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December 1, 2013

The Nexus 5

What can I say about the Nexus 5? I pretty much said it about the Nexus 4. Of course, that was a year ago.

And pretty much anything I had to say about the 4 applies to the 5. That is to say, that it is by far the best buy in smartphones at the moment. In contrast to what virtually all the review sites are saying, It is in fact NOT more expensive that the Nexus 4. The 16 Gb Nexus 5 is the same price as the 16 Gb Nexus 4 was ($349). The 32 Gb version is $50 more expensive ($399) than the 16Gb model.

As before, I generally believe that if you plan to purchase one, then you should get it directly from the Google Play Store. You simply cannot buy a better phone for the price. And there are only a handful of better phones at any price. So contrary to my general opinion, This might be the Nexus to get from your carrier if you know you will be staying with your carrier for the term (usually 2 years). Now, I say this without knowing the prices at carriers, but assuming that they'll add $100-$150, it might be that this phone is worth locking in for (if that's the only way you'll get it). Update... Prices show from $0 (Koodo on a $300 "Large TAB") to $140 (Virgin Mobile) with most others being at $99. Prices are quoted from those available at FutureShop and I assume are for the 16Gb model. Fido.ca shows $200 (which is a bit high in my opinion).

Now of course, I don't mean to sound like it's the greatest thing since sliced bread (it's not). What it is, is simply a nice phone with some high end specs at a mid tier price. All that said (which amounts to nothing of course), here's my experience.

Too long ago to recall, I got curious about what the Nexus 5 might entail. So before it was even worth looking into, I began to track Nexus 5 rumours. I've never done that before and I must say that my impressions of doing that (following a piece of electronics from rumour to release) is an odd experience to say the least. I read untold reports of guesses and rumours of things that eventually began to solidify as the release neared. Almost all of what I read was a rehash of something else that I read. A lot of it was so ridiculous that I shutter to think anyone was foolish enough to repeat it after they heard it. And of course, much of it was repeated long after it was generally shown to be untrue. For the most part, some of the more realistic original rumours proved not only to be persistent, but eventually accurate.

As time passed most of the rumours began to solidify, so that by the time the phone was actually released, I believed I had a good idea what would (and would not) comprise the Nexus 5. The last couple of weeks prior to its release became simply a watch for leaks of "official" information. Of course, differentiating the rumours from the leaks wasn't always easy, but fortunately some fairly reliable leaks made the majority of information available. And so it turned into a wait for an official release. Shortly before the official release a few carriers leaked the general specs for the phone and Google itself leaked the entry level price.

I was essentially hooked long before this point (I mean I had been watching it since before there was anything to watch for). So when Google finally announced the release, I was right there. Yes, on day one, I ordered it. It wasn't an excruciating wait for it to arrive, but there was some apprehension. I tried to fill that by reading reviews. Since now that it had been officially released many of the tech reviewers were afforded an opportunity to enjoy some hands-on time. They, of course passed on their opinions and people like me read what they wrote while we waited with baited breath for our phones to arrive.

Eventually, the phone arrived (YAY!). There are a bazillion reviews out there (along with videos) so I won't get too specific. Suffice it to say that I ordered the white version (or more accurately the version with the white back). I'm not terribly impressed with the white back. I mean it's nice enough, and I likely would have found it very appealing if the front and sides had been white as well, however in it's back only form, the white is out of place and simply doesn't look "quite right". Otherwise the phone looks nice, it feels good to hold and to use. The phone is not too thick, not too wide, not too long. So all in all, for a phone with a 5 inch screen ( okay 4.95 inches) it's proportioned just about right. Naked (no case), it feels slightly nicer than the Nexus 4 (with the bumper). However, I'm not a naked phone kinda guy.

I had already ordered a case (Spigen Champagne Gold Slim Armor). It's nice looking case and it doesn't add too much bulk. But it adds too much bulk. The truth is the phone feels right (without a case), but with a case it just seems a tad too big (or a tad too thick). I expect that it's something I'll get used to easily enough, and the case truly does look nice. I had considered simply getting a bumper, but I suspect that would only make the white back look even more out of place. Unlike most people I don't strip all of the protective stuff off of my phone the instant I open the package. I did however turn it on and play with it.

