Android phones typically offer either dull specs and an affordable price, or high-performance components and a price tag suitable only for oil barons. With the Nexus 4, Google and LG have smashed that tradition to pieces.
It packs in a ferocious quad-core processor, a whopping 2GB of RAM, a glorious 4.7-inch display and the latest Android 4.2 Jelly Bean software, which boasts some really cool new features. With a starting price of only £239, it's just half the price of its technical rivals.
Should I buy the Google Nexus 4?
The Nexus 4 isn't particularly remarkable to look at. It's perfectly inoffensive, sure, but it's hardly pushing any boundaries in terms of cutting-edge design. The front is dominated by a single piece of glass while the back, also glass, has a subtle sparkly effect. In between is curved matte plastic.
Turn it on, though, and its screen jumps out at you. Measuring a spacious 4.7 inches, it's wonderfully bright and bold. Images and videos look great on screen and fine text is kept sharp thanks to the high resolution.
Inside the phone is a 1.5GHz quad-core processor along with 2GB of RAM. Those specs are more impressive than even the Samsung Galaxy S3 and are typically reserved for top of the range mobiles. Unsurprisingly, I found it gave an excellent performance on benchmark tests and there was no task I could find that slowed it down.
It's running on the latest version of Google's operating system, Android 4.2 Jelly Bean. The interface is basically the same as earlier versions of Jelly Bean, but it brings new features including settings shortcuts in the notifications bar, turn by turn GPS navigation, and various other tweaks.
The most important change is to the camera software. Photo Sphere allows you to take full 360-degree images to either swipe around on your phone, Street View-style, or view as one wide panorama on your computer. Built-in editing software lets you turn this into a cool 'tiny planet' picture, as well as add numerous filters and effects tweaks to any of your pictures.
No, it doesn't have 4G, but I can't say that's a particularly painful omission. You can only get 4G on one network, it's only available in a handful of cities and it's outrageously expensive -- and that situation is unlikely to improve until at least next summer.
The Nexus 4 isn't just amazing for its price, it's just plain amazing. It outstrips the Galaxy S3 in power and screen resolution, and is less than half the price. Add on to that the great updates to Android Jelly Bean and the amazing photo features on board, the Nexus 4 isn't just the best Android phone on a budget, it's probably the best Android phone full stop. Should you buy it? You can't afford not to.
Design and build quality
The front of the Nexus 4 is made up of a single piece of glass stretching right up to the edges. It's not interrupted by physical buttons or fancy company logos -- it's an unusually minimal design. Whether you like that sort of simplistic style is a matter of taste, but I found the way the glass curves at the edges to meet the chrome effect surround particularly attractive.
If you want a bit more going on in your design, flip it over. The back panel has been given a shimmering effect. In the right light, it appears as though it's made of tiny sequins. It's very subtle, but it's not at all unpleasant. I think LG could have taken a risk and made it even shinier -- it's definitely more interesting to look at than the standard black matte plastic found on most phones.
It measures 134mm long and 69mm wide -- a very similar size to the Galaxy S3. At 9.1mm thick though, it's a tad chubbier than the S3 and considerably fatter than the iPhone 5's 7.6mm. It's chunky, but far from cumbersome.
It might look smart from a distance, but get it in your hand and it suffers in comparison to more expensive phones. The casing feels a little on the plasticky side and it doesn't have the same solid feel as its plutocratic rivals.
The casing doesn't offer much in the way of flex when you squeeze it, however, and the buttons offer a satisfying click, without any of the unpleasant rattling that smacks of cheap construction. The glass front is made from Corning Gorilla Glass 2, which is toughened to be more resistant to scratches and breakages.
It doesn't feel at all poorly put together though. Feeling a little cheap may even remind you of how little you paid for it. Let's face it -- most of us would happily sacrifice a cutting-edge design to save a few hundred quid.
Around the edges you'll find a power button, volume rocker, 3.5mm headphone jack and a micro-USB port for charging and data transfer.
There's sadly no microSD card slot so there's no way to expand the internal memory. That's a problem if you're hoping for the cheapest model, as it only offers 8GB of storage. You'll have to be very careful about what music and photos you keep on board, and big games like Nova 3 or Real Racing 2 are pretty much off the cards.
If you're an app addict and prefer to store music files on your phone rather than stream them, you'd be better off going for the 16GB model. It's £40 more expensive, but it'll give you much more flexibility with what you can install.
The Nexus 4 comes with a 4.7-inch screen, giving it more display room than the iPhone 5's 4 inches and just a tiny bit less than the Galaxy S3's 4.8 inches. That makes it less portable than the iPhone, of course, but the added screen real estate makes web browsing, typing and playing big-screen games much easier.
