Review: Google gets it right with Nexus 5 Android smartphone

Finally, Google's flagship smartphone can actually compete with other Android flagships

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Moving to a Google services world
Android KitKat drops the GoogleTalk instant messaging app for Google's Hangouts app. That's emblematic of the Nexus 5's focus on Google's own services. It's clear to me that Google is slowly deprecating Android into Chrome and its services, so it can offer its personal-data-mining services across as many platforms as possible, as that's how Google makes its money.

The Nexus 5 also incorporates the Google Now service more deeply, in the same way that Google subsidiary Motorola Mobility did in its uninspiring Moto X device earlier this fall. Like the Moto X, the Nexus 5 is always listening for you to say "OK, Google," so it can take your voice commands. But as in the Moto X, the palette of voice commands is limited compared to that in Apple's Siri, and most requests open a Web search you probably didn't want. The good news: I had more success getting the smartphone to do more than open search pages, so I suspect Google's been tweaking its voice-recognition engine to understand more permutations of common requests, such as those related to weather information.

But I still struggled to get Google Now to realize when I was dictating text messages -- it often stops listening after it opens an app that supports additional dictation. Overall, the always-listening feature is a convenience, but Google Now still needs to be more flexible in what it can process and what it can deliver; its heavy search orientation is too limiting.

As with Apple's Siri, when you get Google Now to open an app rather than a Web page, you have to switch back to finger input, as few apps accept voice commands. That dissonance is one reason I rarely use Siri on Apple devices, and it's even more of a reason to skip using Google's voice commands, as they do less than Siri's in the first place. At the end of the day, the voice-command features are not that useful except while driving.

Google Now is about much more than voice-based search, of course. It tracks your searches and where you go (based on GPS data) to build profiles of your preferences and behaviors. I personally find that level of tracking abhorrent, but it's the core of Google's business, so if you use Google products, that's the price you pay.

The Nexus 5's Android KitKat OS provides the Google Now home screen that holds cards of what Google thinks you want to know, as well as what it wants you to know to further its income -- such as nearby restaurants. For example, it shows the current traffic conditions to your home or office, the current weather where you are, nearby events, and nearby places to take photos. I find most of this information useless, so I deleted all the cards but driving conditions and the weather.

I did find a strange bug in Google Now. I had loaned a Google Nexus 7 tablet to a friend last summer, and he configured it with his information and his Google ID. Even though the Nexus 5 is set up with my account rather than his, Google Now decided that his home and work address are mine, despite the fact that our Google IDs are different and my own card in the Nexus 5's People app has my actual addresses. As a result, Google Now keeps telling me the drive times to my friend's addresses, not my own, and I can't figure out how to fix that mismatch. It just shows how pervasive Google's tentacles are into personal information and how thoroughly, if not always accurately, it syncs its services together.

Otherwise, Android KitKat is like Android Jelly Bean, with the same capabilities and limitations, such as its capable navigation service and inability to connect to Cisco IPSec VPNs.

Google Nexus 5 Email app
The Google Nexus 5's Email app (left) makes good use of images and icons to identify senders. It's both cleaner and more polished than the Samsung Galaxy S 4's Email client (right).
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