How the Nexus 4 Changed My Perception of Android

Despite how much I am involved with Android now, and my ever-growing addiction to the platform over the past couple of years, I was surprised to reckon a few weeks ago that I have never experienced Android like it was created and meant to be — ie. on a Nexus device. I have owned and used an HTC Desire Z, an Iconia A100 tablet, a Samsung Galaxy S3 and an LG Optimus 4X HD, but never a Nexus device.  That’s because I live in Lebanon, where Nexus devices are a black market rarity and Samsung is everywhere.

However, I eventually managed to convince the local LG team to lend me a Nexus 4 for review. And *insert expletives* I’m blown away.

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AOSP ROMs Aren’t the Same Thing

I’m not a stranger to AOSP-based ROMs. I have flashed various iterations of CyanogenMod on both of my Desire Z and Galaxy S3, and used them as my daily drivers for over two years. I know how stock Android looks, how it works, I know which features were added by ROM modders and which are available in the original code. Actually, scratch that. I thought I knew stock Android, or how it was supposed to feel at least. Boy, was I wrong!

The first thing I learned after handling the Nexus 4 is that it’s not the same experience. At first, I struggled to put the difference into words, but now that I’ve had time to think about it, I can pinpoint a few factors:

  • AOSP ROMs, no matter how “stable” they are, are never really, really stable. You might see bugs, some hardware features may not function properly, and overall, you don’t have the confidence of knowing that things will work like they are supposed to. That’s why I always have a Nandroid backup with me, in case I have to re-flash while on the move — which only happened once thankfully.
  • AOSP ROMs feel weird on devices that aren’t meant to run them. Think of it as trying to fit a round peg in a square hole: it might go in, but it’s not exactly correct. Like it or not, Samsung, HTC, LG, Sony and every other manufacturer build their hardware to match with their own Android skin, so when you change one part of the equation, the chemistry is simply no longer there.
  • AOSP ROMs like CyanogenMod, Paranoid Android, AOKP or others, add their own features which might introduce bugs and slowness, or interfere with the way the original Android source code is supposed to work.

Speed vs. Absolutely Zero Lag

The first apparent difference I noticed with the Nexus 4 was the lack of lag, and by that I mean that everything is so instantaneous that I was almost thrown off guard. I had never complained about lag on my Galaxy S3 , I even considered it a fast and responsive device, but I’ve learned that there’s a difference between regular speed and absolutely zero lag. Google had introduced “Project Butter” with Jelly Bean 4.1, and although the Galaxy S3 runs this Android version, it doesn’t seem to have benefited from Butter as much as it should have.

Project Butter improvements in Android 4.1

Project Butter improvements in Android 4.1

By comparison, the Nexus 4 is blazing fast. There is no waiting between the moment you get your finger close enough that the screen detects a touch and the device’s response to that touch. It’s uncanny how both happen at the exact same time. Scrolling through text, swiping images in the Gallery, opening and closing the Multitasking view, everything is swift beyond what I had ever experienced before.

At one point, I thought I was wearing my biased rose-colored glasses and exaggerating. I asked my friends, all of whom were quite happy with the speed of their HTCs, Samsungs and Sonys, to check the Nexus 4. I told them to use the device for a minute or two, then get back to me. And the verdict was unanimous: it’s smoother than anything they had used.

I Don’t Really Need Replacement Apps

When I got the Nexus 4, I set myself one rule: don’t install replacement apps for at least one week. I wanted to experience Android like it was meant to be, with the stock browser, keyboard, launcher, gallery… For someone whose first installs on any Android device or ROM are always SwiftKey, Nova Launcher and QuickPic, withdrawal was bound to occur in less than 24 hours. But something strange happened instead.

24 hours went by, then a week, then a couple of weeks, and I had forgotten about my “one week” pact. Then I remembered it about three weeks later, and although I was tempted to accuse myself of being a stock Android fangirl, I couldn’t help but wonder what had happened.

Using the default launcher and Gallery on the Nexus 4

Using the default launcher and Gallery on the Nexus 4

It all boils down to two factors: default Android apps have gotten a lot better with time, and they fit so much with the rest of the pure Nexus experience that they somehow retreat to the background to let you get your work done. I’ve always thought that the best software was the one that you didn’t have to set up, fiddle with, learn, teach or tweak. Instead, it’s the one that’s coded so well that you tend to forget it exists in the first place. And that’s exactly the case here. I didn’t have to spend my time tinkering with the software, it just worked and I was left free to install my apps and enjoy the experience.

