Nexus-4-vs.-iPhone-5I’m an Apple fan. I’ve got the third iPad, the new iMac, a Macbook Air, an older Macbook, and two years ago I didn’t consider buying anything other than the iPhone. Still, when it came time to choosing a phone, this time I decided to give the Nexus 4 a try.

I’ve now been using the Nexus 4 for a couple of weeks, and I love it. That was something of a surprise. I thought by switching from iPhone to Android I would be making a sacrifice in quality and usability. The main reason I switched to the Nexus 4 in the first place was because it seemed from the early reviews that it was good enough to keep me connected and happy while saving me lots of dollars. I didn’t expect I would end up liking it more than the iPhone.

I wanted to write this review for people like me – non-geeks who also happen to be heavy users of smartphones. For a long time, I couldn’t decide between the iPhone 5 and the Nexus 4; I wished there were a review that compared the two from a layman’s perspective – someone who didn’t care so much about LTE vs HSPA+, or which amazing camera lens was superior to a different sort of amazing lens, or whether we can choose from 1 million apps or 750,000 apps in the respective app stores. If you are still trying to choose between the iPhone 5 and the Nexus 4, I hope you find this useful.

Before you read on, keep in mind that I have only used the iPhone 5 fleetingly. I don’t own one. I’ve played with friends’ iPhones and asked them what they think about of the phone. I’ve fiddled around with it a lot in various Apple Stores. Prior to switching to the Nexus 4, however, I was a very heavy user of my iPhone 4, and I thought it a great device.

To me, four criteria really matter for a smartphone: utility, feel, economics, and innovation. So I’ve organized my review under those categories. This review only scratches the surface – I’ll spare you the 20,000-word detailed report – but I try to touch on the key things that differentiate the two phones.

Utility

I was at first worried about the Nexus 4. The first thing that struck me when I turned it on was how foreign it felt. Unlike an Apple device, it did not “just work” straight away. I had to get used to a strange new system of notifications, settings controls, app storage, multitasking, widgets, and OS design. The app icons looked small and crappy, and the tiny fonts thin and scratchy. The interface lacked the comforting rounded elegance of iOS. It felt instead boxy and pointy – like Dikembe Mutombo’s elbows.

It took me two full days to get used to Android, where the device’s buttons were, how the back button worked, and even to figure out how to rearrange the apps and widgets on the screen. But once I mastered all that, the Nexus 4 started becoming super-usable.

I like that for notifications, mini apps icons are displayed in a narrow bar at the top of the lockscreen. I like being able to drag the “curtain” down to find out more. I also love that I get one-tap access to the basic settings, allowing me to turn on Airplane mode, check my battery, turn off WiFi, and adjust brightness with ease. And the way the system handles multitasking is neat – I just have to hit a soft button in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen to get scrollable thumbnails of all the apps that are open on a full screen. That feature makes the iPhone’s double-click for open-apps access look limited and out-of-date. On the same note, I like that the Nexus 4 doesn’t have a “hard” home button. My iPhone’s home button got wonky and sticky about eight months ago and is now totally unreliable. That won’t happen with the Nexus 4.

Another massive plus is that the apps auto-update. I’m now at a point with my iPhone and iPad that I have to update apps every day. It’s not a huge task, but it is niggly enough to annoy me every time I see a little “1” in a red circle hovering on the corner of an app icon. Not ever having to think about those notifications ever again is a welcome stress relief.

One major drawback, however, is battery life. Even today, the iPhone 4 gets me through well more than a day with moderate usage. The Nexus 4 only makes it through a day if I don’t use it too much. I read on a forum somewhere that battery life might improve if I “condition” the battery correctly – that is, by letting it run out completely before charging – but I don’t know if that’s true. Over the two weeks I’ve been using it, I haven’t noticed much difference. This could be a serious problem in the long run, especially when I’m away from a powerpoint all day and am relying on the phone a lot for interviews, photos, videos, Maps, and Twitter.

And of course, the Nexus 4 also doesn’t have LTE, as does the iPhone 5. For me, that hasn’t been a problem, because I came straight to HSPA from AT&T’s 3G, so everything seems zippier anyway.

Feel

I’ve spent enough time with the iPhone 5 to know that I’m not crazy about its form. It feels long and thin, just like a stretched iPhone 4. I’m sure it’s a good thing to have an extra row of apps and that watching video in widescreen is marvelous. But I care more about reading on my device, and for that reason I strongly prefer the extra width of the Nexus 4’s 4.7-inch screen.

Reading on the Nexus 4 is a pleasurable experience, whereas reading on the iPhone 4 for me was only ever a back-up option. The few times I’ve read on the iPhone 5, I haven’t noticed much difference except that each “page” runs a little longer. The text still feels squeezed in. On the Nexus 4, on the other hand, my eye can run across the page without feeling like it’s doing laps in a paddling pool. Being able to read at almost book-like comfort from the palm of my hand is a huge win for me. Also, Instagram photos look great at this size.

Typing on the Nexus 4 is also a much better experience than on the iPhone, mainly because of the Swype-like keyboard. Going back to the iPhone after typing on the Nexus 4 just feels wrong. It always takes my brain a few moments to register that I can’t just swipe over the keyboard to type a message. Instead, I have to go back to old-fashioned hunt-and-peck.

