What’s the point of Google’s new Nexus 5 phone? That’s the
question I
asked myself after spending a day with it
a few weeks
ago. Its design is flat-out boring. It doesn’t offer as many
features as other top-of-the-line Android phones, and it doesn’t
make much of a case for keeping Google’s Nexus phone lineup around.
But after spending more time with the Nexus 5, I learned that’s
exactly the point. Priced at just $350 off-contract, the Nexus 5 is
a cheap way to get a powerful, unlocked, pure Android experience.
That’s it. Don’t expect high-end camera quality here or useful
features like the HTC One’s Blinkfeed. The Nexus 5 is pure
minimalism. That’s something we haven’t seen before from the Nexus
line, but after last year’s Nexus 4, it’s a move that makes
 sense for Google. The Nexus
was also surprisingly cheap unlocked, but it tried to
inject a bit of bling in its design (to questionable results– I
grew to hate its glass and semi-holographic rear design). The Nexus
5 says “to hell” with glitz and glamour. And after seeing just
about every smartphone maker trying their damndest to one-up each
other with giant screens and superfluous features, this is a bit

How does it look and feel?

When Google finally
unveiled the Nexus 5, after plenty of leaks and rumors, it looked
like a device that had somehow missed its final design phase. It
simply screamed “prototype.” But despite looking very plain (I
still have trouble finding it when it’s sitting beside other phones
or on a dark table), the Nexus 5’s soft case makes it feel
comfortable in your hand. It’s a tall phone, but not awkwardly so.
Its 4.95-inch screen is bright and sports accurate colors, and it
also performs better outdoors than the Nexus 4’s screen. The big
“Nexus” branding on the phone’s rear makes a somewhat loud
statement, but given its overall lack of design flourishes, I can
excuse this. The Nexus 5’s camera, on the other hand, sports a
garishly large ring that feels out of place amid the device’s
otherwise simple design. It also has a multicolored notification
light at the bottom of the screen that comes across as mostly
useless, since it’s basically always blinking. There are apps that
let you label specific notifications with colors, but otherwise a
simple blinking light is no comparison to the Moto X’s innovative
screen notifications. (Personally, I’ve never found notification
lights all that useful, but I may just get too much email to ever
make them useful.) It feels almost as if Google and its hardware
partner, LG, just gave up on the Nexus 5 in the middle of its
design phase for fear of overdesigning it, as happened with the
Nexus 4.

The good: Fast, cheap, pure Android KitKat,

What the Nexus 5 lacks in looks it makes up for in
speed — but that’s true of just about every smartphone sporting a
new quad-core Snapdragon 800 processor these days. It feels a bit
faster than the Samsung Galaxy Note 3, which sports the same
processor, but that’s likely due to its lack of third-party
software crud. The Nexus 5 was also the first phone to ship with
Android 4.4 “KitKat,” which brings with it a brighter design scheme
and Google Now (Android’s slick self-learning personal assistant)
integration right on the home screen. By saying “OK, Google” on the
home screen, you can shout commands such as asking for the weather,
a specific Google search, or directions to your next meeting.
Previously, you had to manually access the Now prompt. Swiping left
on the home screen also brings up your Google Now cards, giving you
access to plenty of useful information without the need to ask. The
Nexus 5, just like the
Moto X
, makes it clear that Google Now is perhaps
Google’s most important product. It’s a way to unify its search
smarts with all the data Google has collected about you, and it
offers insights that no other search engine can give you. But the
Moto X’s ability to listen to your voice commands at all times,
even when it’s asleep and sitting on your desk, once again one-ups
the Nexus 5. By this point, Android KitKit has made its way to
other popular phones, so it’s less of an immediate selling point
for the Nexus 5. Also, can you believe this thing is only $350? At
least, if you get it from Google. The Nexus 5 costs $450 on
T-Mobile (company reps note that it pays full price for the phone
from LG, a sign that Google is subsidizing the phone’s price to
offer it for less). Still, the Nexus 5 shows that smartphones don’t
have to be expensive to be high-quality (the iPhone 5S and most
other high-end phones cost over $600 off-contract).

bad: Hope you like vanilla (and a so-so camera)

the Nexus 5 has a great price and (mostly) great hardware, little
differentiates it from the other high-quality Android smartphones
out there now. The Moto X is far more forward-thinking in its
features, the HTC One is better built (thanks to an all metal
case), and the Samsung Galaxy S4 packs in all the features you’d
ever want (arguably, more than you actually need). The Nexus 5,
like the Nexus phones before it, is laser-focused on satisfying
discerning geeks and developers. They are the people who would need
a cheap and unlocked Android phone, those who want the updates as
soon as Google makes them available. I realize this is an unpopular
opinion, but it’s hard to convince a typical consumer to shell out
$349 for their phone when they can get a comparable model for no
money down (even if it involves signing a carrier contract). And
despite promises that it was focusing on camera quality this time
around, Google has once again delivered a Nexus device with a
surprisingly lackluster camera. The Nexus 5 generally takes better
photos than its predecessor, but I still found it frustratingly
inconsistent. In the right light, and at the right angle, the phone
is capable of taking some gorgeous shots. But the problem is we’re
rarely in ideal shooting conditions. Most of the time, my photos
with the Nexus 5 looked washed out and dull, especially compared to
what you can get from the iPhone 5 or any of Nokia’s Lumia cameras.
The mark of a good smartphone camera is one that can take good
pictures as quickly as possible, with little preparation. In that
respect, the Nexus 5’s simply fails.

Do we even need
Nexus phones anymore?

I ended my initial preview of the
Nexus 5 with this thought: “As other Android phones get cheaper,
other manufacturers and carriers move quicker with Android updates,
and Motorola continues to spearhead Android hardware innovation,
the Nexus line’s days seem numbered.” While I’ve warmed to the
phone since then, I haven’t been able to shake the idea that Google
won’t really need the Nexus line for much longer. The Nexus phones
have always felt like a way for Google to gain some control in the
Android world as the OS spread like wildfire across the mobile
landscape and out of its grasp. They gave Google a way to send
updates quickly, without relying on slow carriers and phone makers;
a way to experience Android phones without the crud of third-party
software; and a way to offer an inexpensive way for developers to
get an unlocked Android phone. But over the years, both carriers
and manufacturers have significantly sped up their Android upgrade
efforts. Google has also taken to providing key updates directly to
Android devices through Google Play Services rather than through
huge Android updates, Ars
Technica points out
. HTC and other Android manufacturers
have also significantly slimmed down the software they place on
their devices. And in some cases, as with the Moto X, the
additional software actually improves on what Android offers
natively. At this point, the Nexus 5 is mainly appealing for its
price. And if Google is indeed subsidizing each Nexus 5 by around
$100 to reach its $349 price, that’s not something that will scale
well to millions of consumers.

The verdict: A solid
no-contract smartphone

For the price, you won’t find a
better unlocked Android smartphone out there today. The question
really is, do you want more than that? If you’re looking for a
phone that gives you a glimpse at the future of mobile computing,
go for the Moto X (or hold out for an eventual higher-end model
from Motorola). If you simply want the best smartphone on the
market right now, regardless of cost, the iPhone 5S is a far better
choice. And if you’re looking for the best Android hardware, I
suggest waiting a few months for Samsung and HTC’s next flagship
devices (or pick up the S4 or HTC One for cheap now). At the end of
the day, the Nexus 5 is a phone that only the most discerning buyer
should consider. Everyone else has plenty of other

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