Be Gone, Navigation Buttons Prejudice!

One instant turn-off from AOSP ROMs that I carried through my first few hours with the Nexus 4 was my hatred of the on-screen navigation buttons. When I had previously flashed AOSP ROMs on my Galaxy S3, I tried to use them but couldn’t for more than a few minutes and instantly turned them off and reverted to the hardware keys. On the Nexus 4 however, the buttons feel less like a wasted part of the screen, and more like a continuation of the hardware. I got used to them surprisingly fast.

The one upside I discovered as well is that the buttons are context-sensitive. Unlike hardware buttons, they can move, which means that they’re always on the right side in landscape mode, whether you flip your screen 90 or 270 degrees. They can also change, and the Back button becomes a Down arrow when the keyboard is open. On other devices, I often have a little hesitation that clicking Back when the keyboard is open would actually go back instead of closing the keyboard, but thanks to the on-screen cue, I now know exactly what the button will do. Of course, there’s also the benefit of launching a Google voice search instantly by sliding up on them from anywhere, which you can’t do with the physical keys on other handsets.

The navigation buttons are context-sensitive and let you launch a Google voice search

The navigation buttons are context-sensitive and let you launch a Google voice search

LG Builds Quite Awesome Hardware

If my time with the Optimus 4X had taught me anything, it’s that LG knows how to build really good hardware. Sturdy, classy, light enough to be carried easily but without compromising on the materials. The Nexus 4 embodies all of that. Sure, the all-glass form factor gives it an air of fragility, and you might want to treat it with a little more care than other devices, but it’s still an elegant and slender device.

I instantly fell in love with the patterned squares on the back, and even got a wallpaper to match for my homescreen (as shown in the screenshots above). I was also very impressed by the clean look of the device from the front. There’s no logo, no hardware buttons, and both the speaker and the front camera are inconspicuous. If you glance at it quickly when the screen is off, you wouldn’t be able to tell if the device was straight or upside down.

The Nexus 4 is one sexy device from the clean front to the patterned glass back

The Nexus 4 is one sexy device from the clean front to the patterned glass back

Putting aside the fragility of the all-glass body, the Nexus 4 is a classy device that feels great in the hand, and I can’t help but wish that Google asks LG to build their next generation Nexus. With slightly different materials, I’m pretty sure it will sport excellently designed and built hardware.

Android Skins Aren’t All That Bad

My friend, Steve Litchfield, has been carrying out a review series looking at different OEM skins to see what changes they bring to Android, and whether they are good enough to justify the delays in updates that their devices suffer. He’s already reviewed TouchWiz, Sense and Xperia UI and came up with the conclusion that the first two offer enough improvements to warrant their existence, but not Sony’s Xperia which, due to its minimalistic approach, doesn’t bring any real enhancement but still suffers from delayed updates.

Although I have been championing stock Android for a long time, I have to agree with Steve. For example, the main two areas where TouchWiz trumps stock Android are the dialer and the notification toggles. I can’t believe that the default Android dialer doesn’t offer T9 predictive name input, forcing you to go to the People tab and search for a person’s name to dial their number. Also, Android just added toggles in the notification area, but TouchWiz, Optimus UI and other skins have had them for several years. They even allow you to customize which toggles you want to use, and don’t require a separate drawer, appearing above your regular notifications instead.

Downsides of stock Android: no T9 dialer and the toggles are limited and in their own drawer

Downsides of stock Android: no T9 dialer and the toggles are limited and in their own drawer

Of course, the downside of Android skins is that most devices that were launched before and after the Nexus 4 are still stuck on Android 4.1, whereas the Nexus 4 is already on Android 4.2.2 with the added Daydream and Lockscreen widget options. You give some, you take some… Oh well.

Upsides of stock Android: you always have the latest with Daydream and Lockscreen widgets

Upsides of stock Android: you always have the latest with Daydream and Lockscreen widgets

The Verdict

Look, if you haven’t figured out by now that I was quite infatuated by the Nexus 4, then you really didn’t read anything I said. Hardware, software, and price-wise, it’s a well-balanced device with a few compromises and a lot of power. And no one can honestly claim to be an Android fan until they’ve handled one Nexus device (currently the Nexus 4, 7 or 10) to experience Android like it was meant to be, as a whole package. The responsiveness, the simplicity and integration of the default apps, the continuity between software design and hardware design are unique and unparalleled in the Android ecosystem now, even if you dabble with AOSP-based ROMs.

