Designed as both launch platform and showcase for Google's latest smartphone operating system, Android 4.0, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus is a big and beautiful super-phone. It's packed with practically every feature you could think of, all beautifully rendered on its enormous, high resolution 4.65 inch display.
In 2011, the Android mobile operating system was continuing to gain popularity and market share around the world but had split into two distinct branches: the 2.3 'Gingerbread' build designed for smartphones, and the 3.2 'Honeycomb' build designed for tablets. Android 4.0, codenamed 'Ice Cream Sandwhich' (or 'ICS') was designed to reunite these divergent branches into a single operating system suitable for all mobile devices.
The reason for this little history lesson is that the story of the Samsung Galaxy Nexus is the story of ICS. Google needed a high-spec, high-end smartphone to launch alongside and showcase their new OS, and Samsung provided with the Galaxy Nexus.
ICS, and therefore the Galaxy Nexus, marks a new direction for Android. The most obvious change is that the Galaxy Nexus completely eschews physical command keys on the front of the device in favour of a larger screen. In fact, the entire user interface has been overhauled and redesigned to be sleeker and faster.
The outer design of the Galaxy Nexus is rather understated and minimalist. Constructed largely from a dark grey plastic, the body of the phone is slim at the top and expands slightly towards a pronounced 'bump' at the bottom. Thanks to the use of plastic in the build, the Galaxy Nexus remains quite light for such a large phone, though it does lack some of that indefinable 'premium-feel' offered by weightier materials.
Aside from a pleasantly textured back plate that aids in gripping the phone and snaps away to reveal the battery and SIM slot, there are few noteworthy design-features to speak of on the outside of the Galaxy Nexus. I suspect that this is a conscious decision by Samsung, because the sparse exterior serves to emphasise the real centrepiece of the design – the 4.65 inch Super AMOLED touchscreen.
The Galaxy Nexus' screen isn't edge-to-edge by any means but takes up a larger portion of the front of the handset than the majority of previous handsets thanks to the integration of the standard Android command keys into the on-screen user interface. The result is that when turned on, the Galaxy Nexus' vibrant, high resolution display transforms an otherwise relatively nondescript smartphone into something quite spectacular.
Physical command keys haven't been completely shunned by Samsung yet, and the Galaxy Nexus still has two – a power button on the phone's right edge and a volume rocker on its right. The top edge is unadorned and the bottom houses the phone's two external ports – a microUSB port for charging and data transfer and a 3.5mm headphone socket.
I must admit to being slightly underwhelmed by some elements of the Galaxy Nexus' physical design. There's nothing bad about it as such, but to my eyes the plastic chassis lacks the desirability as a beautiful object that competitors like the iPhone 4S or Lumia 800 have. On the other hand, though the large size of the phone might test the pocket stitching on a pair of skinny jeans, the expansive screen is entirely enviable and since this is the true focus of the design, its relatively plain surroundings are not much of a concern.
There's one stand out feature of the Samsung Galaxy Nexus and that is, of course, Ice Cream Sandwich. This phone launched alongside the latest version of Google's Android operating system and was purpose built to showcase its features.
Android 4.0 is a radical step forward for the Android operating system. I'll be discussing the overhaul of the user interface in closer detail in the Usability section of the review, but one key feature has already been mentioned: physical command keys are out, on-screen keys are in.
It's a system I was dubious of at first, but once you've tried it out it makes perfect sense and simply works. Removing the command keys allows the screen to be a few parts of an inch larger without bloating the chassis and the on-screen replacement keys sit along the bottom and function just as their physical counterparts would have. That is, until you play a video or run certain apps and then, hey presto, you get another half inch of screen!
And what a screen. The Super AMOLED HD display of the Galaxy Nexus packs a resolution of 720 x 1280 into its 4.65 inch screen, to achieve a pixel density of around 316 ppi. The result is a screen of exceptional quality. Thanks in small part to Google's new Roboto font, optimised for high-resolution screens, text is rendered crisply and cleanly. Images and graphics also look fantastic and colours are bright and vivid.
