Our GSM Galaxy Nexus review finds a great platform for the next version of Android -- Ice Cream Sandwich
The past year, like the year before it, has been huge for Android. We’ve seen headlines boasting increasingly ridiculous daily activation numbers and market-share figures, not to mention the platform’s (slightly bumpy) foray into the tablet space. It’s no exaggeration to say that new Android smartphones are arriving on an almost weekly basis. If you’re a regular visitor, you’ll certainly have noticed that each month seems to bring more reviews and product launches than the last. On phones at least, Android is booming.
As 2011 draws to a close, Google has yet another tasty treat prepared for Android devotees -- the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, powered by the freshly-minted Android 4.0 “Ice Cream Sandwich” OS. Nexus devices have always been highly desirable objects for fans of Google and its mobile platform -- the Nexus One and Nexus S both featured attractive, powerful hardware that was open to development and hacking (of the original, good kind). But both failed to catch on with "regular" consumers, mainly due to a lack of marketing or widespread on-contract availability, and the fact that until recently, stock Android was very much the ugly duckling of smartphone operating systems.
This is what Google, along with its partners at Samsung, has tried to fix with the Galaxy Nexus and Android 4.0. The aim was to build a high-end device with an all-new stock Android user experience, and create not just a great smartphone for developers and enthusiasts, but a great smartphone, period. Read on for our full Galaxy Nexus review to find out whether they’ve succeeded.
Thin and light, with a gorgeous screen. Ice Cream Sandwich delivers on the promise of a faster, prettier, more usable Android. Completely open for developers.
Performance issues with some live wallpapers. Camera is decent but not great.
If, like many of us, you’ve been constantly holding out for that “next big thing” in the Android world, this is your signal to stop waiting and reach for your wallet. The Galaxy Nexus is the Android phone you want to own in 2012.
Inside this review
Initial hands-on video
The industrial design of the Galaxy Nexus sits somewhere between Samsung's Nexus S and the Galaxy S II. Like the Nexus S, its chassis is rounded, with a subtly curved screen, and like Samsung’s earlier flagship phone, it’s surprisingly thin and light. The main attraction is the larger 4.65-inch display, which to many will make the Galaxy Nexus sound like a gigantic smartphone. In reality, that the phone uses on-screen buttons (more on that later) as well as the minimal bezel around the display means that it's barely any bigger than the average 4.3-inch phone. To provide some context, the Galaxy Nexus is just about as wide as our LG Optimus 3D, and only a smidge taller, due to the way chassis is curved. It’s big, but it’s definitely not too big, and if you can use a 4.3-inch phone comfortably, you should have no issues operating the Galaxy Nexus.
The other significant thing about the screen is its resolution. It’s a 720p HD Super AMOLED panel (full resolution 1280x720), similar to the display on the Samsung Galaxy Note. And just as we said in our review of that phone, this is about as good as it gets in terms of display technology on a portable device. The screen boasts a contrast ratio of 100,000:1, and as we’ve come to expect from Super AMOLED screens, it produced bright, vivid colors and blacks so dark they’re all but indistinguishable from the front face of the device. Although it’s a PenTile display, that extra pixel density means there’s no way you’re going to notice any jagged edges during normal use. To put it another way, you’ve got the same pixel count as an HDTV on a device that fits in your pocket. It’s great living in the future, isn’t it?
Like all of Samsung’s smartphones, the Galaxy Nexus is constructed out of plastic as opposed to the sturdier aluminum used by rivals like HTC. The advantage is that this results in a lighter device, although we’d also expect it to be a little more vulnerable to scratches and accidental drops. Regardless, the phone is solid and well-built, and feels good in the hand. The plastic trim and back cover are a dark, almost metallic color described on the box as “titanium silver,” and this gives it a classy, unassuming look not unlike the Nexus One. The back cover will be familiar to anyone who’s ever used a Galaxy S II, as it clips on in just the same way, and has the same “hyperskin” textured back designed to make it easier to grip.
