Over the past week or so, I’ve been using arguably Samsung’s latest and best flagship phone to date, the Galaxy Nexus. During my time with the Nexus I have experienced the heights of Android 4.0 and the power of the device’s hardware: but the pitfalls of the phone have also revealed themselves. Over the course of the next few paragraphs I aim to give you an impression of how the Nexus performed in day-to-day tasks; hopefully this will allow you to decide if it is appropriate for you.
- Ice Cream Sandwich
- Large, 720p screen
- Future-proof as it is the Google phone
- Lightning fast
- Fast multitasking
- Pentile screen
- Ahead of content distributors
- Irresponsive soft keys
Ice Cream Stylish
Out of the box, the Galaxy Nexus is loaded with the latest version of Android, version 4.0. It is one of the few phones to have this version loaded, and it really does make it stand out! Android Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) is the best software I have experienced on a smartphone to date and, as it’s the main way you interact with the phone, I will go over a few details worth noting.
ICS is a new design for Android; the first version in which design is actually a focus. This makes the phone much easier to use than previous versions with all basic functions brought to the forefront of the interface. For example, Ice Cream Sandwich on the Galaxy Nexus uses adaptive buttons for navigation. The Back, Home, Multitasking and Menu keys all hide when they aren’t needed, yet glow when they are. These keys are part of the software, not hard buttons, making them part of the touch interface on-screen. The soft keys are hard to get used to.
In the way of adaptability, I have come to the conclusion that the soft keys are very good, but are otherwise little beyond annoying. One of the flaws in the buttons is their very positioning; unamendable if the current conventions for buttons are followed. When typing, I often hit the Home key instead of space which caused great annoyance. After exiting an app prematurely in this way, I would tap the Multitasking key -- nothing would happen. I’d think I had missed the key and tap it again, then it would open and close immediately afterwards. It is the only one of the keys that is unresponsive which can be misleading. Apart from these two issues I enjoyed using the touch buttons and, overall, the time saved by not having to push in a physical button make up for them.
While these keys are soft, the Galaxy Nexus does sport three hardware buttons: volume up; volume down; power. These are on the sides of the device which are otherwise clean, with the exception of the right side of the phone which has a three pin dock connector. The front of the phone is one perfectly smooth face with only the small speaker grill extruding. The light sensor and front-facing camera are enclosed below the glass. The Nexus boasts a contour display meaning it is curved slightly. This doesn’t affect the use of the phone at all, but does allow it to fit the side of your face better when on a phone call. Incidentally, this also allows the phone to seem a better fit when it’s in your pocket - it’s not too hard to fit it in there! The back is an opaque mixture of plastic and glass with a slight texture to allow better grip. At the bottom of the phone, on the back, there is a slight bump which allows the phone to be held naturally. Additionally, because the speaker is located here, when you hold the phone the sound is reflected off your hand and towards your ears; something so many manufacturers overlook. In my opinion, the design of the Galaxy Nexus is perfect. The phone looks even more amazing when the screen is off as the entire front of it is a single sleek, black face.
A new feature added in Android Ice Cream Sandwich and on the NFC-enabled Nexus is Android Beam. It lets you share files easily by quickly establishing a connection via a near field communication (NFC) chip in the phone. The chip also allows tap-to-pay functionality. I haven’t had the opportunity to use it once.
Multitask Like a PC
Included in Android 4.0, Ice Cream Sandwich, is a new way to multitask. You can use the cards interface, reminiscent of WebOS, to quickly switch between applications. Setting aside the issues with the soft key, multitasking on the Galaxy Nexus is incredible! Not only is it snappy, it's almost possible to use the feature as one would on a desktop computer. I often found myself clicking a link to load a webpage, then jumping back to the previous app to finish what I was doing there, then back to the browser which had in that time loaded the webpage in the background. This is a massive leap in the method of using a mobile device; power is finally being shown through interaction with the software.
One thing I use my phone for a lot is taking pictures. I found myself using the Galaxy Nexus’ camera as often as I normally would, if not more, due to the quality of the app and interface itself. The camera app is very easy to use and extremely fast. One of the main features of the device is the zero shutter lag. This means photos are taken almost instantly, then thrown into the beautiful gallery app. From there they can be edited with the fully featured photo editor. This is one of the really nice things about the photo sharing experience on Android 4.0: it’s totally integrated and provides truly frictionless sharing. Not only can you edit photos straight from the gallery, you can also share them via any app with a single tap from the gallery or the editor. This makes it much easier to get those snaps out there.
Aside the interface of the camera, the actual shots are surprisingly good considering the 5MP, now near entry level hardware. The quality is not as good as other phones’ cameras, for example the iPhone 4S, but when viewed on a computer the detail is there.
The Samsung Galaxy Nexus, being a pure Google experience, has fantastic integration with Google+ services. Contacts from Google+, as well as any other added social networks, are automatically added to your phone with high resolution profile photos and full, media rich status updates. With Google+, you can use the hangout feature to video call anyone on an Android phone or computer with a webcam for free. This makes catching up with far away friends and family easy, and because anyone can use it, it is very versatile; works on pretty much every desktop browser! Sharing with social networks from within apps - even downloaded ones - is handled very well on Android. You can share anything easily at the press of a button. In this way, Android is much better at social integration than any other platform around today, and with such a powerful phone this really stands out.
