The Samsung Galaxy Nexus is one of the most anticipated Android smartphone of 2011. It is eagerly awaited by customers because it is a beautiful handset equipped with a new generation of 4.65″ 720p Super-AMOLED display, but more importantly, it is the first smartphone with Google’s latest operating system, Android 4.0 codenamed Ice Cream Sandwich.
Interestingly, beyond the display, the specifications are not that impressive, and if anything, the good old Galaxy S2 seems faster on paper. Yet, the combination of new OS and new display is more than enough to make the Samsung Galaxy Nexus a one of a kind smartphone – at least for the next month or so. How does it feel to use this phone, and is it for you? In this Galaxy Nexus review we will cover the strengths and weaknesses of the Galaxy Nexus by using its Verizon 4G LTE incarnation. Let’s dive…
4.65″ HD(1280 x 720) Super AMOLED
1GB of RAM
5 Megapixel Camera with LED flash (back) and 1.3 Megpixel camera (front)
1850 mAh battery
4G LTE, WiFi
67.94 X 135.5 X 9.47 (LTE)
145.5 g (5.1 OZ)
What’s in the box?
With a 4.65” display, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus is much larger than the Nexus S (read our full Nexus S review). It is also noticeably heavier. Depending on the size of your hand, you may or may not like it. We have heard it both ways, but most people like it, and we do too. The Galaxy Nexus feels heavier and more sturdy than the Samsung Galaxy S2 for example, which may be good or not, depending on whether you prioritize weight or (perceived) sturdiness.
Interestingly, the back of the handset uses an ultra-thin plastic cover that can look and feel a bit fragile. However, We have never had any issues with this type of covers before, so we don’t expect problems there. At the top, you can clearly see the 5 Megapixel camera module, which is a curious choice as Samsung has clearly better in store, but we wouldn’t mind if the lower megapixel count was chosen for a higher light sensitivity – we shall see later in the review.
The front of the phone is very clean, without any Samsung or Verizon logo. Frankly, that’s the way it should be. If you pay $299 and lock yourself in a contract for 2 years, you clearly remember every day (or at least every month, when the bill comes) what your carrier is. Just like it was the case with the Nexus S, the curved glass design is beautiful, and we are surprised that Samsung doesn’t use it for other handsets. Notice that this phone does not have any physical buttons, which is a whole lot better than with previous Android phones which always had 4 buttons (Home, Back, Search and Menu). This means that we can get bigger displays within the same form factor. Hopefully, Windows Phone will follow.
There are few buttons on the side: just Volume controls on the left, and the Power button on the right. Unlike other Android smartphones, the buttons protrude just enough to be sensed by the finger, which is great, but this could be even better. The Power button is the single most used button on any handset, so it has to be practical and perfect.
There are no buttons or ports at the top, but the bottom of the phone has a micro-USB and a standard 3.5mm audio connector. Some prefer to have the audio on the top, but we find the bottom design to be convenient as well, and more natural to use – especially when storing the phone in pants pockets.
The Samsung 1280×720 Super-AMOLED display is simply magnificent. There is no other way to say it. And of course, because it is using Super-AMOLED (not plus?), the contrast and color saturation are top-notch. OLED displays typically have true “black” because there is no back light. Instead, each pixel emits light on its own.
Like the Droid RAZR, this Galaxy Nexus does not exhibit the complete over-saturation of colors that some Samsung OLED phones have, but as you can see with my wallpaper, colors saturation can be high. Watching videos is a very nice experience, much more so than it would be on a smaller screen like my iPhone 4S. In fact, the extra 1” of display diagonally does make a huge difference in usability in my opinion. The keyboard is more accurate, photos and videos are more enjoyable, etc…
Design / new user interface: Android 4.0 delivers a beautiful revamped user interface with a significant number of improvements including a speedy responsiveness, nicer animations and a brand new typeface that finally got us rid of the tasteless Tron-style font displayed in Honeycomb.