The first power up, resulted in a one time update after which it rebooted. I entered the obligatory WiFi and gmail account information (I had not inserted the SIM card). The phone proceeded to download all of "my" apps and widgets from the play store, and shortly thereafter it updated some of the onboard apps. I began to explore the phone. I wasn't looking at the phone like a reviewer. I was looking at it like a user.

I checked out numerous features, apps and widgets. I set up the home screens to look essentially the way I wanted. I checked the settings screens and started and exited any number of apps. At some points during this messing about I noticed what I'll call "ghosting" on the lower portion of the screen. The simplest explanation is that it looked like an app had left behind a translucent section at the bottom portion of the screen and for most of what I was doing, I simply ignored it (assuming it was something I would find and disable a little later on). Now typically, I root my phone and install a custom ROM (software). I usually do this to get a feature (or features) not normally available in the stock software.

The latest version of Android (as included on the Nexus 5) already includes a number of the features that prompted me to look for a custom rom in the past and I thought that perhaps I would try sticking with the stock software. This led me to the play store looking for apps to fill the other minor holes (things I use in the custom software that the stock software doesn't do). One of the things I wanted to do was to load my flashlight directly from the lock screen (I actually use the flashlight quite often). The only way I could find to do this was to change the lock screen (although later I found it can be done on the Stock Lockscreen by enabling widgets). So I downloaded a new lock screen software and set it up and (for whatever reason) rebooted. When the system came back, I tried my new lockscreen app and it basically worked as I required, but I noticed that the bottom of the screen had this distinct ghost effect I had only sort of noticed earlier. Only now it was very prominent. So much so that at this point I did not equate it to what I had seen earlier. I didn't know what that lock screen app was doing, but I didn't like it. I uninstalled the app. But the problem didn't go away. I decided to reboot. The problem still didn't go away. Okay I booted into recovery and did a full factory reset to the phone.

When I booted the phone up after that, it was fine. Or so I thought. As I began to set the phone up again, I noticed that same effect. Only now it was clear that it wasn't software. And at this point, I found I could get rid of the ghosting by turning the screen off and back on. But it seemed to become clear that the longer the phone was on, the more prominent the ghosting became and the less likely that cycling the screen would correct it. It was somewhere around here that I realized that this had been happening since I first turned the phone on (but that the effect was almost unnoticed earlier). It seemed clear now that it was hardware. I tried a few things (tapping various spots on the phone and applying pressure in spots etc. But this is a brand new phone. I've had it only a few hours at this point and had never even inserted a SIM card in it yet. Woe is me.

I check through the paperwork to see about my warranty. Sadly, the phone is warranted by LG and the warranty instructions involve visiting an LG USA based site on the internet. Now, I must tell you that I have attempted to deal with LG's warranty services before and I have no desire to ever do that again. So, instead I decided to phone Google. After all, I bought the phone from them and we're not talking about a phone I used for months and now isn't working. This problem existed out of the box. Whoever I got at Google, provided me a "Nexus Hotline" phone number and so I called it. After pressing the appropriate selections (I hoped) I got Eric.

Eric, of course, asks about the problem and I don't think really understood my explanation, but he did exactly what I expected a Google rep to do. He assumed "screen glitch = software" and proceeded to ask me to reset the phone. To his credit, when I explained that I had already done this (numerous times in fact) and that the problem existed even in the boot screens, he accepted this and asked me to verify what I had done ( I assume to be sure that I wasn't just yanking his chain). He was much more respectful of my apparent knowledge of the device than most tech support people are in general and after verifying that I had already performed the steps the way he would normally have required me to do while he was on the phone with me, he took it to the next step. I cannot tell you the relief of having someone at tech support believing that I had performed the steps (perhaps he believed me because I was able to tell him what I saw when I did it).

In either case, the verdict is, that Google will send me another phone. They will charge this second phone to the same credit card as the first one and when I return the defective phone, they will reverse the charge for the second phone. While not my ideal solution, I have room on the credit card for the second charge, so it's not a terrible inconvenience. Of course, this assumes that they have stock to send. The Play Store shows as out of stock at the moment, and last time I saw stock showing they had an estimated wait time of 4 weeks before shipping. Of course, if I had to, I could still use the defective Nexus 5 until the new one arrives (I suppose that's a plus). Obviously I don't want to walk around using a defective phone, but it's nice to know that if that were my only option then at least I would have had a phone. And lets not forget that anything is better than dealing with LG's warranty service department.

