We did some comparison tests with the Nexus 4 and the Galaxy S III, one of the best 8-megapixel mobile cameras we've had the pleasure of using. There are a few areas in which the Nexus 4 bests the GS3, and others in which it's still very good, but loses to its Samsung competitor. The Nexus appears to be slightly better in close-ups and when zooming in at full strength. We also prefer HDR on the Nexus. Colors, however, seem to be more naturally saturated on the GS3 and the sky shows a more realistic blue hue. The LED flash on the Nexus 4 is bright -- in fact, it's almost too bright. This is a rare problem to have on a smartphone, no doubt, but many of our shots taken with the flash on end up washing some of the color out. The GS3's flash, by comparison, is softer, but at least we were able to see all of the colors the way they're supposed to look. In general, low-light performance was acceptable on the Nexus, but we noticed more noise and less light than on the GS3.
Lastly, the shutter speed seems to vary, depending on if it needs to focus before the shot is taken, but it still comes in under less than two seconds most of the time. There were a few occasions in which our subjects came out blurry because they moved before we could finish taking the shot.
Overall, it may not be the best performer among its peers, but the camera is still an asset to the Nexus 4, whereas it was a detriment to the phone's predecessor. And that's exactly what we were hoping to see. While we always prefer to have the best possible performance -- we're just picky that way -- it's nice to at least see more love and attention being paid to this aspect of the Nexus lineup.
The camcorder is capable of taking 1080p movies in MPEG-4 format, and records footage at an average of 22 fps with a 9 Mbps bit rate. This resulted in noisy, slightly choppy videos that didn't really convince us that what we were watching was of true HD quality. One positive takeaway is that you're still able to take images as the same time you record video, much like you could on the Galaxy Nexus.
Performance and battery life
The performance of the Nexus 4 is a curious thing. The phone has a complete beast of a chipset running things behind the scenes: it's the same 1.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro (APQ8064) as we saw in the LG Optimus G, paired with an Adreno 320 GPU and 2GB of RAM. In our initial tests between the aforementioned LG flagship and the Samsung Galaxy Note II (which sports a 1.6GHz quad-core Exynos chip), the S4 Pro comes out on top. And in our real-world use tests, we were satisfied with the zippiness of the Nexus. For the most part, it was responsive and fast, multitasking was smooth and we only rarely had any lag. In side-by-side use, it does feel slightly slower than the Optimus G, but it's faster than the Galaxy Nexus by leaps and bounds. LG's Nexus was able to handle all of our needs with ease.
Before we dive into the benchmark results you see above, we'll get one thing out of the way: benchmarks don't always tell the full story, and we understand that they often don't replicate real-world usage. We offer a standard suite of benchmarks because we feel that it's helpful to have a quantitative measurement when comparing devices. Since the Nexus 4 and the Optimus G are so similar in their chipsets and other components, the two's metrics should be easily comparable -- or at least in the same neighborhood as each other. But as you can see in the table above, some of the numbers are the complete opposite of what we expected. In fact, some of these results (most notably, Quadrant and Vellamo) are even lower than what we typically get out of dual-core Snapdragon S4 processors. To be fair, CF-Bench and GLBench didn't veer as far away from our expectations, and were quite respectable, but in general we were left scratching our heads. (Update: we believe the skewed results are a by-product of optimizations in stock Android 4.2 that improve perceived speed and user experience but negatively affect benchmarks. We hope this concern gets resolved in a future firmware update.)
We would be tempted to shrug it off and choose not to give this concern much thought, but we also ran into the same exact problem with another Nexus 4 review unit and multiple Nexus 10 devices as well. It's also easy to blame the benchmarks for not being optimized on Android 4.2, but we've never seen these tests exhibit this same problem with other versions of the mobile OS when they were brand new. That said, our units may very well have been loaded with a non-final firmware build that could be contributing to our dilemma somewhat. We'll receive a final pre-launch update that will enable lock screen widgets, so we're keeping our fingers crossed that a few more optimizations are included. (We'll update our review if we notice any uptick in performance or test results.) Still, you're going to get a pretty nice bang for your buck, and we doubt power users will come away disappointed.
