Not to be outdone by Verizon and AT&T, both of which already have speedy 4G LTE networks, Sprint recently announced its plans to start rolling out its own LTE coverage, starting with six cities this summer. In the meantime, the carrier is releasing a slew of new phones that support the promised 4G LTE network, but not the company's current 4G WiMax network, leaving them with only 3G service for now. Sprint's version of the Samsung Galaxy Nexus is just such a high-end handset, providing speedy performance, the latest Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich OS, a gorgeous HD screen and the promise of high-speed LTE connections in the future. Is this $199 Android super phone worth delaying 4G for?
Identical to other versions of the Galaxy Nexus but for the Sprint logo on the back, the pleasantly thin phone measures just 0.37 inches thick and weighs only 5.1 ounces, which is only slightly heavier than the LG Viper (5 ounces) and iPhone 4S (4.8 ounces). Considering that its 4.7-inch screen dwarfs the 4-inch Lucid and 3.5-inch iPhone, the Galaxy Nexus seems extremely space-efficient.
Click to EnlargeForget about a fancy metal chassis. The Galaxy Nexus has an all-plastic gray body with a slightly curved shape and a textured back panel.
Unlike other Ice Cream Sandwich phones, such as the HTC Evo 4G LTE and Samsung Galaxy S III, the Nexus forgoes physical buttons in favor of virtual buttons for back, home and recent apps. Though this provides a clean look and buttons that rotate with the screen orientation, it also wastes screen real estate.
Display and Audio
Click to EnlargeThe Galaxy Nexus's 4.7-inch 1280 x 720 display is the best we've seen on an Android smartphone yet. In a face-off with the other HD phones such as the LG Spectrum, HTC Rezound and LG Nitro HD, we found that the Nexus's screen was brighter, more colorful and had better viewing angles than its competitors. When we watched an HD trailer for "The Avengers," images were amazingly sharp and colors such as Thor's red cape and the Hulk's green skin seemed extremely vibrant.
Measuring in at 340 lux, the Galaxy Nexus's screen is significantly brighter than the Nokia Lumia 900 (256 lux), HTC Rezound (278 lux) and the LG Nitro HD (324 lux). however, the HTC One X (525 lux) and iPhone 4S (549 lux) blow it away.
We wouldn't recommend using the Galaxy Nexus as a boom box. Even at maximum volume, the sound was not loud enough to fill a room and the single rear-facing speaker was far too easy to accidentally muffle with a finger while holding the device. When we tried playing Fleetwood Mac's soft-rock "Dreams" and Van Halen's loud "Jump," audio was fairly accurate, but completely flat.
Click to EnlargeThe Galaxy Nexus does not come with any third party keyboards, offering only the stock Android 4.0 keyboard. Though this virtual QWERTY keyboard is serviceable and offers haptic feedback, it doesn't have any special features such as trace typing. It doesn't even have a dedicated .com key and because the letters are so tightly packed together, we found ourselves making more mistakes than usual.
We much prefer the highly accurate Sense keyboard on the HTC Evo 4G LTE, and recommend users who buy the Galaxy Nexus consider installing a keyboard from the Google Play market.
The Samsung Galaxy Nexus is designed to provide a pure Google experience so it not only lacks any third-party Android skins, but also any kind of preloaded software, apart from the apps the OS comes with.
Click to EnlargeThose unfamiliar with Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich will appreciate the clean blue and black high-tech aesthetic. Though a number of other Android 4.0 phones include dedicated navigation buttons, the Galaxy Nexus uses virtual buttons that unfortunately eat up 96 pixels or 7.5 percent of the available screen real estate when in portrait mode. However, we really appreciate Ice Cream Sandwich's dedicated applications menu, which shows thumbnails for all open apps in a stack on the right side of the screen and lets you close each one by swiping it off screen.
Click to EnlargeOther key Ice Cream Sandwich features include the ability to send a quick response SMS message when declining someone's call, an improved people app that shows photos and social updates from contacts, the ability to share information directly between two phones with Android beam and to unlock the phone using facial recognition.
Setting up the face unlock was a breeze as the phone simply asked us to look at the camera for a few seconds before capturing our image. Unlocking was highly accurate as the phone opened after we looked at it for less than a second. However, the Galaxy Nexus also allows you to set an unlock pattern or PIN you can use should it fail to recognize your image.
Like prior versions of Android, Ice Cream Sandwich features five customizable home screens, each of which can hold shortcuts for frequently used apps or widgets such as a clock, photo gallery or social update feed. At the bottom of each home screen sit shortcuts for the phone dialer, people app, applications menu, SMS app and Web browser. You can change out any of these shortcuts except for the applications menu icon.
Sprint doesn't include so much as a single icon on the Galaxy Nexus, but Google has bundled in its stock Android apps, including Google Earth for navigating around the glove, Movie Studio for editing videos, Google+, YouTube and Google Talk, which supports video chat using the front-facing camera.
Like other versions of Android, Ice Cream Sandwich has separate email clients for Gmail and other forms of email. Neither one is appreciably better than the stock clients on earlier versions of Android. We much prefer the HTC Sense 4.0 mail client that comes on HTC's One series of phone and allows users to view their non-Gmail email in a threaded view.
Click to EnlargeUnlike Verizon, which blocks Google Wallet on its version of the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, Sprint fully supports the company's mobile payment system. Setting up Google Wallet was fast, but not at all intuitive. Open launching the Wallet app, we were asked to sign in with an existing Google account and then set up a four digit PIN code.
