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Camera review: Google turns its attention to imaging on new Nexus 5

32

Conclusion

The Good

  • Good overall image quality in good light
  • Good image quality in low light with stationary subjects
  • Balanced noise reduction at higher ISOs 
  • Accomplished HDR mode useful under range of conditions
  • Sharp lens
  • Large, bright, sharp screen
  • Good ergonomics (except lack of physical shutter button)
  • Excellent built-in image editing

The Bad

  • Slow camera start time and long shutter lag
  • Camera app light on features, not well designed
  • No manual ISO control
  • Focus fails in low lighting more than average
  • Focus pumping a serious problem in video recording
  • Weak panorama mode
  • Video less smooth in low light
  • No dedicated shutter button

Overall Conclusion

The Nexus 5 is a well-spec’d Android phone that goes a long way towards restoring the tarnished photographic reputation of the Nexus line, but it’s far from perfect. 

Its bright, extremely sharp screen is a pleasure to compose and review images on, and remains visible (though slightly washed out) in bright sun. The phone’s flat, polycarbonate edges provide a secure grip when pinched between the fingers, though we’d love to see a proper shutter release (the volume buttons step in but as usual can’t offer two-stage operation).

Image quality is solid, particularly in low light thanks to OIS, but the phone is let down by a laggy camera app: it takes too long to do pretty much everything. [Note: See our report on the Android 4.4.1 update for details about how it improves operational speed and impacts low light shooting.] It’s also light on features compared to most other Android phones. There’s nothing about the Nexus 5 that will make people jump platforms, but it is an unbeatable value in the Android segment. If you can live with the sluggish camera app (or have faith that Google will eventually fix it) the Nexus 5 deserves serious consideration.

Features & Operation

The Nexus 5 has a lock-screen shortcut to the camera that can feel like taking the scenic route: it takes way too long for the app to fire up. The slow theme continues with annoying shutter lag. Focus speed and shot-to-shot times are fine but not as snappy as the best of the competition. Even toggling the otherwise-excellent HDR+ mode locks up the camera app for several frustrating seconds. 

The Nexus 5’s camera app is minimalist by Android standards. You do get some manual control (exposure comp, white balance, resolution) and a handful of scene modes, but manual ISO control is inexplicably missing. The camera app’s overall design leaves us cold: settings are buried in fiddly menus with no shortcuts to help out, and the preview screen is a cropped view so you’re not even sure what’s going to be captured.

On the positive side, the excellent HDR+ function not only expands the Nexus 5’s functional dynamic range, but does so without ghosting artifacts. It also reduces noise without harming detail, improves edge definition, and just looks better in many situations than the normal shooting mode. 

The panorama mode, on the other hand, is a disappointment. While the competition can create highly-detailed 15, 30, or even 60MP panos, the Nexus 5 captures roughly 2MP images. They’re fine for glancing at on a screen, but if you zoom in there’s not much more detail. Google’s Photo Sphere function, which creates 360 degree immersive panos, takes up some of the slack. 

The Nexus 5 features probably the best photo editor we’ve seen included on a phone, rolled into the Gallery app. It offers unparalleled flexibility and handles everything from one-touch fixes to precise curves adjustments.

Image Quality

Apart from the operational issues, the Nexus 5 has a lot to offer to the mobile photographer. The phone produces images that are fully competitive: they don’t challenge the best of the market, but neither are they dramatically inferior to phones in its class (the same couldn’t be said of the Nexus 4). 

In good light, the Nexus 5 captures plenty of detail, albeit not as much as phones with the best higher-resolution cameras. Colors are usually pleasant, if not as natural as on the highest-profile 8MP shooter in the field, the iPhone 5s. Exposure is good, although occasionally the phone selects a higher ISO than is required.

In low light the phone’s optical image stabilization sets it apart from the non-OIS pack, with lower shutter speeds letting in plenty of light and holding ISOs down (though moving subjects will blur). Noise reduction is aggressive as sensitivity climbs, prioritizing clean images over detail. That said, the Nexus 5 maintains a better balance than some and doesn’t go totally scorched-earth when blurring out noise.

