The hotly awaited debut smartphone running on Google’s latest Android 4.0 - Ice Cream Sandwich – operating system is finally here. With a retooled interface and larger screen that’s one of the first to sport a 720p resolution, the Galaxy Nexus is without a doubt the most advanced addition yet to Nexus stable.
But does it cash-in too much on the Galaxy’s good name or manage to make a name for itself? Grab a cuppa, because it’s going to be a long read.
The Samsung Galaxy Nexus is a beauty and a beast in the same breath. Google’s third flagship Android effort - the second produced by the Korean electronics giant - has an imposing appearance that demands your attention and deservedly so.
The juxtaposition of its hefty dimensions and well-rounded, minimalistic aesthetics is proof positive that ‘large’ and ‘Android’ doesn’t necessarily have to mean ‘masculine’ and ‘complicated’.
Pick up the handset for the first time and it does not feel as bulky as you’d expect. It’s light but weighs just enough to still feel substantial in the hand, like a device of its stature should.
And it's hard not to be wowed by its vibrant and positively capacious Super AMOLED display, which is slightly contoured like its predecessor, the Nexus S, to reduce thumb friction.
As the saying goes, first impression is the best impression. If you’re a proponent of this philosophy, you’ll not be disappointed by the Galaxy Nexus.
Rocking a slim, concave body with a slip-resistant backing that Samsung dubs ‘Hyper Skin’, the Galaxy Nexus is not only stunning to look at, it is amazingly comfortable to grip, too.
Every edge, every corner has been polished and rounded, and buttons are raised just enough to make them feel tactile. The power button is located at the top right-hand side of the device, so it’s always within the reach of your index finger, something which I’d really like to see emulated in more handsets.
Speaking of buttons, there are none at the front. The antiquated touch-sensitive keys of the Nexus S have been done away in favour of three on-screen replacements: Back, Home and Multitasking. The last one, it is worth noting, is pulled directly from the tablet-based Android Honeycomb, but more on that later.
Size-wise, measuring 135.5 mm in height and 67.94 mm in width, the Galaxy Nexus is both taller and wider than its slightly older cousin, the Samsung Galaxy S2. Fortunately, at a slender 8.94mm depth and a respectable 135 gram mass, it’s meatier than the slightly flimsy S2, and is still a shade slimmer and lighter than the iPhone 4S.
They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder. What appeals to one person will not always appeal to the next. However, in my personal and professional opinion, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus is the most meticulously crafted Android kit so far.
The first thing you’ll notice about the Galaxy Nexus is its immense 4.65-inch HD Super AMOLED display. This is a PenTile variety rather than the technically superior RGB stripe panel that featured on the Galaxy S2. The upside is that it has a native 720p HD resolution and it really is impressive.
There are some colour aberration issues that cause images to sometimes appear a bit washed out, and to make the inevitable comparison, the display still lacks the level of sheen offered by the iPhone’s Retina display.
However, it would be unjust to overlook the fact the Galaxy Nexus also has greater screen real estate, which more than makes up for any shortcomings and is simply outstanding for watching movies and browsing the web.
It’s super responsive and the oleophobic coating does a pretty good job of keeping most smudges at bay. All-in-all, this is definitely one of the best smartphone displays out there.
Powered by a 1.2GHz dual core OMAP 4460 ARM Cortex-A9 processor from Texas Instruments, the Galaxy Nexus is as fast as they come.
Most apps load under a second, and thanks to the 1GB of RAM - which is double that of the iPhone 4S - you can keep almost any number of them running simultaneously without noticing any slowdown.
There’s still the occasional stutter when opening or browsing the app launcher, which can get a little annoying. But it’s nothing that can’t be fixed with a future software update.
Where the processing brawn really shines, though, is the web browsing. Web pages on this phone load stupendously. To cite just one example, the Galaxy Nexus loaded the uSwitch Mobile homepage over Wi-Fi in 5.281 seconds compared to the iPhone’s 6.668. And it consistently trumped Apple’s handset for several other sites I tested too.
As a keen photographer, the camera is one of the most important aspects of a smartphone for me. The Galaxy Nexus is home to a front-facing 1.3-megapixel VGA, which is excellent for video calling, and a five-megapixel rear-mounted snapper with autofocus and LED flash that’s none too shabby either.
