|Introduction & Specifications|
If you've been paying attention to Android smartphones lately, you know there's one device that people have been talking about and eagerly anticipating for a few months now. That phone is the Galaxy Nexus. The reason this phone is so hot is because it is the first smartphone in the US to run Android 4.0, better known perhaps as Ice Cream Sandwich. As the latest version of Android, Ice Cream Sandwich is designed to offer a single Android platform that will run on both smartphones and tablets.
Prior to Android 4.0, users would have one version of Android running on their smartphones and another running on their tablets. Although this may not be a huge issue for some users, it can cause issues for developers who have additional platforms to test on and support. For a number of reasons, a consolidated OS that works on both types of mobile devices makes a lot sense.
In addition to supporting both smartphones and tablets, Ice Cream Sandwich also brings a new look and feel as well as many new features to Android. Some of these new features include face recognition unlock, optimizations for Google+, new widgets, redesigned notifications, improved multi-tasking functionality, and lock screen actions.
Here's our quick hands-on demo with the Nexus in action...
There's another key feature about the Galaxy Nexus: It doesn’t have a lot of customizations or UI tweaks from either Samsung (the phone's manufacturer) or Verizon Wireless (who has the exclusive rights to sell this phone US). In other words, you'll get a pure Android 4.0 experience, with some minor exceptions.
Now that the Galaxy Nexus is available, we've had a few days to check it out and are ready to give you a hands-on look at all this phone and its new OS have to offer. Read on to see what you can expect from the Galaxy Nexus and Android 4.0...
In comparison to other Android phones, one of the big differences you will notice when you pick up the Galaxy Nexus is that it has no hardware buttons on the front of the device—at least, no buttons that are visible when the screen is turned off. Instead, the Galaxy Nexus uses three on-screen Navigation buttons that are part of the system software. These buttons will rotate and change orientation as you rotate the phone. You may also notice that these buttons will occasionally shrink to dots or fade away when not being used in certain apps. You can easily bring them back by touching their location.
Above the Back, Home, and Recent Apps buttons, you'll find a Favorites Tray with five shortcuts that remain static across all home screens. By default, the Favorites Tray contains links to the Phone, Contacts, Application, Messaging, and Browser. The Application link is static; all four of the remaining icons in the dock can be customized to your liking.
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Like its predecessor, the Nexus S, the Galaxy Nexus features a Contour Display. The Super AMOLED screen measures 4.65 inches and supports an HD resolution of 1280 x 720. Although we like the idea of the Contour Display, we couldn't tell a big difference between it and other, purely flat displays. The front-facing 1.3MP camera is located in the upper right corner of the phone above the display.
The Galaxy Nexus is a relatively thin phone, measuring 0.37 inches thick. It's not as thin as the Motorola Droid RAZR (0.28 inches thick), but it still fits nicely in your hand or pocket. In terms of weight, the Galaxy Nexus falls somewhere in the middle in comparison to other phones we've reviewed lately.
Taking a look at the edges of the Galaxy Nexus, and you'll notice Samsung and Google took a less-is-more approach. The volume rocker is located on the left edge of the phone. On the right edge, you'll find the Power button and three metal contacts that could be used for a future dock accessory. A microUSB port and headset jack is located on the bottom edge of the phone.
On the back of the phone near the top, you'll notice the 5MP camera and LED flash. This camera offers continuous auto focus and zero shutter lag as well as the ability to record video in 1080p. We'll talk more about this camera and how it functions later in the review.
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When you remove the textured back battery cover, you'll notice the SIM card slot as well as the user-replaceable battery. This phone does not have a microSD card slot. If you look closely at the battery, you'll also notice that it says Near Field Communication just beneath the Samsung logo. With Near Field Communication, you can share web pages, video, and other content from your screen with another phone by placing the two phones together.
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The purpose of Google's Nexus line of smartphones is to offer a "pure Android experience." As the latest smartphone in this line, the Galaxy Nexus holds true to this intent with only a few caveats. Although you won't find a lot of custom UI tweaks or anything like that on the phone, you will find some of Verizon Wireless' common apps preinstalled on the phone including My Verizon Mobile and VZ Backup Assistant. Still, compared to the long list of pre-installed apps we often find on Verizon Wireless smartphones, this list is almost non-existent. Although you can't uninstall either of these apps, you can disable both of them from running.
The Galaxy Nexus has five customizable home screens. Unlike other phones we've seen lately, there is no way to add or remove home screens or view thumbnails of all of the home screens. Although jumping from one screen to the next requires only a swipe, we missed being able to jump from the first screen to the last screen quickly and easily using thumbnails.
To help you organize and arrange your applications, Google has made it easy to group several apps into a folder. All you have to do is drag one app icon over another on a Home screen and the two items will be combined. Although this functionality is nice, we also wish it were possible to group icons within the Application screen as well.