Otherwise decent video recording is marred by focus pumping issues. In low light, the Nexus 5 drops the frame rate for well-exposed but less-fluid videos.

The Final Word

We don’t normally make price a big part of our reviews, but it’s central to the Nexus story. At $350 unlocked the Nexus 5 is literally in a class by itself: it has nothing in common with similarly-priced Android phones and competes with phones that cost $200 to $300 more. Its closest match in terms of value might be the lower-spec’d but photographically strong Nokia Lumia 925: it has a slower dual-core processor, a smaller, lower-res screen, but a good 8MP OIS camera. Unlocked, it still costs around $75 more than the Nexus 5, and it runs Windows Phone.

Price aside, the Nexus 5 delivers solid if unspectacular image quality. It’s definitely a contender, though if image quality if your absolute priority, there are phones with better-performing cameras: the Nokia Lumia 1020, and (under most conditions) the Sony Xperia Z1, Samsung Galaxy S4 and iPhone 5s will deliver technically superior photos. Even Nokia’s 925 (and the 928 Verizon variant) will usually best the Nexus. The point is that apart from exotics like the 1020, the competition isn’t blowing the Nexus 5 out of the water. It takes good pictures. Just not quite as good as the best.

Where the Nexus 5 falls down is speed: the S4 and 5s don’t keep you waiting. The iPhone in particular is a speed demon. The 1020 lumbers a bit, but it’s mostly fast when it counts. If you’re used to the latest generation or two of phone cameras, the Nexus 5 camera app will frustrate you with its plodding and hesitation. On the other hand, if you’re someone who shoots scenes that hold still, the lack of speed may be a non-issue. [Note: See our report on the Android 4.4.1 update for details about how it improves operational speed.]

Despite these drawbacks, any mobile photographer looking for an Android handset off-contract has to consider the Nexus 5 because of its sheer value. For contract buyers, the value equation changes and the phone’s appeal will hinge on other factors: Android enthusiasts might still be tempted by the straight OS experience and early updates, but less technical users are likely better served by subsidized alternatives.  

7.1

Summary

The Nexus 5 is a high-end Android phone that sells for the price of a mid-range model off-contract. In terms of camera quality, it delivers solid images. Its Achilles heel is the lagginess of its poorly designed camera app. That said, mobile photographers who don’t need the most responsive camera and buy off-contract will find an excellent value in the Nexus 5.
7.5

Revised Summary after Android 4.4.1 update

The Nexus 5 is a high-end Android phone that sells for the price of a mid-range model off-contract. In terms of camera quality, it delivers solid images. An update addresses some of lagginess issues we first noted in this review, though the poor design of the camera interface remains a problem. That said, mobile photographers who buy off-contract will find an excellent value in the Nexus 5.

Sample Gallery

There are 22 images in our Google Nexus 5 samples gallery. Please do not reproduce any of these images on a website or any newsletter / magazine without prior permission (see our copyright page). We make the originals available for private users to download to their own machines for personal examination or printing (in conjunction with this review), we do so in good faith, please don't abuse it.

Unless otherwise noted images taken with no particular settings at full resolution. 

Google Nexus 5 Sample Gallery
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An additional samples gallery offers a look at images after the Android 4.4.1 software update. You'll notice a couple of duplicate images: the first image of the duo demonstrates the software before the update, the second demonstrates the software after the update.