Smile to Unlock
The Galaxy Nexus has a very nice, simple way of unlocking that currently only exists on Android Ice Cream Sandwich phones. You can just look at the phone to make it unlock. The front-facing camera uses face detection technology to detect if your face is present and, if it is, the phone unlocks: if not, the phone locks down and requests a predefined passcode before unlocking again. I have used this unlock mode the entire time I have had the Nexus and I can report that most of the time - I'd say around eighty percent - it worked. Unfortunately if you aren't looking quite directly at the phone or if the lighting around you is poor there isn't a hope of it working. Too add to my complaints, firing up a camera every time you unlock your phone can seem to disconcert those around you, not to mention that awkward smile you have to pull because you inevitably set it up that way. So, it's very useful when your on your own and don't mind looking ridiculous, otherwise it's best to bypass it straight to the pattern or code unlock.
With the Galaxy Nexus, moving media off of the device was something I did a lot; primarily due to the screen. The Galaxy Nexus’ display is a pentile 720p, 4.65” giant. This might sound amazing - the resolution and size are - but, because the display is pentile, it has its flaws. When I look at the display, I can’t help but notice discolouration in front of the content on the screen. Solid blocks of colour are distorted to the extent that I found it annoying to look at the display. Perhaps SAMOLED+ - something Samsung has prided itself in in the past - is more to my liking. While my experience with the display has not been pleasant, the people I have shown the display to could not see any of the distortion I saw. I would put this down to them not using it every day, but considering the vast number of people who failed to see it, even when I asked them to look closely, I can come to the conclusion that the effect is minimal and won’t be noticed by the average user; though the chances are that if you buy a Nexus you aren’t an average user: you’re an Android lover.
Size: Not Too Gigantic
Despite the phone's screen, and overall form, being relatively large compared to the offerings of other companies, when it's in your pocket, you can't tell the difference. Samsung has managed to design the phone with a tiny bezel around the screen making for a large screen size but a comparatively low size of the actual phone. You get all the greatness of a massive media powerhouse, but in a manageable package. When I started using the phone I found it quite large and cumbersome, but after a few hours - maybe even minutes! - of use, I was used to its form.
For Movie Lovers
As I said, the Nexus has a 720p screen and, apart from the pentile problems, it is fantastic for watching videos. In my time with the phone I have watched several 720p films and must say I enjoyed them. The video watching experience does not seem to be affected by the pentile inaccuracies, only solid colour. Unfortunately, if you wish to view photos - even those taken with the Nexus’ camera - you, or at least I, will be disappointed.
Another major point about media on the device, assuming you’d use it for consumption, is the lack of content. Yes, YouTube provides HD video and so does Google Play, but bar that I’d say the options are limited. Many distributors simply don’t see mobile as a HD market yet meaning you may not be able to use an account you already have to get good content for the 720p display.
One important thing to remember when looking at this phone is that it's almost six months old, and still ahead of the game. So,what’s good about it? For me, the main selling point of the Galaxy Nexus is the support provided by Google. It is their launch device of Android 4.0, a new direction, and is worth getting for the future support. In addition to Google’s support, the device is popular in the area of custom development meaning there are a large number customised software versions available for the phone. When this is paired with the fast processor, adequate storage and the other specs expected from a phone of its calibre, the Nexus becomes a perfect base for app development and using custom ROMs. It is the device for Android power users.
Overall, I would class the Galaxy Nexus as ahead of its time. The content available for the device - and support for NFC, etc. - is just not up to scratch, but with more and more focus moving to mobile this is set to change. The phone is perfect for those who want the best, most pure Android experience possible, and with the present rapid updates, this is a phone that will last the test of time. If I am honest, I can only recommend the Galaxy Nexus to power users. I would recommend Android 4.0 to everyone on the planet (in a very loud voice, most probably from the top of a mountain), but the phone itself just doesn’t compare to the newly released HTC One X - the X is bigger, faster and has a better screen. So, if you know how and are looking for the ultimate experience, I would suggest buying the HTC One X, rooting and ROMing it. If you have never heard of a custom ROM before but like the look of Ice Cream Sandwich - and why wouldn’t you? - the Galaxy Nexus is definitely the phone for you. Even if you are not an Android fan I can recommend this phone. In fact, one of my iPhone 4S-using friends suggested he may get the Nexus as his next phone - that’s right, as an upgrade.
I found the Galaxy Nexus worked very well in my day-to-day routine. The only thing I would have done differently if it were not a review unit is rooted it and applied a custom ROM. Believe it or not, my two-year-old HTC Desire is running Android 4.0.4 whilst this Galaxy Nexus is running 4.0.2. That is the power of the custom development community and it’s a real shame I couldn’t tap into that with the Nexus. The latest software from Google and some of the best hardware from Samsung really do make the ultimate combination when it comes to smartphones. I look forward to see what will come of this device in the future and cannot wait to see the outcomes of further co-operation between Samsung and Google.