When Google and Samsung launched Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich alongside the brand new Galaxy Nexus in October, we knew Google would be completely remodeling their Android interface. The result of this redesign? A thoroughly revamped interface with nearly perfect animations, heightened usability, and a uniform style. Samsung’s created the ultimate device to test out this new experience– the Galaxy Nexus. It’s repping a dual-core processor, a middling five megapixel lens, and a gigabyte of RAM. But, the real magic lies behind Samsung’s new HD Super AMOLED display.
Many bloggers have already dubbed this Nexus “one of the best phones on the market.” Personally, I’m willing to take it a step further. In my professional opinion, as a combination of good hardware and brilliant software, the Galaxy Nexus takes the coveted spot as the number one smartphone to date. I won’t hesitate to knock Google’s Nexus for its flaws, but in the end there are very few. Read the complete review after the break to find out exactly why the Galaxy Nexus floats my boat.
- 4.65-inch Super AMOLED display
- 720p HD resolution
- Contour curved glass
- 1.2 GHz dual-core processor
- Texas Instruments OMAP4460
- 1 GB RAM
- 5-megapixel camera
- 1080p video recording
- 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera
- LED flash
- Android 4.0.2 Gingerbread
- 32 GB internal storage
- 1850 mAh battery
My initial hands-on comments still stand. After a week’s use, the Nexus’ design still confuses me. Up front, the Galaxy Nexus is undoubtedly the most attractive phone I’ve set eyes on. In the right light, the ink-like black of the Super AMOLED display blends straight into the bezel. The single plate covering the front emphasizes the futuristic minimalism that embodies the device.
The sides are perfectly crafted with slight enough angles to appear both modern and thin. The buttons are clicky and protrude enough for easy in-pocket finding. Placement-wise, the buttons are perfectly situated in a natural area. The volume rocker’s on the left side and the power button on the right. But, they’re vertically calibrated in a way that makes everyday button functionality very enjoyable. Down low, the headphone jack and microUSB port are well-placed, slightly receding into the body of the device. The ports are built so well that guiding a cable into the slot over and over won’t budge or bust them over time.
Flipping the device reveals its less beautiful backside. The soft touch polycarbonate battery case features a microscopic argyle design of sorts, which feels completely out of place behind the front’s smooth, sexy, modern plate glass. The camera elements are housed inside of a small piece of polished chrome metal.
The device’s bottom bezel is nearly one half of an inch, which is the perfect size for housing the best LED notification light of all time. It slowly blinks, fading in and fading out to notify users of phone prompts. The light is capable of producing white, red, purple, blue, and green hues. Although, most users will only see a white-ish color in everyday use. It’s three to four times larger than the average notification light, which means it’s more noticeable.
If you grab the HSPA+ version (internationally), you’ll notice a much more significant bump at the bottom of the device. Verizon’s version of the Galaxy Nexus smooths that bump to a degree, due to its large 4G LTE components and battery. Still, the phone feels and looks remarkably thin.
Size-wise, the Galaxy Nexus isn’t too big for most folks. Quite a few friends, myself included, noted that despite the massive screen size, the device didn’t look or feel abnormal. In fact, it’s only a few millimeters taller than many of the 4.3 or 4.5-inch phones. The massive screen will require most folks with small hands to adjust their normal hold position in order to hit those right or left corners– if you have big enough hands, you’re in the clear. But, few will complain about the (potential) minor inconvenience, because the conveniences of a large screen are so numerous. Keyboard typing can be faster, movies are more enjoyable, and viewports for documents or emails are more expansive. Every year, I see phones with increasingly larger displays. Each year I say: “This is the limit. Any more and these screens will be too big.” But, each year I find my predictions thwarted as consumers flock to the next massive screen. I still think the Galaxy Nexus may have reached the sweet spot for displays. Any larger, and users will need to constantly adjust positioning.
The HD Super AMOLED display on the Galaxy Nexus looks both big and beautiful. It’s undoubtedly the best mobile phone display I’ve encountered– beating out its Super AMOLED Plus brothers and IPS LCD competitors.
