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Google Nexus 5 review: A Nexus with power, potential, and the right price

Google takes its flagship gloves off and makes its Nexus 5 with Android 4.4 KitKat the unlocked handset to beat.

Lynn La Senior Editor / Reviews - Phones
Lynn La covers mobile reviews and news. She previously wrote for The Sacramento Bee, Macworld and The Global Post.
Lynn La
14 min read

Finally, we have an Android handset that deserves the Nexus name. The Nexus 5 is fast, gorgeous, and stocked with features (including LTE) and it is the device for showing the true power of the Google universe and the Android operating system. And, at $349 (16GB) or $399 (32GB) at the Play Store -- about $250 less than other top-tier flagship smartphones -- it's a great deal whether you're on a budget or not (and whether you're an Android fan or not).


Google Nexus 5

The Good

The <b>Google Nexus 5</b> has LTE for multiple carriers, a sleek and solid build, and an excellent price. It makes crystal-clear calls, battery life is long, and integration of Google Now is deep and wide.

The Bad

The Nexus 5's screen is dimmer than its competitors' and its camera struggles under auto settings. While an important OS update, Android 4.4 KitKat is more conceptual than feature-rich.

The Bottom Line

Strong performance, high-end specs, and an ultra-affordable price make the Google Nexus 5 not just the best unlocked phone on the market, but the best Nexus phone by far.

Yes, with a fast Snapdragon 800 processor, a sharp 1080p touch screen, and a competent battery, there's a lot to like about the Nexus 5 even if you never get past the main menu. But it's really the Android 4.4 KitKat operating system that we're here to see. Though not long on flashy new features, KitKat brings an ever deeper integration with Google's expanding array of services and a promise to end the age-old scourge of Android fragmentation.

Still, at that price, sometimes it makes it difficult to judge the Nexus -- is it a top-tier phone for cheap, or a midrange device that's bizarrely souped up with great innards? Do its variable camera and relatively dim screen get a pass because it's a $400 handset after all, or should I be expecting better from a Google flagship? And it is a flagship, much more so than the Nexus 4 and even the Galaxy Nexus were, but pinning it down further is difficult.

However you want to consider it, one thing's for certain: the phone's specs are indeed high-end, and its reliable performance further bolsters its appeal, despite its flaws. For what it's worth, the Nexus 5 is the best unlocked phone on the market.

A look at the Google Nexus 5 (pictures)

See all photos

Carrier and availability

Before I get started, I want to mention that you can get the Nexus 5 from carriers, in addition to the Play Store. Sprint and T-Mobile will carry it, with the former selling it for $149.99 on contract (however, with deals and rebates, the price can be found closer to just $50). The device will work on AT&T's network as well, though AT&T will not sell it in stores. Unfortunately, Verizon Wireless users will be left out of the Nexus party.

Design: Still a looker

Let's get physical
Once again, Google's latest Nexus retains a familiar minimalistic aesthetic. However, with its straighter edges and sharper curves, it looks more stately and austere than its predecessor. For instance, instead of the display sloping downward at its sides (as if melting right off) like before, it cuts off sharply at the edges.

The device measures 5.43 inches tall and 2.72 inches wide. It's thinner and lighter than the prior model, at 0.34 inches thick and 4.59 ounces. Comfortable to hold, the Nexus 5 feels sturdy and dense in the hand. When it's facing up from a table, its curved back makes it easier to grab off the surface, like the HTC One.

Google Nexus 5 (display)

With its straighter edges and sharper corners, the Nexus 5 dons a more austere look.

James Martin/CNET

On the left is a narrow volume rocker and up top is a 3.5mm headphone jack. The right edge houses a sleep/power button and the SIM card slot. The physical control keys are made out of ceramic, and unlike the previous model, they don't have soft, rounded edges. As small as they are, they feel sharp when you press them. This isn't a huge issue, but it was one of the first things I noticed. At the bottom edge, you'll find a Micro-USB port flanked by two audio speakers.

Similarly to the Nexus 7 tablet, the handset displays a simple vertically lined Nexus logo, and a subtle LG logo on the back. Subdued and restrained, the Nexus 5 has done away with the lustrous, tile-patterned back that we saw previously, and replaced it with a matte material.

