Nexus 5 hands-on: Looks like an impressive Google Android flagship

Google(s goog) launched both the Nexus 5 smartphone and Android 4.4, aka: KitKat, on Thursday morning, and after just a short bit of hands on time with the phone, I’m impressed. Unlike prior Nexus phones, which were often a feature or two away from competing with flagship phones, the Nexus 5 isn’t really lacking on paper. Nor is it — at least so far — in my very limited usage this morning.

Of course, using a phone for an hour is far different from using a phone for a week, so I’ll have a proper review after spending more time with the Nexus 5. For now, here are some first thoughts and impressions on Google’s latest phone.

  • For a phone with 5-inch display, the Nexus 5 is very light. My other go-to phones are an iPhone 5s and Moto X; both of which have smaller screens. The iPhone 5 is 18 grams lighter than the Nexus 5 but Google’s new phone doesn’t feel heavier. When I picked it up, I almost thought it was hollow. Here’s a size comparison shot of the iPhone 5s(s aapl), Moto X, Nexus 5 and Nexus 7:
    Nexus 5 size compare
  • The backing has a similar feel to the Nexus 7 tablet, which is slightly rubberized. That makes it easy to hold but also shows lots of smudges from finger oils.
  • The display is brilliant: Very bright and colorful, easy to see from all angles. It’s definitely readable outdoors. Colors don’t appear over-saturated to my eye. I also like the new font Google is using under all icons; letters are thinner — still crisp, though — so you can see more words on the home screen and app launcher.
    Nexus 5 apps
  • Google Now, if enabled, is now a dedicated screen. Swipe your home screen to the right and there’s Google Now. You can still get to Google Now by swiping up from the Home software button.
  • I’m happy to see an “always listening” feature as I use it on my Moto X many times a day. It’s not quite “always” though: The Nexus 5 has to be awake and not in an app. If it is, just say “OK Google” for a voice search or query.
  • Cameras are often the Achilles Heel of Nexus devices. I don’t think that’s the case this time. I’ve only taken a few images and one short video, but this is leaps and bounds better at image capture than any prior Nexus. The 8-megapixel sensor is quite good and you can zoom in for clear detail after the snap. Here are three quick images I took: One outdoors (it’s a dreary day), one inside close up and one inside low light. Open the outdoor image on another tab to zoom and you’ll see the camera maintains a good level of detail.
    Nexus 5 pic outdoorsNexus 5 pic closeNexus 5 low light indoors
  • In terms of performance, the Nexus 5 should hold its own with the Galaxy S4 and HTC One. I’m not seeing any lag when multitasking or doing typical activities. Video playback on YouTube is smooth. Sound comes from a pair of speakers; watching a movie trailer, the sound is pretty good although not quite as loud as I’d expect.
  • I did have the chance to run two quick benchmarks for Chrome browser performance: SunSpider 1.0.2 yielded a score of 724.6 milliseconds, while the Octane benchmark turned in a score of 3907.
  • The Nexus 5 supports wireless charging and works just fine with my Qi charging pad I use for the Nexus 7 tablet.
  • As you’d expect, SMS is part of Google Hangouts on the Nexus 5; this feature actually became available for other Android devices earlier this week.
  • I see a new Tap to Pay option in the Device Settings. That’s separate from Google Wallet, which is pre-installed and is likely for NFC usage.

I haven’t yet used the phone as an actual phone for a simple reason. The Nexus 5 uses a micro SIM card and my current devices share a nano SIM card. I’ll have to rustle up a small adapter to use the phone for voice calls and when out and about for review purposes. And of course, I can’t speak to battery life at this time.

Regardless of that, the Nexus 5 shows promise; more so than any other Nexus in my opinion, and I’ve either owned or used them all. That’s to be expected, of course — new tech cycles typically improve the hardware. But this Nexus is a little different because I see no glaring feature omission on the hardware cycle. At least not yet. Stay tuned for my full review.

Update: This post was updated at 12:56pm PT to correct the weight difference between the iPhone 5s and the Nexus 5