Nexus 4 reviewed: A fantastic phone, even without LTE

Nexus 4 backGoogle(s goog) is continuing to push its direct-to-consumer Android brand with the Nexus 4 smartphone built by LG. The handset showcases the new Android 4.2 software while also improving hardware over the prior model: Samsung’s Galaxy Nexus. At a no-contract price of $299 for an 8 GB model or $349 for a 16 GB version, is this new flagship phone worth the money? Some may give pause by the lack of LTE support, but overall, the Nexus 4 is a fantastic phone for the price; especially for consumers that live in a recently upgraded HSPA+ network area.

Hardware: It’s the Galaxy Nexus; only better

I’ve been using the Nexus 4 for the last two weeks and prior to that, my main phone for most of the last year was Nexus 4’s predecessor: the Galaxy Nexus. This successor handset may be best described as the Galaxy Nexus evolved. The Nexus 4 feels like a more premium-built device with Corning’s(s glw) Gorilla Glass 2 on the front and back. Along the sides the phone has a rubberized, grippy material that feels good in hand. And the flat glass back means no protruding hump for a speaker like the prior model had. In short: This is a sleek, comfortable device that you won’t mind holding. About that speaker on the back: it’s not as loud as I’d like it; similar to the last Nexus. But call quality in general is good.

The 4.7-inch IPS display offers a 1280 x 768 resolution and to my eye, looks better than that of the Galaxy Nexus. Colors are vivid, but not over-saturated and everything is crisp and bright. The button layout is the same as the old Nexus: Power/wake on the right, volume rocker on the left and micro-USB port on the bottom. The headphone jack is up top now and a micro-SIM door is on the right. The Nexus 4 has a 2100 mAh integrated battery and with the glass back, there’s no way to get at it. I’ve been able to get through nearly every day of usage on a single charge, however. There’s no support for additional memory expansion, which is a bit of a let-down, even though I faced the same on last year’s model.

Inside is Qualcomm’s(s qcom) 1.5 GHz quad-core Snapdragon Pro paired with a generous 2 GB of memory and an Adreno 320 GPU. This combination makes Android fly, no matter what activities you throw at it. Browsing, email, games: You name it; all are fast. While you can close apps by hitting the recent apps software button and swiping the software off screen, I’ve stopped doing so with the Nexus 4: There’s simply no need with this hardware configuration because the phone is a powerhouse. Hard-core, heavy duty users may want to free up memory from time to time but  most folks won’t bother.

Much improved over last year’s Nexus is the 8-megapixel rear camera sensor, which is backside illuminated, and LED flash. Images and videos are noticeably better and on par with most other high-end handsets, save perhaps for the iPhone 5(s aapl) and some Nokia(s nok) Lumia phones. While stills and videos (up to 1080p) look quite good, the camera isn’t the fastest I’ve used, which surprises me, given the hardware inside. Letting the camera auto-focus on its own isn’t always quick when tapping the shutter button and I find myself pre-focusing with a screen tap more often than not as a result. The front-facing 1.3 megapixel camera works fine for video chat or a quick self-portrait.

Let’s talk LTE and HSPA+

All of the expected connectivity and sensor options are present: dual-band 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi; Bluetooth; GPS; NFC; accelerometer; gyroscope; compass; and even support for wireless charging (which I wasn’t able to test). As an unlocked GSM phone, the Nexus 4 supports typical voice network frequencies as well as HSPA+ channels for both T-Mobile and AT&T(s t) in the US. But — and this could be a sticking point for some — there’s no LTE compatibility.

I see this as a trade-off of sorts and it’s a personal choice if you want to accept the trade-off or not. The handset supports both HSPA+ and dual-carrier HSPA+ up to a theoretical 42 Mbps. In the right coverage areas then, the dual-carrier HSPA+ speeds can come close to that of an LTE network. I used a T-Mobile micro-SIM in the Nexus 4 but I don’t live in an area where T-Mobile provides 42 Mbps service.

As a result, my typical speedtests showed latency averaging 90 milliseconds, downloads topping 9 Mbps, and uploads approaching 1.6 Mbps. However, Myriam Joire, an Engadget review I know and trust personally, managed several speedtests in a 42 Mbps coverage area and routinely saw Nexus 4 throughput at 2 to 3 times my own experience. See her test result here (left) topping 27 Mbps down and 3.6 Mbps back up, for example.

