Welcome to Part 3 of the Samsung Galaxy Nexus story -- the one where the latest Google reference phone makes its way to Sprint, ready to put the upcoming LTE network to the test. Sprint was kind enough to loan us a review unit for a while, and I get to walk everyone through things this time. Luckily, we've got a couple excellent reviews of the Galaxy Nexus as it debuted for other networks in other places, so we can take this time to deviate from the standard path a bit, and focus on how the phone we all know and (mostly) love performs -- something that rarely gets covered in-depth in a "regular" review. Hit the break, and I'll walk you through how the Galaxy Nexus on Sprint worked out for me with a week's hard use.
Before we start, it's probably a good idea to remind ourselves of the features of the newest Nexus. You'll want to read Alex's excellent review of the GNex from when it first arrived, where you can get a close look at the hardware and software of the device. You'll learn what there is to learn about the new OS, as well as the way it's all put together. And the great (maybe even the greatest) thing about it all? The Sprint version is exactly the same.
The only difference most people will ever see between the unlocked international version, the version Google sells through their new device store and the one you'll find on the shelf at Sprint is the back cover. Of course there are differences in the radios to use Sprint's network, but for all intents and purposes the phones are exactly the same. None of this controversy about carrier apps we saw with the Verizon version, no holding back to a different point release from it's GSM cousins, and none of the drama that was attached to either. If you don't know (or don't care) about things like CDMA or GSM, you'll find you have the same phone as folks using the unlocked version do.
There is no bloatware. There are no carrier customizations. It is pure Google, and unadulterated Ice Cream Sandwich.
This is all old-hat for Sprint, which carried the previous Nexus phone, the Samsung Nexus S. Will updates take a little longer? Maybe. Will software versions be different? Certainly. Should that matter? Nope. This phone will get the newest features as soon as they are made available for it, and will get the same software treatment the other versions do. I'll go on record saying Sprint will get it done faster than Verizon, as they have had more practice working with the OEM and Google to update a Nexus phone.
Having said that -- for the small subset who wants to roll-their-own software for the Nexus, there is a difference. Licensing agreements make the CDMA (that's Sprint and Verizon) versions unsupported in the Android Open Source Project. Blame Samsung, blame Qualcomm, blame whoever -- that's just the way it is. Unfortunately, a lot of people don't really understand what this means. The software that is Android will run on any device. Supported devices get a special set of files and instructions so the software can be built without any editing. Unsupported devices, like the Sprint Nexus phones, don't get this. That means the folks building ROMs have to take five minutes (I timed it) and do it themselves. After all the fussing, fighting, and baseless profanity about the whole situation, the fact remains that every hack or customization built for one version gets built for the others. Call it what you want to call it, but Google -- and us here Android Central -- call it a Nexus.
Enough semantics -- how does this Nexus perform?
What's going on (and under the hood)
I've been using the phone hard -- like i would (and do) with my own Nexus. I've signed into my Google accounts, loaded up my essential apps, and set things up to keep me connected the way I like to be connected. This is my baseline, and phones that can't do this and get me through the day without worrying about finding a cord just won't cut it. I've tossed in a couple extras I use to test things, and I think this mix is a good way to make a smartphone smart. In other words -- every time I switch phones for personal use, this is what I do to it. Glance through the installed applications above. Besides games and streaming video (the Transformer prime has spoiled me for both), everything basic is covered. Yours would be different, but likely very similar.
I also use two Google accounts. As you can see, I sync everything on my personal account, while my Smartphone Experts account is used mostly for mail and the calendar. This never changes, and I never turn off syncing. I need my connected phone to be connected. Again -- my phone has to be able to do this, or it just won't work for me.
Does it work for me?
Short version -- yes. Like any phone, I can crush the battery with marathon web browsing sessions, but using the apps you see above, each time they need to be used, the Galaxy Nexus on Sprint does a fine job getting me through the day. Working here at Android Central, we probably end up checking mail and messages a good bit more than the average person. Lord knows Phil is always bugging us with something throughout the day via e-mail, and part of doing what we do is using social networks. If our phones go more than 10 minutes without a new message coming in, we check them to make sure something isn't wrong. Through the week, when we're sitting in front of a computer, we don't work the phones as hard. But on the weekends, or any time we step away from the captain's chair in our respective offices, our Android phones are our lifeline. The Galaxy Nexus on Sprint makes for a just fine lifeline.
Is there as much battery life left at night as there would be on my GSM version? No, but there's enough to set it on the nightstand and plug it in until morning. The only real difference would be those very few times when i need to get two days out of the battery. The way the different cellular technologies work, I couldn't do that with the Sprint version. Knowing that in advance, I would just find somewhere to plug it in. Set realistic expectations and you'll be just fine.
Our newfangled battery testing procedure
There's an easy way to compare the battery draw that is going on with our phones, and that's as simple as taking a screenshot and enjoying some music. Pick your favorite playlist (I can't recommend some classic Jackson 5 enough), copy it to your device, and play it for 60 minutes. Check the battery before, and after. Don't stream it -- that throws another variable in the mix (the network), just play it locally on the stock music player that comes with your phone.
With 60 minutes of MJ and his brothers playing loudly (and Jerry singing just as loudly and slightly off-key) the Galaxy Nexus loses 9 percent of its battery charge. That's with all the stuff from above going on, and checking the phone every time it needs to be checked, but not doing anything like surfing the web or playing Temple Run.
This is how I'm going to "benchmark" battery life from now on when evaluating phones. Since this is the first go 'round, there isn't a lot of data to compare it to. Try the same test on the phone you're using now. Compare it to what you see above. This is pretty much the same (as expected) as the GSM version, and means you'd be able to play about 11 hours worth of music while still getting all your messages before your phone needs plugged in. I can't test how you will run the battery down, that depends on a couple other factors -- like what you're doing with it and your network (which we'll look at next), but I can test how it works here, for me. And look for us to refine this a bit -- it's a first draft.
