Does the Nexus 4 deserve a free pass?

Taylor Martin
 from  Concord, NC
| February 4, 2013

For those of you who have learned my smartphone preferences over the years, you have also likely discovered that I'm pretty difficult to please. David Beren and I tend to bicker back and forth over which one of us is more picky. Clearly, it's him. But give him a bag – any bag – and he's back to being totally content.

Still, I obsess over a few certain aspects of every phone the comes into my possession. And rarely am I totally, 100 percent pleased with a device – be it a smartphone or a tablet.

What are those specific aspects, exactly? Simple. Battery life, camera quality, storage space, display quality and button/port placement. These are the components that, if a company gets them all right, will instantaneously win me over.

Take the Samsung Galaxy Note II, for example. It doesn't take the cake in all the aforementioned categories. But it scores high in more categories than any other smartphone on the market. It has a large, removable battery – the second best battery life in the smartphone market. It has a decent camera that, in most cases, holds a candle to the iPhone or Nokia Lumia 920's PureView camera. It has a gigantic display which boasts the contrast and saturation of Samsung's famed Super AMOLED panels without the PenTile Matrix subpixel arrangement of other AMOLED panels; it may not be the highest density display, but it's still quite the masterpiece. It has 16GB or 32GB of built-in storage with the ability to expand via microSD card and it has fantastic button and port placement. (More on that here.)

A device that won my love that doesn't score highly in many of these categories is HTC's DROID DNA. Although it has the most gorgeous display we've ever seen on a smartphone to date, its storage capacity is fixed at 16GB, the 2,020mAh battery offers relatively poor stamina, the button placement is not ideal and the micro USB port is inconvenienced by a flimsy door. And the camera is, well … okay.

However, there is always an unknown X factor with every smartphone we review, that certain wild card that each manufacturer brings to the table. It was the perfect size of the DROID DNA and the second to none build quality that made it stand out to me. Samsung's in 2012 was size, the S Pen (for the two Notes) and a bevy of unique software features. Nokia has the PureView camera. And Motorola offers superior battery life in the form of its MAXX models.

The handful of other manufacturers seemingly have few wild cards that they bring to the table.

But last week, I bought a phone on impulse. Okay, it was only part impulse. It had been out of stock for going on two months and I had convinced myself it was going to be my next phone if it came back in stock in a matter of a couple weeks … and it did.

I bought this phone knowing it wouldn't be the best phone I had, that it would be a step backwards from the Galaxy Note II. But I bought it anyway.

In case you haven't put it together yet, that phone was the Google Nexus 4 by LG. Inside, it has only 16GB of built-in storage and no microSD card slot, 2GB RAM, a 2,100mAh battery, 1.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro chip and it only (officially) supports HSPA+ here in the States. It has a 4.7-inch (1,280 by 768 pixel resolution) display, which I knew would be a difficult step down from the 5.5-inch and 5.0-inch displays of the Galaxy Note II and DROID DNA, respectively.

The Nexus 4 does not have a great camera. Sure, it has an 8-megapixel sensor. But the image quality is only around par when lighting is absolutely perfect. Anything shy of perfect, and the camera quality drops off very quickly. And night/low-light performance is and area many manufacturers are focusing on and, likewise, excelling in.

The battery life has been passable, but nothing spectacular. I have had to get back to the routine, supplementary charge around 5:00 PM, if not earlier. The limited storage space has yet to affect me, but it has proven problematic with other 16GB devices over time. It only means I will have to pick and choose which movies and games I have on the device at any given time, though, it's worth mentioning that I haven't felt compelled to watch any movies on the Nexus 4 like I did with the Note II and DNA.

The display, however, is great. Its contrast is fairly high, the colors appear relatively accurate and it is extremely sharp. There is a slight difference side by side with the 1080p S-LCD3 display of the DROID DNA, but it's negligible at this point. The WXGA True HD IPS Plus display of the Nexus 4 is great.

Like the Galaxy Note II and Galaxy Nexus, both by Samsung, the Nexus 4 sports that perfect button and port placement. When holding the phone with your right hand, the power button rests just under the thumb, volume rocker lays under the index and middle fingers and the charging port on the bottom is totally out of the way.

The Nexus 4 is right along the lines of the DROID DNA as far as specifications and build quality go. Neither come close to the full package that is the Galaxy Note II. But like the DNA, the Nexus 4 has the certain X factor that sets it apart. In fact, the Nexus 4 has multiple factors the contribute to it being one of the best phones on the market despite some glaring flaws (storage, lack of carrier endorsement and LTE, battery life, poor camera, etc.).

Price is the obvious one. I could have just as easily bought an HTC One X+ and had similar battery life and a similar camera. But I would have also had LTE and 64GB of storage space. However, the One X+ would have set me back $550, plus tax. The Nexus 4 comes unlocked for $349 plus tax, which saved me over $200.

Lest we forget about software. All the comparable smartphones feature various customized versions of Android: TouchWiz Nature UX, Sense 4, Motorola Applications Platform, etc. The Nexus 4 comes with purely stock Android, and I nearly forgot how much I loved it. Every time I switch back to stock (at least since Ice Cream Sandwich), I question why I ever left in the first place.

There's just something about the way all the applications, notifications and virtually every other aspect of the interface looks that makes it more compelling and intriguing to use. There are just some elements of the stock interface that I can't fathom why anyone would want to replace or change.

And there's something about carrying a Nexus that feels … prestigious, rebellious and alluring, all in one. Not just anyone carries a Nexus, a nerd's nerd carries a Nexus, and that means it turns heads and sometimes people ask questions. The hint of rebellion comes from having a phone without any sort of carrier branding, input or bloatware. That comes at the sacrifice of LTE, but I can live with that … for now.

No, the Nexus 4 isn't the greatest phone ever. And it may just be that the newness has yet to wear off for me. But the Nexus 4 is easily one of the best smartphone purchases I have made in a very long time.

But what say you, readers? Does the Nexus 4 deserve a free pass of sorts simply because it's so cheap? Or because it's a Nexus? Mind you, other phones in the same price range are either nearing one-year-old or are low-end to mid-range phones. Should the Nexus 4 be treated the same as its compatriots? Or, like me, do you find the price to be a major factor in the overall perception of the phone?