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Living with the LG Nexus 4: Five Things That Surprised Me

By Ryan Whitwam

It's the best Nexus phone I've used, but it's the little things that set it apart.

The LG Nexus 4 is an elusive device. Even if you happen to catch one in the Play Store, the current backlog of orders means you won’t have your phone for several weeks. For many users, though, a Nexus is the only way to go. Google has always made hardware compromises in its quest to make the Nexus phones pure Android experiences, and the Nexus 4 is no different.

I’ve been coveting my Nexus 4 since I obtained it, and there are a few aspects of the device that caught me off guard. Let’s go over the things that surprised me the most.

The Screen is Wonderful

Simply looking at the specs of the Nexus 4 screen won’t quite prepare you for using the device. Yes, the 1280x768 resolution is up in the range it ought to be for a modern smartphone, but it feels unique. The first thing I noticed about the phone was the gentle curve at the edges of the touchscreen. Whereas previous Nexus phones were concave, with phone ending up slightly crescent-shaped, the Nexus 4 is the opposite.

As your finger gets to the edge, the glass slopes down to meet the side of the phone. There’s no hard stop or lip in the way of your finger. This is such a small detail, but it totally changes the way the phone feels. Side to side swipe gestures (which are everywhere in Android) feel more fluid thanks to this.

The next screen surprise is the how all those pixels look under the glass. LG has a technology called ZeroGap, and it’s really cool. If you’ve used a recent HTC device or an iPhone, you know this effect well. LG’s panel integrates the touch sensor with the glass for an overall thinner screen. It also lets the LCD sit right up against the glass -- it feels like you’re actually touching the pixels. Viewing angles are also phenomenal.

I also quite like the additional width of the screen. This isn’t immediately apparent until you look at it side by side with a 1280x720 panel, but the move to 768 pixels wide changes the ratio from 16:9 to 5:3. You really notice it on web pages and emails.

Coming from a Galaxy Nexus, this screen is a revelation.

The Glass Back is Stronger and Prettier than Expected

This situation with the glass back has been troubling to many prospective buyers, and it didn’t help that several reviewers managed to crack the back of the Nexus before the phone was even officially available. Then there is that odd reflective pattern under the glass. Is the back a deal breaker? After owning the phone for a while, I’m going with ‘no.’ You shouldn’t worry overly much about this.

The pattern of reflective pads looks much better in person than it does in press shots. Fears that the phone would look like some kind of demented disco ball were unfounded. I would even say the pattern comes off as elegant and understated. There are a lot of lighting conditions where the reflective pattern isn't visible at all. The design is not groundbreaking, but it’s nice.

That’s not to say there are no problems. I really didn’t expect the device would be as slick as it is even knowing it was made of glass. The soft-touch rim around the edge helps with grip, but it still feels a little precarious to hold at times.

Some folks have even asserted that the phone has a mind of its own. You set it down on a seemingly level surface, and it slowly slides toward the edge, and it’s doom. No, the Nexus 4 does not defy physics, or get up and crawl around by itself -- it’s just really smooth.

There are probably surfaces in your home that you think are level, but you’re wrong. Set this device down on something smooth and flat with an imperceptible incline, and the phone will start moving. I have encountered this a few times, and the only fix is to get a bumper case (still sold out) or just be careful where you put it down.

As for durability, I’m optimistic I bought two devices: one for me and one for my wife. I have yet to drop my Nexus 4, but my better half has sent hers spiraling to the floor four times as of this writing. Each time my heart skipped a beat knowing how hard it is to replace this phone currently. But each time, the device has been unharmed after meeting the hardwood floor.

Can you break the back plate? Sure, plenty of people have. However, my experience does not lead me to believe that the phone is prone to explode if not coddled.

Android 4.2 is Great, Except for the Bugs

Android 4.2 is overall very cool. I love features like the lockscreen widgets, photospheres, and even the quick settings menu. I didn’t think I’d like quick settings, but here we are. I’m baffled that the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth buttons just link you into the settings rather than toggle the radio, but I love having quick access to the battery info, brightness, and data usage.

The device is incredibly fast, but it’s backed by a quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro. So maybe that’s not surprising. What was a little unexpected is the frequency of reboot bugs I’m seeing. Both the devices I have access to tend to reboot a few times each week. Sometimes this is a full crash, and sometimes a “hot boot” where the phone just drops back to the Nexus logo, not all the way to the Google one.

Battery life is also seemingly affected by an OS bug. Many users are reporting excessive wakelocks that keep their phones from going into deep sleep. I see this from time to time on my device, and it is annoying. For a device with a non-removable battery, I expected Google to be more careful with the software. Being a Nexus, I hope to see updates arrive and fix these bugs.

There’s one other thing: I never fully appreciated Android Beam until now. Having two devices with Jelly Bean Beam features is awesome. The Nexus 4 has rock-solid NFC that works from around 2-inches away. Just hold two phones together, and you can push across images, apps, and videos. I use this all the time now, and I love it.

No LTE, No Problem?

Canadians already get free healthcare, and now secret Nexus 4 LTE? Not fair. For most users, the Nexus 4 is an HSPA+ device. The necessary AWS LTE bands are currently only active in Canada, but I’m actually not missing my LTE here in the US. Yeah, this surprised me.

I came from an Verizon Galaxy Nexus and I liked having LTE (when it worked). In the best case scenarios, LTE gets incredibly fast speeds and the ping is amazing. It makes online services feel more responsive and downloads are done before you can blink. How can HSPA+ compete?

I’m using the Nexus 4 on T-Mobile, and the carrier’s HSPA+ 42 data network is impressive. I regularly get speeds in excess of 15Mbps down and 3Mbps up. I’ve even gotten nearly 30Mbps down a few times. This is comparable to what I used to see on Verizon’s LTE in my area. Some regions will be faster and some slower, though.

The only real missing piece is the ping, or response time of the connection. HSPA+ usually pings over 100ms and as much as 250ms. LTE has very little lag; maybe 50-60ms with a moderate connection. So it takes a little longer for the data to start flowing with the Nexus 4, but HSPA+ is fast enough for me. I can stream Netflix, Spotify, and sync my data with no issues. Perhaps video chat would be an issue, but I honestly never bother with that.

It would be nice to have LTE as a supported feature, but HSPA+ will serve most of your needs on this phone.

Who is This Phone For?

This phone is for the Android purist. If you find yourself irked by delayed updates and gaudy OEM skins, the Nexus 4 is your phone. This is Android the way it was meant to be -- free from the interference of your carrier and ready to offer you the finest Android experience. The frequent Google updates will keep your phone up to date much longer than other phones. Maybe you didn’t realise you were an Android purist, but if you read this far, you might be.

This phone is for the tinkerer. If you simply must unlock, root, and mod your device at the earliest convenience, this is your phone. The Nexus 4 bootloader can be instantly unlocked and re-locked with a simple ADB command. Rooting is as easy as pushing over a few files. There is none of that risky flashing business required to get control of other phones. You can have a custom OS up and running on the Nexus 4 in no time flat.

This phone is for the traveler. Being unlocked with Pentaband HSPA+ means that the Nexus 4 will accept almost any GSM SIM card in the world. Unlike a lot of unlocked phones, this one is top of the line and incredibly fast. You can even get LTE on AWS bands in some places.

Finally, this phone is for the most patient among you. It’s going to take weeks to get your hands on the Nexus 4. So if you’re aching for a new device soon, get something else. After using the Nexus 4 these last few weeks, I’m more impressed with it than I have been with any of the previous Nexus phones. I think it’s worth waiting for.