Nexus 5, ten months in

I like bunnie’s exit review idea (e.g. on his T60p, on his 8700c): the thought that you can write a better review at the end of a device’s life than after a week or two. This is not a true exit review, but I will bend the rules here a bit and say that ten months, one winter, and one broken screen is enough to write down some useful thoughts about the Nexus 5.

I bought a Nexus 5 in April 2014. This is my third mobile phone after a Blackberry Pearl 8100 and an HTC Nexus One. I’ve also owned Nokia’s N800 and N810 internet tablet devices.

Factors involved in deciding what phone to get were wireless networks supported, size, software hackability, input methods, software updates, storage size/options, and the camera in roughly that order.

I somewhat seriously considered going back to Blackberry but couldn’t find a pentaband model I liked and could justify cost-wise. I briefly tried a Nokia E72 but found software and keyboard lacking. At one point I considered a Nokia E6 but ended up forgetting it (oops) when I resumed phone-shopping.

I paid $132.50 (USD) for the Blackberry in September 2008, $200 for the Nexus One in October 2011, and ended up paying $463.62 for the black 32 GB Nexus 5 in April 2014. My thoughts are mixed.

Blackberry Pearl 8100, HTC Nexus One, and LG Nexus 5 phones viewed from the front

The family, with factory screen protector still on the N5.

Blackberry Pearl 8100, HTC Nexus One, and LG Nexus 5 phones viewed from the back

Wear on the Pearl and the N1 tells you a bit about what I expect from my devices. The barcode sticker on the N5 comes off.

Design

First design reaction: this is what the logical conclusion to the Thinkpad design school would have been. The soft-touch black box with minimal features doesn’t leave any other conclusion, and things like the asymmetric buttons only help. Then there’s the big Nexus text on the back, the most unapologetically asymmetrical thing since the triangular Thinkpad logo. Which way is up for the text when the phone is resting face down oriented to be picked up with the dominant hand?

To my great regret, Lenovo was never bit by the minimalism bug when it came to Thinkpads’ design. (Only when it came to prices.) Thus we had in 2010 a laptop with numpad labels still on the keyboard, and in 2014 a laptop that kept Print Screen key and moved it between right Alt and Ctrl. Perhaps it’s the consumer-oriented-product-Apple-like-mind-changing viewpoint, but Google hasn’t had those qualms: keyboard? out; trackball? out; SD card? definitely out. It doesn’t make for happy Jarek, but it does make for a Thinkpad-beautiful device.

The 445 ppi IPS screen is, well, beautiful. There’s just no other way to describe it. This is the screen that made me switch from my “phone” wallpaper used on the Pearl and the Nexus One to a “desktop” wallpaper I also use on my 15″ Thinkpad IPS. I am thrilled that IPS is spreading.

Held sideways, the device reminds me of the N800/N810. Too bad the default home screen doesn’t work in landscape and Nova launcher’s landscape home screen isn’t great.

Size

Coming from a 3.7″ Nexus One, I was a bit apprehensive. Once I got it, as late as September I thought it was fine:

I went BB Pearl 8100 > Nexus One > Nexus 5. Each upgrade felt stupid big at first, but I got used to them.

N5 is workable particularly if you install a launcher that lets you open notifications other than swiping from top. I also like its keyboard better than N1’s – bigger keys do make a difference (though 4.4’s keyboard software might also play a role).

You definitely hold and use the bigger phones slightly differently but I’ve found it’s not a huge dealbreaker.
yours truly on Hacker News

In February, I am not so sure.

I would split my thoughts on the size into two categories: stationary use as a portable computing device, and mobile use as a handheld device.

As a portable computing device, in the vein of a tablet or a convertible/ultrabook, it’s great, perhaps a bit small. (This must be the niche that the Nexus 6 targets.) If I could think of the N5 like I thought of the N810, it would have been amazing.

As a handheld device — a phone — my experience is mixed. It is nice and powerful and pretty and all that. But I can’t effectively use it single-handedly when it’s cold. It’s fine for phone calls if you use a headset, but the touchscreen is a problem. My hands are slightly numb and the phone is big and cold and slippery now that the soft-touch has started to wear off. London ain’t California. And this is only made worse now that apps are doing stuff like doing away with zoom buttons because hey, can’t you pinch? No, I can’t pinch, my fingers are numb and I’m standing at a light trying to look at a map before the light changes, I’m too busy not dropping the phone to pinch. And forget using any old gloves.

I’ve since come to think that a handheld device is better sized around 4″ to 5″ diagonal, roughly Pearl to N1 size, as opposed to Nexus 5’s 6″ diagonal. That is still large enough to show a useful-sized map and read and type messages or even have a physical keyboard without being overly difficult to handle and pocket.

This suggests a device set consisting of a smaller phone and a 6-7″ screen tablet, maybe with an attachable keyboard. Incidentally, this is what I had with Pearl and the original 7.0″ Galaxy Tab. The technology then wasn’t quite good enough, maybe it will be in the not so far future.

Hardware

When deciding on what to get, I wanted a pentaband 3G phone. Quad band is thankfully the standard for basic phone functions on EDGE, but EDGE is starting to sometimes be omitted (particularly, the start-up networks in Canada are 3G-only) and I wanted something a little faster. Having unlocked pentaband 3G really is nice. It will just work, anywhere, and not having to worry about that has been great.