So I'll pause this document until the replacement arrives and then update this. As a quick and dirty though... I liked what I saw of Android 4.4 KitKat on the Nexus 5, and I found the phone itself to be quite nice (barring the obvious flaw). It's the first phone I have owned that I honestly feel is burdened by having a case, but not so much so that I would ever use it without one. It sits in the drawer waiting for the new one to arrive with return instructions.

Interim Update:
I didn't see the point of waiting for the new phone to ship before I sent my defective one back and started a conversation with Google support. I am struck by how little of my email they seem to read before replying as "almost" every reply from them seemed only slightly related to my last communication to them. My favourite part was when they asked to me send a picture of the "dead pixel" after my previous 4 emails had all told of the bottom one and one half inches of the display being corrupt (I actually found this quite humourous). But after a few back and forth emails, they did eventually send me the RMA (Return Merchandise Authorization) paperwork. Essentially they sent me a link to a "pre-ordered" replacement phone that I would "sort of" purchase. as well as an RMA paper and return label to ship back the defective device. Basically, they will authorize the payment for the phone but never actually charge it to the card (assuming they get the defective handset back).

Given the way this process went, I'm not certain that Eric (the first person I spoke to) actually started the process that he told me he had (but I cannot know for sure). In either case, Again I sit and wait for the phone to arrive (expected to ship in 2 weeks - but a pleasant surprise to find it shipping after 3 days) and again I put this post on hold until that happens.

Update 2:
Before the replacement arrived, the official Android update for my existing phone was released. So I get to try KitKat (the latest version of Android) before the replacement gets here. With a tweak here and a cheat there, my existing handset mirrors (almost exactly) the software setup of the Nexus 5. It turns out that only 2 features I usually rely on are missing from KitKat (and some very minor features that were just incidental). That is, the aforementioned flashlight from the lock screen and a (slightly more noticeable) too basic navigation bar (the bottom 3 "softkeys" for navigating in Android). I tried a few lockscreen replacements and eventually simply decided that the flashlight from the lockscreen was just another one of those "it would be nice but not a necessity" things, so I removed the third party lockscreens and settled on the default lockscreen. A little while after this, I realized that I had completely forgotten that I could add a flashlight "widget" to the default lockscreen and then remove the "usual" lockscreen starting page (leaving my flashlight widget right on the main unlock screen). I then "replaced" the navigation bar (navbar) with "Ultimate Dynamic Navbar", which is very customizable and allows me to put the most used functions in the navigation bar. And aside from that, I get to play with KitKat before the replacement arrives, so I'll be very familiar with the software when the replacement arrives.

Update 2.5:
Since upgrading my existing phone to KitKat and tweaking it so it uses the same launcher as the Nexus 5, I find myself much less excited about the Nexus 5 than I used to be. That is, of course, because much of what makes the Nexus 5 interesting to me are the changes in the operating system and I now have all of that at my fingertips on my current device.

Occasionally I find myself wondering just why it is I still want the Nexus 5. But then I'll hold my current phone between my shoulder and my ear and the guy on the other end will say "What's that? I couldn't hear you.". Or I'll check my voicemail on speakerphone in the car and play it over and over until eventually, I have to pick up the phone and hold it to my ear to hear. That's when I remember that it's not all about the software. I can benefit from a bottom firing speaker and maybe they'll hear me better on this one. A more visible screen in sunlight might not be so bad. Oh yeah and faster processor, more storage, higher pixel density, better resolution. Hmm. I think I'll check that UPS tracking number again :)

Update 3:

The phone arrived. This one appears to have no actual problems (save one which seems to be systemic).

Software

These are my quick views on the version of KitKat (Android 4.4) included with the Nexus 5.

Please note that this is not a traditional review. This is not so much a review of the features of Android 4.4 as it is a review of how I feel about those features.

