It should come as no surprise that Google's latest flagship phone, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, has the best of everything: a huge 4.65-inch 720p screen, one of the fastest cameras around, and Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, the most complete version of the company's mobile OS to date. And now it's riding on Verizon Wireless' scorching 4G LTE network. With elegant sweeping curves, it's one stylish-looking phone, too. But does that mean you should drop $299 to pick one up? Read on to find out.
Editor's note: Portions of this review were taken from our earlier review of the unlocked Galaxy Nexus.
Click to EnlargeSamsung 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 5.2 ounces and measures 0.4 inches thick. However, the GSM version weighs just 4.9 ounces and is a hair thinner; the difference may seem minimal on paper, but it's noticeable when holding both phones at the same time.
By comparison, 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. 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.
Click to EnlargeThe 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 power button is on the right, 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 Mission Impossible in HD, the 4.7-inch screen delivered superb detail as Tom Cruise climbed up the Burj Dubai. 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 onto its screen (thanks to the new Roboto font). The Motorola Droid RAZR has a rich Super AMOLED screen, too, but it's limited to qHD resolution. In terms of brightness, the Nexus outshined both the Motorola and HTC Rezound, registering 340 lux versus 304 and 278, respectively.
While the back-mounted speaker on the Galaxy Nexus isn't weak, 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
Click to EnlargeYou 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. (Note: These screens were taking on the original Samsung Galaxy Nexus smartphone.)
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.
For an in-depth look at what Android 4.0 brings to the tablet, check out our original review of the Galaxy Nexus. Here we'll give you a brief overview.
Click to EnlargeThe Home, Back, Settings, and Search buttons, long a mainstay on Android phones, have been moved to the System bar at the bottom of the screen, much like on Android tablets. We actually missed having a dedicated search button. However, the System bar makes it easier to dive into individual apps' settings. 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. Similar to Windows Phone 7.5, three dots on the lower right let you dive deeper into settings.
Notifications sport a sleeker, more minimalist look, letting you swipe individual alerts off the screen and access settings more easily.
If you're too busy to take a phone call, you can swipe up to respond using a canned answer, such as "Can't talk right now. What's up?" and "I'll call you right back." Pretty convenient.
Click to EnlargeThe 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.
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.
The new People App shows 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. 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.
Also, the People app doesn't automatically link contacts with the same name in your address book, as HTC Android phones do.
It was neat being able to unlock the Nexus using just our mug (and it was easy to set up), but it only worked well when we had enough ambient light.
Another Android 4.0 feature is the ability to transmit info to other phones running the latest Android OS just by touching the two together. However, both phones need to have a Near Field Communications chip. When we touched the back of the unlocked Galaxy Nexus to the Verizon version, the two phones emitted a light buzz; we were able to transfer a Google map location with a simple tap of the screen, but couldn't beam a picture from one phone to the other.
Also, Verizon said it won't support Google Wallet, so you won't be able to use the Galaxy Nexus to pay for things with a swipe of the phone.
Keyboard and Voice Text Entry
Click to EnlargeThe keyboard in Android Gingerbread was already good, but the Samsung Nexus steps it up with improved auto correction and a new in-line spell checker. We typed email 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 lets 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 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 Verizon Galaxy Nexus delivered excellent, but not best-in-class, benchmark results. For example, the device notched a CPU score of 3,218 in the Benchmark app. That's about 400 points lower than the unlocked version of the Nexus, 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 7,635, which is about 160 points below the unlocked Nexus, (7,802), and lower than the SII (7,937). However, the Verizon Nexus beats 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 Verizon Galaxy Nexus scored 1,368, which is even lower than the 1,963 on the unlocked version, 2,452 for the Droid RAZR and 3,217 for the SII.