Nexus 5 Android 4.4.1 update gallery
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Comments

Total comments: 32
landam
By landam (2 weeks ago)

Do you know that you can get the detailed stats and information related to your Nexus 5 such as usage statistics, battery information, phone information, and WiFi information by simply dialing *#*#4636#*#*: I found this info here, http://www.spinfold.com/nexus-5-tips-and-tricks-to-enhance-your-experience/

0 upvotes
landam
By landam (1 month ago)

I have been using this mobile for 4 months and its one of its kind. It is an excellent device, with stunning display, nice graphics and awesome power. And it offers pure Android experience and I even installed the Android L developers version which runs perfectly on my device. The only problem I faced with device is about setting custom ringtone. I found the procedure about how to set ringtone in this link and it worked perfectly, http://www.spinfold.com/set-ringtone-in-nexus-5-and-nexus-4/

0 upvotes
OneGuy
By OneGuy (8 months ago)

I'm glad you did the update, particularly because Google stepped up to it right away. I did a painless OS update (4.0 to 4.1) on my Samsung phone and my question was how easy it is to do an update on Nexus 5 (with the latest phone improvements, say). The latest pics look rather good.

0 upvotes
steevee
By steevee (9 months ago)

nice review and quite funny to see we're neighboors in Paris 15 ;)

0 upvotes
cdiesel32
By cdiesel32 (9 months ago)

I find the camera to be completely adequate. I recently got a great pic of my kids with Santa good enough for Christmas cards prior to the 4.4.1 release. My Nikon D5200 gets used when it really counts. The rest of the time the Nexus 5 does just fine.

0 upvotes
NeoteriX
By NeoteriX (9 months ago)

Quote: "If you miss the shot, you can’t take another one right away. The very fastest shot-to-shot time you’ll see is about half-a-second, not bad though far from instantaneous. However, that speed is variable and sometimes runs closer to a second."

I noticed that even prior to the 4.4.1/2 update that improved shooting speed, you could actually significantly improve the shot-to-shot speed if you use the volume button shutter activation rather than the on-screen shutter. For whatever reason, you're right, the screen shutter is ignored if you try spamming it, and you're getting a shot per half a second.

However, if you use the volume button, you can pretty much get up to "burst mode" speeds: I think I can get around 3-4 shots a second spamming the volume button quickly. Try it out!

0 upvotes
Sosua
By Sosua (9 months ago)

Reasonably fair review, I'm coming from an S3 and have been impressed with the results from my Nexus 5 (shot almost exclusively in HDR+).

I've got a real camera for things I care about anyway though and looks like 4.4.1 just came out.

Still, the image quality on smartphones is getting really, really handy.

0 upvotes
Konstigt
By Konstigt (9 months ago)

Too bad you did the review before the announced update to fix all the teething problems.

Photos taken with N5 after 4.4.1 are very good + camera is overall faster and autofocus works better.

Comment edited 7 minutes after posting
0 upvotes
peevee1
By peevee1 (9 months ago)

"If you can live with the sluggish camera app (or have faith that Google will eventually fix it) the Nexus 5 deserves serious consideration."

That is an incredibly ridiculous statement. There are about a million other camera apps if you don't like the standard one.

0 upvotes
Lars Rehm
By Lars Rehm (9 months ago)

most of which are not supporting the Nexus 5 100% as the review points out.

0 upvotes
phillipmai
By phillipmai (9 months ago)

The camera is sluggish, I have the nexus 5 and galaxy nexus and the nexus 5 is really slow compared to the 2 year old phone, don't see how this could be seen as a ridiculous statement.

0 upvotes
KamalHans
By KamalHans (9 months ago)

Good Review!
Couple of newbie qns-
Which of the shortcomings listed are fixable by a software update & which are due to hardware limitations ?
In the meantime, which camera app av in the play store can help overcome some major shortcomings?
Lastly, any comments/recommendations re the add-on lenses made by Photojojo?

0 upvotes
JamesMW
By JamesMW (9 months ago)

While it may not fix the hardware or the camera application (directly). There's hope that the lackluster launch speeds and several of the features get some attention with the upcoming Camera API changes that were not finished in time for the Android 4.4 release:

http://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2013/11/google-is-working-on-a-new-android-camera-api-supports-camera-raw/

0 upvotes
Nucleotide
By Nucleotide (9 months ago)

The bad - no dedicated shutter button? The Vol Up and Down buttons act as a shutter button (you can press Up or Down) if you'd rather not use the touch-screen.

