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LG Nexus 4 (T-Mobile) review: Elegant smartphone with a huge flaw

Despite boasting a quad-core CPU, a handful of new photo features, and an unsullied Android 4.2 experience, the Nexus 4 won't be providing LTE speeds.

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Lynn La
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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.

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10 min read

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With its recent history of mediocre handsets, LG needs something other than the Optimus G to be its Hail Mary that can carry it to the top. Unfortunately, the Nexus 4 isn't quite it.

LG Nexus 4
7.8

LG Nexus 4 (T-Mobile)

The Good

The competitively priced <b>LG Nexus 4</b> delivers a pure and polished experience with Android 4.2 Jelly Bean, it's powered by a snappy quad-core processor, and it's packed with new photo-editing and camera features.

The Bad

The Nexus 4's construction is solid but uninspiring, its call volume is too low, and it lacks 4G LTE.

The Bottom Line

While the LG Nexus 4 wins on internal performance and user experience, anyone shopping for an unlocked phone should consider a comparable LTE handset first.

Don't get me wrong, the device itself performs excellently, and some of the specs are certainly impressive: the quad-core CPU is swift, the Jelly Bean Android OS runs as smooth as butter, and all the subtle new features work well without being too unintuitive or burdensome.

But Google's flagship phone is missing one huge feature that caught us all off guard. The Nexus, which is supposed to represent Android in its most modern, so-high-tech-that-it's-on-the-bleeding-edge form, isn't 4G LTE-enabled.

Instead, it operates on "4G-ish" technology (GSM/HSPA+), and comes unlocked from Google (starting on November 13, the 8GB and 16GB versions will be $299 and $349, respectively) or on T-Mobile (after signing a carrier agreement, the 16GB model will be $199 and will begin selling the day after). If your carrier is T-Mobile you won't care much, since the network runs on HSPA+ anyway. But for those who had been planning on buying the unlocked model and using it on, say, AT&T's 4G LTE network, the news is truly a downer.

Truth is, while HSPA+ can be as fast as LTE, for the average consumer LTE is expected on high-end phones. Jelly Bean and the pure Android experience will be important for OS enthusiasts, but this phone should have had both. And yes, I know the Galaxy Nexus didn't have LTE, either, when the technology was available. I was disappointed then, too, even though the network wasn't as robust. But now that LTE is so widespread, the Nexus 4 shouldn't get a pass. A handset this high-caliber should have LTE capability, especially these days, when so much time has passed since LTE's launch and even midrange devices come with it.

Design
If I were to sum up my impression of the LG Nexus 4's look in one sentence, it'd be this: even though the smartphone has LG's logo slapped on its back, it has Google written all over it.

Don't get me wrong, you won't see Andy anywhere on the handset, nor will you see any blue, red, yellow, and green lettering. But the device's design noticeably lacks LG's past aesthetic.

LG Nexus 4
Yup, this is definitely running Android Jelly Bean. Josh Miller/CNET

Gone are the bezel hot keys that light up when in use, and there's no physical home button. Instead, the shortcut keys for back, home, and recent apps appear on the screen itself, just like they do on the previous Nexus. Also gone is the straight-edged touch screen. In its place is a display that softly curves into the bezel, which adds that luxurious extra oomph, and it's something I'm a huge fan of.

Lastly, the top and bottom edges of the Nexus 4 curve outward, giving the device gently rounded corners. This is a welcome departure from LG's recent string of mid- to high-end smartphones that were sharply rectangular and austere.

Not everything looks great, however. The phone's edges are coated with a matte plastic, rubbery material, and they turn inward at a sharp, jagged angle. And if you want to access the inside, you'll need to use a tiny screwdriver, which will be inconvenient for some.

Overall, the design is nothing we all haven't seen before. Yes, the Nexus 4 does look and feel like a premium handset, but it's uninspiring. It measures about the same as most big, 4.7-inch phones (5.27 inches by 2.7 inches by 0.36 inch), so it'll be a tight squeeze in small jean pockets. It's a wide fit in the hand but is comfortable to hold, and while it's only 0.1 ounce heavier than the Samsung Galaxy S3, it feels noticeably denser and sturdier.

