Our Verdict 
A top-tier smartphone for much less than its rivals: the Google Nexus 5 offers unbelievable value for money
For 
Clear, sharp screen
Engaging sound
Super-slick OS
A price tag that’ll give you whiplash
Against 
Fiddly, fussy camera needs improvement
Reviewed on

LG and Google have struck gold again. They rocked the mobile market last year with the Nexus 4, which offered top-tier tech for a lot less money than rivals – and it’s the same deal with this sequel. The Google Nexus 5 is a brilliant smartphone at half the cost of the Apple iPhone 5S.

Google Nexus 5

Design

You might expect a rather cheap design from a starting price of £299, but no: the Nexus 5 looks and feels lovely. We like the ceramic power and volume buttons.

We look to the back, and last year’s glittery disco glass has been replaced with a polycarbonate slab, which curves gently at the edges to sit nicely in your palm. It has a pleasant silky texture that exudes quality, and is solid enough not to flex and creak.

Google Nexus 5

Admittedly a metal construction has more shiny appeal, but what about those keys in your pocket? A greater resistance to dents and scratches arguably makes the Nexus 5 just as ‘premium’ as the  HTC One and  iPhone 5s.

The face of the phone is made of Corning’s Gorilla Glass 3. That means it’s super tough and scratch resistant, although we still wouldn’t fling it at the ground.

The distinct circular earpiece is a nice design flourish, but otherwise the front is rather unassuming. The main attraction, of course, is the screen.

Google Nexus 5

Screen and video

This is one of the best screens we’ve seen on a smartphone. The picture is clean and crisp, and colours are nicely judged. With a 4.95in display, the Nexus 5 occupies a comfortable middle ground between the relatively diminutive iPhone 5s and the whopping  Samsung Galaxy Note 3.

The LG G2’s screen is a little punchier, with deeper blacks, but the Nexus 5 counters with a greater degree of dark detail.

Google Nexus 5

Numbers time: with 1920x1080 pixels crammed into 4.95 inches, the screen has a pixel density of 445ppi. That puts the Nexus 5 somewhere between the HTC One (468ppi) and LG G2 (424ppi).

At this density, it’s hard to discern a difference without a magnifying glass – and you won’t need one of those to notice the impressive sharpness.

Sound quality

Google Nexus 5

The Nexus 5 also scores highly on audio. The sound is clean and balanced, with a good degree of dynamism and drive. It has the impressive detail we like in the LG G2, but with a much greater sense of attack.

LG and Google haven’t made a point of advertising the phone’s support for high-res audio up to 24-bit/192khz. Our FLAC album of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories loaded up without a hitch and offered up a remarkable boost in subtlety and texture.

Call quality meanwhile is crystal clear, even on a noisy high street, making the Nexus 5 arguably the best-sounding smartphone for voices that we've heard.

Is that enough to topple Apple on sound? Not quite. The iPhone 5s maintains its position as the best-sounding smartphone thanks to better timing and greater confidence.

But that doesn’t make the Nexus 5 massively flawed. Overall, it’s a competent, likeable performance, and one of the best we’ve heard from an Android.

Android 4.4 Kit Kat

Google Nexus 5

The real star of the show is the revamped operating system – Android 4.4, codenamed ‘Kit Kat’. The change is minimal (and minimalist) at first glance. It’s nothing drastic like the barrage of primary colours that you get from Apple’s iOS 7.

It’s simpler, brighter and altogether more attractive, but Google has prioritised function over form.

The system runs like a dream. Kit Kat was designed to be undemanding, working even with low-end phones with little memory. The Nexus 5 has a bountiful 2GB of RAM and a 2.2GHz processor – so it practically flies.

We tried overloading it by skipping through multiple apps and games while downloading emails (and more apps) in the background, but no luck.

This phone doesn’t do lag, ever. And it’s not just about speed – there’s a lovely sense of smoothness and stability with every gesture.

More after the break

Google Nexus 5

The other massive overhaul in Android is the integration of nearly everything into Google. Fancy a takeaway? Don’t bother looking up a number before grabbing the phone: just type ‘pizza’ into your phonebook and Google brings up the nearest places. Failing that, there’s a Google search bar at the top of every home screen.

Google Now, the predictive element of the search engine, has also been given a boost. It permanently occupies the far left home screen, showing information based on your location and activities. The idea is to get information ready even before you realise you need it.

Weather updates pop up, as do nearby cinema times and local restaurants. After a few days, Google had learned roughly when we finish work, offering directions home and an estimated time of arrival.

Some people will find this really useful. Others might find it creepy – and they can disable the function altogether. We think it’s a neat idea. It demonstrates a genuine desire to innovate and evolve the way we interact with technology.

Battery

Google Nexus 5

With all the computing wizardry we expected the battery life to be appalling. But it’s pretty good, if occasionally a little unpredictable. Used normally, the 2300 mAh battery is more than enough for a day.

But that never happens on Day One: intense faffing about and app downloading meant we were out of juice in eight hours. The screen demands a lot of power, as does scrambling for reception in areas of weak signal.

Thankfully, it charges quickly, sucking up 50 per cent of battery in just over an hour.

Day Two: we unplugged the phone at 7am, and kept it connected to either wifi or 3G at all times. Location tracking was left on, with Google Now constantly keeping tabs on nearby happenings. We went through a few texts and phonecalls, a lot of emails, and took a dozen photos.

Then we spent a couple of hours listening to music, watching videos and flicking through social media sites. By 11pm, there was still 25 per cent of power left.

That’s pretty good, although we would have preferred the LG G2’s mammoth 3000mAh battery, or the Samsung Galaxy S4’s replaceable one.

Camera

Downsides to the Nexus 5? Well, the camera could be better. It’s not terrible, but not brilliant either. It has eight megapixels – nothing to scoff at, but the LG G2 and Samsung Galaxy S4 offer 13 megapixels. But the specs of course only tell you so much.

In average light we got decent snaps, although they weren’t as clean or sharp as ones from an LG G2, which also had more accurate colours. See below: Nexus 5 on the left, G2 on the right.

Nexus 5 comparison

Nexus 5 comparison

Next, we went out in bright daylight. The Nexus 5 is fairly detailed, but brighter areas are overexposed.

Finally we tried taking snaps in a dark room, and the low-light performance was disappointing.

Nexus 5 comparison

Nexus 5 comparison

It also doesn’t help that the camera interface is fiddly. Autofocus is uncooperative in dim lighting, and the symbols for on-screen settings are so minimalist it’s a little confusing.

A lot of these issues could be addressed through a firmware update. For now, we’re a little frustrated, because the rest of the phone is so impressive.

Verdict

We really like this phone. Its picture is stunning, and the sound is very good. It’s speedy and stable, and it’s startlingly clever. There are flaws, but that price tag makes it easy to forgive them.

If you want to get a top-tier smartphone but don’t want to spend a fortune, the Nexus 5 is close to ideal.

(Thanks to Three for providing our review unit)

MORE: Google Nexus 5: where to buy it?

MORE: Best smartphones 2013 

 

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