A year ago I got a Galaxy Nexus phone. I was really quite happy with it -- particularly the camera, upon which I became increasingly reliant to take impromptu but high-quality photos. (See http://instagram.com/nathankoren/--
not bad, I think!). The plain-Vanilla Android operating system was also a joy to use -- fast, powerful, and elegant. The phone itself was far from perfect -- it was made of cheap plastic and quickly took on a very battered, world-weary appearance -- but overall I had no regrets.
Then the phone's electrical system died, and I needed to get a new one. I'd been reading lots of ecstatic reviews about the new Nexus 4, so I bought that instead.
And I'm terribly sorry to say this, Google -- you've blown it. The Nexus 4 is a dud. After two days of using it, I went back for a refund. It's the first time I've ever been dissatisfied enough with a phone to do this.
Before explaining why I'm so dissatisfied, I should explain a bit about the Nexus Programme: every year Google partners with a mobile phone manufacturer to create a "Nexus" device, which is meant to set a high standard for Android phones, and show what they're capable of. It's their flagship. My model from last year was made by Samsung; this year's Nexus is made by LG.
Google and LG have done a lot right with this phone, for which they've received much justifiable praise. The industrial design is simply gorgeous: clean, slick, and elegant -- but with just enough warm and organic touches to make it a pleasure to hold. It's the first Android phone that can happily go up against the iPhone in the industrial design category.
Also, plain-vanilla Android 4.2 is an absolute joy to use. It's every bit as elegant and refined as the phone itself, and the UX/UI team in particular should be enormously proud of their work.
But aside from the industrial design and the OS, compared to last year's Galaxy Nexus, everything else about the Nexus 4 is worse.
The screen made an immediately poor impression on me. Its colours are dull, desaturated, and muddy-looking. Apparently some people prefer this more "naturalistic" look to the hyper-saturated colour profiles that AMOLED devices like the Galaxy are usually configured for. That's fine -- I have no problem with people who like their colours desaturated. If that's what you want, use a less saturated colour profile for your device. Don't build a device with a screen that's entirely incapable
of displaying saturated colours. An emissive display ought to be able to capture the full gamut of human visual perception. The old Nexus Galaxy came closer to this aspiration than the new Nexus 4 does. That's a downgrade.
The next thing to make a poor impression was the data connectivity. Even when the phone had a strong high-speed signal, data only came through in blips and bloops, often timing out or pausing for minutes between data bursts. This made realtime applications such as chat systems unusable. Perhaps this was a problem with the network or a manufacturing error with the phone, but in any case it was thoroughly annoying.
The third thing to make a bad impression was the battery life. After 12 hours of infrequent, unenthusiastic use (due to the irritatingly muddy screen and poor data connectivity), the battery had gone from 100% to 9%. That's much worse battery life than I got with the old Galaxy Nexus. Again, perhaps this was just a bad apple from the manufacturing line, but it rankled.
If these had been the only problems, then I would've simply gotten the phone replaced, thinking that maybe I could learn to live with the poor screen, if the network and battery issues were improved. Then I tested the camera, side-by-side with my old Galaxy Nexus (which had a few minutes of battery life, although it could no longer charge). This turned out to be the straw that broke the camel's back. The camera was definitively worse. In a photo of brick chimneys against the sky, the built-in over-sharpening made the chimneys stand out as though they'd been placed against a greenscreen; meanwhile, the built-in de-noising filters caused the grout lines to smear together with the bricks. The quality of the camera wasn't abysmal
-- I would've been quite pleased to get this from a camera phone, three years ago. But in a world where Apple has been advancing the state of the art for camera phones by a fairly phenomenal degree, it was just absolutely unacceptable to see the camera quality sliding backwards.
So I took the phone back to the shop and exchanged it for a Samsung Galaxy S3, because there weren't any more old Galaxy Nexuses in stock.
In comparison to the Nexus 4, the Galaxy S3 looks ugly and feels like a cheap chit of plastic. It's Samsung-ified OS is an absolute horror: every single they have done to "improve" the user experience makes it uglier and more confusing to use. (I understand why they do this: they want to enhance the distinctiveness of their brand. This is the exact same thought process that causes perfectly good dogs to try to enhance the distinctiveness of their brand by rolling around in shit. Seriously: Samsung needs to fire everyone who customises their flavours of Android, and just use the off-the-shelf latest OS. The corporate fat-cats who presumably run Samsung need to understand that this is one of the few times when they cut a bunch of jobs, buy themselves a yacht or three, and the world will thank them for it.) I'll be rooting it and installing stock Android 4.2 at the first opportunity I get.
But these complaints aside: the data connectivity is better, the battery life is at least twice as good as the Nexus 4, the screen is fantastic, and the camera is great. And those functional things ultimately matter much more than nice industrial design.
Google, I'm rooting for you, I really am. I think Android is a great OS, and I understand what you're trying to do with the Nexus program. But please: don't let a Nexus from one year be a regression from previous years -- not by ANY metric. The screen gamut should be larger while consuming fewer watts per lumen. The camera should be better in terms of TRUE resolution -- there are very good ways to quantify this, which have nothing to do with megapixels, by the way -- noise, light sensitivity, colour accuracy, etc. The battery should last longer. The data latency should be lower. If you allow yourselves to compromise on any of these points, then you will NOT be successfully competing with Apple.
So this year's Nexus is a near-miss -- but a miss nonetheless. I look forward to seeing what you come up next year. Don't screw it up again!