After having used all of them and actually owning one (a Nexus S) for close to two years, I’m not exactly new to the world of Nexus phones. But in all these years I’ve never particularly been a fan of them. While I can understand the allure of stock Android for some, for me it was too much of a barebones experience that relied heavily on third party apps to make up for its many shortcomings. Otherwise known as iOS.

Nexus 5

But off late, Google has been doing some good things with Android and except for a few things it has managed to bring the base OS on par with what the Android OEMs have been doing, at least as far as the useful features are concerned. As such, when the time came to upgrade my trusty Galaxy S III (which, for all its flaws, I enjoyed using for well over a year), the Nexus 5 seemed like the most sensible option available at the moment. 

So let’s talk about the phone now. One of the most endearing features of the phone to me is the design, which is wonderfully minimalistic. It’s just a plain black slab of matte plastic but looks striking nonetheless. There is no pretentiousness about the design; there is no plastic that looks like aluminum or aluminum that looks like gold or any of that nonsense. There is very little ‘design’ as such, and less design is always good design.

The build quality is also commendable, considering the phone is made out of plastic and does not employ a more rigid unibody design. It doesn’t feel cheap or plasticky, although I’m not sure how well it can handle a hard fall. The corners are a bit thin and I’m afraid would dent easily if the phone were to fall directly on one. I’m probably going to get a case because I do end up dropping my phones quite often.

The display is another thing that is absolutely astonishing about this phone. It is easily one of the finest screens I’ve seen on anything. Color, contrast, brightness, resolution, viewing angles and outdoor visibility are all excellent. LG has really outdone itself with the panel on this one.

The camera on the Nexus 5 has gotten a lot of hate ever since the phone came out. Google even pushed an update to the phone that improved the image quality. My phone arrived with 4.4.2 out of the box, so I don’t know how it was back then. But how is the camera now? Very good.

As is usual with the camera experience on any device, there are three factors at work. One is the photographer, the second is the hardware and the third is the software. There is not much to say about the first factor other than most people are rubbish at taking photos and using a camera properly in general. As for the second factor, the camera hardware on the Nexus 5 is actually quite good. The specs are all there for everyone to see but from own experience I’ve observed that the Nexus 5 is capable of some really good pictures. What lets the hardware down is a lackluster software in the form of the default camera app.

Everything about it is wrong. First of all, the basic viewfinder is incorrect. It shows a 16:9 crop from the 4:3 image the sensor is actually capable of capturing. What this means is that some part of the image at the top and bottom is cropped out when you’re looking at it on the viewfinder but are recorded in the actual image. If you go by what is on the screen then you will find extra elements in your photo that you didn’t expect to see.

The UI doesn’t rotate. By default, it is fixed in portrait mode, which makes little sense as it is not the natural shooting state. The only time the UI rotates is if you enable the auto-rotate option from the phone’s settings, something that I always keep disabled. In this case, the UI won’t rotate at all and is permanently in portrait mode. Mercifully, the images themselves are saved in whichever orientation you hold the phone in.

The focusing is terrible. In bright light it does fine but if you tap somewhere to focus it will only hold focus there for a few seconds, before going back to focusing in the middle. In low light at close distances, the camera will often absolutely refuse to focus.

One of the redeeming features of the camera app is the HDR+ mode. Unlike the HDR mode on most other camera apps, this one doesn’t enhance the dynamic range of the image by much but it does significantly iron out the noise and other shortcomings of a single image by combining multiple ones. Unfortunately, it takes a while to switch this mode on, then it takes a while to save the image (seriously there is a progress bar and shit) and then it takes a while to view the image that you just shot. Most of the time, though, it’s worth the time and effort as long as you and your subject stays still.

I tried some third party camera apps and noticed the viewfinder preview was running at a much lower framerate. Most of the times the third party apps don’t have access to the hardware, drivers and API the same way as the stock apps and performance is often compromised because of that. Due to this I decided to just stick with the stock app and get used to its idiosyncrasies and idiocies.

Note that when I talked about the hardware, I was talking about the rear camera only. If you use the front camera, you will immediately get several advanced forms of cancer upon seeing the image, after which you will proceed to die in the next few hours.