Weirdly, the Nexus 4 is let down by crappier versions of Google’s Gmail and Maps apps than exist for the iPhone. The iOS versions of the apps are both more beautiful and more functional. How can it be that I can’t easily sort my emails by “unread” on the native Gmail app for Android? That bugs the hell out of me. Also, I miss the Google Maps iOS app, which is far more intuitive and user-friendly than the Android version.

Economics

This was another tipping-point issue for me, and I think its importance to the non-geek, and the non-rich, is wildly underestimated. With AT&T for the iPhone, I was paying $90 a month (including taxes), and I was locked into a two-year contract. For the Nexus 4, I’m paying $30 month to month for unlimited data, unlimited texts, and 100 voice minutes. That was a promotional deal, and it has its problems – thanks to a couple of long interviews, I burned through the voice minutes within a week. I may end up having to switch to a $50 plan, which will still get me more data than I need – 5GB per month – and plenty of voice minutes. (Like many laymen, I haven’t built up the willpower yet to switch everything to Google Voice.)

Still, even if I ended up paying $50 a month, that’s a gigantic saving over a two-year period. If I went with the iPhone 5, I would have paid $200 for the device and $90 a month for two years. That’s a total of $2,360. I consider that very expensive.

For the Nexus 4, on the other hand, I paid $350 upfront for the 16GB version. Even if I paid $50 a month for two years, that’s a total cost of $1,550. That’s a saving of $810 on what I would be paying to be an iPhone 5 owner.

That is a lot of money. That’s almost enough to buy the latest iPad and the iPad Mini together. It’s enough to pay for a return trip to Europe. It’s like Google and T-Mobile have teamed up to say, “Hey, buy this device, which is competitive with the iPhone, and we’ll give you $800.”

If I knew then what I now know about the Nexus 4, this would have been a very easy decision to make. I would have bought the phone without thinking twice and felt good about having an “extra” $800 in my account for a rainy day.

Innovation

Here is where I think the Nexus 4 becomes a really big deal for Google. It is straight-up more innovative than the iPhone. Not more innovative than the original invention, mind, but more innovative in the way it presents ideas about smartphones today. As I argued when Apple launched the iPhone 5, Apple has lost its innovative edge in mobile devices. The iPad Mini was its first me-too product, a response to the Nexus 7. Rather than leading the way on mobile, suddenly Apple was trying to make sure it was keeping pace.

Google Now

Google Now on the Nexus 4

Now, it’s clear that iOS 6 falls into the same camp. Android 4.2.2, “Jellybean,” which runs on the Nexus 4, is a superior being. Apple’s iOS for iPhone might be less buggy and more simple, but for that reason it’s also less thrilling, less versatile, and far more pedestrian. Going back to iOS after Jellybean feels like stepping back in time. (Other people have reported problems with bugs on Nexus 4, but I haven’t encountered any so far.)

Google Now is the most significant way in which the Nexus 4 – and Android in general – is out-innovating Apple. The predictive service, which brings up everything from traffic conditions to sports scores to flight information without needing me to tell Google anything, is a step towards a world of fewer apps. It presents a new way of thinking about mobile computing, making the computer’s brain do more of the work and requiring less of the human touch.

The months-old service is still only in its infancy so it’s not perfect. For instance, Google keeps showing me the price of flights to Melbourne that I’m not interested in. But still, it is already proving useful enough to suggest that I could one day delegate most of my current app-oriented actions to the algorithms. And it’s far more intrinsic to the user experience than is Siri, a service for which I still haven’t found a purpose (going by experience with my iPad).

The other major way in which the Nexus 4 out-innovates Apple is in its camera, which is brilliant. While the iPhone has a great panorama feature, the Nexus 4’s “Photo Sphere” takes the immersive 3D snapshot to a whole different level. The big surprise to me was how easy it was to use. A line-up-the-dots system makes the photo-stitching basic enough for even a photo-dunce like me to nail professional-looking shots. Another cool thing about the 8MP camera is that it lets you snap stills while filming video.

Conclusion

The Nexus 4 is not without its problems. Initially, it’s hard to figure out your way around the system – the notifications bar, the app menu, the multi-screen lockscreen – and some of the actions, even answering a phone call, aren’t intuitive. They take repeat use to get accustomed to. The poor battery life is a big issue, and for some, understandably, will be a deal-breaker.

Google has bungled its distribution and delivery, too. I had to wait five weeks from the time I ordered my phone for it to finally arrive at my doorstep, and I was lucky. The first batches of the phone sold out pretty much immediately and remain sold out. The wireless charging orb that got so many of us excited when it was announced in late October still isn’t available, with no word on its arrival date.

But to me, the Nexus 4’s strengths outweigh its weaknesses. It feels like a more modern smartphone, and a device that respects its user’s intelligence more than the “we know what’s best for you” Apple approach, which, given iOS 6’s limitations, is starting to wear thin. Not only is it a joy to use and read on, but it’s also far cheaper and has more flexible data options than offered by the iPhone’s partner carriers (even with a new contract-less plan being offered by Walmart). Because I travel a lot, I love being able to stop my plan at any time, and to switch the SIM card whenever I want.

So I’m with Ralf Rottmann. I think the Nexus 4 is better than the iPhone 5, and its edge is even more pronounced when price is taken into consideration. And that’s true even for a not-very-techie layman like me.

If Apple is going to win me back to the iPhone, iOS 7 will have to be a stunner.