The Samsung Galaxy Nexus is the first smartphone with the latest Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) operating system. We have one in our hands, and it’s the best Android phone yet.
A new era in the impressive story of Google‘s Android operating system has just begun with the release of the Nexus. Gone are those antiquated buttons at the bottom. Now when you look at the front of this relatively large smartphone, all you see is an enormous screen — an impressive 4.65 inches diagonally — that looks even bigger without those clunky buttons that until now have always resided at the bottom of Android phones.
The result? Except for the tiny amount of bezel on the top and bottom and a slender sliver on either side, the front of this phone is almost all screen.
It’s a lightweight phone at 4.8 ounces, with a HSPA+ radio inside (this test model sent to us by Google is using the T-Mobile network — a Verizon model using that company’s faster 4G LTE network will be slightly heavier). The phone has a cheap plastic feel to it, but once I spent some time with it, I didn’t mind its light weight, especially given its large size, which is about an inch shorter than an average-sized hand.
With that large size comes a gorgeous screen. If the term “1280 x 720-pixel Super AMOLED high-definition display” doesn’t mean much to you, suffice to say that even when a screen measures a huge 4.65 inches diagonally, that high number of pixels is still tightly packed onto the screen, resulting in an exquisitely sharp view. If a screen were any sharper than this, it would be hard to tell the difference unless you had super-human eyesight.
Looking at the phone from the side, I realize this is not the thinnest smartphone I’ve ever seen — that honor goes to the Motorola Droid Razr — but at 8.94mm, it’s slim enough. And, it’s the first smartphone I’ve ever seen with a gentle curve to its body, accompanied by a remarkable “Contour Display” whose glass is also gently curved. It’s a subtle effect, but I think it’s downright beautiful.
The back of the Galaxy Nexus is plastic, but it’s an attractive and practical design that gives you a good grip on the phone. At the bottom of the back, there’s a slight chin, but it’s not obnoxious like that of too many other Android phones, and this one gives you a slight rise it makes it easier to hold onto the phone, especially when you have it oriented in a horizontal position.
The entire rear panel is easy to remove, facilitating battery removal, and with a few rehearsals, I learned how to quickly snap it back into place. Who says you can’t have a removable battery and still enjoy clean, minimalist lines on a smartphone? Whoever made that arbitrary proclamation hadn’t seen the Galaxy Nexus. Even though the Galaxy Nexus is still a plastic phone with a glass screen, in my view, its form factor is a spectacular success.
That clean design on the outside gives you a hint of the highly capable hardware inside, with a 1.2GHz dual-core processor from Texas Instruments (the first time Samsung’s used such a processor), 1GB of RAM and 16GB of internal storage. The result of that processing power is snappy performance and quick startup.
What we don’t know yet is how all this hardware and that huge screen will affect battery life — we’ve only had the phone for a short while, not long enough to do longer-term battery testing, which is an inexact science at best. However, to give you an idea, when we started testing today, the battery was at 63% and six hours later, it was almost depleted.
Those who are obsessed with specs (Galaxy Nexus specs are all here) would at first be disappointed with its 5-megapixel camera on the back (with a 1.3 megapixel front-facing camera for videoconferencing), but when I compared identical shots between the Galaxy Nexus and the iPhone 4S, I realized that even though the iPhone 4S’s 8-megapixel camera looks slightly sharper in brightly-lit situations, the quality of this Samsung Nexus camera in low light matches it nicely. Take a look at our gallery for comparison shots. And, the camera started up quickly, takes multiple pictures in rapid succession, and even has a handy ability to grab panoramic shots. Topping it off is a 1080p video camera which did an admirable job of grabbing acceptable HD footage.
Ice Cream Sandwich is Delectable
All that hardware is brought to bear on the centerpiece of this new phone, the first smartphone shipping with Google’s Android 4.0 “Ice Cream Sandwich” (ICS) operating system. It represents a giant leap in usability for this popular operating system. The first thing I noticed was its ability to smoothly scroll down long lists, the complaint I’ve had against Android-packing phones from the beginning. Finally, you can scroll up and down a Google+ stream and slide down lists of emails with smoother response, although not all apps I tried enjoy that butter-smooth scrolling yet.
Besides the user interface that’s cleaned up considerably and much more intuitive, there are unusual new features I was eager to try. One feature I consider to be more demo-ware than useable is its facial recognition to unlock the screen, which worked well as long as I was in the same lighting as the first shot it took to learn how to recognize me. However, when I was outside with a hat and earmuffs on on a blustery Midwestern day, the phone didn’t have any idea who I was. Nor did it recognize me in slightly different lighting conditions. For now, this facial recognition failed more than it succeeded, and in my experience is not practical to use.
Because there aren’t physical buttons any more (except for a volume control on the left and an on-off switch on the right), the apps must give users a way to navigate from one place to another, and there are some apps that aren’t quite ready for this yet. However, you can still find your way around, and instead of physical buttons you can now use three icons that take you Home, let you go Back, and access recently used apps.
Beyond that, everything on Android 4.0 just looks a lot better, and it’s more than just window dressing. Among its many improvements, my favorites were the way you can toss off notifications by swiping to the left or right, more easily switch between apps that are running with Android’s true multitasking, the way there’s a new center button (the app drawer) that immediately takes you to screens full of icons, the way those icons show apps separately from widgets, and the subtle way the app icon screen seems to slightly tilt sideways when you try to slide beyond the last one.
There’s another new feature called Voice Actions that uses speech recognition to let you send text, dictate emails, navigate to different places and call up web pages. Although Google puts on a pretty good demo of this capability, in the real world it falls short. It’s no Siri, but if Google can make its Voice Actions easier to use and more accurate, and give it some basic smarts, it might someday become useful. For now, I’m not going to be depending on Google’s speech recognition anytime soon.
We Have a Winner
Beyond those gimmicks that don’t work as well in the real world as they do on television commercials, Ice Cream Sandwich’s main claim to fame is that it’s a more-polished version of Android — it’s easier to use and more aesthetically pleasing than any of its predecessors. Bravo, Google — I’m looking forward to further refinements of Android, and if this leap forward is any indication, the world’s most popular smartphone operating system has even brighter days ahead.
Couple that with this gorgeous and subtly curved handset, and you have yourself a winner. The Samsung Galaxy Nexus is by far the best Android phone I’ve seen yet.