Testing: Google Nexus 5 vs. HTC One vs. Nexus 4

By Norman Chan

With the Nexus 5, what LG and Google have made is a showcase of the best internal hardware and software that an Android phone has to offer today, sold at an ultra-competitive off-contract price. But that doesn't make buying it a no-brainer.

Back in early 2010, I flew to Orlando, Florida for the CTIA wireless convention to see the debut of two big smartphones. Big in the sense that they were notable, but also their physical size. The first was Sprint's EVO 4G, a 4.3-inch third-generation Android phone that some billed as the iPhone 4 killer. 4.3-inches was considered massive for a smartphone screen back then, before Apple shifted the conversation to screen resolution and pixel density. And while the Android community had high hopes for the HTC-made EVO 4G, another big phone shown at CTIA became more of a joke. That was the Dell Streak, otherwise known as the Mini 5. With a then unheard-of 5-inch screen, it was more punchline than phenom--a tablet that you can make phone calls on!

But a 5-inch phone today is no joke, as demonstrated by Samsung's popular Note phones and its Galaxy S4, which has a 5-inch 1080p screen. iPhone users like myself were eased into larger screens with the 4-inch iPhone 5. And as I transitioned from that to the 4.7-inch Nexus 4 and HTC One phones, incremental bumps in screen sizes were offset by the phones themselves getting smaller overall. It's reached a point where Google's Nexus 5 is almost exactly the same size as the HTC One, even though its equipped with a larger screen and a faster processor. And it's a far cry from the bulkiness of the Dell Streak, both in build and billing. Nexus 5 has no pretensions of being a tablet or even an alternative to one. What LG and Google have made is a showcase of the best internal hardware and software that an Android phone has to offer today, sold at an ultra-competitive off-contract price. But that doesn't necessarily make buying it a no-brainer.

I've been using the Nexus 5 for the past few weeks, replacing the HTC One that got me to convert from iOS to Android. The differences between these two phones are very incremental, and by and large the things that make the Nexus 5 a technically superior phone to the HTC One don't matter in day to day use. But those attributes are all worth talking about, especially in their relation to last year's popular Nexus 4 (which has been discontinued).

We'll start with the screen, which is the feature that stands out most. LG, the manufacturer of the Nexus 5, managed to put a 4.95-inch 1080p screen (445ppi) into a chassis that has the same dimensional footprint as the HTC One, which "only" has a 4.7-inch 1080p screen. They did that by cutting away as much unnecessary bezel space as possible. And with its edge-to-edge front panel Gorilla glass, The Nexus 5 has this remarkable look of being almost all-screen in the front. No speaker grill, no physical buttons, no other flourishes. Sitting next to the Nexus 5, the HTC One's aluminum bezels and buttons really stand out. Optical bonding on the Nexus 5's LCD panel is also excellent, and the glossy black bezel helps hide any depth--screen images look like they're pressed up right on the glass. In terms of panel quality, the IPS LCD used here is sharp, bright, and colorful. The slight drop in pixel density between the HTC One and the Nexus 5 doesn't uncover any text aliasing, though I found the color temperature of the Nexus 5 slightly warmer than that on the HTC One's S-LCD panel. In a direct comparison of high-resolution photos taken with my DSLR, I thought the color saturation on the HTC One's screen was slightly more pleasing. Both are significant improvements over the Nexus 4's 1280x768 screen.

The larger screen is also a way to show off Android 4.4 KitKat, which comes installed on the Nexus 5. KitKat is slowly making its way to other Nexus and Google Play devices, with HTC promising that One users will get KitKat by the end of January. This isn't a review of KitKat, since I'm not as well-versed in the minutia of the operating system as experts who've been using Android from the start. But of the user-facing changes, most are net positive. The removal of opaque notification and navigation bars makes the default launcher look beautiful with edge-to-edge wallpaper. Google Now is now built-in as a dedicated home screen on the far left, so it's even easier to access at a glance. Google Search on the Nexus 5 can also be activated with a voice command in the home screen without tapping any buttons, though it doesn't have the same passive listening functionality as the Moto X. And the integration of Google's knowledge graph with the dialer for making phone calls to businesses (and caller ID) is the right kind of synergy that doesn't feel forced.

It's not all good, though. I don't like Google folding SMS messages into the Hangouts app, since I use those services for different groups of friends. I use Hangouts for instant messaging conversations with lots of people at once while stationed at a computer, and SMS for immediate correspondence with people while on the move. Text DPI in the Normal Font Size setting is larger than it was on Jelly Bean, meaning home screen widgets like Gmail show less information. The Small Font Size setting didn't look good, either. And Android's native camera app still sucks compared to iOS. The radial camera settings menu is too small for the size of the screen, and I found it difficult to pinpoint and keep focus exactly where I wanted. Too many of my photos came out slightly blurry, even with my steady hands.

One thing that hasn't been a problem with Android since Jelly Bean and high-end phones like the HTC One and Galaxy S4 is user interface responsiveness and performance. The Android UI experience has always been a combination of OS optimizations like Project Butter and brute force computation from the device processor. Nexus 5 runs off of Qualcomm's Snapdragon 800, the same 2.3GHz quad-core SoC in the Galaxy Note 3, Kindle Fire HDX tablet, and Sony Xperia Z Ultra. On paper, it's a step above the Snapdragon 600 in the HTC One and the S4 Pro in the Nexus 4 and 7, but the everyday benefits aren't noticeable. It handily ran every Android game and graphics benchmark I threw at it, but then again, so did the HTC One. In the AnTuTu benchmark, I did get uneven results where my Nexus 5 would come up with scores lower than other devices running off of a Snapdragon 800, and reports indicate that this can be due to CPU throttling.

