By Michael Fisher | October 30, 2012 4:31 PM
In a busy fourth quarter for mobile technology, it’s tough to stand out from the pack. Despite our initial skepticism, though, the first “pure Google” smartphone from LG has managed to do just that. Our time spent with the company’s Optimus G went a long way toward reversing our negative perceptions about the South Korean OEM. As the leaks flowed in at an increasing rate, we became cautiously optimistic about the device now known as the Nexus 4.
But for all the gleaming glass, Snapdragon S4 Pro slickness, and Jelly Bean butteriness of the new Google-experience flagship, there’s one glaring omission: LTE. The 4G technology that serves as the foundation of mobile telephony’s future has no home on the Nexus 4, which ships with support for HSPA only.
Depending on your situation, this is either totally irrelevant or a total deal-breaker. As I’m in the latter camp, my initial impulse was to write a 1000-word rant telling all and sundry how Google had personally let me down, hurt my feelings, and ruined my life. Fortunately, my line of work puts me in constant contact with people more intelligent and less hot-headed than I, and these saner heads prevailed upon me to adopt a less-selfish disposition.
Here, then, are the two sides of the coin with respect to the LTE-less Nexus 4, presented in as fair a format as possible.
With all the buzz about LTE, it’s easy to forget that not every country has deployed it, and many aren’t even close to doing so. For many nations, HSPA networks do an excellent job of serving customers’ needs. As our resident Romanian Anton D. Nagy is fond of reminding us on the Pocketnow Weekly podcast, his data speeds over 3G often exceed ours in the Americas.
Even here in the US, LTE’s bark is still bigger than its bite. Wireless carriers -understandably- put a lot of effort into publicizing their LTE deployments, but coverage is still far behind the nearly ubiquitous 3G blanket covering most populated areas. Even network-obsessed Verizon Wireless has a long way to go before it gets anywhere near 3G/4G parity.
So if you reside in a market that doesn’t offer LTE connectivity, no matter what country you’re in, the Nexus 4′s radio loadout is the very definition of non-relevant. Many current HSPA networks offer peak download speeds of 21mbps; that’s about the average speed on LTE networks like those I use in Greater Boston. The Nexus 4, moreover, supports HSPA+, peaking at 42 mbps down. If you can get that kind of throughput on your mobile device, well … it doesn’t really matter what the network technology is: fast is fast. And with the unlocked nature of the Nexus 4, there’s the added bonus of the carrier not getting involved in modifying the hardware and causing software-update delays; there’s less likely to be a Galaxy Nexus LTE situation, in other words, which left a bad taste in my mouth.
If you’re covered by a well-managed GSM/EDGE/HSPA operator and you want the latest and greatest in the pure-Google smartphone experience, the Nexus 4 is probably a solid bet. Just make sure there’s not an LTE network rollout planned for your area in the next year or so.
Don’t Buy It
On the other hand, suppose you live in an area that does feature an LTE network -or two- humming along. Unless you live in a test market for a carrier just beginning its 4G rollout, odds are you’re in a populated area. If that’s the case, there’s a pretty good chance the 3G networks serving your region aren’t in the best shape.
Network congestion is a very real problem in thickly settled areas all across the globe. Brandon Miniman and I experienced this firsthand during a recent trip to New York City, where we tried using our respective devices -an iPhone 5 on AT&T’s LTE network and an international Galaxy Note II on AT&T’s HSPA network- to compare the devices’ mapping prowess. For the majority of our time spent navigating Manhattan, I couldn’t establish a reliable enough data connection to even load Google Maps, due to network congestion. Brandon’s iPhone may have been outfitted with the inferior Apple Maps, but because it also featured LTE, it was our only hope for navigation.
Lest you think this was an isolated incident: my connection issues persisted throughout my time in New York. Data was consistently slow, sometimes resulting in apps timing out during page loads. The next morning, arranging transportation out of the city, it took me several attempts even to connect a voice call. None of these issues plagued my Verizon LTE-powered Galaxy S III, and when I finally did leave the city for less-populous terrain, my 3G-powered Galaxy Note II worked well again.
So if you live in a heavily populated area with an overextended 3G network and a brand-spanking-new LTE network running alongside it, you should probably think twice before snapping up the Nexus 4. Sure, you’ll get a solid Google experience (confirmation pending our full review) but you’ll be kicking yourself every time your device can’t establish a network connection and your friend’s LTE-enabled device can. Moreover, even if your town or city’s 3G network is in tip-top shape, odds are it’s on the list to be augmented by LTE sometime in the next two years. You don’t want to miss out on the party when your carrier flips the switch.
As with any mobile-technology buying decision, it comes down to what’s most important to you, your country of residence, and the state of your wireless carrier. Covered above are but two of the multitude of issues mobile-phone buyers should consider. Fortunately, in one sense, the stakes have never been lower: a device of this caliber bearing a price tag of $299-$349, with no carrier subsidy or contract, is crazy. That’s a lot of device for not a lot of dough. So even if buying one turns out to be a mistake, it’ll be one of the cheaper missteps possible in the expensive world of smartphone collecting.
Verizon Wireless coverage information source: Verizon