It’s been a long time coming, but the Galaxy Nexus is finally available both abroad and in the US. Device specs have been rumored since the beginning of the 2011, and for the past few months the device has been rolled out across different regions. The time leading up to launch was pretty messy, but nevertheless the device is here—and it is fantastic. The third entry into the Nexus lineup brings stunning hardware, along with an updated OS that finally makes Android feel like a cohesive experience. Since the Galaxy Nexus has been out for quite some time now, this review is going to talk about the overall experience of owning and using device, and the state of the Android platform.
The Galaxy Nexus has everything you would expect from a modern superphone—a dual core processor, large HD screen, front and rear facing cameras that can record HD video all wrapped in a thin package. While many may were disappointed that that Samsung and Google decided to go with a CPU and GPU combination that are less powerful than that found on the Galaxy SII—these concerns really fade away once you actually use the device. The device is extremely fast an fluid, and any concerns about small shortcomings in the hardware specs disappear: this is a powerful phone.
Look and Feel
The Galaxy Nexus ranks among Samsung’s best designed phones. The phone seems to combine the simple, clean face of the Nexus S with the razor thin and textured design of the Galaxy SII. Some may complain about the lack of metal on the phone- but the device feels solid and lightweight without feeling cheap. Further, the silver aesthetics of the phone are a nice break from all black devices which has become standard this year. When the screen is powered off, you are left with an extremely clean and futuristic design with the slightly curved glass display, with not carrier logos or capacitive buttons. While overall the design of the phone is great, there are a few questionable elements. The rim of the phone is a semi-gloss, painted plastic which looks great and does not attract fingerprints—but it is slippery. It does not make the phone feel cheap—but it does make the phone difficult to hold onto. Also, the power/lock button on the right side of the phone is a little bit mushy. I originally thought this was a defect, but looking on various forums it just seems to be how the phone was designed. The volume rocker has a very satisfying tactile feel to it, but the power/lock button just feels mushy. Hopefully this is something that is tweaked with future batches of this device.
The HD SAMOLED screen on the Galaxy Nexus is stunning. It provides the deep blacks and vivid colors SAMOLED and SAMOLED+ users are accustomed to, but finally brings pixel density up to rival the iPhone 4/4s. Not only that, but it seems as though Samsung or Google has finally fixed the color calibration with the SAMOLED screens as colors seem less exaggerated than on previous devices, and whites no longer have a yellow or blue hue to them. Further, viewing angles on the Galaxy Nexus’s s screen are great, with no screen distortion at any angle you look at the device.
While on Paper the 4.65 inch screen would lead many to believe that the phone would be huge, it is still very comfortable in the hand due to the small bezel and curved display. The phone feels very natural in the hand, and does not feel much larger than your standard 4.3 inch phone. This is largely due too the small bezel surrounding the screen and the fact that the screen has a 16:9 aspect ratio. This makes the device narrower than current devices with a 16:10 aspect ratio, and makes it feel more compact. Not only that, but when watching videos on the phone, the 4.65 inch screen is absolutely stunning. In most cases though, with the onscreen buttons present, the screen feels about as large as a 4.3 inch phone. I will touch more on the pros and cons of the onscreen buttons a little bit later. The main takeaway point here though is that the screen on the Galaxy Nexus is the best I have seen on a mobile device—even with the much-hated pentile layout.
After reading many initial reviews of the Galaxy Nexus, I was expecting the camera on the device to be absolutely horrible. When I finally received the phone, I found that the shutter speed was incredible, and the photo quality was sufficient for a mobile phone. While the camera is not anywhere near the best to be offered on a smartphone from a technical standpoint and picture quality, I found the experience of using the camera to be one of the best on the market. Here a few sample shots from the Galaxy Nexus:
Let me expand on that. Many will complain that the five megapixel sensor, and relatively average photo quality make the camera on the Nexus a failure; however the quick shutter speed and easy to use interface save the camera, and elevate it past some of its competitors. For me, the most important thing when using my smartphone to take pictures is having decent photo quality and being able to take pictures quickly. The fast shutter speed on the Nexus serves as a benchmark for future smartphones. Being able to snap pictures almost instantly is an amazing feature, especially when it comes to smartphone photography. In general, smartphones are used to capture quick moments, and not for full blown photo-shoots. I found myself using the camera on the Galaxy Nexus much more frequently than on previous smartphones, just because it was so quick to do so.
That being said, the camera speed and interface are the places where the Galaxy Nexus camera really succeeds. Photo-quality is average for a modern smartphone. I do however believe that the quick shutter speed is a great feature, and one that will become standard on smartphones in the coming years. Combining the shutter speed of the Galaxy Nexus with quality sensors like those found in the Galaxy SII and iPhone 4s will bring smartphone photography to the next level.
The Galaxy Nexus is the first phone that ships with Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS). Many in the media are saying that the software is the real game changer, and the hardware is irrelevant, but this is a flawed statement. The combination of the fresh OS and the polished hardware of the Galaxy Nexus are what create the best Android experience to be offered on a mobile phone.