In a brightness test, next to almost any device, the Galaxy Nexus will win. Against Apple’s iPhone 4S, we found it was a tough call, but it’s possible that the iPhone is still a little brighter (on white screens) than the Nexus’ Super AMOLED screen. Luckily, the Super AMOLED technology behind this display allows for excellent outdoor viewing. When AMOLED displays initially hit the Android device market (ie. Nexus One), users were astounded at the terrible outdoor viewing they offered. Now, Samsung’s remedied the problem with their “Super” technology– offering five times less sunlight reflection over older AMOLED displays. That certainly holds true on the Galaxy Nexus, which offers outdoor viewing experiences close to some of the best LCD displays on the market.
Sometimes, brightness isn’t all that matters. In fact, in today’s growing mobile gaming market, clear ink-like blacks are the key to successfully vivid graphics. On the Galaxy Nexus, as with other AMOLED displays, subpixels are individually “turned off” in a manner that produces truly impressive black colors. The Galaxy Nexus’ screen utilizes this technology throughout the operating system, which is dominated by black backgrounds and darker undertones. But, other colors are also important. I can say undoubtedly that the Super AMOLED display used on the Galaxy Nexus produces the most vivid colors of any mobile phone display. That means reds look really red. Yellows look yellow. Greens look green, and so on. LCD displays tend to wash out colors in ways that dilute the purity of the display. But, the Galaxy Nexus screen can nearly fool a man into thinking its colors are not a reproduction. Sometimes, I look down at the Galaxy Nexus and imagine a printed sticker on top of the screen– the colors are that good. While colors on the iPhone’s retina display appear slightly white, colors on the Nexus’ HD AMOLED look more realistic. Still, Samsung’s struggling with an over-saturation problem that tends to exaggerate colors. That’s noticeable, to an extent, on the Nexus. But, it doesn’t detract from the superbly vibrant display in a way that’s a deal-breaker.
Thanks to the 1280 x 720 high definition resolution, the Galaxy Nexus is one of those ridiculously sharp screens that produces perfect edges and avoids pixelation. I’ve heard a few reviewers say that there’s still more pixelation on the Nexus than the iPhone 4S, but with my naked eye (even next to the iPhone), I am unable to see the Nexus’ pixels. That’s not true with every phone. I can clearly see the pixels on my Motorola Atrix or HTC Vivid. The Galaxy Nexus is quite sharp. Although many were scared about Samsung’s utilization of the PenTile matrix in their HD Super AMOLED displays, the supposed PenTile side effects seem to be non-existent. I’ve yet to meet an iPhone-wielding friend who rejected the Galaxy Nexus’ screen on the basis of fewer pixels per inch. Even after weeks reviewing HTC’s Rezound– the phone with the greatest pixels-per-inch on the market– I couldn’t notice a substantial difference. Text and graphics on the HD Super AMOLED are equally as sharp as those on the best displays out there.
And, you won’t have to worry about viewing angles with this HD AMOLED display either. Samsung’s Super AMOLED technology boasts 180-degree viewing angles. Even if one holds the Nexus at eye level, the screen is still completely readable and blur free. Samsung’s also touted their industry-leading 100,000:1 contrast ratio and 2-8 millisecond response times. Multi-touch points are set at a maximum of ten, so you can use all of your grubby fingers on this device at the same time.
Overall, the Galaxy Nexus’ HD Super AMOLED display is everything it’s cracked up to be– bright, vivid, sharp, and responsive.
Android 4.0 was
a big the biggest step for Android since 2007. With the acquisition of Matias Duarte, Google’s communicating their seriousness about the Android user experience. Ice Cream Sandwich represents the payoff of that acquisition– an entirely uniform interface that’s functional and sexy. Functionality-wise, Android 4.0′s eradicated the enslavement of physical buttons and disregarded the old Android long press. Settings are now categorized and widgets are resizable– functionality in the Android OS took a major leap with this latest update.