As a matter of fact, after a couple of days with the Nexus 4, I tweeted something along these lines:

After using Android like it was intended on a Nexus 4, I’m crying for the millions of people whose only perception of Android is TouchWiz.

It’s not that TouchWiz is bad per se — although I admittedly despise its color scheme and icons — it’s that Samsung has such a hold on the Android market that many millions of users likely think that that’s all there is to Android and will never know how wrong they are.

As for me, I’m back on my Galaxy S3 with a CyanogenMod 10.1 ROM, and awaiting patiently for the new Nexus 7 and Nexus phone, which I am definitely buying — unless there’s a groundbreaking feature in other devices that sways my decision. I’ve tasted the Nexus flavor of Android, and there’s likely no going back to any other.

  • lalala

    said that with my nexus 7 too,about the smoothness,but few months down the road,when minor lags and drop frames and freeze will start, it feels like the end of the world cause i’ve experienced it when it was literally butter i just installed nova launcher,fixed almost all the problem,trust me,stock is no longer the smoothest!

  • walesmd

    Uh… Can I get your Nexus 4? Don’t get me wrong, it’s the best phone I’ve ever owned (and the only one appropriately priced, if you buy from the Play Store where it lacks the $300 carrier markup); but I am on the verge of throwing CM on mine. The Bluetooth connection is sketchy, the only time it’s reliable is when it makes my car call itself immediately upon cranking; the data connection is sketchy, often getting completely lost with no clue from WiFi to 3G; 4G is disabled by the software, not because it lacks the capability; WiFi calling is disabled if you have the Play store version as well. I’m just waiting for the day when I have an hour or two to spare, then it’s flashing time. Nevertheless, again, it I’d absolutely the best phone you can get for the money.

    The Nexus 7 isn’t even comparable. I’ve purchased 3 (my daughter, my girlfriend and myself). Of the 3 only one of them still works: mine (which just so happens to be running CM10). The other 2 won’t charge, won’t turn on, nothing; and they are on their way out for warranty repairs.

    • marlonluna

      CM is great and easy now… YouTube ” Nexus Root Toolkit” it literally is point and click root/flashing and takes about 15 minutes

  • Darthjr

    I really like flashy new things. When I get them I’m all excited about them and tend to not pay attention to the bad, because well it’s a new shiny thing. The Nexus 4 was the worst purchase decision that I’ve ever made. My glass shattered when I set the phone on my desk from a 1 inch drop. Once I fixed the back the sim card door fell off. I then fixed that. The screen is too wide and feels awkward in the hand and the nexus 4 is almost as heavy as the Iphone 4. Give yourself some time with the phone and you’ll see the negatives as I have. I’ve had almost every Android/Apple milestone device from the G1 to the Galaxy Nexus and Nexus 4 and I have to say that each phone has some type of compromise whether it’s a crappy camera or crappy screen but I’ve never experienced such shoddy build quality. While I keep hearing tech writers speak of the great build quality the phone has I can’t help to think that the materials they used were cheap. Out of the several people that I’ve personally spoken to none of them have a non cracked Nexus 4 or some type of part that hasn’t failed or fallen of the dumb thing.

    • marlonluna

      Sorry to hear about your drop experience Darth….I will say this… Your experience is totally opposite of mine… I got a great case and have accidentally flung my Nexus across the room into a wall and its been fine….I think that was the purpose of the case ;P

  • marlonluna

    Very well written and energetic article! Yes, once you go Nexus…. One thing however: my Nexus 4 Cyanogen 10.1.2 IS as good as stock and just as fast… And yes it has the t9 dialer so I can dial by name :)

    • khouryrt

      Yup, I assume AOSP ROMs function a lot better on Nexus hardware (since they use the same source code) than on other devices where they have to be hacked to work (which was my point about AOSP in the post)

  • Metroview

    Every single thing in this article has nailed what I’ve thought about the Nexus 4. As a former owner of an AT&T Galaxy S3, and switching back and forth between AOKP and CM on it, I believe I’ve now become a huge Nexus fan ever since I got the phone last week. If it isn’t from Google, I don’t want it. Despite a few setbacks mentioned in the article, the pure Android experience is absolutely beautiful.