So how much of a letdown is the lack of LTE? That’s up to you and could be based on where you live due to coverage areas. I’m quite fine with the HSPA+ speeds on the Nexus 4; particularly because I heavily supplement my connectivity with wireless hotspots. LTE is a nice to have for sure, but it’s going to cost you on a monthly basis. Since the Nexus 4 only supports HSPA+ and can be had without contract, you can shop around for an HSPA+ plan: I use a $45 month Straight Talk SIM but others may opt for the $30 T-Mobile deal at WalMart(s wmrt). With each, you’re getting full HSPA+ speeds but for much less on a monthly basis when compared to LTE.

Software: Best Android version yet

The Nexus 4 is the first phone to ship with Android 4.2. While other Nexus devices will get the software too, new Nexus 4 owners will be the envy of the Android smartphone world. There aren’t a massive amount of changes in this version of the software, which is stock on the Nexus 4, meaning it’s “pure” Android, without any user interface overlays. The lack of big changes shows that Android has matured to the point where it needs only minor tweaks and feature adds; something that I think will unify the platform as a whole.

Android Notifications on Nexus 4There are few nice new user interface changes, however. The notification shade has a new one-touch Quick Settings options for easy access to device settings. You can also take action on a small set of notifications such as returning a missed call. A new keyboard option is included as well.

Fans of the Swype keyboard will be happy to hear that a gesture-based keyboard is now included. Using a single finger, you trace your words on the keyboard for fast input. Although I’m not a fan of this method — I use two thumbs to type on all of my phones — I can vouch for Google’s effort here as it works well and includes word prediction by tapping the space button.

Nexus 4 lock widgetAlso new here is support for lock-screen widgets: Swipe the lock screen to the left and you’ll immediately be in the Camera app, for example. Swipe to the right and you can add several other widgets that show information on a locked device ranging from Calendar appointments, the Gmail Inbox, Messaging app or Sound Search, a Shazam-like app that identifies a song. Testing this last widget worked really well: The app never failed to get the right song and, of course, it provides a link to purchase the music in Google Play. I love having this — and other information — right on the lock screen for fast access.

The new Photo Sphere feature is interesting. With it you’re guided through a series of still images all around you and the phone then renders them into a single interactive image. It works OK indoors but is much better outdoors in my opinion as images with many straight lights show numerous alignment issues. You can share these pics, but only in a wide, landscape view for now

Is the Nexus 4 for you?

For those wanting a high-end, cutting-edge Android experience and can do without LTE, I see no reason to pass this phone up, although I’d recommend the 16 GB model due to the lack of memory expansion. Even with 16 GB, you’ll need to take heavy advantage of cloud storage for music and video streaming, not to mention the saving of pictures and videos. I’ve survived with a 16 GB Galaxy Nexus for more than a year, so while that’s not desirable, it’s not impossible.

As far as the Nexus line as a whole, my general strategy has been to upgrade every other Nexus. I bought the Nexus One but passed on the Nexus S, for example. I then upgraded to the Galaxy Nexus last year. For the first time, Google has created a phone that made me pause and rethink my strategy. Why? Because the Nexus 4 is that much better than my Galaxy Nexus and costs nearly 40 percent less than what I paid for the prior model.

Galaxy S III handsetSome may opt for the popular Samsung Galaxy S III which packs LTE but there’s a key difference here: The Nexus 4 will get software updates much faster than Samsung’s best selling Android phone. And like most other Android devices, the GS III uses Samsung’s TouchWiz overlay; not necessarily a bad thing, but pure Android is actually nice to use. Besides, you could always add a third-party launcher to the Nexus 4 if you wanted to.

This new handset is improved in every way and if I hadn’t recently purchased a Galaxy Note 2, I likely would be buying this new Nexus handset. It’s that good. In fact, I think it competes well against the latest offerings that run iOS or Windows Phone. And that’s what the Nexus should be for Google: A flagship line of devices that either lead the pack or are at least in the mix for the best currently available phones and tablets on the market.

Note that if you want to save some up-front money, you can buy the Nexus 4 directly from T-Mobile for $199 with a contract.