I enjoy not having to worry if I have space to install that app (thanks again for the 512 MB, HTC). I don’t enjoy having no expansion options whatsoever and having to fork out $50 plus tax for extra 16 GB of flash memory (going price in microSD packaging: around $10).

Not having a removable battery hasn’t proved a huge problem. I ran out of battery a couple of times initially, but I’ve adapted my use and it hasn’t been an issue recently. This is one tradeoff I’m reasonably happy with.

I was initially excited to have NFC, but ultimately used it a couple of times to play with transit pay cards and once to transfer a PGP key. Still, it’s nice to have the ability to play with it later, I suppose.

The camera is pretty good. I tend to use my dedicated cameras, and in comparison adjusting anything other than zoom is a huge pain on a touchscreen. On the other hand, having a powerful computer behind the camera enables convenient integration like automatic panorama creation and one-step sending over wifi or mobile networks.

I am quietly happy for standardized functionality we don’t even think of these days. microUSB, 3.5 mm TRRS audio jack, or wireless audio via Bluetooth A2DP are taken for granted, but it’s worth remembering that even 10 years ago it was common for each manufacturer to have their own charging and data transfer cables.

Keyboard

This is one thing the size helps. I still miss an actual physical keyboard that would let me type on the phone without looking down, but as far as touchscreen keyboards go, this is pretty good. I think the size of the keys, physical or not, is a big help. I developed my preferences on the Pearl, which had a half-QWERTY keyboard with wonderfully large keys. It feels like the Nexus 5 soft keys are the next biggest, and thus best, thing.

I didn’t take to Android 5’s keyboard look, but Android 4.4 stock one seems good. The built-in Android Swype-like implementation is pretty good for English. I miss having a trackball to do precise cursor manipulation but can accept that that’s a fairly rare thing to need on a phone.

Software

It’s Android. It’s alright. I want to move off Google-centric services, and have been planning to eventually install Cyanogen. Coming from the x86 world, not having an open boot and being able to install any OS is a tragedy to begin with. Unfortunately, phones have always been like this; if anything, the situation has improved, and being the least bad of the lot was a factor in deciding to get a Nexus device.

I wrote a blog post about Android applications I use, the short version is that I mostly use a web browser, an SSH client, an XMPP client, and a OpenStreetMap viewer. Well, plus a few more proprietary things, including Google cloud for calendar, contacts, and email. These work well.

As far as OS functionality is concerned, lack of direct USB mountability of phone space is a bit of flimsy-reasoned pain, but MTP works well enough in Ubuntu. There’s some neat features enabled by the more powerful processing on the phone, for instance tethering via USB shares any connection available on the phone, so you can use the phone as an impromptu USB wifi dongle.

Coming from the Nexus One’s Android 2.3, I still think the removal of the dedicated OS-drawer search button is a mistake. It is now standard for apps to put a search field in the top right corner, but that makes my hands go from near the bottom row of OS buttons to the top right only to have to move your hand down again to type on the soft keyboard. Search-first was one of the big things Google got right, and it’s frustrating to see it removed.

Durability

Ah, the big thing. It’s no 3310. It’s no Blackberry; it’s no Nexus One, for that matter. I drop my phones a lot and they didn’t break, except the Nexus 5. Edge-to-edge glass looks very nice but it turns out it isn’t super practical, especially coupled with glued screen that has me looking at $100+ for replacing glass.

I cracked the top glass in October after an edge fall onto a rather flimsy metal spike (the end of a wire holding up a bike fender, to be exact). Once the top glass was weakened, two more drops in relatively quick succession made things a bit worse.

LG Nexus 5 phone with badly broken top glassNexus 5 with broken top glass covered up with electrical tape

Left: Top of the range mobile device after eight months of use.
Right: Aesthetics improved with some electrical tape.

(I have a couple more photos on my Flickr.)

The first and third drops were the result of awkwardly pulling the phone out of my pocket due to its size. In third case, my cold-numbed hands made manipulating the large, thin phone extra difficult. The second drop was admittedly plain carelessness, as with the glass broken I wasn’t as careful.

Although purely cosmetic, this is worse than my Blackberry screen looked like after three years and being thrown at the pavement a couple of times.

Further, the screen itself is still perfect, the touchscreen work as before, but the top glass cannot be replaced by itself outside of factory-like settings. I’m looking at a $100+ repair to a 5″ bit of glass so the phone can be 3 mm thinner. Extremely frustrating. (If only I was in Shenzen.)

Of course, an all-glass edge-to-edge front looks good, but that’s also a matter of fashion and quality of alternatives — after all, touchscreen input was crap and nerdy before someone decided to make it good. I hope designs allowing better durability survive and improve. The popularity of bumpers and cases says the need is definitely there.

Other than the screen, the phone has held up alright, but that’s a very big “other than”. There’s a few battle scars on the sides I am okay with (I think devices should show their use). However, the black stickers inside the embossed “Nexus” letters on the back have started to peel off. It would have looked fine without the stickers to begin with, and it wouldn’t look off after a few months of exposure to skin oils. Instead there was an added component and now one side of the X looks different. Perhaps not the greatest design decision.

Verdict

It works. It does what I need. It looks nice and is pleasant to use. But the next phone I buy will probably be smaller and maybe not so glassy.