An Android superphone with a budget price tag, LG's Nexus 4 could be a smartphone game changer.
However you want to approach it, you can't really delve into LG's new Nexus 4 without first acknowledging the $349 outright price tag for the 8GB model (or $399 for 16GB). At this price you're entitled to expect a piece of junk that you wouldn't inflict on your worst enemy, but you'd be wrong.
Run your eye down the spec sheet and you'd be forgiven for thinking the Nexus 4 was an $800 handset.
In terms of screen size, grunt and features the Nexus 4 can stand toe-to-toe with Android flagships such as the 4.8-inch Samsung Galaxy S III 4G and the 4.7-inch HTC One XL. The Nexus 4's only major omission is that it lacks high-speed LTE mobile broadband, which will disappoint some people but shouldn't be a deal-breaker when it supports HSDPA up to 42 Mbps. There's also no micro-SD card slot for expanding the 8GB or 16GB of onboard memory, which makes things tight but might not be a deal-breaker if you live in the cloud and have a generous monthly download limit.
What's really interesting is that Australian telcos aren't selling the Nexus 4 outright or on a plan, you can only buy it directly from the Australian Google Play Store or online retailers such as Expansys or Mobicity. After an early rush the Nexus 4 is sold out in Australia, even though a second batch went on sale in the US this week.
Run your eye down the spec sheet and you'd be forgiven for thinking the Nexus 4 was an $800 handset. Highlights include;
4.7-inch 1280x768 IPS LCD screen
Gorilla Glass 2
Android 4.2 "Jelly Bean"
Quad-core 1.5 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro processor
2GB of RAM
1.3 MP front and 8 MP rear camera
1080p video capture
802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi (2.4 GHz & 5 GHz)
Near Field Communications
2100 mAh battery (non-user-replaceable)
139 gm, 9.1 mm thick
Considering these credentials I think it's fair to pit the Nexus 4 against the Samsung Galaxy S III 4G, keeping in mind the Samsung costs more than double at $899 outright.
In terms of benchmarks the Nexus 4 can certainly hold its own. Under the new Rightware Browsermark 2.0 it scores a respectable 2023, compared to 2097 on a Telstra-issued Samsung Galaxy S III 4G running Android 4.1.1 (we're still waiting on a 4.2 update). It's worth noting that the Nexus 4 runs the Chrome browser and is a vanilla version of Android with none of the bloatware which can bog down some phones. The Samsung actually refused to complete the Rightware Browsermark 2.0 using its default browser, so I installed Chrome and ran it there. I disabled as much bloatware as possible on the Samsung to make it a fair fight, but if you tend to leave it all running then the Samsung would have less of an advantage.
Turning to the Quadrant benchmarks, the Nexus 4 scored 4624 while the Samsung pulled ahead with 5369. The Samsung excelled in CPU, I/O and 2D performance but the Nexus outshone it in terms of memory and 3D performance. The Samsung certainly wins this round but the Nexus 4 is no slouch and should still satisfy all but the most demanding of users.
Another key talking point is the Nexus 4's impressive 4.7-inch 1280x768 IPS LCD screen. It features more pixels than the 1280x720 Samsung, which is also forced to spread them further at 4.8-inches. But those dreaming of expanses of screen real estate will be disappointed to discover that the Nexus' 4.7-inches includes the permanent back, home and app switcher soft buttons across the bottom of the screen. They're a permanent feature, even when applications are open. You're also stuck with the Google search bar across the top of every home page.
Once you take the Nexus' permanent software buttons into account the Samsung's screen is almost a full centimetre taller than the Nexus. It doesn't sound like much but you'll certainly notice the difference if switching from a 4.7/8-inch phone which lets you use the entire screen. You'll notice the same permanent soft button issue on the Motorola Razr HD running Android 4.0.4. You might argue this is a benefit in that it lets the buttons rotate when you turn the phone to portrait mode, but it's a benefit most people would forgo in order to use all of the 4.7-inch screen.
Both handsets do a good job of handling outdoor glare, although the Nexus' whiter whites make text slightly easier to read in direct sunlight. The Nexus is blessed with an IPS LCD screen, which I tend to prefer, but the Samsung's impressive Super AMOLED has come along way from the early AMOLED horror stories. It still has the faintest of blue tinges, which hampers the contrast when outside, but the trade-off is more vivid colours than the Nexus. The Samsung's camera also produces slightly better results and those who place the highest value on a phone's camera might want to think twice about the Nexus 4.
So what's the verdict? Is the Samsung better than the Nexus 4? Yes? By much? No, not really. Certainly not twice as good. If you're purely talking value for money then the Nexus 4 is quite possibly the best phone on the market right now. Such a price tag would have been unthinkable not so long ago, just as you'd say about the Nexus 7 tablet, and it will be interesting to see how the Android competition responds.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle to buying the Nexus 4 is that your telco of choice won't sell it to you on a plan. This is still how many people buy their phones, so the Nexus 4 might not even be on their radar. They might baulk at buying the Nexus 4 outright when they can get what seems like a "free" phone when they renew their plan (although handsets on plans aren't really free). If you're a pre-paid user then the Nexus 4 might make more sense. It could be the perfect handset for less-tech-savvy relatives whom you want to bring into the Android fold without paying top dollar, while not sacrificing features and grunt.
If you're an Android power user you'll probably stick with the raw grunt and extra screen real estate of the Samsung Galaxy S III 4G, while perhaps blowing away the Samsung bloatware in favour of a custom ROM. But the Nexus 4 is the Android superphone for everyone else, delivering a top shelf handset without the top shelf price tag.