Looks-wise, Android 4.0 embodies the “holographic” interface of Honeycomb for tablets. Applications and system theme elements are finally matching– blues, blacks, and grays all around. Gone are the days of mixed black, gray, green, yellow, and clear. There’s a new font in town; it’s called Roboto. The old DroidSans font has fallen by the wayside. Its replacement is an agile, thin, crisp, and modern Arial-Helvetica ripoff that looks really nice around the device. Menus adopt a matted gray background with blue highlights to match the new status bar theme.
Ice Cream Sandwich is the first Android version for smartphones that denecessitates physical buttons. Instead, the Galaxy Nexus utilizes its massive 4.65-inch HD display to host three functionality buttons at the bottom. While this may be a good move for Android’s future– expanding on OEM capabilities and options– the on-screen buttons were often frustrating. Rarely, an application (such as Netflix) correctly utilizes the buttons, hiding them while video plays. Most of the time, they’re taking up precious screen real estate. But, that’s no matter since the resolution on the Nexus is so high. When the screen is rotated, the buttons move from left side to right side depending on device orientation– this disallows expectations for button placement. You can’t blindly tap in the same spot and find a button every time, because they move from location to location. Still, the buttons get the job done. They feel nearly as responsive as the capacitive buttons seen on most Android smartphones to date.
Google’s chosen to rid themselves of the traditionally dedicated menu and search button on the button bar. According to the Android team, this move gets rid of duplicate functionality with Android 4.0′s new permanent search widget. Still, I found myself missing the quick search button in certain applications… especially for its long press voice features. The menu button’s been moved around on applicable applications. In some apps, you’ll find the menu button up top. In others, the menu button aligns itself neatly to right of the button bar. This unpredictability can be frustrating, and it certainly takes away from quick functionality. We suspect more and more application developers will slowly ditch the menu functionality for something on-screen, which will solve the current problem.
The notifications bar in Ice Cream Sandwich was a delightful treat to use. Unlike Apple’s iOS 5 notifications bar, there’s still no way to embed a weather or stocks widget. Still, I found the notification functionality to be outstanding. Each alert is more pronounced in Ice Cream Sandwich, with large picture-laden icons and text previews. Plus, when you’re done with one alert, you can quickly swipe it away without losing your other notifications. There’s still an “X” button at the top if you want to clear your bar. The new pull down status bar includes a quick link to the often-needed settings menu, and the carrier text has been moved down to the bottom.
Android 4.0 includes an entirely new set of widgets and applications– each of them a greater improvement upon the last from Gingerbread. Thankfully, widgets on the default launcher are completely scrollable and resizable. There’s a nice Gmail widget that allows for scrolling and resizing of a miniature inbox. Included widgets: bookmarks grid, analog clock, Google Books, Calendar, contacts, directions and navigation, Google Search, Google+ photos/posts, Android Market, Music, News & Weather, photo gallery, power control, and YouTube. Unlike in Gingerbread, Froyo, and below, the widgets are neatly and uniformly themed with just a few stand-out exceptions.
Another piece of the OS that’s been remodeled is the keyboard. Android’s always lagged behind Apple’s iOS keyboard, but this latest Ice Cream Sandwich keyboard rendition may be their first big typing success. Not only is it themed well, but it also has much better key identification. Plus, Google’s added in a built-in classic red underline spell checking service. Auto-correct’s been changed, too. This go around, Google’s added a middle list of possible words next to the typed word and auto-correct choice. Typing on the keyboard was a complete joy, aside from the minor performance problems we’ll dive into in the “Performance” section of the review.
The voice search application’s seen major improvements as well. Clicking the microphone button on the keyboard prompts the voice app as always. But, text is now inputted immediately after dictation. That means there’s no waiting around for a five second interpretation of your phrase. Results arrive more quickly, and its more satisfying. Users will notice that dictation and recognition have been significantly improved accuracy-wise over the same functionality in Honeycomb and below. Rarely did Google’s Voice Search mishear or place the wrong word. Voice search is usable to an entirely new degree, which is one of the reasons I was sad to see the dedicated search button die.