The camera of the Galaxy Nexus received quite a bit of attention in the run up to its launch, with particular interest in the shutter speed. The marketing points to a 'zero shutter lag camera' and I have to admit that it really is impressively fast. No camera shutter is instantaneous, but this one is pretty much close enough.
Performance is vital, of course, since who would care how quickly a shot was taken if the quality was awful? Thankfully, the images produced by this phone are not awful at all. Outdoor shots came out with excellent contrast and lively colours, while indoor shots were impressively sharp and colourful even without flash. Anybody who's read any of my previous reviews will know my feelings on flash photography (yuck), so this is welcome news for me.
Naturally, the camera app comes with plenty of added extras, including a snazzy panorama feature that allows you to wave your phone around in a rough circle to take... well, a panorama. The camera app also features a touch-to-focus system similar to that of the iPhone 4S, which is very useful.
The Galaxy Nexus, in fact, stands up very well against the iPhone 4S (the camera of which impressed me very much) in the photography department. A more direct head-to-head to determine which has the edge is on my to-do list, but for now let's say they're certainly in the same league.
While we're on the subject of cameras, let's say a word or two about Google's new trick with the front-facing one: you can now unlock your phone with your face! It's easy to get set up and works pretty well, generally taking about two seconds to recognise your features and unlock the phone.
Ultimately, I found the face unlock system a little frustrating. It takes no more time than unlocking with a pattern, but with a pattern I'm doing something for those two seconds, not just waiting for the camera to turn on and wave me through. So, after I'd spent a few thoroughly mature minutes finding out if I can pull a face so silly that the phone can't recognise me (which I can), the feature was turned off and forgotten.
In some regions the Galaxy Nexus is available with storage options of either 16GB or 32GB, but in Old Blighty we have only the lower 16GB model available to us. This is a bit of a disappointment, especially given that this cannot be augmented with microSD cards, but 16 GB is a sizeable chunk of memory and should be adequate for most.
It would've been a very odd decision for Samsung and Google to launch the latest version of Android with an underpowered phone and, of course, they didn't. At the Galaxy Nexus' heart is a dual-core 1.2 GHz A9 processor with an integrated graphical processing unit clocked at 384 MHz. This was one of the most advanced chips available at the time of the Galaxy Nexus' release, and is supported by a full GB of RAM.
The popular Quadrant Android performance benchmarking app returned a score of 2024 for the Galaxy Nexus. This app has recently been redesigned to support multi-core chips and scores from the new version are not comparable to scores from the old, the unfortunate result of which is that I don't currently have any other verified scores to compare this to. Still, the result is recorded and we'll be able to put it in some context as further phones are tested with the new system.
In the browser-based SunSpider Benchmarking test, the Galaxy Nexus performed very well, completing the test in just 1860.3ms. We do have verified scores on record for this test, and the Nexus outstrips them all – even the Apple iPhone 4S, which took 2219.8ms to complete the tests.
Anyway, that's enough benchmarks and figures – the real question is how does it perform in everyday use? Very impressively, actually. The in-built browser supports multiple tabs and didn't show a hint of slow down while running a good number of them simultaneously. Even large pages with numerous images were loaded as quickly as the network would allow and could be navigated smoothly.
Android 4.0 has an overhauled multitasking system, which performs exceedingly well. One of the three command keys along the bottom edge of the screen is now dedicated to calling up a list of running apps which the user can select or close with simple taps and swipes. The system is simple and intuitive and, crucially, the phone itself handles multitasking numerous apps without issue.
Finally for performance let's say a word or two about battery life. The Galaxy Nexus pumps juice through its circuits by way of a 1750 mAh battery. That's a decent capacity for a smartphone battery, but the Nexus also has an exceedingly large and bright screen.
If you want to draw maximum performance out of the phone (demanding applications, Wi-Fi and GPS on, maximum screen brightness), then you'll be reaching for the charger within 24 hours. In fact, the screen alone on maximum brightness will quickly take serious chunks out of your stored energy.
