The Nexus One was a groundbreaking device. It was the defining moment that Google got serious about making both a real consumer electronic, and pitting the Android platform against the incumbent iOS. While you could make the case that the original T-Mobile G1 was the original Google phone, it really was with Nexus One that Google set out on its path for defining a smartphone platform and distribution model of its own. 

While the success of that particular handset was limited and Google’s aspirations perhaps a bit unrealistic, the truth is that the Nexus platform itself has been a growing success. Each year we see essentially the same pattern — Google chooses one OEM, one SoC vendor, and sets the Android team free toward building a tailor-made version of the next major release of Android for that combination. We’ve now had three generations of Nexus smartphones, with the Nexus 4 deriving its name from the obvious fourth incantation of the same goal — an unadulterated version of Android free from OEM skinning and carrier politicking.


Left to right: Nexus 4, Galaxy Nexus, Nexus S, Nexus One

A little over a month ago, LG flew me to Korea to check out the LG Optimus G, their latest smartphone based around Qualcomm’s APQ8064 quad core Krait SoC and MDM9x15. The combination of those two alone already were enough to excite me purely because I was eager to see who would be first to market with an APQ8064 handset. Myself and a number of other western tech press were given LG Optimus Gs to play around with for a week on Korean LTE network U+, and while I’m still working on my review of a Korean version of the Optimus G, that particular hardware is surprisingly great.

While I was on that trip, I heard that a smartphone based on the Optimus G would be the next Nexus phone and was quite simply blown away. Nexus has rarely been first to the latest and greatest in terms of hardware platforms, and certainly there was no way that combination would be inexpensive. For Google to nail the next Nexus phone it would have to be a combination of both. At the time I joked that the G in Optimus G stood for Google (among a few other things) and anxiously awaited the final hardware. The next real question was what balance of both Nexus DNA and LG’s own would combine to form the next Nexus handset. In the case of the Nexus 4, the blend is almost exactly one part Google Nexus, one part LG Optimus G, and that’s honestly a very good thing.

The Nexus 4 is undoubtedly based on the Optimus G, but it isn’t nearly as obvious as you’d think. Where the Optimus G is a very square and rectangular phone, the Nexus 4 preserves the rounded gentle curves and overall shape of the Galaxy Nexus. In fact, side by side with the Galaxy Nexus, the Nexus 4 almost looks like it has the exact same shape, save being slightly wider and flatter. Material choice is also undoubtedly better than the Galaxy Nexus, which was a decidedly Samsung-y combination of polycarbonate plastic and soft touch battery cover. This is where the Nexus 4 deviates from the Optimus G as well — around the edge and below the chrome is a rubbery soft-touch band that extends to the glass back. It’s this rubber perimeter that forms the majority of the in-hand contact with the Nexus 4, and results in a great grip and excellent in hand feel. My fingers wrap perfectly around to the rubber lip on the other side making holding the Nexus 4 feel very secure. Google talked a lot about how the majority of their work with ASUS on the Nexus 7 was getting the edge chamfer correct and adding a textured pattern to the soft touch material, which made that device feel classy in spite of having a solid plastic back that actually was a snap-on construction. It’s clear to me that the same emphasis was placed on the Nexus 4 as well, as this in-hand feel is flawless here, where so many other handsets come off feeling plasticky. It’s always interesting how build quality doesn’t necessarily map one to one with in-hand feel. In the case of the Nexus 4 however I believe both are rock solid.

Like the Optimus G, the Nexus 4 backside is one unbroken piece of glass, which is bound to elicit strong feelings from everyone. The Optimus G and Nexus 4 both use the same type of glass on the front and back — Corning Gorilla Glass 2. Having a glass back definitely is eerily reminiscent of the iPhone 4/4S era design, but does add a certain level of rigidity to the device without adding a lot of thickness, and again also is RF transparent, which is important in a device that combines both NFC, Qi Wireless charging, WiFi, Bluetooth, and pentaband WCDMA. Having the glass back was something LG felt strongly about for the Optimus G and does anchor the Nexus 4 back to that design, so I have a feeling that there were strong feelings about this on LG’s part for preserving some of the original Optimus G industrial design. The problem with large plane-defining glass surfaces is if the handset gets placed flat on a surface it often can pick up fine scratches (called sleeks) from even dust or grains of dirt between the interface and the glass. I wish the Nexus 4 had a larger lip between the glass and the circular rubber band to raise the glass further away from surfaces and prevent annoying sleeks from forming. On my Nexus 4 review unit the lip is quite thin, definitely under a millimeter, and there are already a number of sleeks.

