You could call the Nexus 5 many things, but exciting is not one of them.
Its design is dull and uninspired (it honestly looks like a prototype design made real); its hardware, though fast, isn’t different from other new Android phones; and it sports a problematic camera, just like all the other Nexus phones.
The most intriguing thing about the Nexus 5 is its price: At $349 off-contract (for the 16 gigabyte model), it costs about half as much as other modern smartphones at full price.
After spending a day with the Nexus 5, I’m left wondering if there’s a place for the Nexus lineup in Android’s future.
Let’s backtrack: Before high-quality Android phones were common, Google’s Nexus line served as a vision of Android’s potential. The Samsung-built Nexus S and Galaxy Nexus offered hardware faster than other Android phones at the time, as well as the first glimpse at the latest versions of Android. But with better Android smartphones on the market last year from the likes of Samsung and HTC, Google tapped LG to create an affordable, yet powerful phone in the Nexus 4.
Now, the Android landscape is even more competitive, and we have other devices that offer a “pure Android” experience (the Google Play versions of the Galaxy S4 and HTC One). If Google can unofficially turn the best Android smartphones on the market into Nexus-like devices, what purpose does a new Nexus serve?
Using the Nexus 5
The Nexus 5 feels svelter around the hips than the Nexus 4, but its 5-inch screen makes it more awkward to hold with one hand. It’s reminiscent of HTC’s One, my favorite Android phone so far, though it lacks that phone’s solid metal design and stereo speakers. The Nexus 5 is far from a “premium” experience, thanks to its plastic case (though I prefer the soft touch rear cover to the Nexus 4’s garish glass rear).
After a series of mediocre cameras in the Nexus line, there was some hope that LG’s new optical image stabilization technology would help the Nexus 5’s shooter. After taking several pictures, I can see a clear improvement from the crummy photos the Nexus 4 took, but the Nexus 5’s camera is still far from what the iPhone 5S and Nokia’s new Lumias offer. Images look great in ideal conditions, but it doesn’t take much to give the camera a fit.
While the phone’s hardware is boring, Android 4.4 “KitKat” is far from it. It’s the biggest redesign of Android 4.0 since it debuted two years ago, with brighter colors throughout and Google Now integration right on the home screen.
Google Now is clearly the true new Google homepage: You can say “Okay Google” to issue a command anywhere on the home screen. You can also swipe left from the first home screen to access the Google Now card interface. Altogether, accessing Google Now is a huge improvement from past versions of Android, where you had to manually access the Now interface (either with a swipe up from the bottom of your screen, or by hold down your Android home key).
Despite those improvements, Google Now still feels more deeply integrated in the Moto X. That phone sports a processor that’s always listening to your voice commands, allowing you to shout Google Now queries even when it’s in standby. Though the Moto X sports much slower hardware than the Nexus 5, that phone’s voice integration and unique gesture features (you can flick it twice to launch the camera) give us a far better glimpse of Android’s future.
What lies ahead for Nexus?
Though I’m disappointed with how vanilla the Nexus lineup has become, I still give Google credit for pushing the idea that powerful smartphones don’t have to cost as much as a laptop. The Nexus 5, like the Nexus 4, is an ideal developer phone. Anyone can pick one up off-contract and be sure they’re going to get the latest Android updates quickly.
But 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.
Check back later for our full review of the Nexus 5.