You may notice that the "standard" list of control buttons (Back, Home, and Recent Apps) is missing one of the common Android controls: Menu. For apps that offer a menu, you'll see three vertical dots within the application that provide access to the menu. In some applications such as the browser, these three dots are near the top of the screen. In other apps, we noticed that they occasionally appeared at the bottom of the screen to the right of the Recent Apps control button.
In previous versions of Android, you could add widgets to the home screen by pressing and holding your finger in an empty area. With Android 4.0, you can see all of the widgets and page through them just as you would page through apps. In fact, the only way to access the widgets is through the Application menu. To use a widget, press and hold your finger on the widget and drag it to a home screen. Once a widget has been placed on a home screen, you can move it around and resize it.
One of the new features that have come to the notification manager is the ability to dismiss notifications individually. There have been many times in the past that we simply haven't cleared our notifications on other Android phones because we didn't want to clear them all. Now, you can swipe a notification to dismiss one message and leave others in the notification bar to be handled later.
From the Recent Apps button, you can view and access all recently used applications. If you want to close a recently used app and remove it from this list, simply swipe it off of the screen.
Recognizing that many data plans today are not unlimited, Google has included better controls to help you monitor and manage your data usage in Android 4.0. From the Settings menu, you can easily see how much data you've used and set mobile data limits. You can also view and restrict data usage for individual apps.
Because the Galaxy Nexus features the pure Android experience, the phone comes with the standard Android and Google voice keyboards and no others. Third-party keyboards such as SWYPE have become quite popular but you won't find them installed on this phone out of the box. Although the virtual keyboard found on the Galaxy Nexus is quite good, we found ourselves missing the SWYPE keyboard. Early adopters of the Galaxy Nexus who also prefer SWYPE will have to wait or look into other third-party options for now: SWYPE is currently not supported by Android 4.0 though the company says it is working on a solution that will enable the keyboard in ICS soon.
You can also enter text using your voice. While dictating to the phone, we appreciate that it displays the text while you're still speaking. During our tests, results were hit and miss in terms of quality. Google makes it easy to edit words a necessary. This feature uses Google's speech-recognition service, so you'll need a data connection or Wi-Fi connectivity to use it.
In addition to dictation, you can also use Voice Actions to control the phone. Although these voice controls aren't nearly as robust as Apple's Siri, it's still nice to have some voice control functionality built into the phone.
As mentioned, Ice Cream Sandwich comes with a Face Unlock feature that lets you unlock the phone simply by looking at it. In our tests, this functionality worked very well. When setting up the Face Unlock feature, the phone will ask you to choose a PIN or pattern that can also be used to unlock the phone in the event that you're in a dim environment or for some other reason can't use the Face Unlock feature.
|Performance: Camera and Battery|
Large, high-resolution displays are a key feature with any of today's high-end phones and the Galaxy Nexus is no exception. The Galaxy Nexus features a Super AMOLED screen that measures 4.65 inches and supports an HD resolution of 1280 x 720. During our tests, we found this display to be very vibrant, colorful, and sharp. The screen also offered excellent viewing angles.
Although the Galaxy Nexus' 32GB of onboard storage should be adequate for most users, we still like it when phones offer expandable storage. The Galaxy Nexus lacks a microSD card slot. It also does not have a physical HDMI port though you can use a HDMI adapter that connects through the microUSB port.
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During our usage testing with the Galaxy Nexus, we felt the phone was very responsive while performing the common everyday tasks that people do on their phones—check email, browse the web, search for information, call people, etc. The Galaxy Nexus has a 1.2GHz dual core processor and 1GB of RAM, so it definitely has the power it needs to be a quick and responsive phone.
One of the features Google and Samsung promote about the Galaxy Nexus' camera is the fact that this 5MP shooter features continuous auto focus and zero shutter lag. While testing the camera on the Galaxy Nexus, it felt much quicker at snapping images than other cameras we've seen. This is due to the zero shutter lag feature as well as the fact that the continuous auto focus lens helps the camera be ready on a moment's notice. Overall image quality was good, though many of our indoor shots that required flash weren't quite as good as we would have liked—often, they were washed out or even out of focus, as you can see from our test shot of the little dump truck below.
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The Galaxy Nexus also supports 4G LTE connectivity to Verizon Wireless' network. For users who currently have a 3G phone, you'll definitely notice a difference in browsing speeds and other web-based activities when using a 4G phone in one of Verizon Wireless' 4G areas. Currently, Verizon Wireless offers 4G service in 190 cities and 118 major airports. Of course, Verizon Wireless is continuing to expand its 4G coverage and expects to cover two-thirds of the US population by the middle of 2012. By the end of 2013, Verizon Wireless plans to cover its entire existing nationwide 3G footprint with 4G LTE.
Samsung and Verizon claim you should get up to 12 hours of usage time and up to 150 hours (about 6.25 days) of standby time from the Galaxy Nexus while connected to the network. Although we've only had limited time to test the real-life battery use of the Galaxy Nexus, we were able to make it through a work day (approximately 8-10 hours) with light to moderate use without a problem. However, we did notice a definite decrease in battery life when consuming lots of 4G data and under heavy use periods as one should expect. Of course, everyone is likely to have a different experience depending on how you use the phone.