Although the latter may sound a little passé given the iPhone 4S just launched with an eight-megapixel camera and the Galaxy S2 already had one, rest assured the Galaxy Nexus is quite capable of holding its own in most photo opportunities.
Better yet, it can record videos in full 1080p HD and comes with a new panorama mode that allows you to capture widescreen vistas by panning the handset from side to side.
It also supports what Google calls 'zero shutter lag' that means images are captured as quickly as you tap shutter button. It definitely works, but images do come out a bit blurry if you don’t have a steady hand, which is where the touch focus option comes in helpful.
Below are a couple of example shots I took with the Galaxy Nexus on typically cold day. Images on the right belong to the iPhone 4S.
As you can see, photos taken with the Galaxy Nexus are generally brighter. This is fine except the colour reproduction is not quite as accurate as the iPhone 4S and they do also tend to be slightly over-saturated.
These minor niggles aside, however, the Galaxy Nexus is an all-round solid cameraphone. Sure, it would have been nice to have a higher-resolution sensor, but what’s there should more than satisfy the casual photographer.
Extras and Connectivity
Like any modern smartphone, the Galaxy Nexus is crammed with a wide array of sensors and instruments, including a 3-axis gyroscope, proximity sensor, accelerometer, a digital compass, and a surprise new addition: a Barometer, which in case you didn’t know, is the gizmo used to measure atmospheric pressure.
Elsewhere, there’s a new feature called Android Beam. This uses Near Field Communication (NFC) technology to allow users to transfer or receive information by simply tapping the Galaxy Nexus with another NFC-enabled device. It’s pretty handy but until NFC has become a widely adopted standard, I just can’t see too many people using it.
Battery and Storage
A few of you are probably wondering by now how much battery life you can expect with so much advanced tech on board. The UK version of the Galaxy Nexus has a 1,750mAh cell, which from the brief amount of time I’ve used the handset provides enough juice to last the day on a full charge.
Ultimately, it really depends on how frequently you’re using the phone and what for, as well as what services are running in the background. Thankfully, the battery on the Galaxy Nexus is removable, so if you’re a heavy user, you can at least carry a spare with you.
As far as storage is concerned, there’s only 16GB on board the UK model with no possibility of expansion as there isn’t a microSD slot. A 32GB SKU is also in the pipeline, but unfortunately that looks to be exclusive to folks over in the US.
One might argue the whole point of Google’s Nexus range of smartphones is not to set the bar in hardware, but to introduce a new major iteration of its Android operating system to the world, which this time around is version 4.0 – aka Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS).
This is perhaps the biggest, most important update yet in the fast-growing platform’s history, as it has been created specifically with the intention to stamp out the fragmentation problem that’s been a thorn on its side for so long.
By amalgamating the key design and functionalities of the tablet-optimised Honeycomb iteration with that of the smartphone-based Gingerbread, sprinkled with new features to boot, Google has created a very polished OS.
The revamped user interface instantly grabs your attention, boasting a much cleaner and current take on the platform’s iconography, along with simpler menu designs and a greater emphasis on blue hues rather than the greens of previous releases.
The app launcher no longer scrolls vertically but sideways - similar to the iPhone, although with an infinitely cooler zoom-in transition. It also has a dedicated, easy to access section for all your widgets, many of which can now be resized on the home screens.
Further reducing clutter is the ability to organise apps in folders. In the pull-down notifications bar, it’s now possible to remove individual notifications by simply swiping them sideways.
A similar gesture is also available in the new multitasking interface, which is almost identical to that of Honeycomb’s, except here you can swipe running apps horizontally to terminate them. It’s a system I was a huge fan of in HP’s ill-fated webOS operating system and am glad to see implemented here, albeit not quite as gracefully.
Apps and Web Browsing
Several native apps have been enhanced in ICS, such as Gmail and Calendar. Controls and menus for these are not only much quicker to get to, transition between screens feel faster and smoother, too. You can swipe sideways in Gmail to see the next email and Calendar now supports pinch-to-zoom, allowing you to fit more details on the screen, which is great if you have a busy schedule.
