Walt Mossberg

Nexus 4 Is a Great Value With Small Improvements

Google’s Android operating system is used on hundreds of smartphones and tablets. But the flagship Android devices, the ones the company calls “the best of Google,” are labeled Nexus. They are meant to show the world all that an Android device can be, and are designed and sold directly online by Google. Next week, the company will begin offering the latest phone in this line, the Nexus 4.

This new phone is part of a Google-designed portfolio that now includes two other devices: The Nexus 7 and Nexus 10 tablets. The phone, which features a new version of Android, hits the market at a time when Apple has had early success with its iPhone 5, and as Nokia and HTC are bringing out devices with a fresh version of Microsoft’s phone software, Windows Phone 8.

I found the Nexus 4 more evolutionary than revolutionary. It has some nice features and carries on Google’s recent tablet tradition of low pricing. But there’s no knock-your-socks-off stuff in the new phone. Even the new version of Android is just a further iteration of the current variant, called Jelly Bean, rather than an all-new edition, such as Google introduced last year at this time with the prior Nexus phone.

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The Nexus 4’s Photo Sphere feature shows a 360-degree image, in which you can pan around to see up and down as well as side to side. Blue dots guide the photo taker.

And the Nexus 4 is missing two important features: The ability to use LTE, the most consistently speedy 4G network in the U.S.; and a memory capacity greater than 16 gigabytes, the amount most smartphones start with. The new phone also lacks a memory-expansion slot. The phone’s most touted new capability, the ability to capture 360-degree pictures, worked poorly in my tests.

Otherwise, I found the latest Nexus to be a solid, reliable, phone and a good value. On Nov. 13, Google will begin selling it starting at $299 for an unlocked version — one that has no carrier plan or contract — with a puny 8GB of internal storage. A 16 gigabyte unlocked version will cost $349. You’ll have to add the cost of a contract or prepaid plan from T-Mobile, AT&T or carriers that use the same network technology to those prices (the phone won’t work on Verizon or Sprint). T-Mobile will be offering the 16GB version for $199 with a two-year contract. To grasp how inexpensive the Nexus 4 is, consider that Samsung’s popular Galaxy SIII is about $550 unlocked, $199 with a two-year contract.

The Nexus 4, built for Google by LG of Korea, has a large 4.7-inch screen with high resolution, higher than Apple’s 4-inch Retina display on the iPhone 5, though with slightly fewer pixels per inch because it’s spread over a larger display. The new Nexus is 20 percent thicker than the iPhone 5 and 24 percent heavier. But its curved rear edges made it feel comfortable in my hand.

It’s made of plastic, but is clad in relatively sturdy Gorilla Glass 2 on both front and back. There’s a 1.3-megapixel camera on the front and an 8-megapixel camera on the back. These cameras took sharp, vivid pictures and videos and you can apply filters to snapshots.

While I didn’t do a formal battery test, the Nexus 4 lasted a full workday in mixed use, including Web surfing, lots of app use, email, texting, viewing of short videos, occasional music playback and voice calling.

A new feature in the Nexus 4 allows you to charge the battery, which is sealed inside, without plugging in an adapter, by merely placing it on a charging pad plugged into the wall. These pads, which Google doesn’t sell, must comply with an industry standard called Qi. I had mixed results trying this. I tested it on two Qi pads and only one worked with the Nexus 4.

Instead of LTE, the Nexus 4 relies on a 4G standard called HSPA+, which is more common outside the U.S. This network standard can be as fast or faster than LTE in places, but in my tests comparing the Nexus 4 on HSPA+ with an iPhone 5 using LTE, the differences were often stark. In one location, the two were about the same, at just under 15 megabits per second for downloads. But in two others, in two cities, the Nexus 4 on HSPA+ managed average download speeds of just 2.8 mbps and 3.8 mbps, while the iPhone 5 on LTE averaged nearly 30 mbps. Some other phones offer both LTE and HSPA+.

I found voice calls to be clear and reliable, but the external speaker sounded weak and it’s worse when you aren’t holding the phone because it’s located on the rear.

The phone’s fast processor, coupled with improvements in the new version of Jelly Bean, called Android 4.2, made the Nexus 4’s touchscreen fast and fluid. One new feature of the latest operating system is called Gesture Typing, which allows you to compose text by swiping from key to key, rather than tapping them. This worked fine, but is similar to a system called Swype, which has long been available on other Android phones. Another nice feature in Android 4.2 is improved auto-correction. It now tries to anticipate the next word likely to be typed. So, if you type “Monday,” it suggests “night” and “morning.”

However, I found the most touted new feature on the Nexus 4, an enhanced panorama photo feature called Photo Sphere, disappointing. A Photo Sphere is a 360-degree image of a scene, in which you can pan around to see up and down as well as side to side. Google has made it easy to take such a picture, guiding you with blue dots as you move from around a starting point, automatically adding more of a scene in all directions until you decide to stop.

However, in all four of my Photo Sphere tests the results were poor. Objects like chairs, roofs and even people came out distorted and uneven. Google officials said they couldn’t explain my results.

Also, you can only fully share these Photo Spheres with others, for now, via the company’s Google+ social network. If you email them, they arrive as static scenes.

The new version of Android introduced on the Nexus 4 also has an enhanced version of Google search, which yields more answers, rather than just links, and speaks some of the answers back to you when you search by voice rather than typing. But the same new features were just released in a new version of Google search for the iPhone. In my tests, the iPhone version sometimes gave richer answers, such as hourly temperatures on weather searches, missing from the Android version.

Overall, the Nexus 4 is a good phone, with especially good prices for unlocked versions. But I’d advise Android buyers to consider other models with LTE, better speakers, and the ability to add more memory and work on all carriers.

Email Walt at mossberg@wsj.com.


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