One of the big changes in KitKat is the phone dialer. I like it - and I hate it. I like that it now has a smart dialer (you can spell the name of the person to dial on the keypad). Apparently this was present in Android 4.3, but I skipped that upgrade. What I hate is that when you go to the phone app it doesn't take you to the dialer. It takes you instead to the "often/recent called" screen. That might be really handy for many people, but not for me. Generally, if I'm going to the phone app, its because I want to make a phone call. And oddly enough, probably not to the last person I spoke to, or the person I have spoken to most frequently. Now of course it's just one more keypress to get to the actual dialer, but it shouldn't be. Making a call is the primary function of the phone app (and indeed the phone itself), and as such, the dialer should be the first screen it goes to (or at very least, you should have the option to set it as the default). If I don't know who I'm calling, odds are I will find it before I open the phone app (rather than use the new online search feature) or then I could opt to use the search feature by pressing a button. It's a minor point (and certainly overall I like the new dialer).

SMS - I hate Google Hangouts. I don't know that there's anything wrong with it, but it's rather like using a super computer to add 1+1. I don't want most of what Hangouts does, and I hate being forced to use it for what used to be a simple messaging system. Yes I know I can change the default app, but now I have to find one. I liked the old messaging app (small and simple). On my upgraded phone I could still use the old Android messaging app. Someone has been nice enough to post the old messaging app (AOSP Messaging) on the Play Store, so I installed that to avoid Hangouts.

Now, in order to do an honest review, I would have had to use the stock Android prior to this. But honestly, I've been using custom software for so long, I don't even know for sure what's new in stock Android. But I do know that prior to this release, I've not been comfortable with the limitations. It still doesn't have everything that I want. But "most" of what I want can be added using simple apps. The exception is the NavBar which requires a little more than a "simple" app. I have however decided that I will try the stock Android for a while and not use the NavBar replacement immediately.

The "OK Google" thing is "OK", but since it only works with the screen "awake" and on the home screen, it's almost pointless. Most times, it simply easier to hit the button than to say "OK Google" to initiate a query. This feature is only available on the Nexus 5 and is not included with the other releases of KitKat (well, it's included but not readily accessible). It's a part of the Nexus 5 launcher which essentially uses Google Now as a base for the home screens. I like the way they did it, but I would have preferred if I could define "which" of the home screens I wanted for my default home screen instead of it always going to the screen immediately to the right of the Google Now page.

They made changes to the default clock/alarm. I like it, I don't like it. Since virtually every alarm I am ever likely to set will be on a 5 minute mark, it's simple enough to use. But I prefer to be able to input the time in simple digits. The old alarm also forced me to select AM or PM before it would allow me to hit "OK". The new one just defaults to AM, which most often will be what I want, but it worries me that when I do want PM, I may have become so used to simply selecting the time, that I may forget to change it. My only real complaint about the alarm is that the changes broke my "Fancy Widgets" which used to launch the alarm clock when tapping the "hour" on the clock (I had to modify the setting to have it launch the clock app after which I manually change to the alarm clock).

Everything on the home screens is "bigger" on the Nexus 5. Which is good actually, because using the KitKat launcher (the one included with releases other than the Nexus 5) the widgets and icons always seemed to leave a little too much space (like the widget could be bigger but Android wouldn't let it). It makes for a cleaner looking screen, but functionally doesn't make much difference.

What I do miss, is the blue in the status icons. It used to be that the status icons (at the top of the screen) were white when I had no connection and blue when I had a connection. Now they're always white (well grey). Apparently if you check on the quick settings panel the icons turn orange if you are not connected (I haven't seen this yet, but honestly - who cares). What's the point of a "status bar" if it's not going to give you the status? We shouldn't have to check Settings to get Status.

And a change I could almost not care about. They moved the widgets out of the App Drawer and put them back into their own little space accessible by a long press on blank real estate on any home screen (the way it used to be). The only reason to care about this is that I just got used to looking for them in the App Drawer. New users won't easily find them in their current location.