The display's resolution is a stonking 768x1,280 pixels. That's slightly higher than the S3's resolution and, due to its smaller size, results in the Nexus having a pixel density of 320 pixels per inch over the S3's 306ppi. That means that the Nexus is packing in more pixels into the same space, resulting in a slightly sharper image.
It's not a huge difference, of course, so I doubt you'd be able to tell much difference between the two. Considering the Nexus is so cheap, I'd be happy to forgive it for having a lower-resolution display. The fact that it's packed in so many many pixels and sliced the price in half is just astounding.
Those thousands of pixels make it extremely sharp. Text is beautifully clear, so reading for longer periods in a web browser or in the Kindle app is perfectly pleasant. Watching high-definition video is a joy.
It's very bold too. The black levels are deep, resulting in rich colours and good contrast. It made my favourite video Art Of Flight look lusciously vivid, with the flurries of snow crisp and clear. It's certainly good enough to enjoy TV shows on Netflix or the odd movie rented through the Google Play store.
Android 4.2 Jelly Bean
The Nexus range of devices are designed to showcase the latest version of Google's Android operating system. As such, it's loaded up with the brand-spanking new Android 4.2 Jelly Bean.
In terms of its core interface it's no different from standard Jelly Bean you might -- if you're lucky -- have already seen on your current phone. The usual multiple homescreens are there for filling up with apps and live widgets, or you can dive into a grid of apps to see all the stuff you don't want up front.
Jelly Bean brought a few neat features such as improved frame rates for smoother swiping and the live information service Google Now. Both these features are present and correct and Google Now has been given a couple of updates to boot.
It still brings you information based on your day to day actions without needing to search for it, but it's added extra info for nearby events and notifications about flights. Nothing popped up while I was testing it, so I can't say it was particularly useful, but it learns from your habits and searches, so give it time to get to know you and I'm sure you'll find it useful.
The notifications bar is similar to the existing Jelly Bean one too, showing detailed information about events, emails and text messages so you know what's worth reading now or saving for later. Importantly, it's added an extra section that gives immediate access to settings like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and screen brightness.
Some phones, such as the Galaxy S3, offer these buttons in the notifications bar, but it hasn't been a standard Google feature until now. It allows you to quickly change critical settings without having to dive into the settings menu.
Google's Maps service is not only packed full of information about local businesses -- trouncing Apple's latest maps offering in iOS 6 -- it also offers full turn-by-turn GPS navigation. Boot up the Navigation app, pop in your location and you'll be met with an angled map view, allowing you to drive along, receiving voice updates on which way to turn.
It can send you along a number of different routes, so if you fancy taking the scenic way round it's easy to switch. You can also see detailed, step by step instructions, so there's no confusion about exactly which junction you need. I found it very easy to use and, thanks to the wealth of information in Google's database, super helpful for finding my way around the cramped streets of London's Shoreditch.
Considering the price of some dedicated in-car sat-navs, the free Google alternative is an excellent addition, packing yet more value into an already dirt-cheap device.
The standard Jelly Bean 4.2 keyboard is fairly comfortable to type on and brings up suggested words as you type. It was mostly accurate and helped speed up writing long emails by automatically correcting my frequent spelling and grammar mistakes. It also adds a swipe feature, letting you trace a line between letters to form the word without taking your finger off the screen.
It's exactly the same as the technique offered by third-party keyboard Swype. It's remarkably good at figuring out which word you're typing and only on a couple of occasions did it bring up the wrong word. If you're not great at typing on a touchscreen, it could be really helpful, but I found I could type more quickly using the traditional method.
When the Nexus 4 and Nexus 7 tablet were updated to Android 4.2.1, some users had reported Bluetooth problems, including weak signal and the connection cutting out altogether. I updated my review model to the latest version and I'm happy to report that I didn't find any such issues.
It's possible that it was a temporary problem -- like Google managing to omit the entire month of December from the calendar -- that's been fixed, or that it only affected a handful of phones.
Power and performance
Stuffed inside the sparkly jacket is a 1.5GHz quad-core chip, backed up by a muscly 2GB of RAM. The Galaxy S3 boasts a similarly burly processor, but a lesser 1GB of RAM. The S3 is one of the most powerful smart phones in the business, so I was very keen to see what the Nexus 4 could achieve.
To see how it stacks up against the competition, I booted up my benchmark test and hit go. On the Geekbench test, it returned a frankly astonishing score of 1,975, putting it just below the powerhouse Galaxy Note 2 and far above the S3. It did similarly well on the CF-Bench test, where it managed to achieve 13,207, again well clear of the S3.