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In an attempt to put a quantitative measure on the Galaxy Nexus' battery life, we set up our own Web-surfing test. In this test, we set up a webpage with a mix of graphics and text. The page automatically refreshed itself every three minutes. We set the Galaxy Nexus' display to 50% brightness and turned off Wi-Fi and 4G so that only 3G connectivity was available.
When we ran this test, the Galaxy Nexus lasted for a 191 minutes while connected to a 3G network before giving up. Although it's not the worst score we've seen on our custom test, it's also far from the top – the Galaxy Nexus did better than the Kyocera Echo and the Droid Charge, but that's it – all other phones lasted longer on the same test.
|Performance Testing: GPU and CPU|
|In addition to using the Galaxy Nexus in a variety of everyday usage scenarios, we also conducted some formal performance testing to see how well the Galaxy Nexus compares to other smartphones.
In the Linpack test, the Galaxy Nexus posted a middle-of-the road score, coming in a little bit behind both of the Samsung Galaxy S II devices and the Motorola Droid RAZR.
In the An3DBench, the Droid RAZR posted a very good score, however as you can see from the chart above, most of the phones were limited by vsync issues.
The Galaxy Nexus posted similar results in the An3DBench XL test, particularly in the Emperor's New Clothes test. You can see from the chart that the Galaxy Nexus achieved a good score, but was still beat by a number of phones. In the Flower Power test, the Galaxy Nexus also achieved a middle-of-the-road score. In the Magic Island test, the Galaxy Nexus did exceptionally well, coming in just behind the Motorola Droid RAZR.
|Performance Testing - Web Browsing|
Since browsing the Web is a key feature of any smartphone, we also conducted some formal speed tests to see how well the Galaxy Nexus compares to some of today's hottest smartphones.
Of the Verizon Wireless phones in our test database, the Galaxy Nexus earned the last spot on the Xtremelabs 4G test. Even as the lowest of the Verizon Wireless 4G scores, the Galaxy Nexus still bested most other networks' 4G offerings in this test with the exception of the Samsung Galaxy S II Epic 4G Touch from Sprint. Upload speeds using this test were excellent compared to many of the phones in our reference chart.
For whatever reason, the Galaxy Nexus struggled with both the Xtremelabs 3G test and the Speedtest.net 3G test. We've heard that Verizon Wireless has acknowledged signal issues with the Galaxy Nexus and is working on a fix. Whether this fix will change the data scores on these tests remains to be seen.
The Galaxy Nexus did well in the Speedtest.net 4G test, coming in fourth place. Upload speeds in this test earned the top spot by a large margin.
Although these tests are designed to put a quantitative score on web browsing performance, it's important to keep in mind that network speeds can vary depending on many factors and the test results can also vary from one day to the next. Overall, we were satisfied with the real-world browsing speeds on the Galaxy Nexus and felt the speeds were in line with other phones we've seen recently.
As the first phone to ship with Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, the Galaxy Nexus is definitely attracting a lot of attention. The phone itself offers a mostly "pure" Android experience without a lot of bloatware, which is a good thing. We also appreciate many of the new features that Google has added to the Android 4.0 operating system.
Some of our favorite new features found on Ice Cream Sandwich include better multitasking capabilities, the ability to swipe to dismiss individual notifications, control over how the phone uses its data connection, and new camera capabilities. Speaking of the camera, Samsung and Google have really stepped it up a notch with the Galaxy Nexus. Although this phone may not have the highest resolution camera on the market today, it does offer continuous auto focus and zero shutter lag, which are two key features that we really appreciate. We still don't feel the quality of images is at the same level as a dedicated camera, but the quality was acceptable, especially for a camera phone.
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In our real world tests, the Galaxy Nexus was responsive, though the phone rarely took the top spot in most of our benchmark tests. However, the Galaxy Nexus especially struggled with some of the network speed tests. Verizon Wireless has said it is working on a signal strength fix for the phone, though it's not clear if the fix will actually affect signal strength and ultimately performance, or simply how signal strength is being reported.
There's definitely a lot to like about the Galaxy Nexus, but there are a few things we wish we could change. For example, we wish the phone offered a microSD card slot. For our uses, it's handy to have the ability to pop in a card preloaded with files and be on our way. The 32GB of onboard storage should be more than adequate for most users, but we still feel an expansion option is a nice feature to have as well.
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We're also seeing a lot of phones today shipping with built-in HDMI connectivity. The Galaxy Nexus doesn't offer a built-in HDMI port, but you can use an adapter if you want this functionality.
Since the Galaxy Nexus is the first phone to offer Android 4.0, it definitely has a leg up on the competition, at least for now. However, once other high-end smartphones begin receiving updates to Android 4.0, we expect the Galaxy Nexus to lose some of this competitive edge. Still, the Galaxy Nexus offers Android 4.0 today and it's a solid, high performance smartphone that should only get better with time as Samsung and Verizon role out updates to the device as well.