Around the back you’ll also find the 5-megapixel main camera and accompanying LED flash. This was criticized by some, and we’ll cover it in more detail later in the review, but for now let’s just say that regardless of its (relatively) low megapixel count, it’s still a sizeable step up in quality from the 5MP sensor of the Nexus S. Also, like many high-end smartphones, Google’s new baby features a 1.3MP front-facing camera for video calls, or using the face unlock feature.
The Galaxy Nexus may lack traditional physical or capacitive buttons under the screen, but you’ve still got your power button and volume rocker in the usual places, on the right and left sides respectively, where they’re easy to press. Under the power button there are three contacts for use with a charging dock, and directly under the screen, the notification LED makes a welcome return.
A quick glance at the phone's spec sheet reveals some unsurprisingly high-end (if not bleeding edge) internals. It’s powered by a 1.2 GHz dual-core Texas Instruments OMAP 4460 chip, which is backed up by a full gigabyte of RAM. Android devices have been running on OMAP chips for years now, so it should come as no surprise to see Google choosing TI’s leading dual-core CPU for its new reference device.
In the UK, the Galaxy Nexus ships with 16GB of internal storage, of which 13.6 is available for apps and media (yep, it’s all one big partition now). In other territories, Samsung plans to offer a 32GB version, too, though we’ve yet to see this model in the wild. If the storage is arranged in the same way, though, that version should offer around 29GB for your own stuff. Like the Nexus S, there’s no micro-SD card, and thus no expandable storage, which may disappoint some. However, in recent months we’ve seen more and more Android phones shipping without removable storage, with many manufacturers instead opting for a larger portion of faster internal memory. For our part, we’re not particularly fussed either way.
Finally, we were pleased with the phone’s radio performance, and noticed superior HSPA reception in weak signal areas than on other leading Android handsets. In addition, if your network has rolled out HSPA+, you’ll be pleased to hear that the Galaxy Nexus fully supports the faster data speeds offered by this standard. And as far as good old voice calls are concerned, we noticed no issues on our Galaxy Nexus -- calls were clear, and the noise cancelling functionality did a good job of filtering out background interference. If you’re into NFC (near-field communication), you’ll find that on-board and fully supported too, although on this side of the pond, good luck finding anything to test it out on besides other Galaxy Nexus users with Android Beam.
Update: The volume bug that was reported by some users during the first week or so of the Galaxy Nexus's availability has now been fixed in a software update.
In any case, the phone ticks almost all the boxes when it comes to hardware, with the only other cause for concern being the rear camera, which falls short of most high-end phones in terms of pure pixel count. Nevertheless, with a speedy dual-core CPU and a large, best-in-class display, Google has a solid foundation upon which to build Android 4.0.
The hardware may be great, but there’s no denying that Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich is the real star of the show here. The Galaxy Nexus is the first device to ship with ICS, and it’ll be the first to receive OS updates from Mountain View -- no waiting months for your your manufacturer or carrier to sign off or add their own bloatware to the mix. Just pure, unmolested Android. And if history is any indication, you should be set for at least two years of speedy OS updates if you pick up a Nexus at launch.
It's clear to us that Ice Cream Sandwich is the most significant update that Android’s ever received, both visually and functionally. And many of the changes are easy to see. There are no physical buttons of any description, instead the bottom of the screen houses a dedicated Honeycomb-style action bar allowing access to back, home and task switching buttons. This allows buttons to change on the fly (you’ll see an optional “menu” key in some legacy apps, for example) or disappear completely when you’re viewing photos or videos in full-screen mode.
On top of that, the Android UI has been completely revamped with a new design language in mind. Clean lines, smooth transitions and the color cyan are the order of the day. This results in a user experience that seems like a natural evolution of Honeycomb, and is a million miles away from the awkward mid-nineties desktop style icons and clunky embossed buttons of Android 1.0 to 2.2. The new “Roboto” font finally ousts Droid Sans as Android’s default typeface, and looks fantastic on the high-res screen, perfectly matching the aesthetics of the the new OS. Put simply, vanilla Android is now as beautiful as it is powerful.
