Samsung Galaxy Nexus: Pure Google, pure delight

In the world of Android, we see a lot of new phones -- and inevitably, some of them are destined to be forgotten. Samsung's new Galaxy Nexus is not one of those devices.

The Galaxy Nexus, available now in the UK and coming soon to Verizon Wireless, is an exceptional phone, arguably the finest Android handset to date. It's the first device to run Google's just-released Android 4.0, a.k.a. Ice Cream Sandwich, and will serve as the flagship phone for the platform. The Nexus name means Google had a close hand in developing the device, and that level of involvement certainly shows.

I've spent several days using the global HSPA+ version of the Galaxy Nexus, which is compatible with both AT&T and T-Mobile. Neither carrier has announced plans to sell the phone so far, but you could theoretically buy it unlocked and use it on either network, provided you're willing to pay the unsubsidized off-contract price.

Verizon, which will sell the Nexus, will sell a slightly different model made to run on its LTE 4G network; that version was not available for review at the time of this publication. Thus far, no U.S. pricing specifics -- on contract or off -- have been announced. There is also no official release date yet.

Body and display

First things first: The Galaxy Nexus is no small gadget. The phone measures 2.7 x 5.3 x 0.4 in., thanks in part to its jumbo-sized 4.65-in. display. Despite those daunting figures, I haven't found the new Nexus to feel the least bit bulky; the phone is sleek, thin, and light -- weighing in at just 4.8 oz. -- and perfectly comfortable to hold and carry around.

It's worth noting that the LTE version will differ somewhat in its dimensions: Google lists that version of the phone as being 0.02 in. thicker and 0.5 oz. heavier than the HSPA+ model I've been testing.

Size aside, the Galaxy Nexus has a look reminiscent of Samsung's Galaxy S II phone -- in particular, the Sprint GSII model. The Nexus has more rounded edges and a contoured display, but those distinctions aside, the phones could almost be brothers.

Like the Galaxy S II, the Galaxy Nexus has a textured back, which reveals itself to be a surprisingly thin piece of plastic when you pull it off to access the battery compartment. The plastic panel feels somewhat flimsy when removed, particularly compared to the solid metal casing on a device like the Droid Razr.

(You can find a feature-by-feature comparison of three recent smartphones here: Galaxy Nexus vs. Droid Razr and HTC Rezound.)

That said, the phone itself feels quite solid and doesn't strike me as being especially fragile. On the front, the Galaxy Nexus's screen has what Samsung describes as "fortified" glass. While it isn't the Corning-brand "Gorilla Glass" that's been popularized in many recent smartphones, it seems to be comparably protective and resistant to scratches. One brave blogger even put it to the test:

Speaking of screens, the Galaxy Nexus' display is absolutely top-notch. The phone features a 720p (1280 x 720) screen based on Samsung's new HD Super AMOLED technology, which -- despite early concerns from some Android enthusiasts -- is every bit as impressive as the Super AMOLED Plus technology used in previous Galaxy models. The phone's display is like a feast for your eyes: Colors are rich and brilliant, and images and text are crisp and clear, with no detectable pixelation or jagged edges.

The Galaxy Nexus has an LED notification indicator on its front, centered just above the device's lower edge. This is a nice touch I miss in many modern smartphones; it enables you to glance at your phone and immediately see if you've missed any kind of activity. The LED indicator flashes different colors for different events, too, so you can quickly learn if you've missed a call, for example, or received a new email or tweet. And of course, the LED function can be disabled altogether if you'd rather not use it.

Buttons, ports, and connectivity

One thing immediately noticeable with the Galaxy Nexus is its lack of physical navigation buttons -- the menu, home, back and search keys that have previously been a hallmark of Android phones. With Android 4.0, Google is moving away from those buttons and focusing instead on virtual on-screen alternatives.

I talk more about this in my review of Ice Cream Sandwich, but in terms of hardware, the buttons' absence creates a compelling visual. The phone is essentially one giant, smooth surface -- a uniform and uninterrupted slate. It's a striking effect.

The Galaxy Nexus does have a couple of buttons along its sides: a volume rocker on the left, about a third of the way down, and a power switch on the right, roughly an inch from the top. The bottom edge of the phone has two ports: a 3.5mm headphone jack and a micro-USB port. The micro-USB port doubles as an HDMI out-port with the help of an adapter (which is not included with the phone at purchase).

In terms of connectivity, the Galaxy Nexus features Bluetooth 3.0 and Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n. It also supports Near Field Communication, or NFC, which enables you to swap information with another compatible device simply by touching the two phones together. The Nexus has all the other standard stuff as well, including an accelerometer, barometer, compass, gyroscope, light sensor and proximity sensor.

I had no problems with the call quality on the Galaxy Nexus (though it's worth noting that the unit I tested was connected to T-Mobile, not Verizon). I could hear people loud and clear, with no static, and callers on the other end reported hearing my voice clearly and without any type of distortion. I experienced no dropped calls.