The fit and finish of the Nexus 5 is really plain. LG and Google made some good design decisions and some suspect ones. I mentioned how much I like the monolithic front face of the phone, but that comes at the expense of physical buttons and front speakers. The mono speaker on the bottom of the phone is weak (Google has admitted to it being buggy), and sound is easily muffled when you place it sitting up, like in a car's cup holder. I haven't quite decided if I prefer the hardware buttons on the HTC One or the soft buttons on the Nexus 5, since most apps don't automatically hide the navigation buttons bar and give you that extra screen space (though KitKat has support for that). The notification light also sits below the screen like it does on the Nexus 7, but I prefer the bright green LED that hid in the top speaker grill in the HTC One for catching my eye. One thing that's really appreciated: the easy-to-push sleep/wake button placed on the right side of the phone. A huge improvement over the flush power button on the top of the HTC One.

Nexus 5's chassis is mostly plastic, with the same matte feel as the back of the Nexus 7. It's also just as easily smudged and marked with fingerprints. The plastic case makes it noticeably lighter than the HTC One and the Nexus 4, which had a glass back (that you also risked cracking). Nexus 5 is also technically thinner than the HTC One and Nexus 4, though in the hand the curved back of the HTC One made it more comfortable to hold (and also gives it the illusion of thinness). All three have slightly angled-in sides for gripping, but the Nexus 4's slightly beveled glass is still my favorite to swipe on. It's a shame the Nexus 5 didn't inherit that feature.

Another shame is that the camera flat out failed to impress. Camera app interface aside, taking a photo is slow compared to other high-end smartphones. Tap-to-focus takes a half a second longer than on the HTC One, and the shutter lag is unacceptable. Google has admitted that the Nexus 5's camera performance needs patching, but has yet to issue a fix. On the image quality side, the 8MP sensor in the Nexus 5 provided more detail than the 4MP sensor in the HTC One, but I preferred the colors on the HTC One's photos. Nexus 5's shots leaned toward a reddish tint in natural light. Photo comparisons for landscape and macro shots below. I've made my thoughts on smartphone cameras clear in the past, and the Nexus 5 doesn't change them: smartphone cameras are not good enough to replace good dedicated point-and-shoots for photos that you will care about. They're totally fine for documenting a moment or for ephemeral use (ie. Instagram and other social networks), but not for being the sole record of your baby's first steps or family vacation.

But the thing I'm most critical of is the battery life of the Nexus 5. Its battery has a 2300mAh capacity, which is the same as the battery on the HTC One, but I just could never manage to get the same amount of use from the phone. In terms of a straight battery drain, the Nexus 5 barely lasted six hours of continuous web browsing and video playback. But we know that's how most people use their phones. One metric I use is my daily routine. On weekday mornings, my phone gets used for a very specific amount of time writing email, streaming music, and checking Twitter, so that by noon, I have a sense of how well the battery is faring for that day. With the Nexus 5, the phone would be drained to 70% by noon, whereas remaining percentage would still be in the 80s for the HTC One. In my first week of testing, the Nexus 5's battery would also drain unevenly, sucking up more power on one than than the previous. On one full day trip to LA--an ideal example of heavy use--the battery was dead by late afternoon before my flight back home.

Other Nexus 5 owners have had similar problems, and I eventually discovered that a lot of the battery was being drained by malfunctioning widgets, passive Wi-Fi scanning, and misbehaving background services like Mediaserver keeping the phone "awake" all day. Tweaking settings, reinstalling apps, and hard resetting the phone helped bring battery life up to a point where I can get 16 hours of normal (ie. light) use on a weekday. The general consensus online isn't that the Nexus 5's battery life is flat out bad, just unimpressive and really inconsistent.

Even though I'm giving it grief for nitpicky shortcomings, it's really difficult not to recommend the Nexus 5 for anyone looking for a new Android phone (who isn't on Verizon). This is easily the best phone you can buy unlocked and off contract for $350, and is better in some regards than the six-month-old HTC One. It's a fine showcase for Android KitKat as well. If you bought a Nexus 4 last year and can offload it for more than $150 (eBay's average price for a Nexus 4 is still above $200), the Nexus 5 is well worth the upgrade. It's a better phone in almost every way.

But (and I think it was ArsTechnica's Andrew Cunningham that first said this on Twitter), the Nexus 5 is exactly the sum of its specs. It is high-end hardware pieced together as cost-effectively as possible with the Nexus brand stamped on the back. No frills, no flair. It reminds me a lot of the CR-48, the Google laptop released to launch Chromebooks. Flagship hardware created to show off flagship software (which is where the real money is made). It just doesn't feel designed in the same way that even the Nexus 4 was. Couple that with uneven battery life and I'm actually going to switch back to the HTC One. It's a phone I like using more, and its strengths (long battery life, better audio) suit the way I use a smartphone on a day-to-day basis. I can make that choice because we already have an HTC One in the office--I'm not paying the $250 difference. The Nexus 5 is a great phone and an even better buy; it's just a little frustrating that Google's flagship isn't the very best it could be.

And if you just bought a Nexus 5, here are our essential tips for tweaking it!