Scheer
The Nexus 5 is Google’s new flagship phone. Despite being superior in some ways to the iPhone, and costing only half the price, the Nexus has taken a bit of a beating in reviews.
The main complaint is that both the battery and camera on the device are lacking. This is odd, especially since Google’s first Nexus 5 commercial touted the capabilities of the camera as its hero feature.
Having lived with the Nexus 5 since it became available at the beginning of November, I think I understand the criticisms and in what way they are perhaps misleading.
|A statue of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar outside of Staples Center in Los Angeles, taken with the Nexus 5 using HDR+.|
But first let’s address the issue of price. This is something that is primarily of concern to phone buyers not imprisoned by the draconian two-year-contract system that prevails in the United States—that would be T-Mobile subscribers, people who live almost anywhere else in the world and those looking for a second or off-contract device. Verizon, ATT&T and Sprint all charge a secret monthly phone tax, whether you sign a contract or not. The result is that customers get a new top-end device every two years for the disguised price of $200 or so. The real cost of a 16GB iPhone is $649.99. Compare that to the Nexus 5, at $349. The Nexus has a much bigger screen (that’s a matter of taste) with a higher resolution of 445 pixels per inch, compared with the iPhone’s 326 ppi. The Nexus 5 has a top-notch processor and graphics chip to boot, making it competitive when it comes to productivity and games, and it runs the latest version of Google’s unparalleled mobile operating system, which is something no other device as of this posting can boast.
Let’s not get carried away. The iPhone 5s, if not the 5c, is in many respects a better smartphone, as are the other high-end Android phones—mainly the Samsung Galaxy S4 and the HTC One. Whether because they have better cameras, battery life or just build quality, those devices deserve higher marks than the Nexus, but they all cost significantly more. It’s a testament to the Nexus 5 that it is so often compared to phones that are $300 more. The fairer comparison is to the Moto X, which is also made by Google, albeit indirectly, and costs $499 off-contract (you can get it for as low as $299, but you have to sign up for Republic Wireless). The Moto X isn’t as powerful as the Nexus, but it has unique features that make it compelling (wild customizability, assembled to order in the United States, “active” power-saving notifications) and, for those stuck in contract purgatory, a no-brainer price point of $99.
|Another photo taken with the Nexus 5, also using HDR+ mode.|
I leave it to the reader to calculate the unnecessarily confusing formula of today’s network contracts and mobile feature sets to find the best device. There are arguments on all sides and the good news is that after years of (bad) iPhone clones, there is a device out there, whether in size, power or style, just for you.
And here is where I must come to the Nexus 5’s defense, because many people will be making that decision on the basis of camera quality and battery life, and that’s where Google’s phone is a bit of an odd duck that may challenge conventional thinking.
First, the camera. To say it’s bad is, to make a mess of the scientific method, both accurate and imprecise. Compared with last year’s iPhone, the Nexus 5 is slow, noisy and inconsistent in terms of photography. It generally takes serviceable photos, though the app is slow to focus and, sometimes, even to load. Google has promised an update to fix the camera, but until then we have to judge what we have.
The camera on the Nexus 5, despite its problems, is capable of taking very beautiful photos, particularly when there is a lot of light available. Even at night, however, I’ve gotten great shots out of the Nexus. The trick is to use the built-in HDR+ mode exclusively. Unfortunately it takes even longer to snap a photo, because it’s taking multiple images and combining them. But if you have patience, you will be rewarded.
The camera must also be seen in the context of Google’s photo services available through Google+, which is tightly integrated in the Nexus 5. In fact, Android’s gallery app has been buried in favor of a breakout Google+ Photos app, which has an incredible array of filters. It’s so good that I find myself filtering my photos in Google+ before exporting them to Instagram. And since Instagram is 99 percent of the reason I want a camera on my phone, and Instagram is all about filtering and distorting smaller images where original quality is less of a factor, the Nexus 5 performs quite adequately. There are two other great photo features in Google+ that help the Nexus make up for its deficiencies. One is that it automatically backs up all of your shots. The iPhone app also does this, but in my experience it’s not reliable the way it is on an Android phone. Also, Google+ automatically cleans up your photos and makes animated GIFs when you take a lot of pictures. To steal a phrase from Apple, it just works. But are these really Nexus 5 features? Yes, if you believe that the Nexus is the truest expression of a Google Phone, a portal into Google’s latest software and service innovations. To put it another way: If Google comes out with a really great new feature or product (whether related to photography or not), in all likelihood the first place it will show up is on the Nexus 5.
|Another photo taken with the Nexus 5—this one of the Palace Theater in Downtown Los Angeles.|
Beyond the camera, the other black mark against the Nexus is the battery life. Again, we find widespread agreement that inconsistency rules. Some days you get just a few hours, others you don’t need to think about plugging in. But you do think about it, a lot. Because battery life is about trust, and you cannot trust the Nexus 5.
But that’s if you use it like an iPhone. Unlike the iPhone, the Nexus 5 can charge wirelessly. This means if you have the right accessory, say one on your desk and one on your nightstand, you need only set the phone down to keep it topped off. This is a paradigm that has not really caught on, maybe because it takes just a few seconds to plug in a device the old-fashioned way. But I imagine that the designers of the Nexus 5 bargained that a smaller battery would suffice so long as this feature was bundled in. Unfortunately, the wireless charger that’s suppose to ship with the Nexus isn’t on sale yet. So again, we have to judge what we have. And the judgment is severe. Not since the Evo 4G have I been so annoyed with a phone’s juice. It’s not only a thirsty phone with a small battery, it’s slow to charge. The iPhone is a jackrabbit by comparison.
|Nexus 5 photo taken on Gallery Row near Skid Row in Los Angeles.|
And there I go, comparing this $349 phone to one twice as expensive. Again, it’s a compliment to what is ultimately an imperfect but impressive device. Google has been refining its claims about the Nexus line since it launched with the Nexus One in 2010. Whatever the company’s explanation, the brand has come to stand for great specs and bad cameras at an amazing price. This time around the picture is, forgive the pun, a bit blurrier. It’s easy for technology obsessives like myself to get carried away, either wishing the Nexus 5 was more than it is or defending it to an irrational degree. The truth is actually uncomplicated: The Nexus is simply the best midrange smartphone ever made.