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Family feud: is Google's Nexus 5 the best pure Android phone?

Family feud: is Google's Nexus 5 the best pure Android phone?

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NExus 5 lens
NExus 5 lens

When it was released last year, the Nexus 4 was one of the best Android smartphones around, aside from one glaring issue: it didn’t include LTE. Google has finally righted that wrong this year with the Nexus 5, and it’s overhauling the phone in a number of other big ways as well. But in a year where Google has already released stock versions of the most powerful Android phones around, and Google-owned Motorola has learned to stand out from the crowd, is a new Nexus able to hold its own in Google's all-star lineup?

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Google's new Nexus is one capable device

While the Nexus 5 is only $349 off contract, it’s far from being a "cheap" device. The first thing users will notice is that the Nexus 5 has the same 1920 x 1080 resolution that’s found on both the Galaxy S4 and the HTC One's Google Play editions. It display has also jumped up to a full five inches, which means it won’t be quite as sharp as the One, but will still be far sharper than 720p phones such as the Moto X.

That larger display size means that the Nexus 5 hasn’t exactly shrunk down in all areas. But even so, it’s on the thinner side of things for a large smartphone — thinner than all of the above save the Galaxy S4 — and is even a bit slimmer than last year’s Nexus 4. It’s lighter than the Nexus 4 too, though not by much, and is still made primarily out of plastic.

But the phone looks good: its size and weight fit in right where they should, and it’s hard to argue that it isn’t a sleek looking device. It certainly can’t match the Moto X in terms of style, or the HTC One in terms of sheer build quality, but Google has turned out yet another good-looking phone, even if it is on the plainer side.

Google isn’t letting the Nexus 5 fall short internally either. It includes 2GB of RAM and a Snapdragon 800 processor, which is actually a step up from what’s inside the Google Play editions of both the HTC One and Galaxy S4, and even farther above that of the Moto X. This year, Google’s including 16GB of storage even in the phone’s base model too. We certainly wouldn’t mind if Google had doubled that, like HTC did for the One, but it’s hard to complain when that seems to be the standard for now.

Image stabilization could make for a big camera improvement

One of the big variables will be the Nexus 5’s camera. The Nexus 4’s camera was notoriously muddy, but Google says that its new one should be far improved. "We wanted to make a really great camera," Dave Burke, Google’s Android engineering director, told reporters earlier today. Perhaps most notably, the camera now includes built-in optical image stabilization, which could be a huge help for low-light shooting. Google also says that its lens is brighter than the Nexus 4’s, which should help all around. Aside from the Galaxy S4, none of its competitors have what you'd call a stellar smartphone camera as it is, so while the Nexus 5's camera — from a pure spec perspective — may be a tossup, it's something you'd be hard pressed to escape while sticking with Android devices.

Of course, the Nexus 5’s biggest advantage — and disadvantage — is its price. If you’re buying off-contract, it’s a hard phone to overlook no matter what. It has specs that should easily hold up through the next generation of phones, and with the improvements in Android KitKat, its performance should be even better than phones that haven’t been caught up. And with both Google Play edition phones costing closer to $600, there's almost no reason to look past the latest Nexus.

But if you are on a contract and you are eligible for discounted pricing, choosing a new Nexus is still a difficult decision. Yes, it’s stock Android, and yes, it’s a good looking device, but passing up the Moto X — which now only costs $99.99 on many carriers — is a tough choice to justify. And if you’re willing to step slightly farther away from stock Android, the standard version of HTC’s One is a tempting option as well.

The new off-contract king?

While we haven’t put the phone through its paces just yet, Google almost certainly has another fine device on its hands with the Nexus 5. If it were a low-cost, on-contract device, it’d be even more appealing. But it isn't: Google is trying to dominate the off-contract world, an area that it’s been getting better and better at competing in every year. As for this year, we’re guessing Google won’t have much of a problem yet again.

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