It only took a year for Google to again move from one phone to the next for it’s latest Nexus device, but this generation of devices is now practically finalized. It’s the epitome of Google’s play at personalized phones, with the Nexus 4 smartphone, Nexus 7 media tablet, and Nexus 10 full-size tablet. They’ve finally covered every base that really matters (Google doesn’t have a desktop computer with hardware support, but that’ll likely never happen), and compete with both Apple and every other serious hardware manufacturer in the marketplace.

And the Nexus 4 is a very serious device. For the first time in my career as a technology journalist and critic, I am seriously considering jumping ship from iOS over to Android — at least for smartphones. Android devices regularly beat out the iPhone 5 in our tests here at Gadget Review, with the highest score still belonging to the Galaxy S III, Samsung’s flagship smartphone. So how does the Nexus 4 compare? Does it also beat out the iPhone 5, and if so, by what margin?

Size

The iPhone 5 may be the thinnest and lightest phone around, but it’s lack of size and weight is something every other phone maker today is making up for in screen size and solid feel. Whether it’s the Galaxy Note 2 or the just announced HTC Droid DNA, bigger phones are definitely in, even if they’re harder to use. But does that make them better? Some would say no while others say yes. I think it depends on more than personal preference and the size of your hands.

The Nexus 4 should really be called the Nexus 4.7 for its 4.7″ display, which isn’t necessarily huge but is wide. It boasts a full 768p display (that’s 720p plus 48 extra pixels across, making it wider), while the build is a heavier 139 grams. The Nexus 4, which is built by LG and is essentially the Optimus G but made more specific to Google’s needs, is a good feeling but square phone. The iPhone 5 may feel light to the point of almost cheap, but the Nexus 4 is thick and demanding.

I think more people will be satisfied with the size of the iPhone 5, if only because it isn’t so wide across. At 58.7mm across, the iPhone 5 is much thinner across — and thus easier to grip with a single hand for both one-handed use and making calls — than the 68.7mm Nexus 4. I’m testing the Galaxy Note 2 right now, and after holding the Nexus 4 earlier today, I can say without a doubt that the iPhone’s smaller size does feel better, though not by much.

Winner: iPhone 5, which has a smaller frame that feels cheaper but is more comfortable to hold.

Appearance

Looks is, unfortunately, where Apple always wins, and that is no exception here. The iPhone’s remarkable style hasn’t improved moving up to the iPhone 5 — in fact, I’d say that it actually looks worse than the 4S — but it’s still a handsome device. The Nexus 4, however, is a plain sheet of glass with a heavily textured back. The silent design doesn’t exude attractiveness, though it has a quiet sense of fullness to it. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it looks good. It doesn’t look bad, and it doesn’t stand out in the crowd, while the iPhone is instantly recognizable and very easy on the eyes.

Winner: iPhone 5, which looks sharp and recognizable compared to a sullen but sleek shell of the Nexus 4.

Display

Like nearly every phone today, the Nexus 4 has a large, 720p-ready display, which can play HD videos without downscaling. Though it isn’t exactly 720p, as mentioned above; it’s actually a 1280×768 display, which has slightly more pixels across. This makes the screen a 16:10 aspect ratio instead of traditional widescreen displays (16:9), but the letterboxing is minimal; most users will think it’s the bezel instead of blank pixels.

And the display on the Nexus 4 is gorgeous. It’s the same beautiful display in the Optimus G, which is fantastic. It’s bright and very colorful, and it looks better than the iPhone, if only slightly. But the real kicker is the bigger size (4.7″ vs 4″) and the increased resolution (1280×768 vs 960×640).

Winner: Nexus 4, which has a larger, higher resolution display that provides better colors and contrast than the iPhone 5.

Operating System

As time goes on and Android gets better and better, I always wonder when my 3-year-old prediction that Android will catch up with iOS will come true. I don’t think the time is now, but we’re certainly getting there. And I’ll tell you why.