Comment edited 39 seconds after posting
0 upvotes
Lars Rehm
By Lars Rehm (9 months ago)

"dedicated" is the key word here. You can use the volume buttons on almost any Android phone I have seen but only a dedicated shutter button, like on the Nokia, the HTC One or the Sony Xperia Z1, offers a half-press, just like a shutter button on a camera.

0 upvotes
Luis Augusto
By Luis Augusto (10 months ago)

What? No studio shots?

1 upvote
Lars Rehm
By Lars Rehm (10 months ago)

You'll get those as soon as we can get a unit to our studio in Seattle.

0 upvotes
capanikon
By capanikon (10 months ago)

My eight-year-old Nikon D200 spanks this goofy little thing in every photographic manner possible.

0 upvotes
Markol
By Markol (10 months ago)

You're awesome too!

7 upvotes
papillon_65
By papillon_65 (10 months ago)

How do you find making calls, video, and putting the D200 in your pocket? How's that working out for you?

8 upvotes
Markol
By Markol (10 months ago)

I've been using the Nokia 808 for over a year and still use it just because of its great camera. But it was time for a useable smartphone and so I got the Nexus 5.
I didn'T expect much camera-wise (it's Android and a non Samsung one at that). I was pleasantly surprised. OIS works quite well and I haven't found the startup time of the photo app or the shutter lag to be worse than other smartphones, maybe this is subjective.
What makes me furious is the stupidity of showing a full screen presview (distorted) and making a 4:3 image. Almost all photos I make with a smartphone are being viewed on a computer screen and I like to have it in 16:9, even if it means cropping. Why on earth can't the Nexus do this? Why so many resolutions but no way to change aspect ratio? I'd love to see these 2 questions answered by someone from Google. I just don't get it. Manual ISO on the other hand I never missed- I use a smartphone just as a point and shoot.
All in all it's a quite good camera phone.

3 upvotes
Jogger
By Jogger (10 months ago)

I use a cheapie Nokia Lumia 620 and carry an RX100 everywhere. The RX doesnt require a cell plan and wont be obsolete in a month. Image and video quality is orders of magnitude better.

0 upvotes
Markol
By Markol (10 months ago)

Your'e awesome!

4 upvotes
udris
By udris (10 months ago)

I just carry the RX100 the phone sits on the table at home

2 upvotes
dpmaxwell
By dpmaxwell (10 months ago)

The shutter lag makes the Nexus 5 unusable for candid shooting - arguably the main use of a smartphone. I just spent a day at Disneyland and got absolutely zero usable pictures from this phone. I was tempted to throw it in the trash on a couple of occasions.

0 upvotes
Eric Hensel
By Eric Hensel (10 months ago)

That's useful info --I have the same problem with my Samsung Victory (Virgin)

0 upvotes
sheckwel
By sheckwel (10 months ago)

In good lighting situation the Nexus 5 can take great images, I prefer the images coming from my nexus 5 than my HTC ONE, have them both!

0 upvotes
Zlik
By Zlik (10 months ago)

"Google turns its attention to imaging on new Nexus 5"

and then further down, I read: "1/3.2-inch sensor"

Too bad.

1 upvote
phillipmai
By phillipmai (9 months ago)

It is shocking this could be considered attention to imaging, it is worse than my galaxy nexus.

0 upvotes
Warrenkerr
By Warrenkerr (10 months ago)

Volume up or down works as a Shutter button :)

1 upvote
Lars Rehm
By Lars Rehm (10 months ago)

yes, like virtually every Android phone, we say that in the review, but it's not the same as a dedicated shutter with half-press

1 upvote
Odsagn
By Odsagn (9 months ago)

Would be nice to get an update on this review with the new firmware (4.2.2).

It has many fixes and improves camera quality and function.

Thanks.

Sorry, comment is in the wrong place.

Comment edited 1 minute after posting
0 upvotes
Total comments: 32
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