The camera app is vastly improved. It launches faster and comes with an array of options, including real-time special effects for the video capture mode and some neat filters for still images. Manual white balance and exposure control, as well as standard editing options such as cropping, red-eye reduction, rotation and a bunch of others are also available.
The web browser has been overhauled, which as I’ve already said before, loads pages amazingly fast. Meanwhile, a new take on tabbed browsing that takes cues from the multitasking interface enables you to simply swipe away pages you want to close.
Those of you that picked up the Galaxy Nexus early might notice that Flash Player support is not board, which is still the case at the time of writing. In case you didn’t know Adobe has decided to kill Flash for mobiles.
Well, good riddance. Flash is a clunky, archaic platform that sucks the battery life out of your phone and throws ads in your face. Most popular sites have already switched to the superior HTML5 with many more to follow soon. Rest assured you’ll not be missing out on a mythical web experience with Flash out of the picture.
Voice-activated typing is finally here to make life that much easier for creating or replying to messages on a touchscreen-only phone. It’s not quite as smoothly executed as Apple’s Siri personal assistant feature on the iPhone 4S, but it’s useful nonetheless if you’re on the move, driving or just can’t be bothered to type.
The actual typing experience on the Galaxy Nexus is very good. It’s great, in fact, thanks to robust text prediction and auto correction that gives you a much better selection of words as you type. You can tap on one for quick replacement or add new ones instantly to the dictionary.
Face Unlock is another new addition, which is a security mechanism that uses face detection technology to unlock the handset only for its owner. It’s pretty useless, as I have successfully managed to unlock the handset using only a picture of myself rather than my actual face. It also sometimes doesn’t work at all, particularly in low light conditions.
Mercifully the phone still comes with the popular connect-the-dots and the standard PIN based unlock modes. Face Unlock is there purely to impress your mates, so it’s best not to rely on it if you really want to keep prying eyes away from your personal info.
Ease of use
For a very long time, Android has been perceived as a complex operating system that’s beyond the understanding of the average Joe. While it’s true to that Android has a steeper learning curve than, say, iOS, much of the criticism levelled at it is usually propagated by Apple fans who think they their way is the only way.
The truth is, Android is only complicated if you make it out to be. It’s the sheer scope for customisability that makes it so sophisticated and Ice Cream Sandwich is the result of several evolutionary leaps that mean that while Android may have started out as cumbersome and boring, it is now a very modern, feature-packed OS.
Every corner is filled with nice little UI touches - there is an option or a setting for almost anything. Apple made a huge fuss about Twitter integration in iOS. Well, in ICS, if you want to share something, you have the option to share it directly on almost any apps that you’ve installed that have the capability.
The emailing experience is also unequivocally better, and you know how much better when you consider you can’t even attach more than one file to an email on the iPhone’s stock Mail app.
The ability to multitask more easily, dismiss individual notifications and resize widgets, are indicators of the kind of attention to detail that makes Android such a pleasure to use. As for the handset itself, I really don’t have any complaints for usability. Buttons are all where they should be and the capacious screen means your squinting days are over.
The Samsung Galaxy Nexus sets a gold standard for not just Android phones, but iPhones and the rest too. Its main claim to fame is quite obviously the significant changes Google has made with Ice Cream Sandwich, which I’d say is now probably a league ahead in functionality over its rivals.
As far as the hardware is concerned, this is a sturdy, modern smartphone packed with cutting-edge technology. I’d be lying, of course, if I said I don’t feel a tinge of disappointment by the inclusion of a five-megapixel camera, which is perhaps the weakest aspect of an otherwise really good handset.
In the end, if you’re not particularly bothered by the megapixel count, there’s not much wrong here to keep you from buying it. I can only see users with small hands or an inherent dislike for bigger handsets from staying away and that’s fair enough. However, if you want the best that Android has to offer, the Galaxy Nexus is where you’ll find it.
- Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich
- 4.65-inch HD Super AMOLED, 720 x 1280 resolution touchscreen
- 5-megapixel camera with 1080p@30fps HD video recording
- 1.2GHz dual core processor with 1GB of RAM
- Near Field Communication (NFC) technology