Google Nexus 5 Samsung Galaxy S4HTC OneApple iPhone 5S
Length in inches 5.43 5.37 5.41 4.87
Width in inches 2.72 2.75 2.69 2.31
Depth in inches 0.34 0.31 0.37 0.3
Weight in ounces 4.59 4.59 5.04 3.95

The change is no head-turner, and the black version acquires a surprising amount of fingerprints. But I'm still partial to this back side from a practical standpoint. As stylish as the Nexus 4 was, its rear glass panel was too fragile; in fact, two of our own review units cracked quite easily.

Say hello to the vibrant neon-red Nexus 5 (pictures)

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Lean, mean screen machine?
Sporting the biggest screen yet in relation to past Nexuses, the phone has a 4.95-inch Corning Gorilla Glass 3 display. Keeping up with its competitors like the Samsung Galaxy S4 and the HTC One, the Nexus 5's touch screen has a 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution and 445ppi.

On paper, those numbers should (and don't get me wrong, they do) make the screen look great. But when you start comparing the Nexus 5 side by side with other flagships, things do get interesting.

Google Nexus 5 Samsung Galaxy S4HTC OneApple iPhone 5S
Screen size 4.95-inch full HD IPS 5-inch Super AMOLED 4.7-inch LCD 4-inch Retina Display
Resolution 1,920x1,080 pixels 1,920x1,080 pixels 1,920x1,080 pixels 1,136x640 pixels
Pixels per inch 445ppi 441ppi 468ppi 326 ppi

In a room with all the lights turned off, I lined up the device alongside the Galaxy GS4, HTC One, and Apple iPhone 5S. With their displays on maximum brightness, I viewed the same swatch of white on each of their screens. Despite its small size, the iPhone 5S was the purest and brightest, with the One coming in at a close second. The Nexus 5, however, looked a little hazier in comparison. Meanwhile, the white swatch on the GS4 appeared strikingly blue, as is expected with AMOLED screens.

On the other hand, the GS4 won by miles in the black swatch test. Its screen had the deepest and darkest shade (or "none more black," as Nigel Tufnel would say), followed by the iPhone and Nexus, which both looked paler. The One lost this round, with an almost subtly purple shade of black.

Google Nexus 5 (display 2)

The device sports 4.95 inches of LCD glory, but how does it stack up against the competition?

James Martin/CNET

As for overall color quality in images and video, that depends on your preference. You may like the vibrant saturation and high contrast of the GS4's hues, but if you're a stickler for accuracy, the One and the iPhone are top-notch. The Nexus also displayed colors that were true to life, but not as vividly as the others. In addition, when studying the handsets from different vantage points, I noticed that the Nexus' display looked as if it had a gray glaze on top of it, which made it appear paler than the others.

I must reiterate, however, that for general use, the phone's screen is still excellent. Its drawbacks are only apparent when you have other flagship devices on hand to compare it with. The average consumer most likely won't have that luxury, and so won't see all these nuances of the Nexus 5's screen.

If you consider the everyday experience, the display is still great; it's sensitive, and typing with SwiftKey was accurate and ultraresponsive to the touch. Along with app icons and text, HD videos were smooth and crisp, and default KitKat wallpapers looked razor-sharp.

Google Nexus 5 (pocket)

Although it's nice to pose like this with a phone, we don't suggest it as a way of carrying it around.

Josh MIller/CNET

Hardware and key components: Souped up with high-end specs

The handset is powered by a quad-core 2.26GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor (the same blazingly fast CPU seen in the LG G2 and Samsung Galaxy Note 3), and a 450MHz Adreno 330 GPU. With these specs, the Nexus 5 is a powerhouse, especially when you consider that both the Galaxy GS4 and HTC One are speed demons themselves, and run on Snapdragon 600 processors.

Included are a capable 2,300mAh battery, 2GB of RAM, and support for 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac (2.4GHz and 5GHz) dual-band Wi-Fi. It also has Bluetooth 4.0 LE, NFC, and built-in wireless charging. Like most Nexus phones before it, the Nexus 5 doesn't have a microSD card slot.

Google Nexus 5 (Riptide GP)

Running Riptide GP is no problem for the phone's Snapdragon 800 processor.