Google’s actually stripped some of the functionality from the previous Desk Clock application, which is slightly disappointing. No longer will your desk clock show a weather report or link you to your picture gallery or home screen– it’s ALL clock now. Tap to set an alarm, tap to dim the background.
I’d hoped that Google would consider adding a timer and a stopwatch to Android, but it seems that the development team wasn’t concerned about my frozen pizza cooking and sports timing practices.
The Android 2.2+ photo gallery was a real treat when it first launched. It demonstrated those sexy Android 3D effects while remaining quite functional. Google’s decided to take Ice Cream Sandwich another way here– the gallery application moves back to the basics. It’s a simple grid of picture albums that link to individual pictures within albums. As always, there are the obligatory slideshow, share, and message options. The gallery felt quicker than the Android 2.3 one, and multi-touch zooming was a delight.
Gmail for Android’s always been a very magical application. The latest one, built for Android 4.0, is no exception. Emails are nicely color coded, labeled, starred, and pictured in the new Gmail– and it works really well. Threaded emails are a snap to read, just keep clicking on previous or next message header boxes to zoom through the conversations. Down low, there’s a dedicated menu with buttons for composition, search, labeling, refreshment, and settings.
We can’t say that the messaging applications undergone a whole lot of changes in Android 4.0. Sure, it looks much better. One new improvement that really ices the Android 4.0 cake is the inclusion of two shortcuts within the messaging app: one to call the recipient, another to place an attachment. This makes things a whole lot faster if you’re constantly switching between phone calls and SMS messages, or if you’re an avid MMS sender.
The Google Talk interface was revamped in Ice Cream Sandwich too. Now, it features solid color coding throughout the application with significant doses of green, yellow, and red for signed in/out options. Pictures are clearly visible, and switching between multiple accounts is as easy as two clicks with a finger.
Verizon’s the first Google Nexus carrier to pollute the stock Android experience with their own carrier bloatware. So far, the Verizon version of the Galaxy Nexus includes “My Verizon Mobile” and “VZ Backup Assistant.” The latter’s a good tool for folks migrating from Blackberry or dumbphone devices. The former is mostly a waste of space. Thankfully, Android 4.0 allows users to easily disable these applications– out of sight, out of mind.
The Galaxy Nexus is the first Android smartphone with full hardware acceleration enabled. That means applications should operate with an unprecedented smoothness and fluidity. We’ve found this is generally the case on the Galaxy Nexus. Although there was occasionally a short stall or two, like with any smartphone, the Nexus was a pleasure to use. It outperformed even the best Android phones on the market and certainly holds its own against Apple’s iPhone 4S in the performance department. We’re not sure if hardware acceleration or a bone stock user interface are to thank for this genuinely speedy experience– probably a little bit of both.
Gaming on Samsung’s Galaxy Nexus was a treat. With the HD AMOLED screen, most games were plenty sharp and colorful. The OMAP’s moderately outdated GPU was able to handle Shadowgun and Grand Theft Auto with ease. We did notice the occasional 720p-caused bug with some games. Grand Theft Auto, for example, plays all of its intermittent movies in a non-matching resolution that stretches to the display’s width. Another popular 2D game, Drisk (a take on the classic Risk board game), sizes elements poorly due to the resolution. This is an application developer problem, of course. But, it can be frustrating at times.
While the audio quality is middling at best, the rear speaker’s sheer lack of power is troubling. Netflix can be difficult to watch without headphones, and games are less enjoyable without hearable sounds. Developers have already fixed up a working volume booster, but that’s no excuse for a poor stock experience on such a device.
The new keyboard on Ice Cream Sandwich is the best Android keyboard to date. But, it’s not without its own annoying performance problem. In landscape mode, the spelling correction component of the keyboard can slow the keyboard down to a sluggishly poor response time. It can be disabled in the Settings menu under “Language and input,” but we shouldn’t be forced to disable helpful interface elements to get a properly working keyboard.