Many tech journalists have talked about how Android 4.0 is a clean break from previous versions of Android—and this is both true, and untrue. Nearly every aspect of the Android UI has been tweaked in some way or another in ICS. While ICS still maintains the core Android experience users are used to: the notification bar, app drawer, multiple home screens with widgets etc.—they have all been polished and tweaked in a way that makes the entire OS feel fresh again. With each version of Android, you could see Google’s small attempts to slowly make the UI in Android more consistent. With ICS, instead of simply updating things here and there, it looks as though everything had been rethought. Nothing looks out of place in the OS, and everything fits with the blue Holo theme the designers at Google created. It finally feels as though Vanilla Android is polished enough to not need third party customizations.
Overall, the OS just feels consistent, and more fluid than Android has ever been. Even though this is the most fluid Android version to date, thanks to hardware acceleration, it still is not quite as buttery smooth as Windows Phone or iOS. Part of this is due to the scrolling physics in Android compared to the other two platforms. In Android, scrolling doesn’t really have any weight, or bounce to it which makes it seem somewhat less fluid than the heavier scrolling with springback in Windows Phone and iOS. Having the blue glow at the end of a long list does help make the OS feel more fluid, but it still does seem choppier than its main two competitors. That being said, the experience is still very fluid, enough so that unless you are using a rival device side by side, this issue would not really be noticeable.
Since Android 4.0 and the Galaxy Nexus have been out for quite some time now, I am going to focus more on the overall experience that the phone provides. All of the enhancements in ICS are great—from multitasking to the new People app. I previously owned a Nexus One, and found myself flashing a new custom rom almost every other week, finding new skins, new launchers etc. to try out—because stock Android 2.1-2.3 had issues that made tweaking very appealing. With the Galaxy Nexus, I had to search for a reason to install a custom rom—and for me that was simply to change the colors of the onscreen buttons. I have kept the same launcher, and generally kept all the system settings the same, because Android 4.0 in its stock form really is that good. The fact that the catalyst that moved me to customize the OS was something as superficial as the color of the software buttons, demonstrates how complete and polished Android really has become.
Performance and Battery Life
As alluded to earlier, the combination of a newly optimized and polished version of Android along with powerful hardware leads to a very fluid experience. ICS on the Galaxy Nexus is the smoothest Android has ever been, but it is still not the smoothest experience on the market. I mentioned earlier that WP7 and iOS still feel more fluid because of slicker animations and scrolling physics, but in terms of sheer speed—Android is still on top. App launches are pretty much instantaneous on the Galaxy Nexus, and switching between Apps is just as quick.
The stock launcher on the Galaxy Nexus is also the smoothest it has ever been. On my Nexus one, Launcher Pro was my go to launcher, because the stock launcher in android 2.1-2.3 was slightly choppy. Scrolling between homescreens on the Galaxy Nexus is very fluid and while occasionally there is a bit of scrolling lag, overall the experience is very smooth.
One place where lag is still present though is when a live wallpaper is used. The Phase Beam wallpaper is the only exception, and still maintains smooth scrolling speeds across the homescreens. Hopefully this is something that Google addresses in future software updates, as it has been an issue ever since live wallpapers launched with Android 2.1 on the Nexus One.
Call quality on the Galaxy Nexus is excellent, with loud, clear volume from the built in earpiece, and good noise cancellation from the microphones. Calls sounded crisp and clear, and when talking to family members and friends on voice calls, they said my voice sounded extremely clear. The loudspeaker on the Galaxy Nexus however leaves a lot to be desired. Volume is extremely low, which is odd given that Samsung usually puts pretty loud built in speakers. Side by side with the Galaxy SII, the speaker on the Galaxy Nexus is much quieter. I ended up using Volume+ from the Android Market in order to make the speaker volume sufficient on the Galaxy Nexus
Battery life on the Galaxy Nexus has been very solid, though nothing groundbreaking. I can easily make it through a full day on one charge, but the device does need to be charged every night. Personally, I think this type of battery life is more than sufficient on a smartphone—most users plug their phone in when they sleep anyway, so having to charge it once a day really isn’t a problem.
The Galaxy Nexus is the best smartphone that I have used to date. The hardware is stunning, ICS finally brings the level of polish that Android needed and battery life is sufficient for day to day usage. Google was extremely ambitious with ICS, and their partnership with Samsung was a perfect way to showcase their new vision for Android. Though the Galaxy Nexus and ICS are great—they do not fix the growing issues with the Android platform at large. At the time of writing this review, the Galaxy Nexus and Nexus S are the only devices that have an official release of ICS. Google has built a great OS, but the majority of Android users have yet to experience it. This is largely due to the fact that so many different form factors and third party skins exist for Android devices. Obviously hardware choice is one of Android’s defining features as a platform; but things have gotten a bit out of hand as of late. Google did a great job with ICS, but it is a shame that all Android users are not yet able to experience Google’s latest innovation.
That being said, this is a review of the Galaxy Nexus, and not the Android platform as a whole. Samsung and Google have created a device that once again raises the bar for Android hardware, which will surely continue to push the platform forward at breakneck speed. The Galaxy Nexus is an exciting device because it brings powerful enough hardware to allow Google to stop focusing on fixing bugs/ lag etc. and focus on making a polished and powerful user experience.
Photo Credits: Vincent Wang