Remembering the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, ten years on

Galaxy Nexus Retrospective
Galaxy Nexus Retrospective (Image credit: Alex Dobie / Android Central)

Ten years before the Google Pixel 6, there was another milestone Android device, also developed in partnership with Samsung, that represented a huge leap forwards for the platform.

The Samsung Galaxy Nexus launched a decade ago this month, along with Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. The phone and its software set the stage for the next few years of Android, pioneering features like on-screen navigation keys, face unlock, and easy multitasking.

Like 2010's Nexus S, the "Gnex" was a collaboration between Google and Samsung, which following the success of its Galaxy S line was quickly rising to a dominant position in the smartphone market.

For Google, it was the third Nexus phone to come to market and the first to offer LTE connectivity thanks to an exclusive partnership with Verizon in the U.S. For Samsung, it straddled the Galaxy S2 and S3 release cycles and cemented the company's place at the heart of the Android ecosystem while borrowing design cues from both the S2 and S3.

The frontloading of "Galaxy" in the phone's branding also gave the growing Samsung brand extra prominence.

Galaxy Nexus

Source: Alex Dobie / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Alex Dobie / Android Central)

The most striking feature of the Galaxy Nexus was what wasn't there.

Visually, the most striking feature of the Galaxy Nexus was what wasn't there. It was the first Android phone to do away with buttons on the front face of the device. At that time, pretty much every Android phone included capacitive or physical keys for navigation. On the Gnex, these were replaced by "back," "home," and "recent apps" keys in software as part of the navigation paradigm that would stick around all the way until gesture navigation was introduced in Android 9 Pie. The new "recents" navigation key had previously debuted in the tablet-focused Android 3.0 Honeycomb, but in Ice Cream Sandwich it made multitasking on phones far quicker and easier than ever before.

Source: Alex Dobie / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Alex Dobie / Android Central)

The move to a buttonless front face gave the Nexus a clean appearance from the front, the only blemish in its curved glass panel being the earphone jack up top.

On the rear, the phone was basically a larger, curvier Galaxy S2. A wedge-shaped area down below housed much of the PCB, as well as USB and headphone ports, while the removable back panel was furnished in the same "hyperskin" textured plastic as the S2.

For the time, the Galaxy Nexus's hardware was pretty nice, albeit in an extremely plasticky way. Then again, though, it was 2011, and "plastic" was the default setting for most Android phone manufacturers.

And as the barebones front face of the Gnex might have suggested, the software was far more important. Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich was a complete visual and structural redesign for Google's mobile OS, introducing the new "Holo" design language, the "Roboto" font that's still used today on most Android phones, and sci-fi-inspired turquoise color palette. Holo was the brainchild of Matias Duarte, who joined Google in late 2010 and has led the company's design efforts over the past decade.

Holo and Roboto looked right at home on the Gnex's fancy HD display.

The new UI impressed, at the time, on Samsung's latest HD SuperAMOLED displays, one of the first high-density OLEDs in a smartphone. Though not the very best — Samsung reserved its top panels for the original Galaxy Note — the vibrant colors and deep blacks were a great fit for Holo.

"We asked ourselves, for the first time, what is the soul of Android?" said Matias Duarte at the Hong Kong launch event. "We wanted simple typographic layouts with plenty of whitespace, eliminating lines and boxes and unnecessary decoration. And we wanted to imbue everything with subtle animation and delightful flourishes to really make Android come alive."

Ice Cream Sandwich

Source: Google (Image credit: Source: Google)

Speaking at that same event, Android founder Andy Rubin told the press, "the engineering teams lived in one building when we built this product. We were really one team." Samsung's own processor wasn't used in this product, though — instead, the "team" opted for the more open-source-friendly Texas Instruments OMAP 4460 chip. Ironically, the use of an OMAP chip would ultimately cut the Nexus's lifespan short — TI exited the smartphone processor business in 2012, leaving devices without an upgrade path past Android 4.3 Jelly Bean.

By the standards of the time — admittedly, during the era of pervasive Android lag on a lot of phones — the Galaxy Nexus felt ridiculously quick. The update to Android 4.1 Jelly Bean in spring 2012 helped iron out the few remaining performance kinks, helping the phone maintain a smooth 60 frames per second even while powering an HD-resolution display.

Google Pixel 6 Pro Vs Samsung Galaxy Nexus

Source: Alex Dobie / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Alex Dobie / Android Central)

By the standards of the time, this phone felt ridiculously quick.

The phone's camera was more of a mixed bag. Google highlighted the Nexus's zero-shutter-lag photography in promotional materials, but even by 2011 standards, its 5-megapixel rear shooter took dull, low-resolution photos. And while the front-facing camera allowed Google to pioneer face unlock long before the likes of the iPhone X, the feature worked so unreliably that it even failed during its live demo at the launch event.