All of Google’s core apps now follow the same design cues, leaving behind the mismatched, hodgepodge look of old. Typically you’ll have an icon and title bar along the top, your app content in the middle, and a menu bar along the bottom, replacing the options that would appear when you pushed the old “menu” button. This means the OS feels more like a cohesive whole than just a collection of apps.
ICS isn’t without a few quirks and missteps here and there, though -- for example, in the browser, your bookmarks list is now accessed within the tab controls, rather than using a button next to the address bar. The decision to include a settings shortcut in the notification area seems a little arbitrary too, although at least it means that menu’s easily accessible at all times. And we're still not entirely sold on adding widgets via a tab in the app drawer. We’re probably nitpicking here, though.
But ICS isn’t just a fresh coat of paint for the OS -- there’s a wealth of new features to discover, too. Take the lock screen, for example. You can now swipe to the right to unlock normally, or to the left to jump straight into the camera app. If you’re playing music, your album art will appear in the top portion of the lock screen, along with player controls. And you can view any notifications by swiping down, provided you’re not using a lock pattern or PIN. There’s also the much-hyped “face unlock” feature, which lets you unlock the device just by looking into the front-facing camera. We found that this worked reasonably well, but it was too easily thrown off by changes in camera angle or lighting (and, according to our own Jerry Hildenbrand, it doesn’t like beards either). We also wonder about the battery cost of activating the front-facing camera every time the phone is unlocked.
Then there are the hundreds of smaller changes here and there throughout ICS. The notification area has been redesigned to accommodate thumbnail images and the ability to swipe away individual entries. Home screen widgets can now be resized. Bluetooth tethering support has been added. The top layer of the settings menu now has direct controls for Wifi and Bluetooth. The list goes on (and on, and on). Even veteran Android users will need to take a while to get to grips with the new OS and all its intricacies. And for some, that’ll be a reason to criticize ICS -- after all, it’s still not as immediately accessible as the Windows Phone or iOS-based competition. The trade-off, of course, is that it’s more powerful and flexible.
Speaking of power, we should probably talk about how fast Android 4.0 is on the Galaxy Nexus -- and it’s a pretty speedy performer. The combination of a dual-core CPU and ICS means the Nexus breezes through tasks which historically have made Android phones stutter and stumble. In particular, web page rendering, app installation times and general UI responsiveness are much, much improved from previous versions. The multi-core optimizations and UI hardware acceleration first introduced in Honeycomb likely have something to do with this.
Unfortunately, there’s one feature which can still significantly slow things down, even on a phone as speedy as the Galaxy Nexus, and that’s live wallpapers. As we showed in our initial hands-on video, many of live wallpapers that ship on the Nexus turn the launcher into a jittery mess, the worst offender being the “Bubbles” animation. Strangely, not all live wallpapers do this, and we found that launcher performance returned to normal using less demanding animations like “Phase Beam.” Equally, we experienced no performance issues when using a plain old static wallpaper.
We’re going to dive into the fine detail of individual parts of Android 4.0 in future articles, but for the purposes of this review, we’ve picked out a few notable ICS features and apps that are worth some specific attention.
Replacing the old Contacts app, the People hub is the new way to manage everyone you know. It pulls in information from your Google Contacts, Google+ circles and other social networks (though bizarrely not Facebook) in order to create a live contact page containing status updates and recent photos.
At first glance, the ICS keyboard seems more or less the same as the old Gingerbread version. However, start typing and it becomes clear that a lot of effort has gone into making it more responsive and accurate. Typing is quicker and less frustrating as a result, although we still found that the UK English speech recognition was patchy at the best of times.
The Android browser has been extensively overhauled in the latest version of the OS. Behind-the-scenes enhancements like hardware acceleration result in faster page render times, and smooth scrolling, even across image-heavy sites like Android Central. On the Galaxy Nexus, you get the fastest Android browsing experience around, one that easily matches the responsiveness of the Galaxy S II and Galaxy Note.
Google Chrome bookmark sync has made it across from Honeycomb, as has the quick controls option, which brings up a small radial menu when you swipe onto the side of the screen. One new feature which we found particularly useful was the option to “request desktop site,” selectable from the menu dropdown in the top right corner. This instructs Android to masquerade as a desktop browser, allowing it to fool any sites that might be pushing you to a mobile version instead.
