16 December 2014

The Nexus 4 Review - The Best Budget Phone for 2014

Budget smartphones have been getting a lot of attention these days. In general, it can be argued that the market for flagships has stagnated. There’s an overall lack of enthusiasm with new top-of-the-line phones upon unveiling within the tech world. It seems that over the last year or so, it’s become more difficult and therefore less likely, for manufacturers to bring brand new, innovative features that really impress people. Whether it’s the newest iterations from Apple, Samsung, HTC, Google, or any other major player, the improvements over previous models are smaller and incremental rather than truly revolutionary. Thinner, lighter, faster, sharper display, better camera, etc.

Screenshot 2014-12-15 at 2.38.07 PM.png
It's a pretty popular Google search
This may be why more attention is on wearables, smart homes, integration across devices, and the afformentioned value-for-money smartphone. This is also why, if you subscribe to any of the top tech news or review sources, you’ll find plenty of great advice on the “best smartphone if you’re on a budget”. Here are some pieces that inspired this article.

If you’ve been looking into buying a new phone as well, but aren’t interested in shelling out the better half of $1000, you’ve probably read a lot about many different phones, but odds are, most of the spotlight has been on the Moto G. It’s not the cheapest, or the best, but the consensus is that it strikes the perfect balance between today’s smartphone consumer demands, and an affordable price tag. The problem is, there’s one phone that has almost no attention at all in terms of budget smart phones and it should. It’s cheaper than the Moto G, has a better screen, more premium feeling design language, same amount of ram and generally, the same overall power under the hood. This phone, the real best budget phone, is the Nexus 4.

Over 2 years old and received the OTA
This is not to say that the Moto G doesn’t deserve all of the praise it’s received this year. It’s a great phone. Building upon last year’s model, it’s the affordable smartphone that hits all the right points for those that want a solid phone that can handle all of today’s typical needs - apps, photos, games, media and mobile browsing, but without the top-tier features and latest specs that come with the high price tags of flagships. It’s capable of 4G has a sharp display, is well designed with a decent camera and runs fairly smooth. The “runs fairly smooth” part has always been the big compromise with budget phones. Spending less than $500 on a phone usually meant stuttery software with plenty of bugs that really wasn’t capable of much and therefore not really fun to use. The Moto G is really one of the first affordable smartphones to turn those traits on their heads. Motorola designed a low-spec device, making it wallet-friendly, but focusing on simplicity rather than features, ensuring Android runs as smooth as possible.

This is why I’ve spent the last few months eagerly awaiting the Moto G’s 2014 release. I’ve been a proud Nexus 4 owner since launch back in 2012, and since it’s been over 2 years, my instincts has told me it’s time to get something new. So like any smart shopper, tech enthusiast, or big nerd would do, I started comparing specs, and came to a very surprising realisation. Upgrading from the Nexus 4 to the 2014 Moto G wouldn’t be a very logical move. Despite the 2 year age difference, I found out that these two phones are incredibly similar in capability. Even further, many aspects of the Nexus 4 are objectively higher-end than those of the Moto G. As strange as it may seem, given that the Nexus 4 was never a best-in-class phone, even when it was brand new, the reality is that it is quite easy to argue that the Nexus 4 is better than the Moto G.

The design of the Nexus 4 remains as one of the most unique designs any smartphone has every had. The glass back was nothing new at the time,the iPhone 4 was the first major release to do that. Glass backs have also been done since, most notably by the Sony Xperia Z series. However, the reflective, checkered pattern beneath the glass back gave the Nexus 4 a distinct visual marker without being too gaudy. In the right light the phone sparkled, otherwise, it was a very understated black glass panel with silver “nexus” branding. I have a dBrand skin on mine, so it’s a moot point in terms of visuals, but there’s still a rigidity to the phone which may mean more in terms of design and build quality.

+dbrand skins are the best
In a time where “lighter and thinner” seems to be the mark of innovation, the Nexus 4 has a solid feel and heft that, may have been light at its launch, but now, makes the phone feel unusually strong - even if only, artificially. It feels like an expensive, well designed device, despite being offered at an affordable price point. A dBrand skin solved the concern regarding slippery fracture prone backing, creating in my opinion the only nexus phone that has hit the “premium” mark in terms of fit and finish.

As far as software is concerned, Android 5.0 Lollipop is running fantastically on my phone. The phone is faster, the animations run smooth, and I honestly haven’t had an issue with lag. Really, there’s not much point into going over the software too much. There are plenty of Android Lollipop overviews out there. All that’s important here, is that, at least on my Nexus 4, it runs great and has definitely made the phone better.

100% stock. with Google Now Launcher
Despite my praise for the Nexus 4, the fact remains that I was pretty close to upgrading it and the main reason for this was the camera. It’s no secret that Nexus phones don’t have great camera’s and this phone is one of the reasons that reputation exists. The camera upon launch was pretty good, but it’s definitely nothing in comparison to modern flagships. It’s not a bad camera, but it’s not a camera you’re going to trust either. Every time I take a photo, I large part of me is prepared to be unsatisfied by it. This for me has always been the biggest cost-cutting measure which allowed these phones to be priced so competitively.

The camera's not the best
The other reason I was looking to replace my phone was the release of Android 5.0. I was mentally prepared for the Nexus 4 to not receive an update sicne it’s been over 2 years. Still, I wanted to see if it would receive the the update, and if so, how it handled it. To my surprise, the OTA game through in about a week after reports that Nexus 5s started receiving theirs and even before Nexus 6’s started shipping here (Australia). As I said before, there’s absolutely no problems with it. Lollipop is runnign fantastically on my unrooted, completely stock Australian Nexus 4.

A little while ago I took a poll to the Google+ Nexus Community asking which phones people would rather buy. As expected, the majority sided with the Moto G. Interestingly however, was the margin. 40% voted for the Nexus 4. Despite being 10% under even, this is still impressive considering the phone is over 2 years old. I doubt this would be much worse than the results would fair if it were the Nexus 5 were up against the Moto G. Further, I think it’s a safe assumption that if it were the even older Galaxy Nexus it may be pretty close to 0%.

40% voting for an out of production, 2 year old phone
Of course, the Moto G, just a few months into it’s life cycle is understandably more current and future-proofed than the Nexus 4 which is over 2 years old. Where the Moto G is likely to be supported for at least another year, I wouldn’t be surprised if 5.0 is the last update the Nexus 4 receives. Battery life is reportedly much better as well, despite the slighlty smaller battery. Design is subjective, I prefer my phone to sit flat on a table, so the curved Moto G would bother me a fair bit. It’s also subjective, but I don’t like the idea of having a phone any larger than the Nexus 4. I am a runner, and the idea of carrying something larger bothers me as well. This is the main reason I wouldn’t get a Nexus 5 - that and the protruding camera. I do like the front facing speakers however. I hope that more manufacturers jump on board with that.

This shot has me thinking it's the perfect size. 
The reality is that the Moto G and the Nexus 4 are very comparible devices. This is what was most astonishing and frankly, advocates the most for the quality of the Nexus 4. It was released over 2 years ago and for around half the price of the other 2012 flagships. Today in 2014, a phone arguably equal in power and capability is the almost unanimously regarded as the best value-for-money smartphone there is - despite being more expensive A quick scan of typical online retailers shows the 8 GB Moto G and the 16gb Nexus 4 are pretty similar in price. Although, a phone which has likely been out of production for over a year, being “brand new” may be a bit understandably questionable. So, despite the urge to get a shiny new phone (I bought the Toshiba Chromebook 2 instead), I decided to hold off and ready myself to leave the Nexus line behind and get the Sony Z3 Compact. I want a good camera.