Nexus 5 Review

I’ve always been an iPhone guy. My first smartphone was the iPhone 3GS in 2009 (not counting the GPS-enabled, 3G flip-phone I carried in Tokyo), and I’ve also owned the 4S, with its amazing Retina screen, and the 5, which finally brought LTE and a top-quality camera. I’ve always loved Apple’s attention to hardware and software design, especially for devices I carry around and use all day.

Over the past few months, though, a few things have been pushing me toward Android:

  • At and away from work, I live in the Google ecosystem– Gmail, Google Calendar, Voice, Hangouts, Maps, and all the rest. The Google integration to iOS is better than it’s been before, but Google products are still (understandably) second-class citizens to first-party apps.
  • I’m a power user– I like to tell my systems what should do what with what, and this is near-impossible in iOS. Apple locks down app-to-app communication (forcing hacky workarounds like x-callback-url), and makes deeper customizations like changing the stock keyboard impossible.
  • Android hardware and software has gotten better. For a device that sits in my pocket and gets used all day, I have a pretty high bar for build quality and UX. I’ve always found Android jittery and awkward, and the phones big, ungainly, and plastic. In the last year or so, though, both the phones and OS have gotten faster, sleeker, and better built.

Hardware Impressions:

Nexus5-dshack-1

The Nexus 5 is a solid, chunky piece of hardware, with thick, grippy plastic that’s about as good as plastic gets. The front is a blank expanse of glass, and the back is plain except for an embossed “Nexus” in the center. The buttons are ceramic, a nice little touch, and the ports, speakers, and all work like you’d expect. It’s not a piece of industrial art like the iPhone, but it looks and feels just fine. Especially in black, the hardware recedes into the background, letting the screen take over.

And it's really a beautiful screen. What the hell happened with 1080p screens? They’ve been in reasonably-priced monitors for a decade or more, but it took forever to get them into TVs, and now suddenly you get 1920×1080 pixels in a tiny, 5-inch phone display?

Whatever’s happened in display supply-chain economics over the last few years, the resolution you can get on a mid-range phone screen these days is pretty crazy. Text looks amazing, videos play in full HD (relevant XKCD below), and icons look like they're painted on paper.

image from imgs.xkcd.com

The Camera:

Apple users are spoiled when it comes to Cameras. Ever since the 4S or so, the picture-taking experience on iPhones has been superb. We’ve seen other manufacturers try to catch up with way more pixels, fewer, bigger pixels, building entire phones around a camera, and other tricks, but the iPhone just takes damn good pictures.

The Nexus 5 camera is pretty meh. It's fine for visual note-taking, and takes a decent shot when the lighting is perfect, but really struggles with sub-optimal conditions.

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You can probably see the theme here: poor handling of mixed light, soft focus, and a general lack of pop. The Verge managed to get some prettier ones in their review, but these still have nothing on even last year's iPhone. You can't see it from the photos, but it's also worth mentioning that the camera takes an annoyingly long time to lock focus.

From iOS to Android:

With my iPhone, I was often annoyed by how opinionated its OS was. “Want to open that email link in Gmail instead of the native Mail app? NOPE.” iOS apps typically have great polish and UX, but the Apple restrictions on inter-app communication keep them from really shining. The best mobile apps are designed to do a single thing very well, so complex workflows usually require using several different apps to accomplish a task. In the Apple world, we’re often prompted with a choice between doing things the Apple way (stock apps, connected nicely) or the highway (kludgy app-switching and hacky x-callback-url integrations).

A simple example: today I was working on a whiteboard and wanted to take a picture to reference as I turned the scribblings into a slide. On the iPhone, I would have needed to either a) wait for the photo to sync to photo stream, b) email it to myself from the camera app, or c) use a third-party app like Dropbox or Google Drive to take the picture (or go to a third-party app and import the picture).

On the Nexus? There’s a “share” button right in the camera itself, hooked into every sharing and storage service on the device. It’s seamless and instant, and my photo was waiting in Drive when I got back to my desk.

Android_share

(I sent this screenshot of myself sending this to myself over Drive with Drive. Because meta.)

The freedom Android gives the user is refreshing. Whether it’s customizing your lock screen or specifying a default handler for twitter links, the user has more or less free rein to customize the operating system as they see fit. Between Nova Launcher, which lets you completely alter the appearance and behavior of the home screen, and Tasker, enabling complex environment-driven app macros, there’s not much in Android that’s out of reach of a determined power user.

And yet once I had jiggled all the little switches to my satisfaction, something felt a little empty. Nova Launcher didn’t handle the Google Now slide-from-the-right gesture, so I switched back to the stock launcher. I had set up some cool Tasker flows to turn off Bluetooth when I was in places I wouldn’t need it, but I’m rarely far from a charger and battery life isn’t really much of an issue. The native Gmail client is great, but other apps aren’t quite there compared to their iOS equivalents: I’d rather have Instacast than Pocket Casts, and really really miss Day One. It’s great that I can interact with notifications right from the little dropdown shade, but how do I get the phone to just show me a text on the lock screen?

In return for all the openness, you do end up giving up something in the user experience department. Android may be fast, slick, and pretty, but it still doesn't quite have the polish of iOS. When you swipe your finger across the screen on Android, it goes to the next screen, quickly and smoothly. When you swipe it on iOS, it feels like you're moving the screen itself. I was trying to explain this to a Googler friend of mine once, and said that new Android devices feel like fast computers you can hold in your hand, whereas iOS ones feel like another device altogether.

(Update: Apparently pressing and holding the power button in 4.4 is a quick shortcut to switch between sound/vibrate/silent modes. Not as nice as a physical toggle, but I'll live).

Conclusions:

The great:

  • Solid, functional hardware with a beautiful screen.
  • Android has matured into a slick, fast, highly customizable OS.
  • Deep integration into the Google ecosystem.
  • Cheap! $349 contractless.

The not-so-great:

  • No silencer toggle.
  • Meh camera.
  • That certain Apple* je ne sais quois.*

At the end of the day, the Nexus 5 is a good phone and a fun jump into the world of Android. I'll always have a soft spot for Apple's hardware and cameras, but the Google-happiness on Android is addicting, and I love the switch to a big, high-res screen.

And hey, this means I might just be able to rationalize getting an iPad at some point. I mean, what sort of responsible product manager doesn't have an iOS device in the house for testing?