Phone Height    Width    Depth    Screen    Weight   
LG Nexus 4 (T-Mobile) 5.27 inches 2.7 inches 0.36 inch 4.7 inches 4.8 ounces
LG Optimus G (AT&T) 5.01 inches 2.8 inches 0.37 inch 4.7 inches 5.44 ounces
LG Optimus G (Sprint)     5.2 inches 2.7 inches 0.33 inch 4.7 inches 5.12 ounces
Samsung GS3 (Verizon) 5.4 inches 2.8 inches 0.34 inch 4.8 inches 4.7 ounces

On the left is a volume rocker and up top is a 3.5mm headphone jack. The sleep/power button is on the right spine, and the Micro-USB port is on the bottom edge. Above the display in the top right corner is a 1.3-megapixel camera and below the screen is an LED notification light. The back of the phone houses an 8-megapixel camera and an LED flash.

Now, about that distinctive sparkling back plate: personally, I don't mind it. You can only really see it in the light, and it reminds me of either Tetris or "The Matrix" (two things I'm fond of). There are others, however, who don't like it and say it makes the phone look like a "Sailor Moon" sticker card.

The LG Nexus 4 arrives in Jelly Bean glory (pictures)

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Display
Though the LG Optimus G and the Nexus 4 have the same 4.7-inch True HD IPS+ touch screen with the same 1,280x768-pixel resolution, and both are made out of Corning Gorilla Glass 2, the usable screen space on the Nexus 4 is actually smaller because of the onscreen hot keys. Sure, the icons move out of the way when you're watching videos or playing games, but that third of an inch of lost screen space (especially given that the two devices are nearly the same size) is noticeable when browsing the home screen or surfing the Web.

Having said that, however, the screen is still impressive -- it's bright, text renders crisply, colors are true to life and vivid, and it's sensitive to touch input. Something about swiping my fingers across it and letting them fall off the edges felt incredibly slick. Even the slightest touch will register, without being inaccurate, and typing with Gesture Touch (more on that later) was exceptionally smooth.

Understandably, on the Optimus G and and the Nexus 4, photos and videos looked practically identical. There were a few times when colors on the Nexus 4 had warmer tones and less contrast, but these instances happened so rarely that it's difficult to make a call between the two.

On the other hand, differences compared with the Samsung Galaxy S3 were much more prominent. Colors on the Galaxy S3 were more saturated, greens looked deeply green, and whites had a subtle blue hue to them. Dark colors, like black and brown, were harder to distinguish from one another. Though there were times when the richer palette made photos and videos look better on the S3, the Nexus 4 displayed colors that were truer to life without being muted.

Interface and basic features
Unlike the overhaul that was the change from Android Gingerbread to Honeycomb to Ice Cream Sandwich, the change from ICS to Jelly Bean is subtler. In general, the aesthetics of the UI remain about the same: Roboto is still the dominant font, menus and icons keep the same minimalistic look, and the elegant simplicity of ICS is retained overall. In fact, only hard-core Android devotees would be able to tell it wasn't ICS even after spending a few minutes with it.

The interface for incoming calls has been slightly tweaked. Screenshot by Lynn La/CNET

However, the minor changes that are present are welcome, such as resizable widgets; a more expansive notifications bar that lets you see more information about things like e-mails, texts, and screenshots; offline voice dictation; more wallpapers; updates to Google Play; and updates to Android Beam, which now allows you to transfer more-complex files like photos and movies over NFC.

Google Now gets more accurate with its suggestions and transportation estimations the more you use your phone. Screenshot by Lynn La/CNET

Another feature is Google Now, which is closely tied into Google Search and Voice Search. Because Google Now isn't technically a voice recognition service, it's not like iOS' Siri. But it does have voice assistant-style abilities. For instance, it can suggest local restaurants and estimate your commute time.

For more information, read our review of Jelly Bean.

Basic features include a calculator, a calendar, a clock with alarm functions (with an extremely beautiful interface, I must say), an e-mail client, a movie-editing app, and a news and weather app. And all the Google apps you come to expect are preloaded: Chrome, Currents, Earth, Plus, Search, Local, Maps with Navigation, Messenger, Talk, Voice Search, YouTube, and the Google Play Books, Magazines, Movies and TV, Music, and Store portals.