First, Android apps still aren’t as good as iOS apps. Forgetting about the differences between tablet and smartphone apps (of which there is none for Android, which is a serious problem), Android’s apps tend to be less stable and less usable than iOS apps. I’ve used countless identical apps on both devices, and while the programming clearly is the same, it’s the little things that are different and make the experience in favor of iOS. Like how smooth Angry Birds is on iOS; sure, on iOS you have to pay for it, but even the paid version on Android just doesn’t flow as well.

But those little quirks inherent in Android apps aren’t everything. iOS has a seriously problem with RAM which has only recently been addressed with the iPhone 5 and iPad (4th gen). On any older device the RAM is almost constantly used up, meaning anytime you exit an app and open a new one, the previous app is closed. Some apps are better than others, but it’s a serious problem for iPhone 4, 4S, and iPad 2 and iPad (3rd gen) owners. With the iPhone 5 it isn’t; the 1GB of RAM is enough in every tested case.

The number of available apps is also now negligible, but iOS has moregoodapps. iOS is also easier to use for everyday users. Android makes sense instantly as well, but every manufacturer has a different way of doing things from Google. Folders don’t work the same across all devices, and neither does activating Wi-Fi, or Bluetooth, or even answering calls. This fragmentation is a problem, and while the openness of Android is great, Google does have to draw the line somewhere.

So I’ve reached the following conclusion regarding iOS vs Android: when it comes to the OS, and only the OS, the two are now nearly tied. Android has far more bugs and quirks per device than the iOS, but that’s to be expected. And iOS 6 had so few improvements that it’s hard to say it was an improvement at all, especially with the loss of Google Maps and “gaining” Apple Maps.

But when it comes to apps, the comparison is still far in Apple’s favor. You can claim that free apps is better than perfectly functioning apps, but that’s not true for everyday users. If given a choice, sure, free is better, but part f the reason Apple is successful and why developers don’t give the option for a free version is because they know they can make the money from iOS users. And because the number of hardware units is limited (two iPad sizes, three iPhone sizes), development is easier and costs are lower.

In the case of the Nexus 4 vs iPhone 5, the Nexus 4 has the advantage over all other Android devices because it uses stock Android 4.2, so it’ll receive updates first. But aside from that it’s still Android. But — and this is a big but — at this point if Apple doesn’t seriously step up it’s software development, Android will overtake iOS as the better mobile operating system by the next major release.

Winner: iOS 6, which is only slightly better than Android, but mostly due to app quality and general OS quality. But that won’t last for long the way both Apple and Google are going.

Processor

The thing about the Nexus 4 and iPhone 5 when it comes to processing power is that Apple has gone diagnally forward by making it’s own chip design based on the ARM Cortex A9, supplementing the previous dual-core architecture with a tri-core GPU, a higher-clocked CPU, which in turn provides some really stunning performance. In all of my tests the iPhone 5 is way ahead of the competition not only when it comes to web-page rendering but in all performance angles. Gaming, javascript, general use, and applications all run on the iPhone 5 like that’s how the developers meant for it to run, and that’s thanks to the increase in RAM to 1GB and the new A6 (Swift) processor.

The Nexus 4, however, uses the newest quad-core Krait processor from Qualcomm, which is pretty remarkable in its own right. But based on the numbers I have from the Optimus G, it isn’t as good. It’s getting there; just like with the OS, Android hardware manufacturers are catching up with Apple’s hardware specs faster than Apple can pump out the latest designs, as we’ve seen with the Nexus 10 jumping the shark with the new Cortex A15 CPU.

But when it comes to these two devices, the Nexus 4 lags behind slightly. It may have a seemingly faster 1.5GHz quad-core processor with a quad-core GPU, compared to the 1.3GHz dual-core CPU and tri-core GPU, but the actual architecture and implementation is better on the iPhone 5. Remember, speed isn’t everything, though without more numbers openly available (you can blame marketing and a lack of recognizable education for that), it would be impossible to tell what’s better. But I can state without a doubt that the iPhone 5 is better when it comes to the processor performance.

Winner: iPhone 5, which boasts better performance across the board in benchmarks taken.