Underneath the glass is the same ‘crystal reflection’ treatment as the Optimus G which creates a unique reflective shimmery appearance under different angles of incident light. The pattern on the Nexus 4 is different from the 3D Escher-esque repeating diamonds on the Optimus G. Instead the Nexus 4 has a grid of repeating sparkling circles which reflect at different random angles all over the back, which look spectacular under the right incident angles. It really does look striking under different kinds of direct lighting. Google has also now replaced the “Google” on other Nexus devices with the word “Nexus” on the entire new lineup, and this along with LG at the bottom are the only markings on the Nexus 4 other than the regulatory markings. It’s an odd decision to see no more Google branding anywhere on the handset given its presence on the previous three Nexus phones, but Google is trying hard to build the Nexus line as its own brand and this is the right way to do it.

Alongside all the other Nexus phones we can see that Google has done a pretty good job keeping their own industrial design around. Rounded edges with a large radius gets kept around, as does the primarily black or dark grey color scheme. The Nexus 4 does away with the chrome ring around the camera aperture, however. Again the largest deviation is the removal of “Google” branding in place of “Nexus” on the backside.

There’s a vertical slit for the speakerphone on the back at bottom right. Top left is where the Nexus 4 locates the 8 MP camera and LED flash. This is the same camera module and system as what’s in the 8 MP LG Optimus G configuration, which has no bulge at all. Only the 13 MP system (which is an option) has a bulge.

The Nexus 4 eschews the face-hugging curved glass which begun with the Nexus S, carried over to the Galaxy Nexus, and always struck me as being a bit of a gimmick. It might have made the phone slightly more ergonomic during phone calls, but really most of smartphone use these days isn’t calling, it’s interacting with the display. Moreover, that vertical curve always did create some weird total internal reflections in the glass that constantly bugged me when the sun was at a critical angle. Instead the Nexus 4 has a small radius of curvature lip at the left and right side, making interacting with the extreme left or right easy. My fingers roll off the left or right instead of into a sharp plastic ridge like with the Galaxy Nexus.

The other common design element between the Optimus G and Nexus 4 is that nonconductive metallic plastic ring which extends around the perimeter of the device. This is something that comes off as tacky in the US market but (I’m told) is still a somewhat attractive motif in the Korean market. There’s actually a process whereupon the plastic is impregnated with this nonconductive silvery material, and again it has to be nonconductive to not impact any RF characteristics of the handset. The front facing camera is top right, in the same position as the Galaxy Nexus. Earpiece is a recessed notch at the top between the chrome lip and the glass. Oh, and the Nexus 4 still contains the same three-color notification LED bottom center as the Galaxy Nexus, which is just as well done and disappears into the black surrounding material when not glowing.

Button placement on the Nexus 4 is the same as the Galaxy Nexus, with a volume rocker at left, power/standby at right. For ports, everything is mostly the same, with microUSB at the bottom and a microphone pair (one primary microphone at top, one secondary at bottom for noise rejection). Nexus 4 does mix things up and stick the headphone jack at the top as opposed to the bottom which Galaxy Nexus went with.

The Nexus 4 lacks a removable battery door, although the back of the phone is easily separated from the rest of the phone by removing the two Torx T4 bits at bottom and prying up with a plastic separator tool or guitar pick. Underneath is a 2100 mAh 3.8V battery (8.0 Whr) battery and the numerous antenna connector springs required to connect to the inductive antenna coil for NFC, wireless charging, cellular diversity, and WLAN/BT. The Nexus 4 also moves the land of Nexus to a microSIM via an ejectable tray in place of the miniSIM used on its predecessors, so people upgrading will either need to borrow a SIM cutter or make a trip to their local carrier store for a new micro sized USIM.

