The Galaxy Nexus is a massive media machine set in a light but sturdy plastic chassis with a 4.65-inch Super AMOLED HD screen providing a brilliant display
Its Android Ice Cream Sandwich OS is the most significant update yet, streamlining the navigation process along with the look and feel of its icons and widgets. However, a total lack of preloaded apps or startup menus could be forbidding to a first time smartphone owner
A phenomenal feature set with the best Gmail app on any platform, a tabbed browser with amped up rendering speeds, a high-clarity display and one of the best touch-screens available
The Galaxy Nexus can run up to 16 programs without slowing down and general navigation is fast and responsive. However, the Ice Cream Sandwich OS still has a few glitches to iron out as we occasionally experienced force closes
You’ll easily last the day and a battery management app lets you save extra juice when you’re running low
The first phone to run on Google’s powerful new Android Ice Cream Sandwich OS, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus is an incredibly smart device that will set the bar for future AndroidsThe tech world has been waiting a long time for a mobile to achieve Apple levels of hype and fandom, and it began to happen for Android some months back. The Galaxy Nexus is important not so much because it’s another high-spec, über-powerful smartphone from Samsung, but because it comes with the first iteration of Google’s most significant update to its Android OS, now the world’s most popular smartphone platform.
Which doesn’t mean that its hardware should be overlooked at all. In fact, the Nexus is one of the classier, most powerful handsets to come from Samsung in a while. Its massive 4.65-inch screen squeezes in a 720x1280 pixel resolution display with brilliant 316ppi clarity, all in a plastic chassis weighing a feather-light 135g. This outstrips the even more plasticky Galaxy S II by 19g and the increased heft feels better in the hand. A textured back mimics the leatherette look of the moneyed BlackBerry Bold 9900 (those good old non-touch-screen days) but the flimsy plastic back cover we detested in the Galaxy S II is still present – so it doesn’t quite approach the futuristic glass-and-steel construct of the iPhone 4S.
The five-megapixel lens protrudes from the contoured back, which curves ever so slightly outwards. The 8.9mm profile is impressively slim for such a large device, while the minimal bezel gives the expansive display even more room.
A front-facing 1.3-megapixel camera lets you make video calls – or Hangouts, if you’re using Google+ – and of course, Face Unlock, the new feature incorporating face recognition to unlock the phone. Under the hood, a 1.2GHz dual-core processor works with 1GB of RAM to keep the Nexus whizzing along. The touch-screen is one of the most responsive we’ve tried, easily on par with current champ, the iPhone 4S, while the virtual keyboard is comfortable and quick, with the main screen housing a row of numbers, a dedicated full stop and even an emoticon menu. Surprisingly however, there’s no microSD slot to expand memory, so you’ll be limited to just the 16GB or 32GB.
The draw of Google’s Nexus line is the ‘pure Google experience’. So though the phone is branded as a Samsung device, its software innards are all Google – and with this third phone, the Ice Cream Sandwich upgrade of Android is front and centre. It’s the most substantial upgrade yet, taking the most efficient bits of the Gingerbread version found in Android phones and the Honeycomb version in Android tablets to create a new minimalist look with icons slimmed down and widgets squared off.
Core navigation has been streamlined as well, with the standard four touch-buttons pared down to just three: Home, Back and Multitasking, as seen in Honeycomb tablets. Missing is the Menu button that used to provide a context-specific set of options in any app; instead, you’ll have to poke around each app to squirrel out your various possible actions. The Multitasking button is an excellent addition, allowing you to view thumbnails of up to 16 open programs and scroll through to bounce to the one you want. In our week with the phone, we never experienced any lag despite having the full allotment of programs open.
Loading up the phone for the first time simply takes you into the default home screen setup with just a few Google app shortcuts and a toolbar at the base housing the standard shortcuts – Dialer, Contacts, All Programs, Texts and Browser. Hitting All Programs shows all your apps and widgets, and we love the new visual menu for widgets ¬– instead of a text list, you can actually see what each of the widgets would look like.
However, adding shortcuts and widgets to the home screen has become less intuitive – instead of pressing down on a home screen to add an icon, you have to head into All Programs and press down on the shortcut you want to bring up a carousel of all the home screens to pop the icon onto. Once you know this, it’s easy enough to acclimatise, but a smartphone first timer could feel pretty lost.
Indeed, there are no startup help screens as with HTC’s Android phones or even Samsung’s own line – this is the clean slate Google look and you’ll get no hand-holding to set up email, social network or even Wi-Fi accounts.
This makes the Nexus a real early adopter phone, one for the tech-savvy who know what smartphones can do and don’t mind playing around with settings a bit to get things just right.
At press time, we were still experiencing occasional freezes and force-closes on apps, though this may have been rectified in a software update since.