Storage

One of the real killers for the Nexus 4 today is remarkably poor 8/16GB storage capacity with no expandable memory. Nearly every Android phone that releases today beats the iPhone in this category not only because it offers better value for an increase in storage capacity, but because users can opt to purchase MicroSD memory cards to double, triple, or quadruple the capacity of their phones for very low costs. But not the Nexus 4.

Just like the Nexus 7 tablet, the Nexus 4 today ships (if you can find one; as of this writing all units are sold out) with either 8/16GB of storage for $300/$350, without a contract. But like all phones, that’s not the actual capacity; you can mark off as much as 3GB of the available storage to the OS, so you’re really looking at 5/13GB of available memory, compared to the iPhone 5′s 16/32/64GB capacities (or 14/30/62GB of available storage; iOS only takes up 2GB as of this writing). If you want to store anything on the Nexus 4…sorry, you’re pretty much SOL.

Winner: iPhone 5, which actually offers enough capacity for today’s users.

Wireless Connectivity

Today, the Nexus 4 is available without a contract as a GSM-only device. It works anywhere in the world, and supports HSPA+, but it doesn’t support LTE. It has Bluetooth 3.0 and NFC, while the iPhone 5 ships with LTE standard, Bluetooth 4.0 (though 99% of users couldn’t tell the difference even if they were tech savvy), and no NFC.

For GSM providers in the US and worldwide, that’s not a huge deal. T-Mobile doesn’t have an LTE network and AT&T offers a small but growing nationwide LTE network, with several dozen cities under the faster wireless broadband coverage. The iPhone 5, however, works on all carriers with LTE and HSPA+, anywhere in the world. So when more countries outside of the US adopt LTE (and they are, slowly but surely), the iPhone 5 will be ready. The Nexus 4 won’t.

Winner: iPhone 5, which supports GSM and CDMA, as well as LTE on any carrier with it, both foreign and domestic.

Camera

Based on my testing of the LG Optimus G, the camera isn’t great. It’s decent, and takes some sharp shots, but it isn’t an amazing shooter. Google has been quiet about the Nexus 4′s camera, and we can safely assume that since the Optimus G and Nexus 4 share nearly every component, that the cameras are identical.

And the iPhone 5? One of the best cameras of any smartphone on the market. I would go so far as to say the best, though Nokia’s push with it’s Pureview technology is really spectacular, so we’re waiting to test their devices. But the Nexus 4 just doesn’t muster the same quality that the iPhone 5 does.

Winner: iPhone 5, which takes excellent shots compared to the Nexus 4′s expected weak camera.

Battery Life

The iPhone 5 doesn’t have tremendous battery life compared to many of today’s high-end smartphones, like the Motorola Droid Razr MAXX or the Samsung Galaxy Note 2, but it does last awhile even with it’s minuscule 1432mAh battery. iOS 6 is remarkably efficient, but the battery life improvement over the 4S is so minimal that with LTE and the few new functions it isn’t noticeable.

The Nexus 4, on the other hand, features a much larger removable 2100mAh battery. Google lists over 15 hours of talk time and 390 hours of standby, compared to eight hours of talk time and 290 hours of standby for the iPhone 5. That’s significantly better, though remember that the Nexus 4 does so only on HSPA+, not LTE. Of course, talk time on the iPhone 5 is on 3G, so it won’t last nearly as long as the Nexus 4 on calls or data, though it will have better data speeds.

Winner: Nexus 4, which boasts nearly double the talk time and 1.5x the standby time on a single charge.

Carriers

While the Nexus 4 is carrier agnostic (it doesn’t currently sell through carriers directly, only from Google’s webstore), that likely won’t last very long. Expect to see both AT&T and T-Mobile selling the Nexus 4 in the US (and numerous carriers worldwide) in the near future. However, as mentioned earlier, the Nexus 4 is GSM-only for now, so it won’t function on Verizon or Sprint whatsoever.