Android 4.2: What's new for Jelly Bean?
Right when I turned on the handset, it prompted me for an update to version 4.2. This brought a few more features, most of which involve the camera (I'll expand on that later). Another feature is Gesture Typing, a typing input method that's similar to Swype. Swype is a third-party app that allows users to swipe through the letters to form the words they're typing out, instead of hitting individual keys. It's a faster, more convenient way of typing that's rightly loved by Android users. Gesture Typing is a native feature that works in the same way.

Gesture Typing, a native typing input method, works similarly to Swype. Screenshot by Lynn La/CNET

There's also Daydreams, a sort of screensaver sleep mode for your phone whenever it's docked or charging. Options include a graphic of floating jelly beans you can interact with through touch, a mural of headlines gathered from your Google Current subscriptions, or a shifting color gradient. In addition, photos from your albums can be displayed, either individually or piled on one another like a stack of physical pictures.

Camera and video
Shooting options and editing: The LG Nexus 4's 8-megapixel camera sports a new user interface that is now even more minimalist than the previous Nexus iteration's. Photo options can be reached through a radial dial that you can access by either tapping on the circle on the right-hand corner, or tapping anywhere on the viewfinder itself.

These options include flash, geotagging, and 3.9x digital zooming, five white-balance modes, five scene modes, seven photo sizes, an exposure meter ranging from -2 to +2, and HDR shooting. You also get touch and autofocus. The front-facing camera retains most of these features save for the flash (obviously), and there are only three photo sizes to choose from.

In addition, you can take panoramic pictures and Photo Spheres, a new feature in Android 4.2. Photo Sphere stitches together pictures taken from every angle at a single point, to create expansive 3D-esque photos. Though you need to spend some time to take all the photos, the spheres never fail to impress people, and they're great when you want to record and share an all-encompassing scene, like when hiking or buying a new house. Though I had a little trouble figuring out how to use it in the beginning, the feature works reliably and swiftly. There were a few times, however, when the feature didn't allow me to capture the very bottom and very top of a scene, which resulted in huge black holes of empty space in my photos.

Photo Sphere patches together several pictures and renders them into (nearly) a 360-degree image. Screenshot by Lynn La/CNET

Aside from the exposure meter, rear-facing video features consist of the same options. However, there is an additional time-lapse mode and you can select from three video qualities, the highest being HD 1080p. If you want to record with the front-facing camera, the highest quality you can shoot in is HD 720p.

The photo gallery also went through a makeover. You can browse through photos in a filmstrip view by slightly pinching in on an individual picture. To delete a photo, simply flick it off the screen. To edit an individual image, select the icon of three intertwining circles at the bottom of the display.

Editing options include 10 lens filters, not unlike the ones Instagram offers. You can also overlay seven different types of borders, crop a photo, or adjust sharpness, exposure, contrast, hues and saturation levels, and much more.

Android Jelly Bean includes new photo-editing options that are quite Instagram-esque. Screenshot by Lynn La/CNET

Photo quality: In photo quality the Nexus 4 was very similar to AT&T's Optimus G. In sunny outdoor shots (and even on gloomy, overcast days), images were in focus, with crisp, well-defined edges. Photos didn't necessarily "pop" with saturated hues, but colors were true to life. I found that whites, even on auto white balance, were especially accurate. In low or indoor lighting, pictures understandably fared worse. Dark hues were harder to distinguish from one another, and when zooming in at full resolution, there was more digital noise and pixelation.

In our standard studio shot, objects are in focus and colors are true to life. Josh Miller/CNET

The camera performed well; there was no lag in feedback when I moved it. However, for a handset that performs so speedily in every other aspect -- running games, Web browsing, and the like -- the shutter speed is comparably slower than the iPhone 5's and the Galaxy S3's. Snapping one picture is fine, but when I rapidly and continuously pressed the shutter button, the time it needed to refocus stalled its shutter time.

Shooting with the Nexus 4's camera (pictures)

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Video recording was also respectable. Audio picked up well, colors were accurate, and moving objects, like passing cars, remained in constant focus with clean outlines and little pixelation. The refresh rate during playback was high and images rendered smoothly.

Performance
Call quality: We tested the device on T-Mobile's network. Signal quality both indoors and outdoors was great. I didn't hear any audio clipping in and out, no calls were dropped, and I didn't hear any extraneous buzzing.