As I mentioned at the beginning of the review, Google has improved Android tremendously over the years, more than any of its competitors (to be fair, there really was a lot of work that needed to be done). What you now have is an OS that is close to being perfect, at least in terms of design and out of the box features. But in adding things, Google has kept the core strengths of the OS intact, so it is just as customizable and modder friendly as it used to be.

The latest version – KitKat – is the most refined version yet. Being a Nexus 5 owner, I have the definitive device to test this new version on and I must say I am very pleased with it. There are some niggles, such as the built-in apps, which continue to be a weak point of the OS. Take the aforementioned Camera app, for example. Or the Gallery app that does double duty as a video player and is terrible at it. Or how SMS functionality has haphazardly been integrated into the Hangouts app. Or how Chrome on Android is still not as good as it should be.

There are some bugs as well, such as the audio stuttering bug whenever you are playing FLAC files (regardless of the player being used), the navigation controls below the display sometimes not disappearing in fullscreen apps and the display backlight randomly dimming for no reason.

Minor niggles and bugs aside, I’m generally satisfied with the OS. Over the years, Google has borrowed a ton of features from Samsung, which means there is no longer a massive feature parity there and most of the useful stuff is now available in stock Android. I’m not someone who messes a lot with their phone or installs a ton of apps and I rely a lot on the features that come built-in, which is why I’d rather tolerate some bloat than not have any features at all but with KitKat Google seems to have found the right balance between the two extremes. I still miss some of the conveniences that were there in TouchWiz (for all the bloat there is, TouchWiz also has some genuinely useful features that you only know and appreciate when you live with it) but in general I seem to be getting along fine.

After the camera, the battery life has been another thing about this phone that received some hate. Admittedly, on paper, 2,300mAh does not seem like much. In actual use, however, I found that I could get through an entire day with it just fine. Having used an S III before, I have gotten into the habit of constantly checking the phone’s battery meter to see how much charge is left. Usually it would be somewhere south of the halfway point not long after I left the house but the Nexus 5 takes its own sweet time to run through all of those 2,300mAh. I have to actively abuse the phone to make the battery life seem bad. And this is a phone that does not even have any sort of power saving mode that most non-Nexus Android phones have these days. Not that I’d ever use that. It’s the equivalent of purchasing a Lamborghini Aventador and then driving it at 60km/h to save fuel.

It’s not all very nice. There are some things that do annoy me about the phone. Like the two speakers on it. The first is the loudspeaker at the bottom, which isn’t very loud and sounds rubbish. Google clearly knows about the first part, which is why a refreshed version of the phone comes with slightly bigger speaker grille so you can hear more of the rubbish sound. I’m not sure which one I have; they both look kinda identical. The earpiece doesn’t sound rubbish but then it’s the size of a pin hole so half the time you don’t hear it at all. A single stray hair on over your ear can probably block it, rendering it completely inaudible. You have to position the phone with the precision of a sniper on the side of your face till the earpiece is firing directly in your ear otherwise there could be Obama on the other end of the call for all you know.

I hate the notification LED as well. By default it has a delay of tens seconds between ON states. This nearly renders the damn thing useless. You can’t just glance at the phone anymore to see if you have any notifications because almost every time the light would be off. You have to sit and stare at it for a while and if your stars are all aligned perfectly the light will glow before you die of old age. Even when it does glow it does so with all blinding intensity of a dying firefly. The light also strangely does not indicate if the battery is low, charging or fully charged, and is terribly underutilized by the OS itself.

***

I paid ₹32,999 for this phone on the Play Store. To say it’s cheap would be foolish. I think the Nexus 5 is priced appropriately for what it provides, which also means I think every other flagship Android phone is overpriced (don’t even get me started on the iPhone).

I was pleasantly surprised by the Nexus 5. I wasn’t expecting far too much from it and Google often leaves the Nexus devices a bit underwhelming, probably so that they don’t steal too much attention from phones from other OEMs (especially those by the one making the Nexus device). But this, this one is different. I could sense practically no compromise being made on the hardware front; it’s as feature-rich as it gets, complete with a top-notch display, top-of-the-line processor, wireless charging, camera with optical image stabilization and a fine build quality. The software too, save for a few annoyances, is quite excellent. This is a seriously good smartphone, that too at a perfectly reasonable price. This is how it should be and I’m glad someone has done it.