Physical Comparison
  Apple iPhone 5 Samsung Galaxy S 3 (USA) Samsung Galaxy Nexus (GSM/UMTS) LG Nexus 4
Height 123.8 mm (4.87") 136.6 mm (5.38" ) 135.5 mm (5.33") 133.9 mm (5.27")
Width 58.6 mm (2.31") 70.6 mm (2.78") 67.94 mm (2.67) 68.7 mm (2.7")
Depth 7.6 mm (0.30") 8.6 mm (0.34") 8.94 mm (0.35") 9.1 mm (0.36")
Weight 112 g (3.95 oz) 133g (4.7 oz) 135 g (4.8 oz) 139 g
CPU 1.3 GHz Apple A6 (Dual Core Apple Swift) 1.5 GHz MSM8960 (Dual Core Krait) 1.2 GHz OMAP 4460 (Dual Core Cortex A9) 1.5 GHz APQ8064 (Quad Core Krait)
GPU PowerVR SGX 543MP3 Adreno 225 PowerVR SGX 540 @ 304 MHz Adreno 320
RAM 1 GB LPDDR2 2 GB LPDDR2 1 GB LPDDR2 2 GB LPDDR2
NAND 16, 32, or 64 GB integrated 16/32 GB NAND with up to 64 GB microSDXC 16/32 GB NAND 8/16 GB NAND
Camera 8 MP with LED Flash + 1.2MP front facing 8 MP with LED Flash + 1.9 MP front facing 5 MP with AF/LED Flash, 1080p30 video recording, 1.3 MP front facing 8 MP with AF/LED Flash, 1.3 MP front facing
Screen 4" 1136 x 640 LED backlit LCD 4.8" 1280x720 HD SAMOLED 4.65" 1280x720 SAMOLED HD 4.7" 1280x768 HD IPS+ LCD
Battery Internal 5.45 Whr Removable 7.98 Whr Removable 6.48 Whr Internal 8.0 Whr

Overall the Nexus 4 hardware impresses me quite a bit. The Galaxy Nexus couldn’t ever quite shake the plasticky feeling for me, in spite of Samsung including a battery cover with soft touch material and texture. The odd thickness of the Galaxy Nexus always also bugged me. With almost the same overall dimensions and shape, the Nexus 4 pulls off a much more sophisticated in-hand feel with the rubber perimeter, and I’m willing to deal with the glass back in light of the alternative. The part about removable battery covers is a worthy complaint, though we’re seeing all OEMs head in this direction gradually in an effort to deliver smaller and smaller profiles. In addition, the microSD card ship sailed a long time ago for Nexus phones (back in the Nexus S days) and wasn’t ever coming back. The front glass roll-off at left and right on the display contrast starkly to the Galaxy Nexus’ sharp plastic ring and really help the Nexus 4 feel great.

I’m very impressed with the direction that Google is taking Nexus in general. The Nexus 7 was impressive to me with its design and attention to in-hand feel, and the Nexus 4 is likewise a substantial improvement over the Galaxy Nexus. The Nexus 4 is also simultaneously different enough from the Optimus G to not be either confused with it or be accused of just being a reused design.

Battery Life and Charging
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  • Freedomuser - Wednesday, November 14, 2012 - link

    Not so fast. If the tests suite was intense like i think it's then even iphone 5 will get overheated.

    So, the question is, does any other phones in your chart survived the tests suite? LG Optimus G dropped out. Nexus 4 made it through with overheat. What about others on your chart?
    Reply
  • meloz - Thursday, November 15, 2012 - link

    >>Not so fast. If the tests suite was intense like i think it's then even iphone 5 will get overheated.

    But in this test it did not. And in any benchmark in which iphone5 will overheat, the Nexus 4 will overheat and throttl even worse!

