As befitting its role as an ambassador for Android, it's the first phone to get the latest version of the OS, codenamed Ice Cream Sandwich, ahead of updates for existing handsets. This major update has added lots of new features, and brings the interface closer to the experience found on Android tablets. And its flagship status doesn't end there: it will also be the first to receive future updates, something that's bound to attract app developers.
The Galaxy Nexus has a spec that largely matches the current big names, with a large 4.65'' display, 16 GB or 32 GB of internal memory (but no room for expansion) and a dual-core 1.2 GHz processor. It also boasts an NFC chip, 1080p video recording and a 'mere' 5 Megapixel camera, which doesn't stand up as well to competition from handsets with 8 Megapixel cameras and rear-side illuminated sensors. After spending a few days playing with the new star, we're hoping to tell you whether the Google Galaxy Nexus really is the best ever Android phone.
Design, usability and display
Samsung's latest handset has inherited the smooth curves of its predecessor on the frame, but not the display, which remains flat. The phone is so slim and light that it's almost too easy to forget how big that screen is. It slides easily into a pocket without making a bulge, and when you get it out, using it is a pleasure with a honeycomb surface at the back ensuring excellent grip. We're happy to welcome the elegant form factor and the build quality, but overall, the design is lacking in oomph. It's very stripped-back, with just two physical buttons on the outside and a dock connector, sleek and just a little masculine. The onscreen interface might be a total revolution, but from the outside, it hardly does much to stand out from other Android smartphones.
Interface, usability and responsiveness
It might look and work just like any other Google Phone on the outside, but what's changed is the entirely updated user interface, which is still centred on five homescreens. The Ice Cream Sandwich look is closer to the Android 3.xx found on tablets than anything we've seen on a smartphone, and it risks not being a hit. People who are used to Android already found it a little hard to get used to and so did some less tech-orientated users. The looks are a question of taste, but the update has definitely added some extra features.
The biggest change is the disappearance of the touch-sensitive buttons below the display. There are now just three software-based hotkeys (back, home and multi-tasking) that are part of the interface and which are only visible when the screen is switched on. The notification area has been improved, and users can now classify their apps into folders (which are labelled with a new font). Anybody who's a big user of Google+ will be glad to hear that it's now directly available via the Contacts apps.
To unlock the phone, you can install the face recognition, but it's rather buggy. We would stick with a traditional pin code or unlock pattern. The lock screen now includes two shortcuts giving direct access to either the homescreen and the digital camera.
Voice recognition is included, but doesn't work all that well, with some words not understood at all. It's more fun than it is useful when you need to write a message quickly.
The keyboard has been redesigned, and it's now much easy to correct spelling mistakes than it was before, although the spellcheck still isn't as powerful as the one found in iOS. In general, though, writing a message on this new virtual keyboard is as easy as it is on an iPhone.
The Galaxy Nexus might not have one of the latest generation of processors, but it didn't show a moment's hesitation during our tests, let alone crash. There is occasionally a little bit of lag between your finger hitting the screen and the phone responding, but it's nothing like what we've seen on other, more capricious implementations of Android. Compared to a Samsung Galaxy S II, it's just a little slower at downloading apps and rendering web pages, but we're talking about a matter of milliseconds. Overall, the performance is excellent.
We like the sleek form factor, the slick new interface and the responsive approach of this ambitious new phone. But just what can you do with it?
Let's start with the camera, which takes 5 Megapixel snaps with an LED flash instead of the 'usual' 8 Megapixels. Both the autofocus and actually taking the photo itself are very quick, so you won't miss your chance at catching the best shot. Your photos are saved quickly, too, so you can keep on shooting. Once you're done, there are a range of interesting filters to tweak your photos by adding something extra. Ultimately, though, we weren't blown away by the quality of the photos, especially when light levels were low. In general, there's a lot of electronic noise and not enough detail: outlines are blurry and the colours are neither an accurate representation of reality nor a flattering tint as they have too much contrast. In short, you can expect much better from a Samsung Galaxy S II, an iPhone 4S or a Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc or Xperia Ray.
It's a whole different story with audio, where this mobile does much better. The quality of the line out and the sound produced are both excellent—not bad for a smartphone where getting just one of these right is something of a rarity. The tinny speaker is best forgotten, as it will ruin your content.
You can shoot 1080p video with a decent resolution for a smartphone, but with a little bit of blurriness.
Browsing the web is almost excellent, with pages that load quickly in both portrait and landscape mode. If you need to, then you can zoom in quickly and accurately by tapping on the right area of the screen.
One last thing to consider before rounding off our review is the battery life, and it's not good news. We were using it pretty intensely, of course, but we managed to have no juice left by the end of the day, which was pretty disappointing.
That leaves just one question: at the end of 2011, is the Samsung Galaxy Nexus the best Android smartphone currently available? As ever, the answer is 'it depends'. If you're an app developer, then it's a definite 'yes', because you'll be among the first to receive future updates. If you don't write your own apps but you're a geek at heart and still want to have the latest version of Android in your pocket, then why not. But if you're somebody who keeps on snapping away with their smartphone, or films all day long, or just expects decent battery life, then look elsewhere. Next spring, a whole new range of smartphones should arrive with Ice Cream Sandwich pre-installed, including the Samsung Galaxy S3, and new handsets from HTC, LG and more.
- Great size to weight ratio for such a big screen
- Android 4.0 is currently the BEST Google has to offer
- Improved interface
- Web experience
- Good quality audio from the headphone jack
- Rival phones have better cameras
- Videos look jerky
- Battery life isn't great
- Face recognition is more of a gizmo than a real feature
- Mediocre speakerphone
This mobile offers a gorgeous display, an excellent size to weight ratio and a brand new interface that finally brings something new to the world of Android—and it's fast with it too. But it also has a rather limited camera and restrictively short battery life, leaving us with a rather mixed impression overall. The Google Galaxy Nexus remains a very good smartphone—but it certainly isn't the only one!