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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  • zeroidea - Wednesday, November 14, 2012 - link

    It's Tucson, AZ!

    They must have been taken a few weeks ago (a lot of the streetcar construction downtown has been completed)
    Reply
  • DukeN - Tuesday, November 13, 2012 - link

    Brian, are you able to verify if the material is actually rubber? This would be a serious issue for many users, including some in my family with severe latex allergies. Reply
  • PeteH - Tuesday, November 13, 2012 - link

    Wow, that didn't even occur to me, but it could be a real problem. It's not like latex is an uncommon allergy either, so hopefully Google or LG thought about that and used something other than rubber. Reply
  • Rits - Tuesday, November 13, 2012 - link

    Its rubberised plastic. Shouldn't be a problem at all to latex-allergic folks. Reply
  • PeteH - Tuesday, November 13, 2012 - link

    Not doubting you, but do you have a source? Reply
  • Rits - Tuesday, November 13, 2012 - link

    Previous LG devices that had the same material were latex-free. There is no reason this one would deviate. But, you could always email LG/Google for an official confirmation. Reply
  • MadMan007 - Tuesday, November 13, 2012 - link

    Should have used a dual core CPU with a decent GPU. Quad core is a waste in phones because overall it hurts battery life more than it helps certain usage models, and if there's so much throttling what's the point.

    Does Android do thread parking? Do these CPUs have per-core power gating?
    Reply
  • JohnnyL53 - Tuesday, November 13, 2012 - link

    Throttling may not be an issue in the real world in terms of a noticeable affect and may just show up in benchmarks. In other words, who cares what the benchmark performance is if its at such a high level it's not perceptible? What I never see explained is how far apart do you need to get before you can distinguish one device's performance from another. Granted on most of the tests the iPhone far outpaces any other phone, but is it even noticeable? Are we just talking bragging rights, future proofing, etc? Reply
  • name99 - Tuesday, November 13, 2012 - link

    The value of a faster CPU on a phone, for normal people, right now, is that the phone feels snappier. So, for example, an iPhone5 feels perceptibly faster than an iPhone 4S not because computational tasks take 1 minute instead of 2 minutes, but because a dozen small things take .1 second instead of .2 seconds.

    From this point of view
    (a) thermal throttling is no big deal, and I personally have no problem with it. It was a good idea when Intel started it years ago (to the accompaniment of a massive chorus of whining) and it would be a fine idea to have it as built into an ever wider selection of phone chips.

    (b) quad-core remains a solution in search of a problem. Maybe one day it will have value; maybe it has value for games (which I don't care about). But for the way I and my crowd use phones, it has no value yet.

    (c) the present collection of benchmarks are largely useless because they do NOT track this essence of snappiness which is what most people mean when they say a phone is "fast". Yes, if you're a developer writing demanding code you care about very particular aspects of the phone --- perhaps you care about the memory bandwidth, or the FLOPs, or the random flash write performance. But for most people, what matters is the snappiness. Existing benchmarks are a poor proxy for that feeling, and I do wish the serious blogs could do better.

    Right now all we have is this lame sniping like 12 yr olds: "My Nokia feels fast", "Oh yeah, well my Samsung feels even faster", "Well my iPhone feels fastest of all". And regardless of your feelings about Apple, if you support Team Android or Team Windows, you should be pushing for snappiness benchmarks because that is one of Apple's great strengths --- they don't care about, and don't optimize for benchmark numbers, they optimize for snappiness, and buyers do appear to be aware of and notice this. As long as the non-Apple market is forced to compete on these "overt" benchmarks as ways for each vendor to differentiate themselves and show their technical superiority, what will be optimized for are benchmark numbers, NOT user feel and snappiness.
    Reply
  • Zink - Tuesday, November 13, 2012 - link

    I think with a DSLR at 60 FPS and editing to synchronize individually recorded videos it would be possible to do accurate side by side comparison of app responsiveness and web page loads. With a bit of video analysis, graphs could be made comparing performance down to the frame and FPS in animations measured.

    You could even do this on the go for a real world performance comparison. A normal day of use could be simulated by walking/commuting around your city and setting up a tripod in an apartment, on the sidewalk, inside an office building, at the bar etc. Then run several tests on each phone where you get the phone out of your pocket like normal and open a web page, post a comment, take a photo etc. all while the screen is on camera. Several similar tasks could be averaged into a single category score for a bit better repeatability.

    With proper analysis of the resulting video a pretty damn accurate comparison of the whole cellular, hardware and software system could be made. Basically the ultimate benchmark measuring user phone performance. I've seen some well done side by side comparisons but never in depth or with good numbers along with the video.
    Reply

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