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.