And the iPhone 5? It sells through all major carriers except T-Mobile, and a ton of smaller carriers. And even if you buy it for a carrier it doesn’t work on, you can still activate it, though you’ll have to buy the phone at full price.

Winner: iPhone 5, which both has carrier support and is available on both GSM and CDMA carriers.

Price

If there’s one thing to be excited about when it comes to the Nexus 4, it should be the price. At $300/$350 without a contract, it’s the most powerful, cheapest smartphone you can buy without being forced to sign a two-year in-blood soul-bound release. Of course, if you want to get a contract you can very easily, with a small activation fee…this of course would make the Nexus 4 more expensive than the iPhone 5 (and nearly all other devices, since carriers lower the price of devices so they can make the money back with marked-up contracts).

However, if your phone was purchased within the last year or so, then the Nexus 4 will be cheaper than upgrading to the iPhone 5. It won’t require a change in your contract, and you can sell your old phone for a decent price if it’s in good condition. But if your contract is either expiring or you’re within the last six months, then the Nexus 4 is not such a steal. It will, in fact, feel like theft.

If you live in a country that isn’t the good ol’ US of A, then the Nexus 4 will feel like the best deal ever. The United States is one of the few countries worldwide that regularly subsidizes cellphones. So for US residents it may be overpriced, but for non-US buyers it’s a great deal. But perhaps more importantly the iPhone 5 offers more purchasing options that better fit users, like enough capacity to make the phone worth buying.

Winner: iPhone 5, which is cheaper thanks to subsidies, and thanks to additional capacity options.

Overall Winner

The score looks bleak for the Nexus 4, even though the nearly identical Optimus G fared pretty well against the Samsung Galaxy S III, the first phone to score better than the iPhone 5. The reason? The Nexus 4 is extremely limited in key areas, like storage, wireless connectivity, camera, carriers, and price. And normally the actualized scores are better for phones competing against the iPhone, but in this case, that is barely true:

The reason is pretty simple. The iPhone 5 is more easily available, offers better data connection through LTE, offers way more storage and more storage options, works on any carrier and any network, and has a significantly better camera. Size, appearance, and processor are really minimal in comparison to those points.

Furthermore, at least for US citizens, the price is a massive problem. At $300/$350, users end up spending more for a smartphone than they normally would for no benefit except that they don’t have to sign up for a two-year contract. But if you’re not planning on running from the FBI, that doesn’t matter to the vast majority of people. Who cares if a carrier owns your telephony for a couple of years? If you want to use a smartphone, you don’t have a real alternative anyways except with smaller carriers, which lack coverage.

Of course, if you plan to buy it outside of the US in a country where phones aren’t subsidized, then the pricing is incredibly generous. We’ll have to wait and see if/when carriers pick up the Nexus 4 in the US; who knows, maybe it’ll be a free phone with a contract. Now that would be a great deal.

The only areas where the Nexus 4 really shines is the display and battery life, but the reality is both of those features are overplayed on Android today. The Galaxy S III, Galaxy Note 2, Droid Razr MAXX, and a handful of others already beat out the iPhone 5 in that respect. It’s not that big a deal.

My real concern with the Nexus 4 isn’t that it’s not a good device, but that it seems like it’s not intended to be a primary smartphone, whatever that means. With so little available memory, no LTE, and a high price, why not just get the Optimus G? At least then you can get a MicroSD card slot (on Sprint or for world models) or 32GB of memory on AT&T for $100-$150 less, plus LTE and a worldphone. Doing anything else almost seems ludicrous, unless you’re a developer looking for a cheap device that’s one of the most powerful handsets on the market that you don’t have to use as your own phone. If that sounds like you, great. For the rest of us, stick with a phone made for people, not developers. We’ll give a full update in our ensuing review.










James Pikover

 
Spawned in the horrendous heat of a Los Angeles winter, James was born with an incessant need to press buttons. Whether it was the car radio, doorbells on Halloween or lights, James pushed, pressed and prodded every button. No elevator was left unscathed, no building intercom was left un-rung, and no person he’s known has been left un-annoyed.