The Samsung Galaxy Nexus' screen is huge, but the software is a much bigger deal. As the first Android phone running Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, the Nexus gives users a completely made-over version of Google's operating system. The OS is just as customizable and versatile as before, but Android 4.0 seeks to make the user experience friendlier, more refined, and more socially connected. Yes, there's some impressive hardware here--a 720p Super AMOLED screen, dual-core processor, and lighting-fast camera--but Google is out to prove that it can deliver lots of power without being intimidating. No Android skin required. Does this superphone succeed in that mission?
Editors' Note: We tested an unlocked version of the Galaxy Nexus. We will update our review once the Verizon Wireless version becomes available.
Samsung deserves serious credit for making a mammoth 4.7-inch screen not feel like overkill. That's because the Galaxy Nexus' high-def display is housed inside a body that weighs a fairly light 5.3 ounces and measures 0.4 inches thick. The Droid RAZR is lighter (4.5 ounces) and thinner (0.3 inches), but you're getting more real estate than the Motorola's 4.3-inch display in a design that has a similar footprint. By contrast, the 4.3-inch HTC Rezound weighs a hefty 6 ounces and is 0.5 inches thick.
The Galaxy Nexus has an all-plastic gray body with a subtle swooping curve. The design felt solid for the most part, but the textured back cover felt flimsy when we took it off. In addition, snapping it back into place was a bit of a challenge. The Droid RAZR's Kevlar-infused design feels more durable. The Galaxy Nexus just doesn't scream flagship as much as we'd like because it doesn't use premium materials.
The front of the Galaxy Nexus forgoes physical buttons; they're now on the screen. You'll just find a front-facing camera above the screen and a blinking LED beneath it. A microUSB port and headphone jack sit on the bottom of the handset, the right side houses the power button, and the volume rocker is on the left.
The Samsung Galaxy Nexus' display is big and beautiful, offering Super AMOLED Plus technology for fantastic contrast and a super-sharp 720p resolution (1280 x 720 pixels). When we fired up a trailer for The Amazing Spider-Man in HD, the 4.7-inch screen delivered superb detail in buildings as Andrew Garfield swung around town. We also appreciated the very wide viewing angles.
When we viewed the same NYTimes.com home page side by side with the 720p HTC Rezound, the Galaxy Nexus squeezed more info on its screen (thanks to the new Roboto font). The Motorola Droid RAZR has a rich Super AMOLED scree, too, but it's limited to qHD resolution. In terms of brightness, the Nexus outshined both the Motorola and HTC, registering 316 lux of brightness versus 304 and 284, respectively.
We wouldn't call the back-mounted speaker on the Galaxy Nexus weak, but it's not as powerful as the Motorola Droid RAZR's or the HTC Rezound's. When we streamed Incubus' "Promises, Promises" on Slacker, the sound was fairly clean, but we had to crank it up to the max to hear the track from across the room. Both the RAZR and Rezound got much louder. We actually had to dial the volume down on the latter so as not disturb co-workers.
Android 4.0: Ice Cream Sandwich
You don't often hear words such as "intuitive" and "sleek" used to describe Android, but that's exactly what Google has accomplished with Ice Cream Sandwich OS. The software borrows some key elements from its Honeycomb tablet OS while optimizing the experience for a smaller display.
The new Roboto font is very crisp and tight, a perfect match for the Galaxy Nexus' 720p display. And Google has done a lot of work to deliver a more polished and elegant UI while minimizing tapping and menu digging. This starts with the revamped lock screen, which lets you fire up the camera by swiping from right to left. Here's an overview of what else Android 4.0 brings to the table.
Sleeker Notifications: The notification area is a great example of Google's new streamlined approach. You can now swipe individual alerts off the screen to dismiss them, and easily access settings by tapping a dedicated button from within the notification shade. The look is very clean and minimalist. In addition, the Settings menu is better organized, with categories for Device, Personal, System, and Wireless.
