In a world where Android now powers more than half of all smartphones sold in the last quarter, the so called ‘Google phones’ find themselves in rather awkward position in the market.
Releasing once per year, these smartphones break little ground in terms of hardware. Down to its core, however, the fundamental selling point is a substantial one, namely, the premise of a Google phone itself. The outgoing advantages are apparent right off the bat – an Android phone running on the very latest version of the OS, freshly baked with love, directly from Google. But, aside from the premise of being first in line of receiving any future Android updates, what else is there going with Galaxy Nexus? Let’s find out…
Look&feel. Simple yet elegant – all plastic
The unusual shoebox-like package of Galaxy Nexus doesn’t hold any surprises. You basically get what you pay for – that includes a charger/data cable and in-ear type headphones. Take a look at the whole thing getting unboxed along with a short demonstration of the new Android in action:
Google appears to be quite content on using Samsung as its OEM (original equipment manufacturer) to demonstrate the raw power and potential of Android. The previous Google phone, Nexus S, was also manufactured by Samsung, and was based for the most part on South Korean company’s own Galaxy S model. The story with Galaxy Nexus, for the better or the worst, is no different. At least on the paper, it seemed like a no-brainer to base the hardware platform on the widely successful Galaxy SII that came out earlier this year and took the market by storm.
The design on Galaxy Nexus, while some might consider it to be overly simplistic, has a certain touch of class to it. The curved display isn’t very obvious but enough to highlight the little design fidelities that full touchscreen phones have still left.
The build materials are consistent with what we’ve previously seen from Samsung for what seems like eternity now: the plastic encompasses most of the phone, while the front is covered by a solid layer of glass that resists fingerprints surprisingly well (oleophobic coating is probably in action here). Following the curved glass display, the slim profile (8.9 mm) of Galaxy Nexus starts to widen towards the bottom, creating a nice point of counterbalance to keep the phone steady in hand. That is not to say that Galaxy Nexus is very comfortable to operate using just one hand. While the weight remains fairly manageable – 135 g (vs 116 g on SGSII), the hefty dimensions of the screen -4.65 inches – dictates certain loss in ergonomics. Naturally, Galaxy Nexus dwarfs most other phones, for example, Apple iPhone 4S (3.5 inch screen) and Nokia 800 Lumia (3.7 inch screen):
From usability standpoint, the most drastic change is the integration of traditional Android navigational and contextual hardware keys into the display itself, which explains the somewhat odd size of the screen.
Interestingly enough, the effective size of the screen remains identical to that of SGSII. I’ll take a look at those particular changes in Android UI at a greater detail in the software section of the review, but for now, it’s suffice to say you’re actually getting the same 4.3 inch screen, only at a much higher resolution.
Atop the display, there’re the usual suspects: an earpiece is dead centre, while the ambient light and proximity sensors along with a front facing 1.3 Mpix camera are pushed to the right side. And, finally – this came as a pleasant surprise for me – there’s also a white notification LED light hidden in the area below the display.
The lonesome pair of physical controls on Galaxy Nexus reside on either side of the screen. On the left, a decently sized volume rocker stands ground, but on the other side – just where your right thumb should be – the power or screen wake button.
The number of ports are also kept to a bare minimum. There’s a connector for a docking station further down on the right side of the phone, while the rest of the physical output/ input options, including a 3.5 mm headset jack and microUSB port, are collectively residing at the bottom.
The story around the battery cover of Galaxy Nexus is, predictably, quite similar to SGS2. The comparisons are, unfortunately, unavoidable even here, as the plastic piece that covers the battery and SIM card slot radiates cheapness on a level that is not typical to the standards set elsewhere on this elegant looking phone.
However, since Galaxy Nexus lacks an external memory expansion slot, most users probably won’t have to bother with the cover too often. Once the cover is correctly attached, however, it sits surprisingly well, and the slightly rubberised texture creates a reassuring friction with fingers.
The Galaxy Nexus comes equipped with a 1750 mAh Li-Ion battery that with moderate usage should be enough to keep the lights on for around 1.5 days, which is an OK achievement, given the enormous size of the screen. Realistically speaking, you’d want to charge the phone every night to avoid any surprises. And, unless you’re planning for an extended movie viewing session, the Galaxy Nexus should get you through the day.
A screen of beauty
If I had to pitch the biggest selling point for Galaxy Nexus, there would be two – the simply gorgeous Super AMOLED display and Android 4.0 aka Ice Cream Sandwich. Both of these points almost seem to be made for one another as they complement each other beautifully on Galaxy Nexus.
There isn’t much to say what hasn’t been already said about Super AMOLED display on Samsung Galaxy SII – the two a pretty much on par here, except that Galaxy Nexus utilizes older PenTile screen tech. Nevertheless, the display features amazing level of contracts, wide viewing angles and expressive colours unmatched anywhere else. But there’s more with our newcomer here: its display offers an HD resolution of 1280 x 720 pixels, which is a first on a screen that ‘small’. You will, however, lose some of that to the omni-present black bar with three navigational and contextual keys at the bottom, which – as mentioned earlier in the review – marks a departure from the previous versions of Android on smartphones.
The idea of integrated hardware keys seem to have caught me surprisingly quickly – there’s barely any real difference from using the usual capacitive keys below the display. And, thanks to Super AMOLED technology, the dedicated Android command key area seamlessly blends in with the rest of the phone, giving little in terms of distraction.
We also did some comparisons of Galaxy Nexus, iPhone 4S and Nokia Lumia 800 displays. But you will have to wait until our 3-way review of these flagship devices, coming up next week.
Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich
Galaxy Nexus performs remarkably well with what it has under the hood as I saw virtually no hiccups amidst the smooth animations and screen transitions. Only during continuous downloads and heavy multi-tasking the phone’s back became noticeably warmer, but even then Galaxy Nexus managed to demonstrate an admirable stability throughout the stress-tests.
Android 4.0 or ICS (Ice Cream Sandwich) obviously inherits a number of design elements first seen on Android 3.0 Honeycomb running tablets. In short, ICS introduces some interesting changes that are aimed towards improving the full touch user interface, and simply make Android more fun to use. It remains to be seen, however, how ICS will handle and look on devices with smaller and lower res-screens, but on Galaxy Nexus spacious screen the OS feels very much at home.
The main underlying structure of the OS remains unchanged – you have the customizable homescreen (consisting of 5 in total screens), the app menu and the ever-present and useful status bar.
The new multitasking view – now handled by a separate command key – is a particularly nice addition to Android as it makes the process of switching between recently opened apps much more accessible. By swiping sideways you can remove an app from the list, but it’s not entirely clear whether the background process is also killed or left running. So this is more of a cosmetic overhaul – as previously in Android, the listed apps may already been closed by system’s memory manager and not actually be running.
There are also a few lessons that Google probably took from iOS. To begin with, app shortcuts in the homescreen can now be dragged on top of each other to quickly organize them into folders. The dockbar is also quite similar to iOS, and you can effortlessly replace shortcuts there to your liking, except for the menu icon in the middle.
Another major change is how you access and browse widgets. All widgets are now listed in a separate section after the app menu. While it’s indeed a handy way of exploring widgets in that fashion, scrolling through a dozen of screens to find the right widget gets cumbersome very fast.
There are also persistent moments when the new ICS is obviously conflicting with the older generation Android. The context sensitive menu key now looks more like a neglected distant relative on the new OS, sometimes being tucked in the far right corner at the bottom of the screen, sometimes, like in the case of web browser or the gallery app, relocating to the top of the screen and creating a fair bit of confusion in the process.
Overall, it’s clear Google aimed to make Android more appealing to casual smartphone users. Even though you can catch a few glimpses through the seams of the redesigned UI, it nevertheless feels like a step in the right direction.
Interestingly enough, there’s no native file manager in stock Android 4.0, but, as always, the situation can be quickly remedied with a rich selection of 3rd party apps. Speaking about apps, there’s one particular kind of app that really shows off the spacious HD screen on Galaxy Nexus – a video player. The Android Market’s favourite – MoboPlayer – didn’t support ICS at the time of writing, so instead I decided to give MX Video Player a shot. I can confirm that .mkv files (tested with a 4.37 GB movie) ran smoothly enough, although hardware acceleration still wasn’t working.
The built-in web browser has also been updated. It renders websites at a great pace, supports tabbed browsing, and, thanks to the extra pixels on the display, looks extremely impressive on Galaxy Nexus. For some reason, the ‘request desktop site’ option didn’t always work for me.
A great way to earn some extra points in my OS reviews is to natively support screenshots, and, fortunately, Android 4.0 does not disappoint here. For that, you have to press and hold the power and the volume down button at the same time for a couple of seconds. A notification message pops up after each successful attempt – and here’s a plus point well deserved, Android.
Galaxy Nexus camera. A decent 5′er but not much else
The Galaxy Nexus won’t be taking the crown as the best Android camera phone, and it quickly becomes clear that was never the aim. That’s not to say the built-in camera is bad – rather, that it could’ve been so much more. With just 5Mpix, the camera disappointingly remains on about the same league as the predecessor, the Nexus S.
The camera interface has been slightly retouched in the new Android. It’s entirely usable, but as before, won’t be taking any awards for it. The usual options to change the white balance, exposure and photo scenes are there to choose from, but anything beyond that is a no-go. On the positive note, there’s panorama shooting mode, and in camcorder mode the Galaxy Nexus can record videos with up to 1080p resolution.
The first revelation after using Galaxy Nexus camera is that its capture speed is on par – if not better – than the competition. Secondly, the 5 Mpix ( 2592 x 1944 pixels) photos have a surprising amount of detail in them. Even though with flash the photos tend to lose some colours, the outdoor shots in particular look simply great.
The bottom line – you won’t be disappointed with the camera on Galaxy Nexus, unless, of course, you come in to expect the same level of performance as anywhere else on this high-end smartphone.
An uncompromised, stock Android 4.0 experience alone might be enough to elevate the heart rate of many Android fans and easily justify the purchase. While the latest Google phone is clearly a great package for the Android geeks out there, the choice is less clear for others, especially current Samsung Galaxy SII users. You’ll have to be ready to give up a slightly better 8 Mpix camera and more compact dimensions in turn to receive an outstanding high-res display and the latest stock version of Android on Galaxy Nexus. The underlying performance specs are mostly identical. That’s not to say the mentioned points aren’t enough to warrant an upgrade, but that might depend heavily on the individual users priorities and needs.
Also worth keeping in mind is the non-expandable storage memory, as I’m sure quite a few multi-media users will find 16GB to be quite limiting. Perhaps for some it might be a worthwhile effort to sit tight until a larger, 32 GB model of Galaxy Nexus becomes available. But time isn’t much in favour of Galaxy Nexus. Already looming is the release of the next juggernaut – Samsung Galaxy SIII – most likely around the time of MWC in February. Taking that and the elevated price (especially compared to SGS2) out of context, and Galaxy Nexus becomes an all around solid Android power-house that I doubt many would regret buying.
I have to admit that Google Nexus with ICS at the forefront managed to grow on me fast. I can certainly spot its unique share of beauty. Unlike the competing smartphone platforms, Android can be as complicated as you want it to be. Although the learning curve remains noticeably high even with this next step in Android evolution, exploring new areas and expanding possibilities is more fun than it was ever before.