My first weeks with the Nexus 5, reviewed

What was behind my decision to grab the Nexus 5, Google’s latest phone in its premium, once-a-year Nexus line?

Mostly, I wanted to flex my “off-contract and unlocked” muscle. Google is now selling unlocked phones, no two-year contract required, with pure Android, out of its Google Play Store; that means you’re not locked onto a certain carrier, or into a single smartphone, for 24 months, with huge fees to pay if you dare to upgrade.

Google also sells versions of the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S 4, but their respective $599 and $649 price tags make them unrealistic for most shoppers. At $349, the price of the Nexus 5 was just right.

Also: Eschewing the iPhone or a Samsung device and buying into the Nexus program is like voting for a third party candidate. It’s forward thinking, but without the compromises of picking someone like Ralph Nader as your guy.

Cockamamie political analogies aside: How’s the actual phone itself? Well, I’ve been using it for about three weeks now. Here’s the (mostly) great and the (occasional) not-so-great of the Nexus 5 that I’ve encountered over almost a month of ownership.

The Great

The large pluses with this phone are things you notice immediately: weight/feel, display and speed.

The Nexus 5 is very thin and very light (it’s also very tall, which isn’t ideal, but it also doesn’t bother me terribly). The build of the phone features a non-descript design that I actually like a lot. Coming from the Nexus 4, it’s a welcome change. No more shiny, fake chrome buttons and molding around the screen. And compared to most other high end smartphones in general, I’m happy that the rubbery, plastic matte casing takes it far from that “this is a (fake) piece of jewelry” look and feel that’s so in vogue right now.

I don’t quite mean that I miss the vibe of the Nextel i530 (below), but let’s just say the gold iPhone is not for me.

 When it comes to the screen, there isn’t a whole lot more that you could ask for. Sure, the brilliant display eats up battery at a higher rate than any other phone I’ve used (more on that later); but photos, websites and video look great. And a hat tip to Google for rolling back the top and bottom black bars in this version of KitKat, making them clear instead (this is currently an exclusive feature of the Nexus 5).

 The phone is indeed quicker and more responsive than any Android or Nexus phone I’ve used. Yes, the processor in the Nexus 5 is a notch better than the Nexus 4, and miles beyond the Galaxy Nexus, but Google also built Android 4.4 (or “KitKat”) with the expressed intention of preventing the OS from bogarting system resources. That means this version of Android has been constructed for speed. Some other nice features of KitKat include its global emoticon integration (:-D), a smart dialer that automatically searches phone numbers for nearby places and more intricate Google Now integration (of which the latter is, for now, a Nexus 5 exclusive).

Mostly, however, the display, the feel and the speed stand out.

The Not-So-Great

If you’ve read anything up to this point about the Nexus 5, you’ve probably seen the complaints about the battery. I’m here to report that, yes, early on, I was seeing very bad battery life. I complained to my friends, roommates and family members about the subpar charges; after an 8 hour work day, my phone was just about dead on the subway ride home.

Three weeks in, however, I am currently experiencing much better battery life. I enjoyed a solid 15 hours between charges this week. And lately my ride to work is only sucking 7 or 8 percent of my juice, while listening to streaming radio and music, at that.

Here is my theory: Since setting the phone up earlier this month, batches of updates to my vast collection of apps have funneled in day-by-day. Most app update logs have included an “updated compatibility for Android 4.4” note. Could it be that some or all apps yet to be optimized for KitKat were battery suckers? Or maybe it was just one really bad app? On my worst days, the screen was surely burning most of my battery, according to Android’s Battery info dashboard, so that’s a head scratcher. The best I can tell you, definitively, is that I was consistently getting better battery life on my Nexus 4; and though the battery has improved in these last weeks, Google still has some work to do to match the life of that phone, or even the consistent battery excellence of the Galaxy Note 3.

Now to the camera. Not everyone is a huge smartphone camera snob, as many tech pundits would have you believe. Granted, it would be nice to have a mini Nikon in a smartphone; but the Nexus 5 will not give you that, and neither will any other smartphone.

The reality is, however, that the iPhone 5S, Galaxy S4 and new Nokia smartphones have all managed to click up the quality on their smartphone cameras with each release, and in the Nexus line, Google has mostly not. The camera is a disappointment compared to other current model smartphones. Pictures are sometimes dull, off-color and grainy; but if you hit the lighting just right (and I’m not sure what that formula is) you can capture some nice-enough looking pictures. Hopefully Google, like Motorola, will be able to send through a software update to improve its finicky camera. Until then, here are some snaps to exhibit the hit or miss characteristics of the Nexus 5 camera.

Beyond these two main complaints with the Nexus 5, I’m finding only a few other small, daily annoyances. WiFi seems to be buggy with my Belkin router at home, and there are still plenty of apps that have yet to be updated for Android 4.4, and thus are likely to crash. Not only do I expect these issues to be solved with small updates down the road, but I’m a fortified beta-testing veteran, so this stuff may bug other users way more than it does me.

So, What Am I Trying to Say?

Overall: Yes, this is the best Nexus yet! (copyright: Apple) Of course, with the camera and battery lagging behind a phone like the Samsung Galaxy S 4, this statement is about as safe as saying, “This is the best cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee I’ve ever had!”

But seriously, I bought the Nexus 5 and I don’t regret it. The pure, unfetted Android experience is certainly for me (sorry TouchWiz and Sense) and I am not troubled in any serious way by the device’s shortcomings; in fact, I’m more delighted in this phone than I have been in any smartphone purchase since grabbing my HTC Hero on launch day. Moreover, I’d like to thank Google for giving me the opportunity to vote my conscience and jump rather painlessly on the free and unlocked (and reasonably priced) express. You are truly the Gary Johnson of the smartphone industry!