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.  

Google Nexus 5
Category: Mobile Phone
Camera and Photo Features
Screen Quality
Ergonomics and Handling
Video Quality
Still Image Quality
Speed and Responsiveness
PoorExcellent
Conclusion
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.
71%
Overall score
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. 

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.