  • collinpage

    Just wait till 4.3 is officially released.. Then you’ll love it even more.. I flashed the leak the other day and one thing you’ll notice is touch sensitivity was improved dramatically and my battery seems to be lasting longer also.. 4.3 is very welcomed

  • misternobg

    How did you manage to put informations like email,battery,weather and exchage rate on your daydream screen because you can’t configure daydream you have to choose only between clock,colors,currents and photo frame. I agree that stock Android rules. There is enough toggles in notification shade. I’ll wait for official 4.3 update there is no need for rush and I’m looking forward to the improvement of battery life and touch screen sensitivity which isn’t bad but could be better.

  • MC Wong

    Those are same reasons why I chose the nexus 4. Great article.

  • Antoine RJ Wright

    I’ve had a thought about mobile platforms for sometime that you point out very nicely here Rita: if its not completely usable out of the box, then its not usable. Meaning that the default has to be great enough to live with; and any add-ons have to add to the experience, not fill in blanks.

    Very impressed at hearing your impressions of the Nexus 4. In many respects, I think this is the kind of review the Android community needs to hear. I don’t think its that Android licensees shouldn’t tweak things, but that it should add to the experience, not detract from it. From just your impressions of the speed/fluidity of device interactions, that’s enough of a note that all Android folks should be measuring the platform on.

    If the default is built well, then the rest of the road looks like a nice adventure worth traveling.

    • khouryrt

      Once again, you say my thoughts better than I do, Antoine. That’s one of the aspects of the Nexus 4 that has surprised me the most :)

  • Mario Rapillo

    Loved the article, and loved the sentence in quotes! It’s so true!

    Even though I don’t share the same love for the N4… It’s a great device, the best nexus probably… but since i bought a Galaxy Nexus and tried the super amoled display, all the other displays are not so stunning! So when i tried a friend’s N4 i was kind of disappointed by the display, which is HD, LCD, but didn’t look so good! Also the materials, i hate samsung plastics, and when I heard of the glass of the N4 I was glad, but yet again, it didn’t stun! It was slippy, and not so elegant as i imagined.

    In conclusion, i agree it’s a great device, i agree that android on the N4 is how Android is really meant to be.. but the n4 lost some great features the gnex had (and gained much more the gnex didn’t have xD).

  • AhmedYousri

    I have s3 and unfortunately the screen got broken and i am going to buy a new phone and this article kept me thinking about the nexus 4, so i read vast reviews about it and i found some concerns and i hope u can clear them out fro me as a suer of both devices .
    1. is the camera as good as s3 ( most reviews said it is ok but not as good ) ?
    2 what about battery life ?

    • khouryrt

      In those 2 areas, the S3 is better. The camera app (and the photos) are a bit better on the S3, especially in HDR mode. The battery life on the Nexus is a bit low, but I was told that if you wanted to flash a custom ROM you could improve battery life (if you never have done anything of the likes, please don’t make a decision based that).

      • AhmedYousri

        After 4 days of using touhwiz on my s3 , i rooted and flashed cm10.1 with custom kernel (even my htc phone before that was rockin with cm ) so no problem with that. the only reason that made me thinking a bout the nexus line is the pure android feels but if the phone quality isn’t as good as software . i am not gonna buy it just for the software ( i just stumbled on a great review that tackle new issues that i wasn’t aware of ( the overheating ,throttling , and the screen quality )
        so what do u think about that also comparing to s 3 ?
        ps: i am asking a lot because here in Egypt both phones are the same price and i am gonna be stuck with the phone for at least 2 years

        • khouryrt

          I’m using CM10.1 on my S3 as well. It’s a lot more stable now than it was before, but if I, personally, was given the choice now, I’d go for the Nexus 4. The full experience is a lot better than custom ROMs. There are compromises though, with the camera and battery life.

          • AhmedYousri

            thanks Fellow pharmacist 😉 . i am gonna go with the nexus 4

  • Ravikiran Bhandari

    Absolutely right, this is out to be the smoothest, fastest and elegant device on this planet, and this comment is coming from a guy who has been an Apple fanboy for last few years, who is now seriously thinking of adding a nexus 7 tablet next to his iPad!, the best part of Nexus 4 is virtually every modded ROM supports this device and they all work like smooth butter on this!, currently on Paranoid Android, Nice Review! Thanks for making me more prouder of my choice , (by the way I gave away my one month old Samsung Galaxy to get this one after my Apple transition)