Bye, Bye Front Buttons: The biggest difference between Ice Cream Sandwich and phones running earlier versions of Android is that there are no physical buttons beneath the screen. You'll find the traditional Home and Back keys and a Recent Apps button in a persistent System Bar at the bottom of the screen. The Menu button and Search buttons are integrated elsewhere in the software. We actually missed having a dedicated Search button always in the same location.
Action Bar: Google has introduced a System Bar that aims to make diving into Settings for any given app less necessary. For instance, in the new Email app you'll see a bar at the bottom of the screen that lets you compose a new message, search, open folders, and sync with a tap. Here and in other apps you'll see three dots to the far right that serve as a menu button for those who want to tweak other settings. Sometimes these three dots appear at the top of the screen and other times at the bottom, which some may find confusing.
Quick Responses: Android Ice Cream Sandwich makes it easy to ignore incoming calls without being rude. If you're too busy to answer, just swipe up and you'll see a list of canned text messages you can tap. Choices include "Can't talk right now. What's up?" and "I'll call you right back." You can also create a custom message on the fly. Pretty convenient.
Multitasking Might: The Recent Apps button really puts Android ahead of iOS and Windows Phone in terms of multitasking. Pressing this option displays a list of thumbnail previews of the apps with their icons inset, and you can close apps with a sideways swipe.
Widgets and App Menu: Just as with Android Honeycomb tablets, the Galaxy Nexus features interactive and resizable widgets which you can use to populate the five home screens. And Google makes these widgets more discoverable by including a tab in the redesigned App menu. You'll also find a shortcut to the Android Market at the top of the App menu. We especially like the nifty screen animation that appears when you're moving from one screen of apps to the next; all the icons zoom forward as you swipe.
People App and Social Integration: The new People App in Android 4.0 is more inviting than your typical address book, providing a large profile photo for each contact along with social networking integration. We liked being able to swipe to the right while viewing a contact to see Google+ and Twitter updates from that person in a single stream. Too bad Google hasn't added Facebook to its People app yet. (Apparently there's some behind-the-scenes bickering about APIs.) We prefer Windows Phone's People hub, which leads with a stream of updates from multiple networks--including Facebook--and then lets you scroll through your contacts on the next screen.
Another weakness of the People app: It doesn't automatically link contacts with the same name in your address book, as HTC Android phones do. You need to click on a contact, then the Menu button, then Edit, then the Menu button again, then Join. And then you select the duplicate contact and repeat the process for however many instances there are of that person. Seriously.
Face Unlock: There's probably no easier way to unlock a phone than staring at it, and that's exactly what Ice Cream Sandwich lets you do. Setting up Face Unlock under Settings was a cinch, but it only worked well when we had enough ambient light. If the Galaxy Nexus can't read your mug, you'll need to enter a PIN. We suspect many people will stick to swiping.
Android Beam: This feature won't take off right away, but we like the idea. Provided your Ice Cream Sandwich phone has an NFC (Near Field Communications) chip, you can transmit info to other phones running the latest Android OS just by touching the two together. With Android Beam you can share anything from contacts and web pages to apps and YouTube videos. Beam will get even better once developers get their hands on Google's code.
Despite some holes and minor drawbacks, the Ice Cream Sandwich OS looks and feels highly evolved. Our hope is that Google's partners will be more selective in how they decide to skin the OS.
Keyboard and Voice Text Entry
The keyboard in Android Gingerbread was already good, but the Samsung Nexus steps it up with improved auto correction and a new inline spell checker. We typed e-mail replies quickly and accurately, and we appreciated the light haptic feedback; it was reassuring without slowing us down.
We do have a few complaints. First, we'd like to see a .com button added to the layout when entering web addresses. And we wish the numbers in the top row weren't so small and grayed out.