One of the most streamlined, powerful features of the phone is its social integration to create what Google is now calling ‘People Chips’, essentially contact cards that comprise all a friend’s details from phone number and email to Facebook, Twitter and any other messaging apps you might download, such as WhatsApp and Skype.
Contacts sync automatically, though at press time, Facebook was not fully working on Ice Cream Sandwich phones, so though the app was functional, we couldn’t sync our Facebook friends with our contacts book.
Rather like Microsoft’s Windows Phone People Hub, each Chip shows all a person’s details as well as their latest posts and photos. And design-wise, the square profile pictures of your favourite friends really, really looks like Windows Phone’s Live Tiles. It looks good, so we’re not complaining.
Communications in general is great – text messages are threaded and within each conversation the friend’s name is displayed up top, next to an option to dial the number and attach a photo or video. There’s also a search function within the text inbox, as there is in the Gmail app.
Email has always been a comprehensive offering in Android phones, with Gmail packing most of the features you get on the desktop version. That’s been amped up in Ice Cream Sandwich, with the inbox showing a two-line preview of each email and a new toolbar for composing, search, viewing email by label, and a fuller settings menu.
Inside each message you can preview, view or save attachments, and mark it as unread too. It’s so easy and comprehensive you’ll struggle to go back to Gmail on any other OS, which don’t offer most of these features.
There’s also an Email app for your mail on other services, though as you might expect, it’s not quite as fancy as Gmail, lacking even a search function. The web browser has also been turbo-charged to near desktop levels with tabbed browsing and the option to go ‘private’ as on Google’s Chrome browser. Pages loaded significantly faster than on the Galaxy S II (running on Android Gingerbread), with copy- paste and pinch to zoom working seamlessly. You can also save pages for offline viewing. At launch, the Galaxy Nexus didn’t support Flash as the software didn’t support its Ice Cream Sandwich upgrade; that’s since been rectified in an update.
With flagship smartphones tending to pack eight-megapixel cameras, the five-megapixel snapper is a bit of a surprise – but it’s actually very impressive. The shutter is instant, so we were able to take rapid-fire photos one after the other with great clarity.
You can snap a photo either by touching the screen or a set of three metallic dots on the side of the phone. On the screen there is also a settings menu to choose from preset lighting modes, exposure, and flash toggle.
Though the phone took excellent photos in daylight, low light shots fared less well even on nighttime settings. In a dim, lamp-lit room, photos came out grainy, though colour reproduction was good.
A panorama mode allows you to sweep the camera round to get a long photo of a 180-degree view. The camera warns you when you’re sweeping too fast - this results in a lightly blurred photo.
The first time you use the camera, you’ll be prompted to turn on Instant Upload, which saves photos immediately to Google+, the search giant’s (attempted) answer to Facebook and Twitter. Using this social network does make life a ton easier in the same way that using Gmail with an Android phone is the path of least resistance. When photos are saved via Instant Upload, they’re in the ‘cloud’ for posterity and you can clear your memory card for more photos. Any photos you take with an Android phone linked to the same Gmail address are stored too, so even if you phone-hop as casually as a mobile reviewer, you won’t lose any pictures.
It’s a bona fide video recorder too, with real 1080p recording and a cool Time Lapse mode where you can set the shutter interval for anywhere from -1-10 seconds. This allows you to make your own stop-motion movies, limited only by your creative talent. (In our case, this was a fairly substantial limitation.)
One surprise spec omission in this workhorse phone is the limited support for video formats – DivX and Xvid, two common ways to compress online video that have been on many Samsung phones, are missing here, with the Nexus supporting only H.264/263 and MP4.
With phone contracts tying consumers to a single handset for two years, future proofing is an important consideration. The Galaxy Nexus is one of the few phones available right now with an NFC chip, making it future-friendly for when contactless payments eventually become a reality in the UK. For now, you can mainly use it in Android Beam, an app that uses NFC to bounce content instantly between two Galaxy Nexuses (in the future, this will include any other Ice Cream Sandwich phones that also have an NFC chip). Its application is limited right now, but what it actually does is excellent: place two Nexus phones back to back and you can send a web link, map link, YouTube video or even an app in under a second.
In practice, this means that you can be on a webpage, map or watching a video, and send it instantly by placing your phone next to a friend’s.
While the Galaxy Nexus’s hardware specs impress, it really is Ice Cream Sandwich that defines this phone. Its plastic chassis is unremarkable, but the new Android look and streamlined navigation makes this the best – and best-looking – iteration of Android around. However, Ice Cream Sandwich still has a few bugs to iron out with occasional force closes – and media fanatics may miss the presence of a memory card slot. The Galaxy Nexus isn’t the definitive Android phone, but it heralds great things for Androids to come.