The Now Network
Because of patents and licensing (see my AOSP rant above) with CDMA technology, Samsung has a pretty bad reputation when it comes to signal on Sprint and Verizon. A different company,
who will remain nameless (it's Motorola), has better radio performance on CDMA carriers. Why this happens, or who is to blame, we have no idea. In the age of FRAND licensing, I would think every player has an equal chance, but I'm no legal eagle. The fact is, we don't really care who is to blame, we just know there are issues sometimes, and we wish it were different. If we could change it, you bet your sweet patooty we would. But I digress.
See that screen above? Anyone with a Samsung phone on the Sprint network is probably familiar with it (well, the Gingerbread version of it anyway -- burn!). It's where you check to see your time without a signal, which is the huge, unavoidable, giant battery suck that just kills some people. I had an Epic 4G here for a while. I never saw it below 10 percent, and it was usually upwards of 30-percent -- and that's a problem that was easily reflected in the phone's battery life. On the Galaxy Nexus though, I've had nary a problem. In the basement, on the porch, napping in my easy chair, it doesn't seem to matter. The radio on the unit I have here works really well. If it didn't, my battery life would reflect it and I would bitch about it. Will yours work this well? Maybe -- it's the first thing you'll need to check during your 14-day, worry-free guarantee period. If you're not sure how to look at it, or how to interpret it, sing out in the forums. As mentioned, a whole lot of people who love Samsung phones and use Sprint are really familiar with the whole situation.
Not everything s quite so rosy on Sprint's network though. We all understand it's not as fast as it used to be, or as it should be. That's something Sprint is addressing. But the Galaxy Nexus just can't seem to be consistent on Sprint. While neither of these Speedtests are what i would call fast, there's a huge difference between the first and second, even though they were done in succession, without moving out of my chair. It's not a one-off either. The reason I checked it in the first place is because I noticed wildly fluctuating signal strength while downloading my apps from the Google Play store. Whether this is a network issue, or an issue with the Galaxy Nexus in general, or just my unit is hard to tell. Like the time without signal issue, some people experience it and others don't. It's something you will have to check for yourself. If it does affect you, be prepared for things like this to happen.
Network streaming requires a steady, and preferably fast, network. Without it, you'll have buffering issues and things like Google+ Hangouts will not like it very much. Having said that, even with the relatively slow network speeds things like Hangouts (which are a giant bandwidth suck) and streaming Google Music work just fine after the initial buffering is done. Use the hell out of that unlimited plan while it's still offered!
I left Sprint about a year or so ago, the very day another carrier offered 3G service in my little town. I've missed CDMA calling. Like my old EVO 4G, the Hero before it, or the long string of BlackBerry devices left in my wake, calls sound beautiful. None of that tin-can in a submarine effect you'll run into with a GSM phone (even the GSM version of the Galaxy Nexus), and none of the weird echo delay you find with T-Mobile's Wifi calling feature. It's as close to a land-line as you'll ever find. While I don't think I could hear a pin drop, if Candace Bergen called me she would sound good. If you spend a lot of your day on the phone, you'll like the way the Galaxy Nexus does it.
Other radios (does the GPS suck?)
The GPS is fine. It locks quickly, navigates flawlessly, re-routes without a hitch, and works well everywhere I expect it to work well. As long as I keep myself out of the mountains (where there's not much cell signal to begin with) The Galaxy Nexus will tell me where I am within a handful of feet. Quit worrying about the GPS on every Samsung phone.
Wifi is a different story. See those pictures? The one on the left is the Galaxy Nexus, the one on the right is the HTC One S. Both are laying on the same table in my living room, about 20 feet from my Wifi router. The GNex gets a much lower strength signal, and won't even see the neighbor's Wifi. It's an issue with the GSM version as well, and what it means is that you'll not get the full speed connection from your router. You'll still get a good enough connection as long as you don't stray too far away from the wireless AP, but it's definitely weaker. You'll have to decide how this affects your usage, but to me there isn't really an issue. 30 M/sec versus 54 M/sec is what it translates into, and either is driving data faster than the phone can process it.
Now Later Network
Here's another big issue, at least for me -- Sprint releasing the phone without a network for it to run on. I'm done with "coming soon" promises from carriers and device makers. I'm only concerned with the here and now. The only real issues I have with the Sprint Galaxy Nexus revolve around slow and spotty data speeds. This will change when Sprint LTE goes live, at least for a handful of people. Network and battery issues will change spots, and we fully expect to see a million ZOMG MY BATTERY DIES SOOOO FAST threads in the forums. It would have been nice to test it ourselves, so we know how to address them. When LTE does go live, I live fairly close to Baltimore, and I'll have to give this one another look. In a fine hotel. On the company dime. A very fine hotel.
So should I buy this thing?
That's the meat of the issue, Isn't it? It's why we write these things, and why you read them. I'll say the same thing I said when the GSM and Verizon versions came out -- to me, the only phone that will be better than the Nexus is the next Nexus. I like bleeding edge (who are we kidding, we're beta testers for Google) software, I like open, I like to tinker when I have time. Does this sound like you? If so, do it, and never look back. Read through everything above. Take the 14 days Sprint gives you, and use it wisely. If you don't hit the snags that some are seeing (and I've no doubt they are real, troubleshooting is hard) then you're golden.
If it doesn't sound like you, and there's no shame in that, stay away. Get an EVO 4G LTE, or the next big thing that comes along. You'll find it's more polished, does more out of the box, and is more friendly without user setup than any Nexus ever will be.