Call quality, however, was a different matter. Every test call I made was to a landline phone, and for the in-ear speaker, audio volume was too low. There were times, especially outdoors, when I couldn't make out what my friends were saying, even after cranking it up to maximum volume. Switching to speakerphone helped a little, but if I turned the volume too high, voices sounded extremely harsh. This makes sense since sound can only escape through a thin slit in the back of the phone, so my friends sounded really tinny while speaking. The speaker also rendered music flatly. Its small opening strips away much of the depth and body, especially from songs that are instrumentally rich.

Listen now: T-Mobile's LG Nexus 4 call quality sample

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Furthermore, even in regular (not speakerphone) calls, voices sounded slightly staticky, and every word I heard was layered with a subtle fuzz. Likewise, a friend reported to me that I sounded too sharp, as if the bass was turned down on my voice while the treble was turned up.

Whether the lack of LTE matters: If you're a T-Mobile customer, the answer is no. T-Mobile's "4G" was always based on HSPA+ technology and it never offered LTE, anyway (though the carrier does plan on launching it next year). So for those of you who belong to the carrier now, this handset is one of the best phones T-Mobile is offering.

On average, it loaded our CNET mobile site in 6 seconds and our full desktop site in 8 seconds. The New York Times mobile and desktop sites took 7 and 14 seconds to load, respectively. ESPN's mobile site downloaded in 7 seconds, and the phone took 15 seconds to load the full site. It took a mere 50 seconds on average to download the 22MB game Temple Run. And the Ookla speed-test app showed me an average of 8.15Mbps down and 0.5Mbps up.

Performance: LG Nexus 4 (T-Mobile)    
Average "4G" download speed 8.15Mpbs
Average "4G" upload speed 0.5Mbps
App download (Temple Run) 22MB in 50 seconds    
CNET mobile site load 6 seconds
CNET desktop site load 8 seconds
Boot time 23 seconds
Camera boot time 1.82 seconds

However, if you buy the phone unlocked, you won't be able to use any carrier's 4G LTE network. As I stated before, LTE has become a staple in mid- to high-end phones and the technology is no longer in its infancy. And while some surmise that operating on GSM/HSPA will make the Nexus 4 a more global device, it's still a letdown for the U.S. market.

Processor and battery: Though the Nexus 4's data speeds might not be blazingly fast, the 1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro quad-core CPU makes its internal speed swift and smooth. Graphics-intense games like Riptide GP and Asphalt 7 played extremely well, launching and running with no stalls or hiccups. The games both displayed high frame rates with high-resolution graphics.

LG Nexus 4
Because of the phone's ultrafast CPU, gameplay was crisp, smooth, and fast. Josh Miller/CNET

In addition, average start time for the handset was about 23 seconds, and it took about 1.82 seconds to launch the camera. Browsing on Chrome was a lot smoother on this device than on the Optimus G for some reason. For instance, scrolling down Web pages was executed much more swiftly.

During our battery drain tests for video playback, the device lasted 8.1 hours. Anecdotally the handset had short battery life. Though it's powered by a 2,100mAh battery, the screen takes much of its reserves. I needed a few good charges to get me through the day, and playing a 22-minute show drained about 10 percent of the battery's power. According to FCC radiation standards, phone has a a digital SAR rating of 0.56W/kg.

Conclusion
In general, the device is excellent and reliable -- its internal speeds are zippy and smooth, the camera is packed with new features, and Android 4.2 is indeed sleek. The Nexus 4 is one of the best LG phones out there alongside the Optimus G, and for such a recognizable phone, it's extremely affordable. In addition, if you're already a T-Mobile user, the Nexus 4 is the carrier's best offering next to the Galaxy S3.

But aside from natively sporting Android Jelly Bean, the Nexus 4 doesn't offer up anything significantly new. If you ask yourself, what does this phone do to expand and progress the Nexus brand? The answer is, nothing much.

Though it's fast, the Optimus G also has a quad-core CPU and the AT&T model is 4G LTE-capable to boot. Compared with the Samsung Galaxy S3's design, the Nexus 4 looks all too common. And if you're concerned about what Google said about LTE and battery life, look no further than the Motorola Droid Razr Maxx HD. Plainly put, while the Nexus 4's HSPA+ speeds are respectable, its lack of LTE capabilities will definitely leave users feeling behind or slighted.

LG Nexus 4
7.8

LG Nexus 4 (T-Mobile)

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Performance 8