Samsung’s Galaxy Nexus comes with an accelerometer and gyroscope combination, but we found (more often than not) that rotating the device produced significant wait times prior to the software’s rotation. Unlike the quicker Android smartphones from before, the Galaxy Nexus often takes a couple of second before it registers a rotation. We suspect the problem’s caused by the GPU’s intensive effort to rotate such a high resolution screen.
Like the previous Google Nexus device, the Galaxy Nexus comes with an NFC chip and NFC-supported battery. Google Wallet does not come stock with the Verizon version of the device, but it can be easily flashed as an APK file. NFC transactions worked flawlessly, and the Android Beam feature was a nice touch, although it’ll only be useful if a friend’s got a Nexus, too.
4G LTE speeds were scorching on the Galaxy Nexus– we’re talking up to 30,000 kbps download rates. Of course, 4G LTE speeds are relative to each individual area. But, we can report no major problems with the Nexus, as it regularly matched those speeds on the HTC Rezound. We did notice fewer bars shown on the Nexus, but quick check of the signal strength in the phone’s status menu showed it equaled other Verizon devices.
I don’t doubt that nearly every Galaxy Nexus user will be severely underwhelmed by the Nexus’ piss poor 5-megapixel shooter. It’s a middling lens that outputs unacceptably grainy photos and fairly atrocious 1080p videos. There’s a nice LED flash backing it up, but that can’t save Galaxy Nexus users from terrible shots. Color reproduction was surprisingly good, but the amount of pixelation and lack of focus completely ruins any chance at a good picture.
In videos, moving objects tended to jitter across the video in an unsmooth manner. The lens took far too long to focus on objects, and the light adjustments weren’t as quick as we’d hoped. See the short sample below.
We really wish that Samsung used the lens from the Galaxy S II series, which gave us much better results. Thankfully, the camera software in Ice Cream Sandwich was greatly improved over that on Gingerbread. Photos snap in an instant, and videos process quickly. There are an acceptable amount of pre-loaded scenes, white balances, and other options. Still, I’m left unsatisfied with the Nexus’ camera– the quality is too far off from newer high-end devices.
One of the things everyone wants to know about the Nexus’ is: “how bad is the battery life?” Plenty of users are complaining that the LTE version of the Nexus offers a piss poor battery life. But, we never encountered anything under average in all of our tests. In fact, Android 4.0.2 makes great use of standby mode, which means your Nexus can last for days depending on how much you use the thing. Total screen time was between six and nine hours on an average day. We were able to drain the phone as fast as nine hours or as slow as seventeen hours. With heavy standby usage, we made the phone go over twenty eight hours. The battery management section in the Nexus’ settings application allows users to pinpoint life-sucking applications and processes with ease. Nearly always, the screen’s backlight was the main perpetrator when the battery died. Leaving the screen on a low brightness level can really help increase battery performance.
In comparison, I can confidently say that the Galaxy Nexus beats out the HTC Rezound’s battery life by a mile. All 4G LTE phones on Verizon seem to have terrible battery performance, the Galaxy Nexus may be the least worst. With the right management, the Galaxy Nexus can last you a full day from wake-up to bedtime. Power-users will want to grab an extended battery or a car charger.
Samsung’s created another solid hardware unit in the Galaxy Nexus– it’s thin, it’s light, and it’s powerful. We were left desiring a little more from the camera and GPU, but there’s not too much to complain about other than that. Software-wise, I think it’s safe to say that Android 4.0 is the biggest and best improvement in the popular operating system since it’s original inception. There are so many incredible new features, that it’s nearly impossible to list them all. Plus, the user interface has finally been reworked in a way that jets Android into the modern age– it’s slick, sexy, animated, and consistent. Android 4.0 is everything we hoped for and maybe a little more.
Thanks to this combination of excellent hardware and the ultimate new software behind Android 4.0, the Galaxy Nexus is a winner. It undoubtedly stands apart from the competition. I’m willing to say, without much hesitation, that the Galaxy Nexus is the best smartphone on the market right now.