Nexus 4 review: Google's instantly obsolete Android smartphone

Besides its lack of LTE, there's nothing horribly wrong -- or particularly compelling -- with Google's 'pure Android' device

Does the world really need another Android smartphone? Not if it's the Nexus 4, the new Google-branded smartphone made by LG. As with its Nexus 10 tablet counterpart, there's nothing terribly wrong with the Nexus 4 -- it does what a smartphone should do. But that's it. The Nexus 4 offers no compelling reason to choose it over another Android smartphone.

However, there's a very good reason not to buy it: It's a 3G-only device (for AT&T and T-Mobile in the United States) without LTE compatibility to take advantage of the 4G networks now coming online. It's instantly obsolete.

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The Nexus 4 is an undistinguished black slate, like Google's Nexus 10. A closer look shows it to be nearly identical in physical shape to the Samsung Galaxy S III, which boasts a more interesting trim, color scheme, and more pleasant material. Unlike the Galaxy S III, the Nexus 4 has no physical Home button, in keeping with Google's desire to showcase the "pure" Android experience in its Nexus line.

Two key benefits of Android 4.2 "Jelly Bean": Lock screen widgets, photo controlsThat "pure" Android experience is the Android 4.2 "Jelly Bean" one, which brings a couple welcome features to the already very nice 4.1 "Jelly Bean" operating system: the addition of lock screen widgets such as email and calendar and the enhanced Camera app, which provides the kinds of shooting controls you'd expect in a digital camera, plus a suite of editing controls for the photos you take.

Both work reasonably well, though the selection of lock screen widgets is quite low, and it's not always easy to add them or get to them -- the lock screen's swipe sensitivity seems diminished for some reason. The widgets aren't available if your Exchange server or mobile management server imposes a PIN or password requirement on your device. The Camera app's only (minor) deficit is that the camera controls can be hard to see onscreen in some circumstances, such as over light subjects or in glare situations for outdoor shoots.

Among the shooting controls is one for the Nexus 4's Photo Sphere feature, which ups the ante for the panoramic mode introduced in previous Android versions for compatible devices (nicely copied by iOS 6 in the iPhone 4S and iPhone 5). A regular panorama stitches together multiple images as you move the camera sideways, creating one image from the sequence. Photo Sphere lets you move the camera both sideways and up, so you can stitch together a large section of space, sort of like an Imax movie versus a regular widescreen movie. The Photo Sphere icon helpfully traces your sweep as you move up each level, so you know you've captured the same lateral range in each slice.

The only issue I had with Photo Sphere was that the Nexus 4 often couldn't keep pace with the panorama, even when I panned slowly. It needed to pause periodically, perhaps to process the image data or offload it, resulting in stutters in those parts of the image.

Two new approaches to video-out supportLess useful -- today, at least -- is the addition of support for the Miracast wireless display standard, which the industry group behind the Wi-Fi standard has created in hopes of providing a vendor-neutral alternative to Apple's compelling but proprietary AirPlay technology. Miracast replaces the DLNA standard that quickly became fragmented due to semiproprietary, incompatible versions meant to steer customers to buying all gear from one company. The Miracast notion is a good one, and the Wi-Fi Alliance's backing gives it instant credibility. But you can't get Miracast devices yet, so it has zero utility for now. Perhaps that will change in a year.

It makes sense for Google to adopt Miracast given DLNA's failure to blunt AirPlay, but its adoption of the SlimPort HDMI technology in the Nexus 4 makes less sense. It brings to three the types of video-out connectors in the Android world, after the MicroHDMI port available on some devices and the MHL-compatible MicroUSB port available on some others. Like MHL, SlimPort uses the MicroUSB port but provides extra pins to transmit video, so device makers don't need a separate MicroHDMI port. But MHL cables don't work with SlimPort or vice versa.

Adding insult to injury, Google's three Nexus devices don't even use the same video-out technology: The Nexus 4 uses SlimPort HDMI, the Nexus 10 uses MicroHDMI, and the Nexus 7 has no video-out-compatible port at all. Each is made by a different manufacturer, but you'd think that Google would have made the technical requirements the same for such a core technology.

It's basic hardware, otherwiseThe other unique hardware feature in the Nexus 4 is its support for so-called wireless power (inductive charging), a dubious technology that wastes energy and requires space-gobbling mats. It's a toy, not a useful capability.

Other than LTE support, the Nexus 4 has the hardware you'd expect on a modern smartphone, including Bluetooth radio, Wi-Fi (with Wi-Fi Direct support), near-field communications (NFC) short-range radio for touch-initiated sharing and payments, front and rear cameras with rear LED flash, and audio jack. It felt perfectly responsive and didn't suffer the app crashes I experienced in the Nexus 10 tablet. The Nexus 4 is a perfectly serviceable smartphone, as long as you don't plan on using LTE while you own it.

But for the privilege of owning a middling smartphone without LTE, you'll pay much more than you would for a premium Android smartphone or iPhone. The Nexus 4 costs $300 for the anemic 8GB model and $400 for the 16GB model, versus $100 to $200 for equivalent high-end smartphones. The reason is that you're paying the full cost of the Nexus 4; the carriers don't subsidize its price as they do most smartphones. (An unsubsidized high-end smartphone can cost $550 to $650 for the equivalent storage capacity.) Even though the carriers save the subsidy costs, they don't give you a break on the service costs -- all you gain is the ability to switch carriers without paying an early termination fee, which happens to be about the same as the extra cost of the Nexus 4. The economics just don't work.

As an unlocked smartphone not tied to a specific U.S. carrier's network, the Nexus 4 can run on any compatible carrier, which means T-Mobile or AT&T in the States. That's very limited portability. As for use overseas, most U.S. carriers let you use their locked smartphones abroad on local carriers' networks by swapping the SIM card, so chances are you are already unlocked for foreign access. Also, you can easily get a subsidized smartphone that is unlocked for overseas use.

If you really want to take advantage of the power of Android, you're better off with a Galaxy S III or other high-end model.

This article, "Nexus 4 review: Google's instantly obsolete Android smartphone," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in mobile computing, read Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog at InfoWorld.com, follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter, and follow InfoWorld on Twitter.

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Galen Gruman

InfoWorld

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