With a few sensible compromises (moderate use, automatic screen brightness, Wi-Fi off when not in use), the Galaxy Nexus can safely get you through two or three days before it completely shuts down. Which, by modern standards, isn't bad at all.
I've long been a fan of stock Android. The various manufacturer skins and UIs found in the majority of well-known handsets have often struck me as at best superficial improvements and at worst unnecessary extra weight to be carried by the OS. There are exceptions, of course. HTC's Sense UI at its height included genuinely worthwhile additions and provided a welcome touch of class.
With Android 4.0, though, I feel that the standard required for a manufacturer UI to be relevant or at all necessary has been raised by quite a significant degree. The whole interface is just so polished, intuitive and smooth that it's difficult to imagine it being improved by Samsung's latest TouchWiz or Sony's latest TimeScape UI. Still, I look forward to seeing them try!
Android has always excelled in customisation and ICS keeps up the reputation. There are a wealth of new widgets for you to pull out of the new integrated app and widget drawer (with its clean, modern look) and drop around your five home screens. Many widgets are now resizeable so if you want a full screen devoted to your calendar, or to split one screen between bookmarks and email inbox, it's as simple as a long press on the widget and dragging it out to the size you want.
Untidy home screens can now be organised with app folders and again, the implementation is simplicity itself – just drop one icon on top of another and you've made a folder! Tap the folder to open it and tap outside to close. Easy.
I'm almost ashamed to admit this, but for all my technophilia I'm one of those odd people who, in day to day use, still uses his phone mostly for calls and texts. I was therefore pleased to discover that core phone functions have also received an overhaul in ICS. As well as attractive updates to the appearance of the dialer, call history and contacts menus to bring them in line with the ICS 'look', there are handy new additions like a 'frequently called' section and the ability to categorise contacts into groups.
Android makes it as easy as ever to import contacts from previous phones. You can sync up contacts through a Google account, import a vCard file, or simply transfer via Bluetooth, among other options.
Text messaging has also received some welcome tweaks. Google are very excited about improved text input and a spell-checking feature, and these are both good but it's a much more basic feature I'm most pleased with.
Checking a text message's details will now inform you not only of when it was received, but also of when it was sent. My old, old Nokia from back in the day did this; no Android phone I've owned ever has. It's so simple, but hugely useful when, say, your battery has been dead for a day and you receive a barrage of messages from friends and family when you turn it on. Knowing when missed messages were sent and in what order can be crucial.
Social networking integration may be the one area in which the Galaxy Nexus (and therefore Android 4.0) underperforms. There are a couple of native Google+ widgets and other Google+ integrated features but, let's be honest, these aren't going to rock too many people's worlds. For all its cool features and innovations, Google+ still hasn't really hit the big time.
Of course, there are numerous Facebook and Twitter apps available from the well-stocked Android Market, but Android 4.0 simply doesn't offer the kind of deep integration of these popular networks that, say, Windows Phone does.
This is a difficult phone for me to come to a conclusion on. I want to love it, and in some ways I really do. Android 4.0 is a brilliant step forward and is difficult to fault. The improvements to the user interface can't be overstated – it's faster, more powerful and better looking.
The Galaxy Nexus' photography credentials are up there with the best of them and the fast dual-core processor and GPU packed into its slim casing should keep you running the most demanding apps and games on the market for quite some time. Most alarmingly, I think the gorgeous 4.65 inch Super AMOLED HD display may just have ruined me for other smartphones.
There are just a few little things that keep me from giving the Galaxy Nexus a perfect score. They're not problems, as such, just tweaks I'd like to see in a perfect world – or maybe for the next Nexus phone.
I adore the screen of the Galaxy Nexus and once I'd used it for a few days it was hard to imagine how I'd ever believed screens below 4” could be anything other than headache-inducing exercises in squinting. But the price for the Nexus' luxurious display is a phone that's a little larger than my pockets are used to.
