The Nexus range of devices have always been the ones that most excite Android enthusiasts.

Although traditionally not as consumer-friendly and therefore not able to match the sales of big hitters like the Galaxy S III, the devices represent Google’s vision of what an Android device should be and often serve as a reference for the handsets produced in the coming months.

Since Google’s business is not reliant on hardware sales the company is also able to sell the handset through its Play Store at close to cost SIM-free. The Nexus 4 is also available on contract through O2 in the UK.

Design and build

The face on appearance of the Nexus 4 shows the device is very much sticking to the design of its forebears. It looks virtually identical to last year’s Galaxy Nexus, but is in fact a considerable step up in both design and build.

The Nexus 4 is, to put it simply, the most beautifully constructed Android device we’ve seen, even ahead of our previous favourite the HTC One X.

It shares a few similarities with that device: the full glass front with curved edges that feel great when swiping your finger in from the side of the screen, and also the way the gap between the glass and the screen itself has been reduced to barely discernible levels, making it feel as though the display is literally painted onto the glass.

The Nexus 4 certainly makes an unbeatable first impression.

The glass continues around onto the back. LG has used its Crystal Reflection glass which sports a pattern of dots that gently glow and disappear depending on how the light hits it. It’s subtle and effective, a lovely detail that enhances the phone’s high end look.

But as nice as it might look the decision to use glass for the rear is not uncontroversial. Even though it is made of Gorilla Glass it is scratch resistant rather than shatter proof, and thousands of iPhone 4 and 4S users will confirm that glass-backed handsets do not stand up well to misuse. It’s not a major issue, but if you’re prone to dropping your phones then it is at least a factor to be aware of. If nothing else, get a case.

We didn’t find the Nexus 4 to be as slippery as some other recent phones. Soft touch plastic down the sides helps to make it quite grippy, and the very solid feel of the device meant it felt pretty secure in the hand. It is both thicker and heavier than other flagship handsets, but we weren’t too bothered by that. It fits in the hand and pocket well, and feels very sturdy – there’s no flexing or creaking here.

As a Nexus device the front is buttonless, and equally minimal around the edges. On the left edge the volume controls and a covered slot for a microSIM card (which requires a SIM tool, or paperclip to remove); on the right the power button. The top houses the headphone jack, and the bottom the microUSB connector, which also supports HDMI out.

The back doesn’t clip off so you cannot replace the battery. We’re not as fussed by this as some others are, since we don’t tend to carry spare batteries as a matter of course. But if you’re buying on a two-year contract it is likely you will notice degraded performance in battery life towards the latter part of the deal.

Nexus 4 review

Hardware

The Nexus 4’s specs are mostly top notch, with a single major point of concern. There is no memory card slot.

This isn’t a surprise as Google is most definitely encouraging a move away from memory cards, and is very keen to promote its cloud services as an alternative. But even though those cloud services are appealing they are still not yet a genuine alternative to on-board storage.

The Nexus 4 is available in 8GB and 16GB versions. Take away 3GB or so for Android itself and you are looking at 5GB and 13GB instead. If ever a device were crying out for a 32GB option it was this.

Elsewhere the Nexus 4 hits the mark on all the specs, even if it does represent the best of what 2012 had to offer rather than leading the way into 2013.

The screen, as mentioned, looks fantastic, if not quite class leading. With 768 x 1280 resolution (the phone is wider than is normal) and a pixel density of 320 ppi it is immensely sharp and crisp.

In comparison to the competition it is a noticeable improvement over the Samsung Galaxy S III, has less punch than the HTC One X. The display is LCD rather than AMOLED so the blacks are not completely black and colours not quite as vibrant.

Of course you really be aware of this unless you hold the two side by side. The main complaint we had in day-to-day use was that the auto-brightness settings for the display were not quite as bright as we would have liked.

The processor is the quad-core Snapdragon S4 clocked at 1.5GHz. Allied with 2GB of RAM and the latest version of Android unencumbered by bloat it absolutely flies. There is an eight-megapixel camera with LED flash capable of shooting 1080p video, and an additional 1.3mp camera in the front for video chat, and with a wide-angle lens that makes it ideal for self-portraits.

The Nexus 4 is only officially a 3G model, although a 4G mode can be unlocked via a hidden menu. This should be viewed as no more than a bonus feature if you are in a compatible region. It only works on the 1700 and 2100MHz frequencies, and EE, the UK’s only 4G network, runs on the 1800MHz frequency.