Clearly, the Nexus is a proper shirehorse and that's exactly what I found in my day-to-day testing. Swiping through the homescreens and loading menus was immediate and free of any lag, as was switching between running apps using the multi-tasking bar.
Editing photos was swift, and demanding 3D games such as Riptide GP played with extremely smooth frame rates and absolutely no jitter. There was basically nothing I was able to find that would slow this thing down. Not only is it leaps and bounds beyond similarly priced mobiles, it's above this year's top of the range handsets too.
The latest update to Jelly Bean also brought with it the ability to have multiple user accounts on one device. Sadly, that's only available on the tablets -- the Nexus 7 and 10 -- not the phone. That means that if you want to let your excitable niece play with your phone, you'd better make sure your work contacts aren't easily accessible.
On the back of the Nexus you'll spot an 8-megapixel snapper with an LED flash. I climbed the terrifying ladders that lead to the roof of CNET UK Towers and gave it a whirl.
For standard shots, the results are pretty much even with the other big players in the top-end phone arena. Exposure is even and colours are fairly bold. This delightful shot of London's Shard is acceptably clear, but when viewed full screen, there's not quite as much clarity on the fine details as I'd hope for. It's a good effort though, and made all the better when you think about your healthy bank account.
I also pitted it against the beasts of the smart phone world: the Galaxy S3, the iPhone 5, the Lumia 920 and the Android-toting Samsung Galaxy Camera to see how it stacks up. It didn't come out on top in any category, but it gave some pleasing results for general shots and, crucially, it's almost half the price of the others in the test.
The real joy of this phone's camera, though, are the software features Google has added to this version of Android. Chief among which is Photo Sphere.
This builds on the existing panorama function, allowing you to take photos in a 360-degree circle, creating a 3D ball around you, as you swipe around on your phone in every direction. It takes some time to take all the photos, but the resulting image is extremely fun to swipe around on your phone's screen.
You'll need think about where to use it though. My first attempt was inside our office, which resulted in an image resembling some kind of cubist nightmare. Up on the roof however, the London skyline was captured much more pleasantly. When you view the phones on a computer, they're displayed as a full 360 panorama. On your phone, you swipe around in all directions, in much the same way as you would on Google Street View.
It doesn't stop there though. Once you've captured your 360 image, you can then turn it into a bizarre -- but totally amazing -- mini planet, reminiscent of Mario Galaxy. It's probably not a feature you'd want to use all the time, but it's great fun and definitely something worth experimenting with.
But wait, there's more! Rather than force you to download apps like Instagram to edit your snaps, Google has built in numerous editing tools straight into the core interface. You can apply vintage-style filters, crop and rotate your images and tweak settings like brightness, contrast, sharpness and add borders to give them the final artistic touch.
You can still use any of the photography apps from the Google Play store of course, but the built-in editor is now so fully featured you might not even need to. If you fancy getting all arty with your holiday snaps, Android 4.2 will most certainly appeal. You also get the existing functions of HDR, panorama and various others.
Inside the Nexus 4's chunky body is a 2,100mAh battery, which is the same size as you'd find in the Galaxy S3. Indeed, I found it to give a similar level of performance.
In fairly heavy use -- including sending and receiving numerous texts, using GPS tracking and browsing the Web on Wi-Fi and 3G networks -- the battery dropped to 70 per cent within about 2 hours 30 minutes.
On my battery benchmark test, my review model -- provided by Carphone Warehouse -- managed to last a little over 7 hours. By comparison, the Galaxy S3 achieved just over 9 hours on the same test. Neither are particularly wonderful scores.
If you're a heavy user, sending numerous emails over 3G and taking a lot of photos then you'll need to recharge in the day. If however your phone stays in your pocket until you absolutely need it then you'll comfortably be able to eke a day's use from it.
Unlike the Galaxy S3's battery though, the Nexus 4's is not removable. For the most part that won't present a problem, but it does mean you can't buy a spare to keep on you in case of emergencies.
The Nexus 4 can charge wirelessly if you have a compatible mat -- so you don't need to plug it in to top up. My test device didn't come with one, so I couldn't test this nifty feature, but I'll do my best to get hold of the necessary kit and update this section.
Like it did with the Nexus 7 tablet, Google has completely re-written the rules on what to expect from an Android phone.
The Nexus 4 offers not only astonishing power from its quad-core chip, but an excellent screen and exciting updates to the Android operating system. Most importantly, it comes with a price tag at least half that of its technical rivals.
It's not only the best phone to get if you're on a budget, it's one of, if not the best Android phone to get, regardless of how much money you have to splash around. The lack of expandable storage and removable battery are a little disappointing, but it more than makes up for it in every other way.