4G LTE Data Performance
Click to EnlargeThe Galaxy Nexus brings the heat when it comes to data speeds. It took the phone only 4 to 5 seconds to load mobile sites such as ESPN, CNN, and NYTimes, and a mere 10 seconds to load the full Laptopmag.com site. Using the Speedtest.net app, the Verizon Nexus averaged 4.7 Mbps downloads and 794 Kbps uploads in our office. By comparison, the HTC Rezound was much faster in the same spot, pulling down 5.3 Mbps and average 3.1 Mbps uploads. The Droid RAZR brought up the rear in this test, averaging just 2.3 Mbps down and 919 Kbps up.
Across the river in Jersey City, the Nexus was able to take full advantage of Verizon's 4G LTE network, averaging a scorching 23.8 Mbps down and 9.2 Mbps up. Amazingly, though, the Rezound posted an even-higher 31.9 Mbps down, though its upload rate of 6.1 Mbps was a bit lower. Here, the Droid RAZR again came in last, posting 15.6 Mbps down and 5.9 Mbps up.
How fast is this in real-world terms? We downloaded the 44.28MB Riptide GP app in 15 seconds. When we launched the satellite view of Google Maps to Paris, France, the map loaded completely in 10 seconds. Using the Dropbox app, we downloaded an 88.9MB MPEG4 movie in 60 seconds.
Click to EnlargeAndroid 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 like windows than tabs because you have to tap the top right of the screen to see these thumbnails.
Web page-load times were about twice as fast as when we used the Galaxy Nexus on T-Mobile's 21 Mbps HSPA+ network. While mobile site times were about the same--between 3 and 4 seconds to load the mobile versions of CNN.com, ESPN.com, and NYTimes.com--it took the Verizon Nexus about 8 seconds to load the full version of NYTimes.com and Laptopmag.com, and about 6 seconds for CNN.com and ESPN.
It took a second for the phone to fill in white space when zooming out, but overall the performance was snappy. Flash is now supported on the Galaxy Nexus; videos streamed smoothly from ESPN's website.
Click to EnlargeThe 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.
Interestingly, image quality on the Verizon Galaxy Nexus is slightly better than that on the unlocked version. A closeup of an ornamental cabbage showed slightly greater saturation of colors, and stone carvings on the facade of a building were more detailed.
Still, the 8-MP cameras on the iPhone 4S and the Galaxy S II are slightly better, especially with shots that involve the flash. The Verizon Nexus gave our shots a greenish background.
Click to EnlargeThe 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.
Click to EnlargeWith 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.
Verizon's impact on the Galaxy Nexus is minimal, too. The only carrier-specific apps are My Verizon Mobile and VZ Backup Assistant, neither of which you can remove.
Music, Books, and Video
Click to EnlargeThe 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, but prices change frequently. When we initially tested the Nexus, Bridesmaids was listed at just $0.99, but when we tested the Verizon version, the price had gone up to $4.99, which is more typical for newer titles.
Call Quality and Battery Life
Click to EnlargeThe Galaxy Nexus delivered clear call quality on both ends of the line over Verizon's network. However, volume through the earpiece wasn't loud enough at the max setting, which could make it difficult to have a conversation if you're in a noisy environment.
While Verizon's LTE network is amazingly fast, it's a real battery killer. On the LAPTOP Battery Test (web surfing over 4G on 40-percent brightness), the Galaxy Nexus lasted just 3 hours and 40 minutes. That's a full 3 hours less than the smartphone average (6:38), and about 1:20 less than the unlocked Galaxy Nexus on T-Mobile's network. By comparison, the HTC Rezound lasted 5:03 and the Droid RAZR lasted 4:48. Verizon Nexus owners may want to turn off 4G when they don't really need it or find other ways to conserve juice.
There was a good reason why we saw people lined up outside Verizon stores the day the Galaxy Nexus went on sale. Although it's a handful, we love the big and bright HD display, as well as Verizon's super-fast 4G LTE speeds. But the real killer feature here is Android Ice Cream Sandwich, the most polished version of the OS to date. We just wish the Verizon Galaxy Nexus lasted longer on a charge. If you want Android 4.0 now, then the Verizon Galaxy Nexus is a very good choice, but some may want to wait for an Ice Cream Sandwich phone with better endurance.