Android 4.0 touts the ability to let you enter text with your voice in any field by simply tapping the microphone icon. In practice, the Galaxy Nexus was slow to process our commands--we saw a spinning circle--and on a few occasions the phone returned a No Matches Found error message. We experienced better results over Wi-Fi, but we still needed to enter punctuation and correct some errors. Voice Actions is still on board, but it's nowhere near as advanced as Siri.
The Email and Gmail app continue to be separate, so you can forget about a unified inbox. On the plus side, though, the two apps have a very similar look and feel and offer welcome new features. For instance, you can now search your inbox without a data connection. You can also create canned responses for quick replies. If you tap the top of the screen, you'll be able to quickly toggle between recent folders, such as Drafts and Sent.
We do wish the Email app made the Forward and Reply All options viewable at all times. Instead, you need to tap the Menu button first. Annoyingly, you also need to manually add cc and bcc fields. If a message includes an attachment, you need to toggle from the Message view to the Attachment view, but it's easy to find at the top of the message.
Specs and Performance
The Samsung Galaxy Nexus features a 1.2-GHz dual-core TI OMAP4460 processor paired with 1GB of RAM. This is a different CPU than the Samsung 1.2-GHz Exynos processor inside the AT&T and Sprint Galaxy S II and the 1.5-GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S3 chip inside the T-Mobile S II. We're not sure why Google and Samsung went with this processor, but we're not complaining.
On our tests, the Galaxy Nexus was super smooth and responsive. The phone consistently launched the App menu instantly and let us jump between apps (such as the browser and Fruit Ninja) in a second. Even with music playing in the background, the camera app opened in less than 3 seconds. The smartphone also delivered excellent graphics performance when we played Riptide GP. The action never stuttered, and we could make out detailed reflections in the rippling water.
The Galaxy Nexus delivered excellent, but not best-in-class, benchmark results. For example, the device notched a CPU score of 3680 in the Benchmark app. That's better than the Samsung Galaxy S II for Sprint (3,164) and the HTC Rezound (3,120) but slightly behind the Motorola Droid RAZR (3,802).
In An3DBench, which measures graphics performance, the Galaxy Nexus scored 7,802, which is lower than the SII (7,937) but beat the Droid RAZR (7,412) and the HTC Rezound (7,331).
We then ran Quadrant, which measures CPU, I/O, and 3D graphics performance. Surprisingly, the Galaxy Nexus scored 1,963, compared to 2,452 for the Droid RAZR and an even higher 3,217 for the SII.
Android 4.0 offers an enhanced browser that lets you save pages for offline reading and request desktop versions of sites that automatically present a mobile version. Users can keep up to 16 tabs open, but they're really more windows than tabs because you have to tap the top right of the screen to see these thumbnails.
Over T-Mobile's 21 Mbps HSPA+ network, the Galaxy Nexus loaded both mobile and full desktop sites quickly--when we had a strong signal. It took the phone between 3 and 4 seconds to load the mobile versions of CNN.com, ESPN.com, and NYTimes.com. And it took 13 seconds to load the full version of NYTimes.com, 15 seconds for CNN.com, and 9 seconds for ESPN.
It took a second for the phone to fill in white space when zooming out, but overall the performance was snappy. The only thing missing is Flash support, which prevented us from playing videos on CNN and ESPN. Adobe says its mobile player is coming to Android 4.0 by the end of the year.
Camera and Camcorder
The Galaxy Nexus's 5-megapixel camera is so speedy it's almost scary. We fired off multiple shots in a row with zero lag. Even with the flash engaged, this smartphone captured shots very quickly. As a result, though, some pics appeared blurry because it didn't seem like there was time for autofocus to kick in. The camera launches in about 3 seconds from the lock screen, which is decent.
Outdoor photos had good color saturation, but didn't deliver as much detail as the 8-MP cameras on the iPhone 4S and the Galaxy S II. In one shot, we noticed some softness around the edges in buildings. Indoors, the camera flash often added a yellow-orange tinge to images.