Update: Adobe Flash was not supported on the Galaxy Nexus at launch, however Adobe has since released an updated version of Flash Player on the Android Market, which supports the Galaxy Nexus and other Android 4.0 devices.
Books, Videos and Music
All three of Google’s content services come pre-loaded on the Galaxy Nexus, however if you’re outside the U.S., you’ll be limited to playing back songs stored on the phone, as the cloud-based music services and music store haven’t launched internationally just yet. All of the apps function as we’re used, to albeit with a lick of paint to bring them in line with Google’s other ICS apps.
Google’s excellent native Gmail client has been redesigned from the ground up, and looks better than ever. As much screen space as possible has been devoted to the all-important messages, with common menu items now available along the bottom of the window, just above the action bar. That means no more hammering away at the menu button if you want to delete messages, switch labels or toggle read statuses. In addition, you can also swipe left and right to jump between messages, which is a nice little time-saver. All this optimization means you can do a more with a lot less clicking.
The updated YouTube app offers mostly cosmetic changes, with the same three tabs along the top of the app for viewing content from your subscriptions, browsing by category or managing your own videos. And as ever, you can record on your phone and upload directly to YouTube through the app.
The main addition to the ICS YouTube app comes in the form of YouTube Live support, which shows a list of ongoing and archived live broadcasts that you can play just like pre-recorded content.
The new Data Monitor app, found under the settings menu, lets you keep track of how much precious cellular data you use when you’re out and about. If you’re on a data plan with a monthly usage limit, this could be invaluable. You can set the timing of your billing month, as well as warning levels and a hard limit on how much data your phone can use each month -- useful for avoiding expensive overage charges. You can also view a breakdown of mobile data used per app, and restrict background data for troublesome apps to Wifi-only if necessary.
Movie Studio, Gallery and Photo Editor
Movie Studio, which we first saw on Honeycomb, has made its way onto smartphones starting with the Galaxy Nexus. As you might expect, it provides basic video editing capabilities including cropping, transitioning between videos, adding background music and a number of special effects. We don’t really see anyone doing any serious video editing on a phone, but it’s nice to have the option to cut and manipulate videos recorded on the Nexus without having to sit down at a computer.
Similarly, the new Android photo editor, which is part of the Gallery app, lets you manipulate images on the phone, or stuff you’ve uploaded to Google+. Again, the functionality on offer is fairly basic -- stuff like cropping, red eye reduction and a few photographic effects -- but it’ll be more than enough for most people.
As you may have gathered, the Gallery app itself has undergone something of a transformation, and now brings in photos from Picasa and Google+, as well as locally-stored images and videos. The old-style Gallery UI is history too, replaced with a minimalistic layout that fits in with the rest of ICS.
In all, version 4.0 is a huge leap forward for the smartphone branch of Android. The care and thought that’s gone into each pixel of the UI, every last corner of the OS, and every minor detail of Google’s bundled apps is plain to see. Google has taken Android in a bold new direction with ICS, and we can’t wait to see this software on more devices in the coming months.
In our few days with the Galaxy Nexus, we’ve so far found that its battery life is roughly comparable to that of the Galaxy S II. The phone includes a reasonably hefty 1750 mAh battery, which does a decent job of getting it through a full working day. With moderate-to-heavy usage patterns including frequent web browsing over Wifi and 3G, music playback, a few photos and the occasional phone call, we got just under 14 hours out of the Galaxy Nexus. Compare that to around 13 for the Galaxy S II with similar usage.
With more conservative use, the phone fared much better, giving us between 24 and 36 hours on a single charge. This is mainly due to the fact that it uses next to no juice at all when it's idling, even with various accounts synchronizing in the background.
If you’re doing a lot of video recording, you can probably expect the battery to drain a bit quicker, and the same applies if you’re planning on cranking the screen brightness up -- AMOLED-based displays remain less efficient than LCDs at higher brightness levels.