James Martin/CNET

Software features: Break me off a piece of that KitKat

Of course, a Nexus just wouldn't be a Nexus without it running the latest edition of Android. With high hopes of limiting fragmentation and increasing the number of devices compatible with Android 4.4 KitKat, Google slimmed down the OS to a 512MB memory profile. To put that in perspective, that's 16 percent less memory than the previous version of the OS, Jelly Bean. On the Nexus 5 alone that doesn't mean a whole lot, but if Google can really influence equipment manufacturers to ship only one version of Android by 2014, then KitKat will be Android's most important update yet.

As for other features, the update isn't a huge overhaul by any means, but there are notable changes. Below I highlight three interesting ones for consumers, though Google threw in goodies for developers too, like screen recording and a wireless-printing framework. For more info on KitKat, check out CNET's first take here.

A dialer that searches
The first thing that launches when you tap the dialer icon is your top contacts, not the dial pad. While you can manually add your favorites to this list, the phone can also add contacts it considers your most commonly dialed numbers.

The dialer's search function has also expanded beyond your contact book. Now you can look up the numbers of places and businesses nearby, and Google will cull the best search results based on relevancy and your location. If you type a specific name, say "Super Duper," the dialer will bring up the numbers of several Super Duper Burgers locations around you. You can also search for something broader like "coffee" or "gym" and you'll get the names of relevant places nearby.

If you're typing a word where the letters actually spell out a phone number as if you were pressing it from an alphanumeric dial pad -- think 1-800-FLOWERS, or what have you -- the dialer does that too. (FYI: The phone number equivalent for "disestablishment" is 3473782254746368. And "Lynn" is 5966. Fun!)

I found this feature to be very useful. Before, I had to search for businesses via Chrome, Google voice search, Maps, or Yelp. Most of the time, I could click the number and the dialer would load the info directly, but there have been times when I had to use copy/paste. Though this shaves off just a few clicks and taps, this feature makes the device more cohesive and seamless.

Google Nexus 5 (dialer)

The dialer displaying your top contacts (left) and its search tool (right).

Lynn La/CNET

Hanging out all together
Say goodbye to that green smiling speech bubble; Google has folded SMS texting into Hangouts. Now you'll get texts, chat pings, and video calling in one app. Personally, I'm not a fan of this consolidation. I barely use Hangouts in the first place, and this move feels like Google forcing a service on me (or at least reminding me that it's there). Furthermore, the UI also looks cluttered, and when you get a text and Hangout ping from one contact, the threads remain separated and you have to switch between the two.

Google Nexus 5 (Hangouts and SMS)

Hangouts consolidates your chats and texts together (left), and will serve as your default SMS app (right).

Lynn La/CNET

Google Now, now, now
With the advent of Google Now, which has been around since Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, users have been able to begin a Web search by saying, "OK, Google." But KitKat brings a couple of changes to this service. First, if you turn on Google Now, you can access it by swiping left on your home screen, in addition to holding down the home button.

Second, you don't have to manually launch Now or tap the microphone to start a voice search anymore. Search automatically begins once it hears the magic phrase. It's so automatic, it borders on overzealous. In fact, you don't even have to face the handset if you say, "OK, Google" remotely loud enough (or anything that rhymes, really, like "bouquet doodle"). As always, though, you can turn this function off in settings.

Google Nexus 5 (Google Now)

With KitKat, Google now lives to the left of your home screen (left), and voice search (right) is integrated more deeply into the user experience.

Lynn La/CNET

Camera and video: Not an area that shines

Camera and photo features
New to the Nexus' 8-megapixel camera is optical image stabilization (OIS). Due to a small gyroscope inside the lens that acts as a counterbalance for unintentional movement, the camera cuts down on unwanted motion blur that may occur from the photographer's unsteady hand.

There's also HDR+. Like the HDR mode seen in many camera phones, this feature takes several shots at different exposures and combines them to make an ideal image. However, HDR+ also detects moving objects and takes a burst of photos to select the sharpest image.

Other than that, not much has changed. With both cameras, users will get auto and touch focus, a 3.9x digital zoom, geotagging, an exposure meter, a timer, five white balances, and four scene modes. The rear-facing camera also has flash and can carry out both panoramic and photosphere shooting.

