Android has a new champion. The Nexus 4, built by LG in collaboration with Google, is the best overall Android handset currently available, and it’s one of the best phones to be released this year.
It’s a truly exemplary piece of hardware that showcases the best of what Google can offer in a smartphone when crufty user interface skins from hardware makers and bloatware from carriers are cut out of the equation.
It’s as close to perfect as I’ve seen any Android smartphone get. But the Nexus 4 falls just short of perfection due to one major omission: It’s not compatible with any LTE networks. The Nexus 4 will run on just about any other cellular network outside of LTE (GSM, UMTS, Edge, GPRS, 3G and HSPA+), which means you can take the handset with you all over the world, swapping SIM cards as needed. It also means Google can sell one device in multiple markets all over the world, since Europe, Asia and other continents are still largely without LTE service. This is likely a big reason why Google can charge so little for the Nexus 4 — $300 with 8GB and $350 with 16GB, unlocked and off-contract. For comparison’s sake, an unlocked iPhone 4S from Apple sells for about $650 to $850. An unlocked Samsung Galaxy S III runs $800.
The lack of LTE connectivity will spoil the Nexus 4 for some. But if you don’t mind living without LTE — and you likely currently are, given AT&T and Sprint’s small LTE footprint, and the fact T-Mobile has yet to begin building its LTE network — then the Nexus 4 is a good buy. And you’ll also be freed from taking on a two-year carrier contract, though T-Mobile is selling the Nexus 4 at $200 on-contract if you’re into that too. If you do take the Nexus 4 plunge, I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.
Living with the Nexus 4 and using it over the last week has been a joy. The first thing you notice when you pick up the handset is just how sturdy and luxurious it feels. The front and back of the device are coated in Gorilla Glass 2. I took a set of keys, a fork and a pocket knife to the front and back glass panels of the Nexus 4 and couldn’t get a scratch to show up anywhere. I also slipped and dropped the phone while pulling it out of my pocket this week, and it showed no signs of my fumble.
Also see our review of the Google Nexus 10 Android tablet.
And there is simply no better Android experience than Android as Google has built it. While HTC, Motorola and Samsung make (mostly) attractive skins for Android that offer some unique features, the pure Android you find on Nexus devices is still the fastest and most user-friendly version of the OS. And the single biggest advantage for any unlocked Nexus handset: Software updates come directly from Google without delays. Hardware makers and telecom carriers often take months for to roll Android updates out to their own hardware, if they bring them over at all. And that’s a shame.
It’s also one reason the Nexus logo is plastered across the back of the phone, and why there’s no Google branding anywhere on the hardware.
This is significant. Nexus handsets have never sold terribly well. They’ve always been niche products for hackers, developers and Android enthusiasts. But the Nexus 4 is different. It’s one of three devices — along with the Nexus 7 and Nexus 10 tablets — that Google is positioning not only as true alternatives to the best products from rivals Amazon, Apple and Microsoft, but also to the products of its partners in the Android world. Nexus has grown from a hacker platform to a capital-B Brand. It’s a place for thinking big, and for showing off cool new stuff like NFC, wireless charging and higher-density displays. There’s even a TV and print campaign to trumpet the launch of these next-gen devices. This handset is the flagship of the Nexus line, and the best example of Google’s ambitious side-project growing up.
Friday November 2, 11:45am PDT: This review was updated to clarify the battery performance of the device.