December 22, 2011 | by Andrew Kameka
The Nexus brand is a heavy burden to bear. Google introduced the Nexus One as the benchmark to which all Android phones should be measured, and for a considerable amount of time, that was the case. The Nexus S, with NFC and not much else new in tow, was harshly judged for failing to advance smartphones as much as the Nexus One did when it debuted.
The Samsung Galaxy Nexus 4G faces the same pressure. Bearing the Nexus name and being the first to introduce Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich to the masses, this is what all phones should aspire to. But after a long hype period and lofty expectations, there’s no guarantee that this will be a dream phone.
As far as the weight that a “Google phone” carriers, the Galaxy Nexus represents itself well. The phone has a 4.65 Super AMOLED screen that flirts dangerously close with being too big, but the face of the phone is tall rather wide. The round corners and black body resembles a more mature Nexus S from the front view, and it also has the contour curved glass. Samsung opts for a more durable plastic that tougher and feels better than the material used in its other phones. The top of the device is very thin, but it gently slopes outward so that the bottom half of the phone is fatter. Coming from using a Droid Razr just days prior, the phone looks bigger than it should, but the light weight and palm-friendliness of the design will make you quickly forget that.
As for the internals, there’s plenty to gush over. The Samsung Galaxy Nexus has a TI OMAP 1.2 GHz dual-core processor, 32 GB of storage, 1 GB of RAM, NFC, and 4G LTE support. The phone is fast in all aspects, and unfortunately, that includes battery life. We’ve come to accept that Android phones are typically not as good on battery life, and 4G LTE devices are the worst offenders when it comes to holding a charge. However, even that didn’t prepare me for what’s undoubtably the worst performing 4G battery I’ve experienced since the Thunderbolt. Doing my usual rounds of “normal guy use” (tweeting, browsing, playing games, answering email, and making a few calls here and there), the Galaxy Nexus lasted anywhere from 4 to 8 hours.
Even with LTE and auto-sync turned off, the Nexus didn’t perform as well as the Droid RAZR that I tested earlier this month. The Galaxy Nexus costs $299 on a two-year agreement, but be prepared to pay $349 because you’d be foolish to try to use the standard 1850 mAh battery that ships with the phone. The 2150 mAh extended battery sold in stores for $50 is a must-buy.
- 1280 x 720 resolution means this is one of the few Android devices with real HD. Large photos display better on the Super AMOLED screen with 720p resolution.
- 4G LTE, although a battery hog, makes a massive difference in download speeds. Coverage will vary in your area, but it’s a major selling point if you live in a LTE market.
- Software navigation buttons are great. Despite concerns about a lack of the capacitive “buttons” we’ve seen on previous phones, the Galaxy Nexus moves around fine (though it would have been better to have a dedicated search or persistent menu button)
- There’s a notification light! I’ve always been disappointed by Samsung’s lack of notification lights, but I see a flashing bulb near the bottom of the screen when notifications come in.
- Terrible battery life. Buy the extended battery, which doesn’t really add any extra girth to the phone, unless you want to recharge twice a day.
- Speaker volume is too low. I have to set ringer to full volume and struggle to play music because the phone isn’t loud enough.
- No microSD slot. Most people won’t care, but people with media beyond 32 GB or wish to interchange memory cards will be disappointed.
The Galaxy Nexus features a 5 megapixel camera with LED flash on the rear. The front-facing camera is 1.3 megapixels, and both can be switched easily with the all new software available in Android 4.0. A full review of the camera quality, including photo and video samples, is available in this article.
The real star of the Galaxy Nexus is Ice Cream Sandwich. Yes, the hardware is good, but let’s be honest: aside from the screen resolution, there’s nothing distinctively better about the Galaxy Nexus when compared to any other Galaxy S II device. But when you compare the software between the two versions…well, actually, there is no comparison. Android 4.0 is the best UI around.
I’ve always understood the draw of vanilla Android, but mostly preferred the tweaks made to HTC Sense and Sony Timescape. But after using Ice Cream Sandwich, a custom UI is the last thing that I want to see on my phone now. While some of the icons are a bit too cartoonish for my taste, the overall look and performance of ICS is stunning. It’s basically a polished version of Honeycomb for phones. I love the soft navigation buttons and the ability to switch between or dismiss open apps. The redesigned apps for the browser, Gmail, and other Google properties are gorgeous, and the third-party apps that support ICS are starting to look just as simple and appealing.
We’ve run down the many great features of Ice Cream Sandwich on multiple occasions, so you can find it all here and here. So keep that in mind when I nitpick about annoying things like the contact system. A long-running problem with Google Contacts has been that user photos are stored at low-resolution, so they look terrible when appearing on Caller ID. That problem is even worse now that the People app stretches those pics even further. You could solve this by syncing with Google+, but that forces you to load thousands of contacts that you will never store on your phone, or assumes that everyone who you call uses Google+ (less than 20 people I know fit into that category).
And then there’s the elephant in the room – carrier interference. It would be nice if we could say that the only interference concerning the Galaxy Nexus were the two network outages that occurred in as many weeks recently, but we also have to contend with Verizon dictating what goes on the Nexus. The Nexus that was supposed to be Google’s flagship phone doesn’t support Google Wallet, despite the presence of NFC. A hacked APK is in the wild, but users shouldn’t be asked to install an APK from an untrusted source, especially when there’s no guarantee that it will have the same level of security as the official version that should have come with the Nexus. If that weren’t enough, the “Pure Google” experience has two Verizon apps of little worth (VZ Backup Assistant and My Verizon) that cannot be uninstalled. Users can at least disable those app to prevent them from running or appearing in the app drawer.
The Galaxy Nexus has been viewed as the dream phone for months now. It has the biggest screen, best resolution, great processor, fastest network, and the latest software. Best of all, the Galaxy Nexus will see software updates and improvements months before people on other devices can ever hope to. That’s the dream, right?
Well, that’s not so easy to answer because the dream phone struggles to stay awake thanks to poor battery life. The Galaxy Nexus isn’t a benchmark device from a hardware standpoint, but it’s definitely leading the pack on the software front. That is the most convincing argument why you should get this phone over another. The person who buys the Galaxy Nexus is someone who sees Ice Cream Sandwich and falls in love with Android as intended.
HTC, Motorola, and Sony have all pledged to continue their Android customizations, none of which look as good as ICS. While all of those manufacturers have phones that can match or outperform the Galaxy Nexus on a hardware level, none of them come close when comparing software and future-proofing updates. Nicks and all, the Galaxy Nexus experience is still remarkable thanks to ICS. This version of Android has advanced the OS to the point where I no longer feel comfortable referring to stock Android as “Vanilla Android.” There’s nothing plain about Android 4.0, and vanilla never tasted this good.