Design & Hardware

The Nexus 5’s camera puts 8 megapixels on a 1/3.2-inch sensor. A year ago, this would have been totally standard. Today, it’s not bad (the iPhone 5S remains at 8MP with a similarly sized sensor), but it’s not exciting either. We’re seeing resolutions creep up to 13MP and beyond with good results, and more importantly, the industry is taking its first steps towards larger sensors (as in Nokia’s Lumia 1020 and 1520 and Sony’s Xperia Z1).

The F2.4 lens is a half-stop slower than the fastest (and fairly common) F2.0 lenses. That means a small but significant disadvantage in low light situations. All else being equal, the Nexus 5 would need to lower the shutter speed (say, from 1/60 to 1/45 sec) or raise ISO (say, from 200 to 280) by a half stop to get the same exposure as a phone with an F2.0 lens. 

The volume rocker on the left and power button on the right are the only external controls on the device.
The large camera unit is protruding a tiny bit from the phone's body. Below you can see the LED flash unit.

Mitigating that, though, is the Nexus 5’s optical image stabilization. OIS is a boon for low-light photography of relatively stationary subjects since it lets you keep ISOs lower (and detail higher) by using slow shutter speeds that would otherwise lead to shots blurred by hand movement. You can expect a roughly two-stop advantage over unstabilized cameras. Shots at 1/8 sec are routinely sharp, which wouldn’t be the case without OIS. Nokia has fielded a raft of OIS-equipped Windows Phone handsets (the 920, 1020, 925, 928, and 1520) but OIS is a rarity in the Android world (there’s the 4MP HTC One and LG’s own G2) and Apple has yet to embrace it.

The Nexus 5’s roughly 30mm equivalent lens provides a slightly tighter field of view than the commonly used 28mm equivalent lenses, but it’s definitely a wide angle lens. Like most phone cameras, this makes it better for landscapes than portraits. 

From the front, the Nexus 5 could be a smartphone straight out of a central casting: a shiny glass slab without a single logo or button to be found. A round cutout for the speaker and the front-facing 1.3MP camera are the only “distinguishing” features, unless you count the pleasantly slim bezel around the 5-inch screen. From the rear, the phone has more personality. The soft-touch plastic back has “nexus” stamped on it and the over-sized camera unit protrudes a bit at one corner. You’ll need to keep your fingers out of the way. Under that pop-eyed camera, a single LED serves as a flash.

The soft-touch plastic on the back of the device feels pleasant in your hands.

The phone’s photographic ergonomics are helped by the flat, soft-touch edges that make for a pretty secure grip when pinched between the fingertips - not as sticky as phones with rubberier materials, but better than slick plastic or metal. The Nexus 5 feels fine without a case, but you’ll want avoid plopping the protruding camera unit on anything too abrasive. The phone’s tactile personality is arguably more distinctive than any of its visual characteristics: the feel of the hard-edged ceramic power and volume buttons is unique.

Unfortunately, there’s no dedicated shutter button, though you get the usual better-than-nothing solution of the volume buttons pinch-hitting as shutter releases in the native camera app.

Composing and reviewing images on the 5-inch full-HD screen is a pleasure. At 445 ppi, we’re well into “too sharp to care” territory: you’d need a jeweler’s loupe to appreciate every pixel. The screen remains usable in bright sunlight, though it does wash out a bit.