Regardless, we feel confident in the Galaxy Nexus’s ability to get us through the day on a single charge, though if you’re going to be constantly using the camera, streaming over HSPA+ or using the screen on a very high brightness level, you may want to consider a mid-day charge.
As we’ve said, the Galaxy Nexus ships with a 5-megapixel rear camera along with a 1.3MP front-facer. This was the single specification that was singled out for a lot of criticism when the phone was first announced, and in a way it’s easy to see why. Most high-end smartphones have 8-megapixel cameras, and eight is oftentimes a bigger number than five. But the truth is that while the Galaxy Nexus’s camera doesn’t perform as well as many high-end 8MP phone cameras, it’s substantially better than just about every 5MP shooter out there.
Generally, we found that with a decent amount of light, the Nexus captured great-looking stills, particularly close-up macro shots. Likewise, HD video recording worked well in daylight, with 30 frames per second at 720p and around 25 fps at 1080p. Dynamic range, too, was better than average.
In low light, though, both stills and video become a little ropey. As the Galaxy Nexus lacks a backside-illuminated sensor, image quality rapidly deteriorated in darker environments. Frame rates in videos recorded in low light suffered too, with footage shot at both 720p and 1080p being limited to around 24 fps.
We were impressed with the new Android 4.0 camera app, though. There’s usually no delay in capturing stills, although if you’re a little over-zealous with this feature you can expect to run into a few blurry shots now and again. But it’s great to be able to quickly access the camera app from the lock screen, and then immediately capture images with no shutter delay. It’s something that plays to the strengths of a phone camera -- a device that’s with you all the time, that you can use to very quickly snap photos with a minimal amount of fuss.
Also new in the ICS camera app is panorama mode, which we’ve seen on a few new phones from HTC, Sony Ericsson and Samsung recently. This worked remarkably well in the right conditions, producing 3972x678 (2.7MP) panoramas of similar quality to regular still images. It’s also simple enough to use -- just press a button and then pan from left to right (or vice versa), and after a few seconds of processing you’re presented with your panorama in all its glory. Helpfully, you’re told if you’re panning too quickly or slowly without your recording immediately being canceled, something which bugged us to no end about Sony Ericsson’s implementation of this feature.
It’s clear that a few compromises have been made when it comes to the Galaxy Nexus’s camera setup, but it doesn’t bother us all that much. It’s a capable point-and-shoot phone camera with HD video recording abilities, and while it’s not outstanding, it’s not bad either.
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Nexus phones have been among the most developer-friendly smartphones available, and the Galaxy Nexus is no exception. Once you’ve unlocked the bootloader with the “fastboot oem unlock” command, there’s almost no limit to what you do with the right combination of code and know-how. Expect custom ROMs aplenty, as well as the opportunity to easily tinker around with the inner workings of Android on your Galaxy Nexus, if you’re into that sort of thing.
If, like many of us, you’ve been constantly holding out for that “next big thing” in the Android world, this is your signal to stop waiting and reach for your wallet. The Galaxy Nexus is the Android phone you want to own in 2012.
Before we throw out an unqualified recommendation, however, there are a couple of things to consider. The first is battery life, and while 14 hours or so was enough for us, with our usage patterns, your own needs may differ. The second is that pesky 5MP rear camera, which is by no means bad, but if you’re upgrading from a phone with a great camera, like an Xperia Arc or HTC Sensation, the Nexus may represent a downgrade in terms of camera performance. Likewise, if you’re expecting a great camera, you might be disappointed by what you find.
Personally, I’ve already been taken in by the Galaxy Nexus’s charms, and have been thoroughly spoiled in the process. It’s the most impressive smartphone I’ve ever used, and after just a few days, older versions of Android already feel ... well, old. Many other phones will get a taste of Android 4.0 in early 2012, but make no mistake, the Galaxy Nexus is the device that ICS was meant to be used on. The sheer speed of the hardware and software, combined with the slickness and beauty of the new stock Android UI makes the device a joy to use.
If you’re shopping around for a high-end smartphone over the holidays, you’d be mad not to consider the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. It’s the future of Android, and it’s finally here.
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