Under the microscope: Nexus 5 vs. iPhone 5s
January 27, 2014
The last time we took a look at the Nexus 5 and iPhone 5s, we ran through a simple comparison of their specs and features. But now that we've had some extended hands-on time with both handsets, we thought it was worth revisiting the decision. Read on, as Gizmag goes hands-on to compare the LG/Google Nexus 5 and Apple iPhone 5s.
Look at both phones side-by-side and the first thing you'll notice is the size difference. No surprise there, as flagship Android phones have consistently been bigger than iPhones for the last few years. The Nexus 5 is 11 percent longer, 17 percent wider, and 13 percent thicker than the 5s.
Pick them up, and the first thing you'll notice is how ridiculously light both of them feel. Technically, the Nexus is 16 percent heavier, but when you take its bigger size into account, the 5s is actually the denser of the two (by a pretty wide margin). In experience, though, I think they both feel about as light as you'd need a high-powered smartphone to feel.
With a couple of minor exceptions, the iPhone 5s looks and feels just like 2012's iPhone 5. It has an aluminum finish with a flat back and chamfered edges. You can buy it in three different colors: space gray/black, silver/white, and gold/white.
The Nexus 5 doesn't have nearly as striking a design. It has a very simple (maybe even a little boring?) matte plastic finish with sloped edges on the back. Unlike the iPhone it lacks any physical home/navigation buttons below its screen (virtual onscreen buttons serve that purpose). Its most memorable visual feature might be the oversized camera on its back. The camera lens itself is a standard size, but LG and Google added a large disc around it for some distinctive visual flair.
One of the most important questions to ask here is what screen size you're happy with. If you've used any of the 4-in iPhones (5, 5s, 5c) from the last couple of years, and are content with that size, then maybe that's all you'll need. But if you're looking for the most screen bang for your buck, then the Nexus 5's much bigger display is going to be worth a look.
Measured diagonally, we're looking at a 4-in screen for the iPhone and a 4.95-in screen for the Nexus 5. But when you look at screen area (a much more telling spec) we'll see a much bigger difference. The iPhone 5s only gives you 65 percent as much screen real estate as the Nexus 5. Sometimes the geekier among us tend to blow specs out of proportion, but screen area is one that's going to play a huge role in your experience. It's like buying a tract of land that gives you 100 acres vs. another that only gives you 65 acres.
There's nothing wrong with the iPhone 5s' Retina Display, but the Nexus 5 wins there too. It has a higher pixel density (445 pixels per inch vs. the iPhone's 326 PPI) and I'm also impressed with its color accuracy, brightness, and viewing angles. We don't want you to walk away thinking the iPhone's display sucks – on the contrary, it's very sharp and pleasing to the eye – but the Nexus 5's is bigger and better.
You'll read lots of smartphone reviews that go on and on about performance, sweating benchmarks and sizing up processor cores and clock speeds. While those things can be worth looking at, we don't think they should play a role in your decision here. Recent high-end flagships like the Nexus 5 and iPhone 5s are so fast you really don't have a damn thing to worry about. In phones like these, performance has gone past the point of concern for most typical use.
On a technical level, the iPhone 5s packs Apple's A7 system-on-a-chip and the Nexus 5 has Qualcomm's Snapdragon 800 inside. The Nexus 5's engine wins in benchmarks, so there's that. But, as we said, in terms of experience we don't think this should be a factor in your decision.
Battery life, now that's something to pay closer attention to. We have a standard test that we like to do, where we stream Netflix (over Wi-Fi, with brightness at 75 percent) to see how long each device lasts. These are unusually intense conditions, so you can expect a typical day to last much longer. But in that test, the iPhone 5s lasted six hours and 15 minutes. The Nexus 5 lasted four hours and 43 minutes. That's 33 percent longer for the iPhone.
These tests aren't perfect, as lots of other factors (especially cellular signal) can make battery life vary wildly from person to person. And in my experience, uptimes aren't remotely a factor in the Nexus 5. I usually end a typical day with it hovering around 75 percent or higher (though I primarily use the phone as a host for a paired smartwatch or Google Glass). So make of that what you will.
