I got fed up with all of that a while back. I guess quite a few people have, because contract-free phones are all the rage. And for those that love contract-free phones, there is no better one than the gold standard of Android: the Google Nexus 5.
At $350 off-contract, straight from the source, it’s a real steal. You get a state of the art mobile phone that you can connect (in the USA) mostly to AT&T and T-Mobile, but that also comes in a Sprint version (no Verizon, for great reasons). It’s the same price as a mid-range phone, but it’s top of the line. Its specs put it close to the $600+ phones from HTC, Samsung, and LG, and to the much more expensive iPhone 5S ($850).
I couldn’t resist: as soon as I could order one, I was on the Google Play site and hit the submit button. Unfortunately, the ship date was announced to be November 22nd, and I was ready for a 3 week wait. Sigh. I would have to read the reviews trickle in and figure out whether this phone was really what I wanted.
it’s here already. Google shipped within a couple of days, and before I knew it, I held a tiny package in my hand (Amazon, read this, please!). It had the same shape as one of those business card boxes.
I opened it and was surprised. I am used to the latest technology to come in fancy pop-up packages with giant labels that say, “Poke Me Here!” or “Plug Me Here!” This one was quite plain, and the phone was just a black slab surrounded by a tiny paper bezel from the box.
I got it out and plugged it in. Turns out the phone came fully charged, so I turned on instantly. I connected to the home WiFi and tried to figure out where to insert the SIM card. It turns out this phone wants a microSIM card, so the regular SIM I had didn’t work and I would have to wait for a new card.
The phone didn’t care much. It was perfectly happy with the WiFi signal. First thing, it wanted to do an OTA update. That went incredibly fast (nothing like the 5 minutes I was warned it might take). Then the phone booted up – and that was much slower than expected. It was uncomfortably long, with a primary-colors-circles-rotating-around-a-sphere logo that looked so scarily pilfered from Windows 7 I thought for a moment I got myself a Windows phone by mistake.
But then the screen came alive. A few configuration steps later I was staring at the tiniest full-HD screen I’ve ever seen. I was warned that the screen was one of the best features of the new generation of phones, and this one definitely aced my expectations. The first thing I did was look at Google Images, to see if I could see what a high resolution photo would look like: simply gorgeous.
The other thing every reviewer mentioned is the speed of this phone. There are benchmarks out there that say the Nexus 5 is about on par with the fastest phones of the day. I haven’t loaded anything resource intensive, but just the transitions and context switches (from app to app) are quite amazing. This is the first phone I’ve owned that doesn’t make me regret pushing the back button: everything happens so fast, you don’t mind hitting the wrong thing.
Reviewers mentioned the poor speakers, and I was warned not to expect much. But I am not much of an open air listener (seems impolite), so I went for a cheap BlueTooth headset from Amazon, and that’s working extremely well for me.
I loaded a ton of apps on the phone just within the first 24 hours. I was trying to find something that would really stretch the abilities of the phone, but nothing really did. The Nexus has all the horsepowers you will need for the immediate future, and who know when a new generation is going to come out that will supersede it.
Next, I needed to get the T-Mobile SIM card moved from the iPhone 3s I was using onto the Nexus. Unfortunately, the former uses full-size SIMs, while the Nexus wants micro-SIMs. I ordered a SIM cutter online and waited the two days it takes Amazing, I mean, Amazon to deliver. Once the card was in, I was good to go: no provisioning needed (just as T-Mobile promises). As soon I restarted the phone after inserting the SIM card, it told me I was on the T-Mobile network at LTE speeds.
Now, you cannot underestimate what that means. LTE is the first protocol that delivers true speed. Previous protocols could deliver sufficient bandwidth, but they suffered from lag (also known as latency). Since loading a web page means accessing potentially hundreds of little files, that lag adds up.
As I tested network speeds (with speedtest.net), I saw that the ping times (that measure this lag) were incredibly short – almost as short as on my WiFi network at home. Throughput was good, but not amazing (especially uploading). But the latency made me hope that web page access would be lightning fast. So I gave it a try: I went outside reach of the WiFi network and looked up Google Images for surfing. The hundreds of images that cover the page started loading incredibly fast, almost at the speed of my home computer.
T-Mobile is of course not everywhere at LTE speeds, but their no-contract, no-nonsense policy makes me really like them. The fact I can bring my own phone means I can actually get one of the amazing phone factors available around the world and run them on my network. The fact San Diego is one of the first cities with blanket T-Mobile LTE coverage is just my luck.
If you live in San DIego (or any other city covered by T-Mobile’s LTE network) and you don’t run the combination of Nexus 5 and T-Mobile, you are a fool. It’s incredibly cheap, fast, and reliable!
As far as the software is concerned, Android has matured a ton. Google’s own apps are far ahead of their Apple counterparts (especially the notorious Maps). But the OS itself is on par, if not ahead. There is a Google version of Siri, activated from the home screen by saying, “OK GOOGLE”. It’s actually pretty useful, especially when asking for simple things like the nearest espresso place, or the DMV. Sending messages requires a little more knowledge of what the thing wants, and it gets confused (and has to switch to manual input) when it finds multiple matching entries. But it’s a start, and Siri has her own problems.
Most things that were annoyingly complicated to do in previous versions have been moved to simpler locations. QuickSettings, for instance, allows you to set the most commonly changed parameters (like WiFi on/off, wallpapers, etc.) directly from the notification area. Notifications have also been rationalized, with multiple notifications of the same type combined into a single notification (and now you don’t have dozens of notifications waiting for you, one per updated app, when it’s time to upgrade them).
I bought a wireless Qi charging pad, and I am absolutely thrilled with the it. The problem is that the micro-USB ports used to connect and for charging are a real nuisance that require fidgeting, and just being able to place the phone on the pad to have it charge is so much simpler. (Of course, that’s a problem with the USB connector. I have gadgets that charge via USB, but have a headphone style connector, which is so much easier to plug in!)
Connecting with a Bluetooth headset and with the car Bluetooth was a cinch. Both the phone and the “speakers” made pairing very easy, and now whenever I start the car, the phone merrily plays away. Who needs CDs anymore, right?
I haven’t had a chance, yet, to test the Bluetooth 4.0 (low energy) capability. I am planning on buying a heart rate strap with BT 4.0, and then I’ll add my impressions to the list.
I did try Netflix HD content, and it was incredibly good. The screen is a little on the small side and I would have probably preferred a 10″ or even a 7″, but even on a mere 5″ the show was crisp and clear and in very high definition.
As I mentioned, the combination fo the phone and network sends the browser into hyperdrive. Page load and display is amazingly fast, the screen is high resolution, and I see no reason to use a tablet, at all. There is something magic about the form factor: small enough to carry everywhere, but big enough to fit most mobile needs.