    I want Android and Nexus to do well, because they represent a more user-friendly (freedom) choice to iphone. But Google seriously need to address overheating, battery life and other such fundamental issues. Nexus 4 is a crappy device, at any price. I hope future software/firmware updates mitigate some of the problems.
    Reply
  • piroroadkill - Thursday, November 15, 2012 - link

    I don't care if this is the best phone ever, they've made a big mistake by missing out the microSD slot. Reply
  • Mugur - Thursday, November 15, 2012 - link

    Just a small mistake in article: "First, audioflinger is set to 48 kHz which results in software resampling causing artifacts for 41.1 kHz source material.". It should be 44.1. not 41.1, I think... Reply
  • Mugur - Thursday, November 15, 2012 - link

    Running a 3D game for one hour is one thing, but throttling in a benchmark does not look good. Reply
  • tipoo - Monday, December 24, 2012 - link

    Yeah...I wonder if tiny heatsinks in it would solve this, and become a norm as phone SoCs aim for higher and higher performance. Reply
  • cyberguyz - Thursday, November 15, 2012 - link

    Seems Google has a problem with allowing the user to expand his storage beyond what they give you. Why is that?

    The phone comes with 16gb internal flash memory, but no way of expanding it. This seems to be a popular trend with all Google-branded Nexus devices (Galaxy Nexus and Nexus 7 tablet are the same). The lack of sdcard support in an Android device kills the ability to set up a Windows drive letter for it. Without that drive letter many popular programs like Calibre have an issue attaching to the device to manage things like ebooks (this is a real pain in the ass with my nexus 7!!). I for one like the freedom popping in another 64GB microSD card gives me.

    The lack of a removable battery also hurts this phone. I have hard experience with the life of li-Ion batteries losing capacity over time in laptops. Every couple years I have to get new batteries because the Li-Ion battery loses capacity until it cant keep my laptop alive for more than 20 minutes without dying. I like Samsungs because I can always replace the battery cheaply when it goes south and I don't have to send my phone (and private data) away for servicing to do it.

    Beyond these two (as I consider them major) gripes, this is a really nice phone.
    Reply
  • funky247 - Thursday, November 15, 2012 - link

    With regard to the non-removable battery issue, most of the people I know don't like non-removable batteries because it limits their ability to whip out a backup battery when they need the extra juice while they're no the go.

    However, if the issue is with replacing the battery as it gets older, you can do it yourself! It even tells you how to do it in the review. You can buy authentic OEM batteries off of Ebay and do everything yourself, with the right tools. Some sellers will even ship the tools!
    Reply
  • cyberguyz - Monday, November 19, 2012 - link

    There are both of those issues with non-removable batteries.

    While the article tells you how to change the battery yourself, they do not mention that if you do that, you void your warranty (granted the warranty is gone after the battery goes south anyway). There are a lot of folks that cringe at the though of splitting open their $500-600 US phone to replace a battery.

    I for one don't keep a #4 torx screwdriver around.

    The ability to whip in a new battery in 2 sec without special tools in a vendor-blessed manner is a bit plus to me.

    Now if only Samsung (or anyone else - I'm not a brand fanboy) would put out an Android-based phone with quad-core Krait or A15, 2GB memory, 32GB expandable storage and user-replaceable battery, I would ebay my SG3 in a heatbeat and be all over it.
    Reply
  • Brandy123 - Thursday, November 15, 2012 - link

    What I don't get is although the price and specs are very attractive for an unlocked: no contract phone, 8 or 16GB is really small by today's standards when there is no microSD slot! Google is obviously assuming you will be connected to the net 24/7 and streaming your music and videos via Google Play and other services. But then your data usage goes through the roof! Will this aggressive pricing force more carriers to offer truly unlimited data plans and more reasonable prices?

    Also, HPSA+ is fast enough for most, but lack of LTE is another compromise to get that good price. Yet it still is "the buzz" (note that the sellout time means nothing without knowing the number of units sold.)

    So maybe the other key to the popularity of this device may be that with the younger generation, their phone is sort of a status symbol to them. Who can wait 2-years for contract renewal to get a new phone? But who can afford a $900 iPhone with no contract? BAM - Nexus 4 - I can get the latest gadget with specs good enough to brag about, with no contract, and without having to eat Top Ramen for a month to afford it. Who cares it doesn't have enough memory to store my video, photos and MP3 collection. I'll put it all on the Cloud and run my data usage through the roof instead.
    Reply

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