Google NExus 5 (rear camera)

The Nexus 5's 8MP camera now has optical image stabilization and HDR+ shooting.

James Martin/CNET

Picture and video quality
The camera operates swiftly; it took no time at all to adjust for focus, or to ready itself for another shot after I clicked the shutter. As expected, HDR+ photos take longer to process, but you don't have to wait around very much.

OIS also worked well. I took a few shots while walking down the sidewalk. I tried to keep my hand as steady as possible while still in motion, and the majority of photos I captured were in focus, though there were one or two that came out blurry. I felt that LG G2's OIS was more consistent and was able to handle more movement than the Nexus 5's.

Photo quality was great, but it didn't particularly blow me away. For the most part, objects were sharp and in focus, and had well-defined edges. In many environments, HDR+ vastly improved shots taken in automatic mode by producing more natural colors and finer details. Auto mode performed better in close-up shots, but HDR+ is best for well-lit outdoor scenes. For more photos taken on the Nexus 5, check out the photos and slideshow below. Be sure to click on the photos to see them at their full resolution.

Google Nexus 5 (HDR plus)

In this HDR+ photo, high and low exposure allow both the sun in the sky and the shadows in the grass to be visible.

Lynn La/CNET

HDR+ helped capture the flowing water with nice detail.

Sarah Mitroff/CNET
Google Nexus 5 (indoor zoom)

This shot of a piece of lace taken up close with indoor lighting is detailed, but its edges are blurry.

Lynn La/CNET
Google Nexus 5 (SSI)

In our standard studio shot, the white background is accurate, and the objects look sharp.

Josh Miller/CNET

Taking Google's Nexus 5 camera out for a spin (pictures)

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Video quality was also satisfactory, but again, footage wasn't overly impressive. Recording in 1080p HD yielded crisp footage, and the camera quickly adjusted to changes in lighting. However, there was a not-so-subtle "pulsating" effect when the lens refocused itself, which was distracting. Nearby audio also picked up well, with background noises leveled appropriately.

Editing options in Gallery
The Gallery app, where a bulk of the 5's native editing options are located, received some tweaks too. In addition to the nine Instagram-esque filters already included, you can now make your own "filter" by creating and saving your favorite presets. Filters are also now applied with a neat "washing over" effect across the photo.

A few frames have been deleted, and now they have labels like Scratchy and Easel instead of being numbered (I wish I could have sat in on that meeting). There are three new editing effects: posterize, negative, and graduated, which lets you adjust brightness, saturation, and contrast levels with a movable leveler.

Google Nexus 5 (gallery)

The gallery now lets you customize your own preset filters (left) and a graduated editing tool has been added (right).

Lynn La/CNET

Performance: Reliable and fast

Call quality
I tested the Nexus 5 in our San Francisco offices using an AT&T SIM card and call quality was impressive. Voices didn't just sound adequately loud (though that was a plus too), but were also clear, with a wide range of depth. It sounded as if I were listening in from a landline, and while I could hear a miniscule amount of static, it was rare.

My calling partner also commented that I sounded crisp too, and it was some of the best audio quality he's heard from a phone running on AT&T's cell network. When I moved outdoors, call quality remained consistently strong. Calls didn't drop, I didn't hear any extraneous buzzing or noise, and audio didn't cut in and out. Listening in on speaker yielded the same high results, with the dual speakers at the bottom giving voices a wider, fuller sound.


Now with LTE
One of the biggest issues I had with the Nexus 4 was the fact that it didn't have LTE capabilities. Now before anyone gets his or her feathers ruffled up again, hear me out (and don't worry, this ends well).

Not having LTE isn't a big deal if you're from outside the United States, but here, the network is more widespread and robust. When it comes to highly anticipated, top-tier devices like the Nexus at least, LTE is a standard feature, and the lack of it was a letdown. Also, while we eventually got LTE models of the Galaxy Nexus for Sprint and Verizon, the 4G network wasn't on the original unlocked handset introduced almost two years ago.

Google Nexus 5 (LTE)

The Google launched the Nexus 5 with LTE support from multiple carriers.