Nevertheless, the Galaxy Nexus remained popular among early Android fans. This was a Nexus, after all, with guaranteed day-one updates to future Android versions. And it boasted untarnished, straight-from-Google, stock Android software at a time when heavy, ugly manufacturer skins were the norm. Sure, you'd have to deal with a (relatively) crummy camera and not-great battery life — unless you imported the extended battery that Samsung only sold in Korea — but that didn't seem like such a big deal in 2011.

At the time, I was smitten with my Gnex, summing up the device as one of the best Android phones of the time.

"If, like many of us, you've been constantly holding out for that "next big thing" in the Android world," I wrote in November 2011, "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."

One company that wasn't a huge fan, however, was Apple. At the height of the early-2010s smartphone wars, the Galaxy Nexus quickly became a target for Cupertino's lawyers, who sought to establish the Gnex as infringing upon Apple's patents in an effort to shut down the broader Android ecosystem. As a result, the phone was briefly banned in the U.S. in mid-2012 following a court-granted injunction, before swiftly returning to sale. Apple failed in subsequent attempts to halt sales throughout 2012 and into 2013, though by that time, the device had been replaced with the LG-made Nexus 4.

Although the Galaxy Nexus didn't sell in huge numbers, nor enjoy a particularly long lifespan, it nevertheless stands out as a high point in the early growth of the Android ecosystem. Without the Gnex and Ice Cream Sandwich, there'd be no Galaxy S3 or HTC One. Ultimately, the third Nexus was popular among the Android faithful for many of the same reasons as the Pixel 6 Pro — it offered pure Google Android software, and quick performance backed up by some of the best Samsung-sourced hardware.

Alex Dobie
Executive Editor

Alex was with Android Central for over a decade, producing written and video content for the site, and served as global Executive Editor from 2016 to 2022.

  • I still have my Galaxy Nexus. It was the phone I learned to side-load on. I power it on every now just to see how far Android has come. Was it perfect? Definitely not, but it was a phone I enjoyed.
  • I have mine, too, and it's so tiny!!! :-)
  • This was the phone that made me love Android. Previously I had the OG iPhone, then the Palm PRE (LORDY do I miss that phone) after that I jumped to the HTC EVO on android. While Android was "OK" there were things in the early days that had me longing for my PRE. Then when Duarte who had come over from PALM, walked out and introduced the Gnex. I knew right then and there this would be my next phone. Was it perfect? hardly. It was though a mighty step in the right direction. I kept it for longer than it was out and didn't change it until the Moto X came out from Google. This was and is one of the Major turning points in the Smartphone industry.
  • I still have one that I've been using daily as a bedside alarm clock since I upgraded. It stays on 24 hours a day in airplane mode and gets charged weekly. Still on the original battery.
  • My first foray into nexus was after this release with the Nexus 4 in 2012 and I loved that phone although i should have gotten this one before that one.
  • I also had the GNEX as well. Really loved the live wallpapers especially the Nexus lines and the pulsating one.
  • I recall liking the phone with the exception of the camera being trash, and the battery life giving me significant anxiety on not making it a full day with limited use. Was good to have a Samsung phone without Touchwiz though, since it had a deservedly bad reputation at that point.
  • Yeah I used to carry a spar battery with me quite often.
  • That was my second Android phone after the Droid X, loved that curve like a hug to the face. and the easy replacable battery and sd card slot Also had Google Wallet. I enjoyed that phone quite a bit.
  • Same for me, as you can see by my Username, Lol. Droid X then that beautiful Nexus!!!! Android FTW for Life.
  • I still have mine along with the box of spare batteries that I needed if I planned on being out all day with my phone on me. As much as I loved that phone, I don't miss babying my battery and still having it crap the bed midday. I fired it up for ***** and giggles. Mmmmm... I miss a lot of the stuff still installed on it.
  • That was my first Nexus phone, thanks to being on Verizon. I followed it up with the Nexus 5 (on Sprint), 6, Pixel 1 XL, 3 XL, 5 and now 6 Pro.
  • I picked up the Galaxy Nexus in May 2012 for $400, and it was worth it at the time. I had already tasted Gingerbread on my Nexus S and Honeycomb on my Motorola Xoom, but ICS was a step up. I really loved the clean look of the phone and its screen, but the camera was below average and the battery life was terrible. I was able to locate extended batteries for it without an issue, and I'm in the USA. The last official upgrade I was able to install was Jellybean 4.3, but it did run Paranoid Android 4.6 even better (based on KitKat 4.4.4). I sold it in late-2014 for $100.
  • this was the last phone that I used an exploit to install a system update that Verizon was too lazy to push out (was it 4.0.3?). i don't miss that part of the deal. or the battery life (even with bigger battery) otherwise, it was a great phone. i even owned the charging/audio custom car dock.