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

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

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.

Google Nexus 5 (unlocked on AT&T) call quality sample

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 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
Apple iPhone 5S
Samsung Galaxy S4


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.

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