After setting up our PIN, we were prompted to add a payment method and given three types of payment we could add: a Citi Mastercard, a Google Prepaid Card or a gift card from one of only four stores (AEO, Bloomingdale's, Macy's and the Container Store). When we tapped on Google Prepaid card, we expected to be prompted to purchase money to put on the card, but instead were given a free $10 card, without any explanation as to why or where the $10 came from. We later found information buried in the help files explaining that new users get $10 free and can then add to it by purchasing additional money for the card.
To find out what it's like to use Google Wallet at retail, we visited a local Duane Reade drugstore, one of the few chains that currently accepts this form of payment. After watching the cashier ring up our purchases, we swiped the Galaxy Nexus against the tap-to-pay pad and saw the amount of the transaction displayed on the phone screen. However, to complete the transaction, we had to hit two different buttons on the retailer's pay pad to complete the sale, one of which designated my payment as a credit card, because that's how the store thinks of Google Wallet. All told, this process was hardly faster or more convenient than using a real credit or debit card.
Google Wallet also lets you enter loyalty cards so it can save you the hassle of carrying them in your wallet. Unfortunately, the selection of available loyalty cards doesn't exactly match the stores that accept Google Wallet as payment; we could not add our Duane Reade rewards card to Google Wallet, for example.
3G / 4G and Surfing
Click to EnlargeThough Sprint plans to launch its LTE network in six cities this summer (Atlanta, Baltimore, Dallas, Houston, Kansas City and San Antonio), right now, the phone can only get a 3G connection anywhere you take it. On Speedtest.net, across two locations the Nexus averaged a modest 0.95 Mbps down and 0.92 Mbps up. By comparison, the Verizon LTE version of the Galaxy Nexus average 5.3 Mbps down and 3.1 Mbps up.
When surfing the Web over 3G, the phone took an average of 6 and 6.6 seconds to load the mobile home pages of ESPN and the New York Times respectively. The desktop version of laptopmag.com took a slow 16.6 seconds.
With its dual-core, 1.2-GHz TI OMAP 4460 CPU and 1GB of RAM, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus is powerful enough to handle any task we threw at it. Whether we were surfing the Web, switching tasks, playing HD videos or racing around the track in "Raging Thunder 2," the enter experience was extremely smooth and lag-free.
Synthetic benchmarks validated our subjective experience. On Linpack, a program that measures overall performance, the Galaxy Nexus achieved a single-threaded score of 42.3 and a multi-threaded score of 72.6, comfortably above the smartphone category averages of 37 and 59.
On the CPU portion of the Benchmark test, the Galaxy Nexus scored 3,116, far above the 2,441 category average, but a bit lower than the Qualcomm Snapdragon S4-powered HTC One X and its 4,885 score. The Galaxy Nexus scored 7,688 on the graphics-oriented An3DBench test, well above the 6,982 category average and even better than the HTC One X's 7,138 mark.
Click to EnlargeThe Galaxy Nexus's 5-MP rear camera shot sharp, color images even in the shade. When we took a photo of a stone relief in the shadowy late-afternoon sun, details were sharp and relatively bright. Trees with red leaves and green and lavender plants below them appeared even more vibrant in the photo than they were in real-life.
The rear-camera can also shoot 1080p video. A clip of some cars rolling down the street was smooth, sharp and colorful. The 1.3-MP front-facing camera took sharp, bright images of our face, even in low light.
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Like HTC's Evo 4G LTE, the Galaxy Nexus shoots photos with almost no lag. Google provides a built-in panorama mode and allows you to apply all kinds of special effects and filters to your photos after shoot them. After shooting a photo of our face, we were able to apply sepia tones, make it appear like film grain, posterize it, tint it and otherwise mess with it to our heart's content.
The Samsung Galaxy Nexus on Sprint provides acceptable call quality. When we dialed two different call partners, sound wasn't the clearest we've heard, but our connection was solid and good enough to conduct the call. The speaker phone was loud and clear.
The Samsung Galaxy Nexus's short battery life is its Achilles' Heel. On the LAPTOP Battery Test, which involves continuous surfing over mobile broadband, the phone lasted just 3 hours and 42 minutes, far less than the 5:52 smartphone category average, the 5 hours and 59 minutes offered by the HTC One X, the 8 hours provided by the iPhone 4S on Sprint, or the HTC Evo 4G LTE's 5:30. The Verizon version of the Samsung Galaxy Nexus lasted just 3 hours and 40 minutes over 4G LTE, which tends to tax the battery even more.
Fortunately, the battery is user replaceable and a number of third-party extended batteries are available for sale. Though Sprint doesn't sell an extended pack at this time, you can find one online for less than $30. However, any extended battery will add a bit to the weight and thickness of the phone.
Click to EnlargeAs with the Verizon and the unlocked version, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus on Sprint has a lot going for it: a brilliant screen, a powerful processor and the latest Android 4.0 operating system. However, at the moment, its 3G-only speeds are significantly slower than competing 4G phones on the other three major carriers. If you are willing to wait for Sprint LTE, you'd be better off with the HTC Evo 4G LTE which lasts two hours longer on a charge and features HTC's more-powerful Sense Interface. If you want 4G WiMax on Sprint, go for the older Samsung Galaxy S II and, if you just want the fastest LTE phone around, consider AT&T's HTC One X.