James Martin/CNET

That's why it's great to see the Nexus 5 with LTE, albeit overdue. While individual data performance depends on several changing and independent variables, I used AT&T's 4G LTE network in San Francisco. Connection was generally strong and consistent.

On average, CNET's, The New York Times', and ESPN's mobile site loaded in 4 seconds. Their full desktop sites loaded in 6, 10, and 5 seconds respectively. I tested Ookla's Speedtest.net app at different times of day. It showed an average 21.29Mbps down and 12.29Mbps up. The 37.61MB game Temple Run 2 downloaded and installed in an impressive 23 seconds.

Google Nexus 5 (Ookla)

Some of the LTE data speeds the phone clocked in using AT&T's network.

Lynn La/CNET

Google Nexus 5 performance times

Average 4G LTE download speed 21.29Mbps
Average 4G LTE upload speed 12.29Mbps
App download (Temple Run 2) 37.61MB in 23 seconds
CNET mobile site load 4 seconds
CNET desktop site load 6 seconds
Restart time 24 seconds
Camera boot time 2.41 seconds

Processing power
Underneath this device's hood is a 2.26GHz Snapdragon 800 processor. The handset carried out basic but necessary tasks easily -- unlocking the screen, calling up the keyboard, and returning to the home pages were all executed with ease. On average, it took the handset 24 seconds to shut down and power up, and 2.41 seconds for the camera to launch.

Even for not-so-basic tasks, like playing the graphics-intensive game Riptide GP 2, frame rates were high and smooth, and the splash-back animation of the water looked brisk and clear. When I ran the 3DMark bench test, the phone scored 17,966. In comparison the GS4 scored 10,511, the HTC One scored 10,246, and the iPhone 5S scored 13,948.

3D Mark

Google Nexus 5 16,385Apple iPhone 5S 13,948Samsung Galaxy S4 10,300HTC One 9,602
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance

Battery life
With Wi-Fi turned off and LTE activated, the Nexus 5's 2,300mAh nonremovable battery has a reported talk time of up to 17 hours. When both are activated, Google says, the device lasts 300 hours on standby. Internet tests reportedly yielded 8.5 hours on Wi-Fi and 7 hours on LTE.

During our battery test, the handset lasted 9.88 hours for continuous video playback. In comparison, the One has the same-sized battery and lasted 9.62 hours, and the GS4's slightly larger 2,600mAh battery lasted 10.33 hours for the same test.

Google Nexus 5 (video)

A 2,300mAh nonremovable battery inside keeps the phone chugging along while you watch videos, surf the net, and make calls.

James Martin/CNET

As for talk time, we ran the test more than once and average results showed the Nexus 5 lasting an impressive 17.61 hours. The GS4's lasted 19.37 hours for talk time, and the G2's 3,000mAh battery lasted 23.47 hours.

According to FCC radiation measurements, the device has an in-ear SAR level of 0.96W/kg.

Conclusion: Not just for enthusiasts

For all the brouhaha that surrounds the Google Nexus 5, know that the device isn't perfect. Its crisp 1080p display isn't as bright as those of other high-end handsets on the market, its 8-megapixel camera can capture lackluster photos and videos, and as it turns out, KitKat doesn't bring a lot of tangible feature sweets.

But if we take a step back, we realize that to even compare this $400 phone to those that cost upward of $650 unlocked (like the Samsung Galaxy S4, HTC One, and Apple iPhone 5S) speaks volumes about the Nexus 5's massive appeal and affordability. Performance is solid and it has the big-boy specs that everyone expects.

Google Nexus 5 (back)

With its low price, Android 4.4 OS, and top-notch specs, the 5 works to extend the popularity of the Nexus brand.

James Martin/CNET

That includes having a powerful processor that works smoothly, a screen that looks crisp, a battery life that runs sufficiently, and data capabilities that connect to LTE. Oh, right, and it makes calls -- really clear calls. What's more, the end-of-fragmenting promise that KitKat brings is intoxicating and long overdue.

With all this in in its box, it's easy to see why the brouhaha isn't limited to Android diehards anymore. Instead, the Nexus 5 extends the allure of the Nexus brand to anyone simply looking for an excellent yet inexpensive handset.


Google Nexus 5

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 9Performance 8