The iPhone 5s' killer feature is its fingerprint sensor, known as Touch ID. Living beneath the home button, Touch ID gives you passcode security without the hassle of entering a passcode. When you set up your iPhone, you teach it your unique print by pressing and lifting your finger multiple times (it guides you through the process). You can also teach it up to four more fingers, which can belong to you or a trusted friend or loved one. When it comes time to unlock your phone, hold your finger on the home button for a moment (usually less than a second) and the gates will open.
In my experience, Touch ID works brilliantly – most of the time. It gets a little flaky if you live in a dry climate and have peely fingers, but even then you can improve its accuracy by teaching it the finger you use the most multiple times. In other words, set up the same finger more than once, as if it's different fingers, and its accuracy should be close to bullet-proof.
Touch ID could potentially do much more down the road. Right now it also lets you authorize iTunes and App Store purchases, but the opportunity is there for things like mobile payments for physical goods, cloud password storage, or web-based payments. Apple hasn't announced plans for any of those things, so we wouldn't recommend buying the 5s based on that potential ... but there's a lot more Apple could do with Touch ID if it wanted to.
The Nexus 5 doesn't have a fingerprint sensor, or any kind of equivalent to Touch ID. The closest you can can get is to use a Play Store app like SkipLock to set up trusted Wi-Fi networks or Bluetooth devices. After setting that up, when your Nexus 5 is connected to, say, your home Wi-Fi, your car's Bluetooth audio, or a Pebble smartwatch, then you won't have to enter the passcode. Leave those networks, and you will have to enter it. Again, not really the same thing, but at least vaguely in the same ballpark.
Software is the most subjective area that we're covering, so we aren't going to pretend to have a hard and fast answer for everyone. What we can do is try to convey our different experiences of using stock Android and iOS and help you to find what works best for you.
If you've ever heard complaints about Android phones' software updates being inferior to those of iPhones, then know that this doesn't apply to Nexus phones. The Nexus 5 ships with the newest version of Android, 4.4 KitKat, and it should also receive future updates very soon after Google releases them. That's the Nexus family: it's Google's vision of Android, unhindered by OEM or carrier "improvements."
I find this "pure Android" to consistently be the best version of Android. Samsung's Galaxy phones – and other rival devices from companies like HTC and LG – technically run Android, but they're buried beneath layers of UI glitz and "exclusive features." Most of the time, though, I find these skins to be little more than marketing ploys. They often complicate things and confuse me with long lists of unnecessary features. Sometimes they even bog down performance. Google's version of Android always seems to be the smoothest, simplest, leanest, and most focused. That's what you get with the Nexus 5.
That's why this is such a great pair of phones to put under the microscope: we're basically sizing up the best of iOS and the best of Android. These phones showcase the purest of Apple's and Google's respective visions for mobile computing.
If you're just looking for the basics – things like Netflix, Facebook, web-surfing, Candy Crush, and video chat – then both platforms have you covered. The Google Play Store and iOS App Store are both chock full of great apps for your smartphone. The App Store is still a little better for games (though that isn't nearly as big a difference as it used to be) and the Play Store offers more customizations.
By "customizations" I mean things like alternate keyboards (Swype and SwiftKey are old favorites), live wallpapers, browser tweaks, home screen widgets, and other things that Apple doesn't allow into its walled garden. Of course rooting your Android phone only accentuates those possibilities, while jailbreaking your iPhone can open the door to some similar customizations.
iOS naturally gives you all of Apple's popular services. Things like iMessage, FaceTime, iCloud, Siri, iWork, iTunes Radio, and so on. Apple's services are designed by Apple, made by Apple, and reflect Apple's values (simplicity, elegant design, "it just works," etc.). They're the company's way of controlling your experience, presenting it the way they think it should be presented. They also conveniently double as a consumer lock-in mechanism, since those apps and services aren't available on any other platform or non-Apple devices. Once you're invested in the Apple ecosystem, the odds of keeping you there are pretty high. Why bother transferring your life to other services that aren't available on Android?