The Galaxy Nexus comes with a ton of tools for taking and enhancing photos. The Panorama mode is a cinch to use. And Android 4.0 also includes robust editing capabilities, from auto-fix and cropping to a wide range of special effects and tweaks. You can even adjust the fill light and saturation.
Camcorder and Video Chat
As a camcorder, the Galaxy Nexus captures high-quality 1080p video, and even lets you snap 5-MP photos while you're recording just by tapping the screen. Our clip of New York City traffic was smooth and detailed. We could make the phone number out on a back of a cab as it rolled by. Just be careful not to move to much when shooting, as it results in shaky footage.
If you want to have more fun with your video, Android 4.0 includes lots of Live effects, including Silly faces that give your subject a squeezed head or really big eyes. You can activate these same effects during Google video chats. The backgrounds, such as In Space and Sunset, didn't work as well. We got blended into the background. Overall, the 1.3-MP front-facing camera captured clear video and crisp audio, but you need to make sure you have enough ambient light.
With 300,000 apps at your disposal, the Android Market includes a wide variety of choices for Galaxy Nexus owners. We're also glad to see that the game selection is getting better, with console-quality titles such as Riptide GP and Shadowgun moving up the charts. The engaging tile interface on the Market landing page makes the shopping experience more fun.
As you would expect, Google bundles many of its own apps, from Gmail and Maps to Google+ and YouTube. The new Calendar app lets you pinch-to-zoom to better see your appointments for any given day or week. As with iOS, you can group similar apps together just by dragging and dropping them on top of each other, but you'll need to name the folders yourself.
Music, Books, and Video
Slowly but surely, Google is putting together an iTunes-like experience on Android. The new Google Music app lets you shop for tracks with the Galaxy Nexus and includes a free song of the day. We especially like how the lock screen shows the album art up top along with playback controls when you're playing a song. You can also upload your music to the cloud for streaming to your device.
The Galaxy Nexus also offers access to three million digital books through the Books app, including The New York Times best sellers. Unlike on the iPhone, however, you won't find a newsstand for magazines.
While the Android Market doesn't offer TV shows, it does have a wide range of movies, many at discount prices. During our testing we saw both The Green Lantern and Bridesmaids were available for just $0.99. Bridesmaids looked very crisp in HD on the Galaxy Nexus' 720p screen; we could easily make out the wrinkles on Maya Rudolph's forehead.
Call Quality and Battery Life
The Galaxy Nexus delivered clear call quality on both ends of the line over T-Mobile's network. However, the volume through the earpiece wasn't loud enough at the max setting, making it somewhat difficult to hear the other caller when we tried to have a conversation in a noisy bus terminal.
In the LAPTOP Battery Test, which involves continuous web surfing over 4G at 40-percent brightness, the Galaxy Nexus lasted exactly 5 hours. That's well below the 6:38 category average andthe 7:38 hours turned in by the T-Mobile Galaxy S II, but on a par withthe HTC Rezound (5:03). Also, keep in mind that the 4G LTE version of the Galaxy Nexus will likely offer shorter endurance because that radio uses more power.
Ed. note: We initially reported the Galaxy Nexus' battery life as 7 hours, but that time was inaccurate, and have updated the review to reflect the actual battery life.
The Galaxy Nexus isn't just a new Android flavor of the week. Android Ice Cream Sandwich represents a big step forward for the OS in terms of usability and polish. The physical design itself may be too big for some, but Samsung has done a nice job keeping the weight and thickness down to counterbalance the big and beautiful 720p screen. The Galaxy Nexus beats the iPhone 4S when it comes to multitasking, and you can shoot photos faster and do a lot more with them without downloading a third-party app. What we'd like to see is Facebook integrated into the People app.
Is the Galaxy Nexus the best Android phone yet? We prefer the slimmer and sturdier design of the Motorola Droid RAZR, and the HTC Rezound has better audio, but overall the Nexus offers the best combination of hardware and software. Once you add Verizon's 4G LTE speeds to this device, the Galaxy Nexus will be the Google phone to beat.