Walt Mossberg

Is a Nexus Phone Running on KitKat Any Sweeter?

There are so many devices based on Google’s Android operating system that it’s hard to keep track of them all. But each year Google works with a hardware maker to produce a “best of Android” phone and tablet, called the Nexus models, which are often used to launch a new version of the OS and to strip away the quirks and variations other makers and carriers layer on top of Android.

I’ve been testing the latest of these Google-designed phones, the Nexus 5 made by LG of South Korea, and the newest version of Android, called KitKat, or Android 4.4. I like both, though neither is an especially bold leap forward in features. They are mainly designed to do two things: To integrate Google’s own features and services even more deeply into Android, and to lower the price of phones capable of running the latest version of Android.

The Nexus 5 is designed to offer robust hardware specs to buyers of premium phones at a much lower unsubsidized price than market leaders Apple and Samsung charge for their top-of-the-line models. It starts at $349 for an unsubsidized, unlocked, 16 gigabyte model — about $300 less than what a similarly unsubsidized, full-price, iPhone 5s or Samsung Galaxy S4 costs.

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The new Nexus 5 has a larger, higher-resolution screen than the Nexus 4 but is thinner and lighter than its predecessor.

Its biggest advantage over its predecessor, the Nexus 4, is that it supports LTE, the fastest and most robust cellular data network that is most widely used in the U.S. Its biggest downside is that, ironically, it won’t work on Verizon, which has been the leader in deploying LTE.

KitKat, which will appear on other Android phones, has been engineered under the hood so it can run on much lower-priced, lower-powered phones, especially in emerging markets. KitKat was designed to demand much less memory. (Google is using the name by striking a marketing agreement with the candy bar’s owner, Nestlé and its U.S. maker, Hershey.)

Google hopes this re-engineering will gradually ease the fragmentation of Android, in which most devices use different versions of the OS and only a minority run the latest version. This fragmentation, which is in contrast to Apple’s devices, often deters app developers from launching their software on Android first, despite Android’s much larger market share. It’s much simpler to develop for the more unified Apple platform.

Nexus 5

The new Nexus 5 has a larger, higher-resolution screen than the Nexus 4, but manages to be thinner and lighter. The screen is just under 5 inches, versus 4.7 inches for last year’s model. It is substantially larger, thicker and heavier than the iPhone 5s, but the iPhone has a smaller, lower-resolution screen.

The plastic Nexus 5 felt very comfortable in the hand, especially for a large-screen phone. This was partly due to a soft, rubbery back. The speaker, which was poor on the last model, is much better on this one. Calls were quite crisp and clear.

The Nexus 5, which I tested on T-Mobile’s LTE network, got fast cellular speeds, similar to those on the latest iPhone, and much better than those I get on the Nexus 4. But I found its Wi-Fi speeds, while good, fell short of those on the latest Samsung and Apple devices. I didn’t do a formal battery test, but the battery appeared to last a full day.

The Nexus 5 will be sold directly by Google, and by Sprint and T-Mobile. It won’t be sold by AT&T, but will work with an AT&T SIM card, according to Google. To make it compatible with Verizon’s network, Google says it would have had to make a special model and chose not to do so. This is a big minus.

The screen was clear and sharp, though a little dimmer than on some competing high-end phones. Touch was very responsive and the device was speedy.

This new phone has several key new features.

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Recent callers are first in a favorite callers list.

Like the Moto X, from Google-owned Motorola, it accepts voice commands without requiring you to first tap an icon or button. You just say “Okay Google,” and it performs a search or answers a question. This worked most, but not all, of the time.

You can now get to the Google Now predictive intelligence feature, which gives you the weather, sports scores, commuting times and more, by simply swiping right on the home screen.

The camera has now been improved to allow in more light, and has an advanced feature called HDR+, which improves on the common HDR feature in other phones by taking more quick shots to try and get the best one. There’s also a small gyroscope built in to help stabilize shaky images.

I was underwhelmed by the Nexus 5 camera and didn’t find it a match for the latest iPhone camera. The pictures from the Nexus 5 were generally good, but not great, especially indoors. Details didn’t pop and in one or two cases, images were a bit blurry.

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The phone app draws on Google Maps for caller ID info on a business that isn’t a contact.
KitKat

While the primary goal of KitKat was to run in a much smaller amount of memory, it has a few notable new features. The phone app now places recent and frequent callers first in its favorite callers list and de-emphasizes the full list of contacts and the dialer keypad. When you search for a contact, it will also return results for nearby places and businesses, which you formerly had to look for in Google Maps or other apps.

The phone app also tries to provide caller ID info when a local business that isn’t in your contacts list calls you, drawing on information from Google Maps.

Text messages now appear in Google’s proprietary messaging app, Hangouts, much the way Apple earlier unified text messages with its own proprietary messaging app, iMessage.

And, in another catch-up with Apple, KitKat has the built-in ability to act as a pedometer, though this requires special hardware, so far only available with the Nexus 5. Fitness apps must be rewritten to use this feature.

KitKat is also somewhat smoother and faster than its predecessor, Jelly Bean, at least on the Nexus 5. All of these KitKat features worked fine, but none was a huge deal to me.

Nexus 5 is the best Nexus phone I’ve tested. But the phone and its software are designed more to bolster Google features and global Android dominance than to wow sophisticated users.

Email Walt at mossberg@wsj.com.


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