With that said, Android offers high-quality alternatives for just about all of Apple's popular services – whether baked-in or downloaded through the Play Store. There's Google Hangouts (and many other third-party services) for messaging and video chat, Google syncs most of your content just like iCloud, Google Now is in many ways better than Siri, QuickOffice is a very nice free office suite, and Google Play Music is a terrific iTunes replacement. You might prefer one platform's versions of these services over the other, but as far as feature breakdowns go, there aren't many iOS features that Android can't match.
The stereotype used to be that iOS devices delivered a smoother experience, with more seamless integration of basic services, and were, on the whole, more reliable. I suppose you could still make that argument, but I think Android devices like the Nexus 5 are extremely smooth, integrated with lots of terrific services, and as reliable as you'd need them to be.
If anything, I now see iOS as being a bit too rigid. Apple has decided how an ideal smartphone should operate, and it doesn't let you – or app developers – deviate very far from that. You can't swap from Apple's tap-only keyboard, you can't set a different web browser or email app as your default, and third-party apps are much more limited in what they get access to. You could argue that these restrictions make for a more stable and secure experience – that's certainly Apple's reasoning – but I've never once found the Nexus 5's software to be anything but 100 percent airtight and stable.
For more and more people, smartphone cameras are their main – or even the only – cameras that they use. Which phone's camera takes the cake? Let's jump right in and take a look at some sample shots from both, in identical settings:
Not a big difference here. Our images get downscaled a bit for the web, but even when viewing the originals on a Retina MacBook Pro, I don't consider this a big victory for one phone or the other.
Now let's pan back a bit:
Again, not a huge difference. The dark areas are, however, a bit lighter and more visible in the iPhone's shot. Taken as a whole, though, I don't see any differences here big enough to base my purchasing decision on.
Now let's move into a crappy indoor lighting setting, first with the flash off:
No amazing low-light performance from either phone, but the iPhone's definitely looks lighter. The HTC One outperforms both of these handsets in poorly-lit settings, but both of these phones are about par for the course here – with a bit of an advantage for the 5s.
Now let's turn on the flash:
These shots are almost indiscernable. No clear advantage one way or the other, despite Apple's boasts of more lifelike flash images with the 5s' "True Tone" dual LED flash.
One advantage that the 5s' camera has is its slow-motion video recording. It's dead simple: tap an onscreen setting button for slow-mo, record your clip, and you'll instantly have a 720p slow-mo video recorded in 120 fps. It's a great feature for capturing pets, children, or sporting events. You can even edit which parts of the video play slowly, and which play full-speed.
The Nexus 5's camera doesn't have anything similar built-in. There are some Android apps that let you convert videos to slow motion after the fact, but don't expect anything that rivals the 5s' instant slow-motion feature.
We could easily split this comparison in two. There's everything we've covered up to this point – physical design, size and weight, displays, performance, and so on – and then there's what we're about to cover. Pricing. Depending on your priorities, you could argue either way about which phone won on the other fronts, but there's no gray area here. The Nexus 5 gives you much more bang for your buck.
You can order the 16 GB Nexus 5 from Google Play for US$350. That's the off-contract price, no strings attached. Want to buy the 16 GB iPhone 5s off-contract? You'll have to fork over $650. Yep, it costs nearly twice as much.
Of course many people in the US buy their phones with two-year contracts attached, in which case you'll probably spend around $200 up-front for the iPhone 5s. But if you don't want to sign a 24-month blood oath to Verizon, AT&T;, or whoever, then the Nexus 5 is going to be a much better deal. In fact, I think it's almost a given that it's the best smartphone value around right now (though the temporarily-discounted Moto X could make a strong argument as well).
The only fine print here is that the Nexus 5 hasn't been consistently in stock on Google Play. For example, earlier today (at the time of publication) the black 16 GB model was shipping within a day or two. Now it's listed as out of stock. The 32 GB models are both in stock, but they also add an extra $50 to the price. This might not deter you, but just know that you might need to keep checking Google Play to get your hands on the exact model you're looking for.
So there you have it. Two great phones, different operating systems, a few key feature differences, and one very big price difference. Everyone has different tastes and preferences, but I personally don't think you can go wrong with either phone. I do think the iPhone 5s' screen is looking pretty small these days, but other than that it's easily one of the best handsets around. The Nexus 5 is on that list too, with its incredible price tag serving as its standout feature.