We ran Riptide through its paces and it didn't skip a beat; the graphics were fantastic and we didn't have any problem. When we played Need for Speed: Most Wanted, an even more graphically intensive game, we saw a few frame skips and stutters throughout each level we played. These issues didn't interrupt the flow of the game, but they were still noticeable. Aside from these hiccups everything worked well, as there weren't any problems in rendering all of the details, such as the reflections cast onto the car and the fine quality in the surrounding buildings and other landmarks within the game. Battery life is yet another segment of the performance that's confused us. Since the Nexus 4 uses the same 2,100mAh battery (and power-friendly Krait chip) as the Optimus G, we expected to record essentially the same runtime. Much to our surprise, however, it was considerably worse in both our tests and our real-life use. Our standard video rundown test, which consists of looping a movie at 50 percent brightness with WiFi on (but not connected) and normal pull notifications for email and social media, lasted for five hours and 18 minutes before the battery died. Our anecdotal tests -- in which we do a moderate amount of email, social media, messaging, web surfing and take a few pictures and make some phone calls -- almost got us a full day of use, but your overall result will definitely depend on how bright you set that display. Regardless, the experience we had with both of our review units is still a stark contrast to the Optimus G, which lasted over eight hours in the video rundown test and 20 hours with moderate use.
(Update: we received a fresh Nexus 4 review unit from Google and found better luck with battery life. After using it for several days in multiple situations, we managed to see an average of 13 hours with moderate usage. Higher doses of steady use yielded around 9-10 hours of life, while less extensive usage easily got us over 15 hours.) We loved making calls on the Nexus, as our friends came through loud and clear. It was static-free and neither side of the conversation had any difficulty hearing each other. It's at this point that the plot continues to thicken. While we were satisfied with how loud and crisp our calls were, the external speaker was a completely different story. With both voice calls and music playback, it was substantially softer than on most comparable phones we've tested recently, and on several occasions we found ourselves double-checking the settings to make sure we had it as loud as it could possibly go. Additionally, the external speaker grille is flush with the phone's back, which causes the sound to be extraordinarily muffled when you rest the phone on a flat surface with the display facing up. We also tested the Nexus 4 with Klipsch Image S4A in-ear reference headphones and found the volume to be adequate, but it's definitely not the loudest we've heard. On the flip side, we didn't have any concerns with its clarity or being able to hear the highs, mids and lows. Speaking of multimedia, we should also mention that the display and chipset contributed to a flawless movie-watching experience.
Pricing and availability
The LG-made Nexus 4 will be available as an unlocked device in the Play Store beginning November 13, and it will come in two flavors: 8GB for $299 and 16GB for $349. We're not looking to sound like Crazy Eddie when we say this, but it's hard to dispute. This is an incredible price for a brand new quad-core HD device, especially when the least expensive phone on the market with similar specs will be the Huawei Ascend D1 Quad XL at $450 (and that's not even available in most major markets). It'll be on sale in the US, UK, Canada, Germany, France, Spain and Australia to start off with, but because it's penta-band, you'll easily be able to stick in a micro-SIM card from virtually any GSM carrier in the world and roam at your leisure. Stateside Nexus fans will have one other option: buy the 16GB model for $199 on T-Mobile with a two-year contract, starting November 14th. (It's also offered at the same price on the company's Value Plan.) We have a difficult time recommending this particular route -- you save $150 up front, but you're locked into a plan for two years and may likely pay more on a monthly basis as a result. There's no other differentiation between the two: no branding, no bloatware or special apps. WiFi calling isn't supported, and both versions are confirmed to include DC-HSPA+ 42Mbps speeds.
The idea that a Nexus quad-core smartphone is hitting the market with a starting price one dollar shy of $300 is simply stunning. Even more so is that it's available without any contract or carrier locks, which means you can use it virtually anywhere in the world. Adding yet another layer of amazement is the fact that this particular device will always be among the first (if not the first) to get the latest version of Android for the foreseeable future. What once was a smartphone series designed for developers has been decked out with top-notch features and priced so attractively that consumers will take notice of it; there's nothing comparable that comes close to it in that price range. This is a smartphone that we'd normally expect to be much more expensive unlocked, but Google set a precedent by lowering the cost of the Galaxy Nexus, keeping the Nexus 7 at $200 and is now continuing the trend with the Nexus 4. The price of freedom has never been more reasonable. Sure, the Nexus 4 is not without its hiccups, but none of its predecessors have been perfect, either. And given the boost in real-world performance, the better camera and various other new features, it's even more tempting than all those previous devices whose shoes it's trying to fill. In a case like this... you have our permission not to resist.
(This review was updated on November 26th to reflect new insight on battery life and benchmarks.)
Myriam Joire contributed to this report.