Under the hood

A taste of Ice Cream Sandwich

Make no mistake about it: Much of this phone's significance revolves around its software. Ice Cream Sandwich takes the Android platform to new heights, and the Galaxy Nexus runs it in its purest and most optimized form. (Other phones will eventually receive the upgrade, but many of them will feature manufacturer-added skins and large amounts of baked-in bloatware; existing devices will also not have the buttonless design and tight-knit hardware-software integration afforded to the Google-endorsed Galaxy Nexus.)

What's more, this phone is guaranteed to be first in line for future Android upgrades, while others may face long and uncertain waits.

So what's Ice Cream Sandwich all about, and is the experience everything it's cracked up to be? Click over to my review for a detailed look:

In-depth: Google's Ice Cream Sandwich -- a new era for Android

Samsung's Galaxy Nexus runs a TI OMAP4460 1.2GHz dual-core processor along with a full gigabyte of RAM.

Translated into real-world terms, the phone is ridiculously fast: Swiping between home screens is snappy as can be, with no stuttering or delays. Apps load instantly when their icons are touched, system animations and transitions execute flawlessly and even resource-intensive programs like graphical games deliver peak performance with nary a blip or hesitation. Web browsing is satisfyingly speedy, too, whether you have one tab open or 10 (yes, I tried), and even heavy-duty system-wide multitasking can't manage to slow this thing down.

I test a lot of Android phones, and I'm not exaggerating when I say the Galaxy Nexus delivers the fastest and most reliable performance I've encountered. The phone's processing power deserves some of the credit, but I suspect a good portion also belongs to the improvements made in Ice Cream Sandwich and the tight-knit hardware-software integration that comes along with Google's involvement on the development level. That's always been a benefit of the Nexus line of devices, and the Galaxy Nexus is no exception.

The HSPA+ version of the Galaxy Nexus uses a 1750 mAh battery. I found the battery life to be decent enough, though perhaps not the best I've seen. After a day of heavy usage, the phone was pushing dangerously close to empty. With more moderate to normal usage, I had no trouble making it through a single day on one charge, though there were times when the battery seemed to drain curiously fast. (According to the Android battery usage graph, the screen was almost always the primary culprit, even when its brightness was set at a consistent and very low level.)

According to Google, the LTE version of the phone that'll be available through Verizon will use a larger battery -- 1850 mAh -- presumably to offset the additional power utilized by the LTE radio. As such, its stamina may vary somewhat from the model I tested.

The Galaxy Nexus will be available with either 16GB or 32GB of internal storage (the unit I tested was a 16GB model). In what may be the device's most glaring weakness, the Nexus does not have an SD card slot -- meaning you can't add on any external storage.

Cameras

Samsung's Galaxy Nexus has a 5-megapixel rear-facing camera with autofocus, LED flash and 1080p high-definition video recording capabilities. This is somewhat surprising; the standard for high-end smartphones has moved to 8 megapixels, and most recent high-end smartphones (such as the Samsung Galaxy S II, the HTC Rezound and the Motorola Droid Razr) are at that level. But while photo enthusiasts may quibble over the quality of its images, I found the Galaxy Nexus's photos to be quite good for casual everyday use.

At a Glance

Galaxy Nexus

Samsung

Price: Not available

Pros: Sleek, thin design; gorgeous HD display; outstanding speed and performance; optimized to run unmodified Android 4.0 OS

Cons: Plastic casing with thin back cover; no support for external storage; lower-quality camera than some comparable devices

Ice Cream Sandwich enables the camera to use what Google calls "zero shutter lag," which means you can snap photo after photo with literally no delay. The software provides a bevy of other handy camera-related options, too, including in-phone image editing, image filters and effects, live video effects and a simple-to-use panoramic photo-capturing tool (more on that in my full ICS review).

I'll put it this way: If you're looking to take professional-quality photographs for a magazine-caliber shoot, you're probably going to want to carry a dedicated digital camera. But if you're a typical user who wants to be able to snap quick, good-looking photos on the go, the Galaxy Nexus should easily handle the task.

For video chat (and maybe the occasional vanity pic), the Galaxy Nexus has a 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera.

The bottom line

Google's Nexus line is meant to set the bar for what an Android phone should be, and the new Galaxy Nexus does not disappoint. The Galaxy Nexus is sleek and attractive, with a thin, light body and a beautiful HD display. It's screamingly fast, too, delivering what may be the best overall performance of any mobile device available.

To be clear, the phone isn't without its drawbacks: The rear casing is made of plastic and feels a bit flimsy when removed, the camera's specs aren't as high as they could be, and you're left without the ability to expand the phone's storage by way of an external SD card.

Still, the Galaxy Nexus's positives far outweigh its limitations, and this is without question the Android phone to beat. If I were recommending a phone to a personal friend today, the Galaxy Nexus would be it.

This story, "Samsung Galaxy Nexus: Pure Google, pure delight" was originally published by Computerworld.

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