It's by no means impractically large, but I can't help gazing at the slim black bezel around the screen and thinking: if only we could shave that little bit of extra bulk away and leave the display intact... Oh, and throw in a little metal or maybe some of that polycarbonate Nokia's been doing good things with, too. Then we'd have something very nearly perfect.
But I digress. This isn't a design proposal, it's a review, and the Galaxy Nexus is really already quite close to perfect. In exchange for a carrying around a phone that's a little larger than you might be used to, you'll be rewarded with fantastic visuals, extraordinary performance and, because it's a Nexus, all the latest toys from the latest versions of Android for at least the next few years. What more could you want?
This could well be the best Android yet.
Samsung Galaxy SII – The Galaxy SII has been around a while longer than the Nexus but is just as powerful. Its 4.3 inch screen affords it more portability than the Nexus and an update to ICS is expected in early 2012.
LG Optimus 4X HD – If 2 cores simply isn't enough power for you, take a look at LG's Optimus 4X HD. This is among the first smartphones to reach the market equipped with a quad-core processor.
Nokia Lumia 800 – If you're interested in trying out a phone running Microsoft's Windows Phone OS, the Lumia 800 is likely the one to go for. Currently Nokia's flagship Windows Phone, the 800 packs a 3.7 inch screen and the latest OS build.
Google and Samsung have upped the ante considerably with their flagship Galaxy Nexus, which sets the standard for others to emulate. Utilising a 1.2 GHz dual-core processor, it’s the first smartphone to be designed specifically for the Android 4.0 operating system, Ice Cream Sandwich. As such, physical Home and Back buttons have been removed in favour of permanent icons on the touch-screen interface. The Galaxy Nexus also features a handy 16GB of built-in storage, and has an inbuilt feature that monitors app data usage, so that you can manage your processor use effectively.
The display boasts an impressive 1280x780 pixel resolution, which is superior to all rival offerings at the time of the Galaxy Nexus’ release in November 2011. A subtly-curved glass screen sits over the 4.65 inch Super AMOLED HD display, which allows wide viewing angles and reduced light reflection. As with previous Galaxy incarnations, the colours are vivid, and the display has roundly been hailed as “gorgeous”. While slightly larger than the average phone, it is thinner than the iPhone 4S and still fits comfortably in the hand. This thinness is also lighter than the 4S or the Nokia Lumia. Incidentally, that large screen is one of the biggest you are likely to get on a phone, meaning it’s better-suited for watching film clips or checking out pictures, and also makes for a better browsing experience. The only way you’ll get a a bigger screen is by using a tablet device or a Sensation XL, but the Nexus’ AMOLED display is superior.
The camera is only 5 megapixels, though it’s worth noting that many studies have shown anything beyond the 5 MP mark to give little in terms of significantly better performance. Where the Galaxy Nexus prevails is with its near-instantaneous shutter response, which together with auto-focus, face-recognition and panorama mode, make it much easier to really “capture the moment”. Live action can also be recorded with the Nexus’ 1080p HD camcorder. Finally, it features a secondary front-facing 1.3 MP camera.
Among the new features released for the Nexus is Near Field Communication (NFC), via the Android Beam. With this feature, you simply tap two NFC-enabled devices together to share information. This includes a range of apps and services in Android, contact information or maps, and web pages or pictures. The Nexus is the first phone to incorporate this feature.
Then there is Face Unlock which allows the user to unlock their phone simply by staring into the front-facing camera, thereby avoiding pin codes and passwords. Finally, new Voice Typing offers a hands-free way of creating text messages on the move or in the car.
On the whole, the Nexus cam be considered a smart option for the technology enthusiast or gadget geek who wants all the latest smartphone features. Blessed with state-of-the-art hardware, the Nexus will doubtless become a much-loved handset. It is also suitable for the Mr Magoos among us, with the larger screen making for easy reading and viewing: this is particularly useful for those who view a lot of streamed or downloaded media. With specs that just shade the Motorola RAZR, the Nexus is probably the phone of choice for those who don’t like Apple products.