Other highlight features are the inclusion of NFC, through a more versatile Android Beam, and support for wireless charging. The official charging station was not available at the time of writing the review, but the Nexus does use the Qi standard for inductive charging so will be compatible with devices designed for other phones, such as the Nokia Lumia 920.

Software

The Nexus 4 runs Android 4.2, and will continue to run the latest version of the OS for some time to come. The main selling point for the Nexus range has always been the early rollout of OS updates, often months in advance of flagship handsets from manufacturers like Samsung and HTC. If you’re keen to always have the best software on your phone this point should not be underestimated.

Android 4.2 is also available on the Nexus 7 and 10 tablets, but most of its new features are better for phones.

These include new lockscreen widgets that enable you to jump straight into the camera app even when the phone is locked with a password or gesture. Simply swipe right to launch the camera app and take your snap. If you try and review the image, or back out of the app then you will be have to enter that password before you can proceed.

Other lockscreen widgets are also supported and once third parties in on the act it has the potential to fundamentally change how you use your device, especially for retrieving at-a-glance information where no interaction by the user if required.

We’re also extremely keen on the new keyboard with its swiping functionality. It makes one handed typing more viable on a handset of this size, although there are certain words you simply cannot train it to type.

Most intriguing of all is the new Photo Sphere software. This plugin for the camera app uses some of the technology used in Google’s Street View service. It stitched together multiple shots, like a powered-up panorama. It isn’t perfect but is capable of producing some startlingly impressive results.

As a pure Android device there are a few gaps in the software that need to be filled with third party apps. The video player is geared up for Play Movies purchases, for instance, rather than your own side loaded content, and unlike most other devices you will have to add social networking clients if you want anything beyond Google+.

Chrome is the browser of choice for the Nexus 4, and was responsible for the only moments of lag we encountered in using the device. A far cry from its desktop counterpart Chrome is unwieldy in mobile form and slows right down when displaying large websites to the point where scrolling is a chore.

Chrome chooses to download the mobile version of sites by default, which solves a certain amount of the problems, but given that browsers like Dolphin or Firefox are capable of loading the full version with no performance hit it’s clear that the software is the culprit here.

Nexus 4 review

Performance and battery

That sluggishness when scrolling in the browser was the only time we encountered any performance issues of concern. For the most part the Nexus 4 was buttery smooth, benefiting from the complete lack of surplus software or tweaks.

For users more used to devices from the likes of Samsung and HTC the Nexus 4 might feel somewhat naked when you first load it up, but it doesn’t take long to begin to warm to this more stripped down approach. The OS feels light and lean and the look of the UI is thoroughly consistent. It is the kind of marriage of hardware and software that we’ve only really seen before on an iPhone.

Battery life is about average compared to phones at a similar level. It’s less than the Galaxy S III was on Ice Cream Sandwich but about the same as it currently is since the Jelly Bean update. It’s better than the original HTC One X.

As always the longevity of a charge will vary depending on how you are using the phone. We found that with light use it would comfortably clear the day; and would need a top up late in the afternoon with heavier use. It equates to about four and a half hours of screen on time.

Hackability

Nexus devices are always fully embraced by the Android hacking community, producing a wide range of ROMs, kernels and other mods and tweaks. The Nexus 4 will be no different, especially when it is being sold through the Play Store at such as low price. The Nexus 4 will be no different, the only obstacle at the time of review being the limited availability of the handset.

Verdict

The Nexus 4 is in many ways the best Android device we’ve seen. The design and build quality is fantastic, Android 4.2 in its purest form is a pleasure to use, and feels so much faster than the heavily skinned alternatives outside of the Nexus range.

There are two things we’re not so keen on. The storage limitations are quite severe – the 8GB version, with just 5GB free, will quickly have you juggling your apps and content to make sure you’ve always got space free – and if you use your phone as your primary music device or for high-end gaming you will need to think carefully about whether the 16GB version is big enough for you either.

And then there is the relative lack of ambition in the device. It feels more like the culmination of all the advances made in 2012 than something that is setting the standard for the year ahead. CES and Mobile World Congress will reveal devices that leave this one trailing.

Still, if you’re buying SIM-free the unbeatable value simply cannot be denied.