I can print! I can print! Who cares? It doesn't happen often, but now and again I run into a document or picture that I want to print from my phone. Previously this meant transferring (or transposing) the thing to be printed onto my computer and printing it from there. Now (since I have an HP printer on my network) I can just print directly from my phone (via WiFi). Like I said, I won't use it often, but it is a nice addition. Currently it supports Cloud Print and HP (this may be the first time I've ever been on the right end of a list that small).

There is a fair amount of babble about the camera out there. Personally, I couldn't care less. If you're a photographer, you're not using your phone to take pictures. If you're using your phone to take pictures... Think about it for a moment... You're taking pictures with a phone. 'nuf said!

I don't usually use productivity apps on a phone, so I can't tell you about using the included QuickOffice, or email or Gmail. I just don't feel the 5 inch screen is the place for these things (although they would likely be right at home on a tablet). The "mail" apps are not really changed from before anyway but they're good for a quick check of your mail.

And although not specific to KitKat, I am noticing a severe increase in the number of Google Apps on my device. I don't know or care what half of them do and I don't want to know or care. It only bugs me because I can't delete them (without rooting the device). The sad part is, I'm essentially a techie. I used to love exploring every facet of any new device. But I didn't ask for these apps and I don't want them. Or maybe (just Like Google Now), I just don't know that I want them.

That pretty much sums up the software.

The Hardware.

Psssssst. It's a phone. I wanted some of the things that are included (the faster processor, the bigger screen) but what it boils down to is that I could easily have lived with my old phone running KitKat. I prefer the speakerphone on this one (bottom firing speaker means it's less muffled in my car). A number of reviewers complain that it's too easy to muffle the sound on the bottom speaker while holding it in landscape mode, but I actually found that my fingers covered the Nexus 4 speaker on the back much more than my hand covers the Nexus 5 speaker (in landscape mode)

Also in regard to the wireless charging. The Nexus 5 charges wirelessly (just like the Nexus 4 did) except that on 2 of my chargers it appears not to send the necessary feedback to stop the charger from charging (all of these chargers worked perfectly with the Nexus 4). Fortunately one of my chargers does stop charging it. This problem seems to be more the norm than an exception. And while people in the forums "say" that you cannot overcharge the battery and no harm can come to the device if the wireless charger does not shut down, I would beg to differ. Leaving the phone on the charger overnight "should" charge the phone to full and then stop. Instead it charges continually causing the phone to get hot so that by morning it is hot (or at least very warm). I find it difficult to believe that the phone would get hot if it was not actually charging. And I find it hard to accept that charging for 6 hours after it has reached full will not have a detrimental effect. Although the one that shuts off would not normally be my first choice for charging overnight (it's my car charger), better safe than sorry. So I'll just get another charger for the car. And getting that "other" charger for the car is pretty much a necessity anyway since the coil is positioned differently on the Nexus 5 and it does not charge in the nexus 4 cradle (unless you cut off the feet). The makers of the Owl CarPad, however, will sell you a replacement PCB to allow you to charge your Nexus 5 in that same cradle (but it won't help if you've already cut the feet off :).

Otherwise the hardware is unexceptional. Well, that is, it's just what it's supposed to be (faster, better, clearer etc.) it's just not so exceptional as to justify an upgrade from a Nexus 4 except that USB-OTG supposedly works (you can connect usb devices like flash drives to the device). The battery life has been acceptable (unless I start playing Plants Vs Zombies 2 which drains the power extremely fast). The screen clarity and visibility is better than my previous phone although the size difference is negligible. It is essentially just a technically better phone (where most of the improvements are more "matter of fact" than stand up and take notice). The presence of LTE makes no difference to me since my carrier does not provide LTE services. It does not have the glass back of the Nexus 4 so I don't need to be "quite" as careful with it. But the fact that I like it better without a case may mean I could decide to replace the case with a "skin" and then I would need to be even more careful (without the protection of a case).

So as an outright purchase, the Nexus 5 is a good deal (worth every penny). As an upgrade from a phone which otherwise suits your needs (like the Nexus 4) perhaps not so much. Most of what's good about the Nexus 5 is KitKat (the version of Android it runs). If the phone you're using basically suits your needs now and if it will be upgraded to KitKat then it's probably not worth the purchase. If however you're looking for an upgrade and you want to get your money's worth, the Nexus 5 is a good solid return on your dollar.