New Typeface Roboto: Roboto, the new font designed by Christian Robertson, has been labeled “a Four-headed Frankenfont” by Stephen Coles, editor, Typographica. As a designer, we can see his point, the combinations of shapes are somewhat inconsistent throughout all the letters, however, we find his harsh comments a tad exaggerated. Although Roboto is a nice upgrade from what we had in Android 3.0, it displays a lack of personality, and using an existing font such as DIN would have been in fact better. we still find Microsoft’s typographic choices in Windows Phone 7 way superior than what the Android team did with Roboto in ICS. Last but not least, why modify its proportions for the clock on the lock screen? The result is visually horrible!
Lock screen: Android 4.0 comes with a lock screen that allows users to go directly into the camera app, or the home screen. This has been widely adopted by handset makers before Android 4.0, and it’s nice to see that Google has integrated it as a default option. From there you can also directly access the notifications by swiping down from the top of the screen. We would love to be able to add more apps, but we have not found an obvious way of doing it – we think that there is room for six. This is not perfect, but it is good progress.
Virtual buttons: Back, Home and Recent apps: The four physical buttons (back, menu, search, home) in Android’s previous version have been replaced by the three virtual icons already featured in Honeycomb: Back, Home and Recent apps.
Favorite apps tray: The favorite app tray at the bottom of the screen gets two more additions, from there you can now access the people app and the texting app as well as the phone app, the application section and the browser.
Unlike Gingerbread, it is possible to customize the favorite app tray and replace any of the following four icons app by others: people app, texting app,phone app, and browser. Just long press on the icon and drag it into the home screen, then select another icon from there, long press on it and drag it to the favorite app tray.
The application section icon cannot be moved and we like its new design a lot.
Application section: The application section’s vertical scrolling has been replaced by a horizontal swipe, just like in Honeycomb, and the transition animation between screens offers a cool zooming effect. Access to the widget section can be done by clicking on the widget menu located at the top of the display or by swiping to the right until the last application screen is passed. Applications icons can be placed on one of the five home screens by long pressing on it. To remove an application from the home screen, long press again and drag it to the trash can.
Widgets are re-sizable: Similarly to Android 3.0, ICS offers a number of widgets that are re-sizable. The feature was not available in Gingerbread and smartphone users will appreciate this capability.
Recent Apps and Multitasking: The recent apps tray is a great and frustrating feature borrowed from Honeycomb, great because it allows to directly access the recently opened applications, frustrating because it is still not possible to close them from there in Android 3.2, only Asus brought a custom fix in the Transformer Prime. For that reason, we were very happy to be able to close the applications from the recent apps tray in ICS, however, it is not possible to close Skype from there. So it is not clear if the applications are actually closed when swiped away from the recent apps.
Face unlock : Android 4.0 brings Face Unlock, a new biometric security measure that unlocks your phone when the front camera sees your face. It’s pretty fun to use, and fairly reliable, but don’t think that it is secure. With a simple photo of Hubert (on a bad day) we have been able to fool the Galaxy Nexus to unlock my phone. Still, it would work if you leave your phone somewhere. In the end, we’re sticking with the unlock pattern for light security. It’s faster and more robust than the face unlock.
Screenshots: A great feature for us bloggers who review mobile OSes and application, ICS provides the ability to grab screenshots natively by just pressing on the power and volume down buttons simultaneously.
Wireless broadband speed (excellent): As an LTE device, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus has excellent mobile network performance. This is most definitely not a surprise, and with a single “signal bar” we have been able to get a top speed of 3.3Mbps (down) and 4.2 Mbps (up). With 3 out of 4 bars, we reached 15Mbps (down) and 6.58Mbps (up), which is way beyond any HSPA+ handset that we have tried. We all know that LTE networks are much more capable than their 3G, or even “4G HSPA+” counterparts (learn more in our 4G Networks post), but now, we will have to see what the trade-off is in terms of battery life. More on that later.
Call quality (average-): we were not impressed by the audio call quality with this handset, and the Nexus S remains the ultimate reference when it comes to sound quality.
Dialing / Contacts: Ice Cream Sandwich has a new dialpad design, which we like much better than the previous one. It is very readable too. Finding a contact is still easy. In fact, Google has merged the Contacts and the Favorites tabs. Now, the contact tab features the favorites at the top and the general contacts down below. It is also possible to search by typing the few letters of the contact name.
The new Favorites design can be great if you have 6 Favorites, but you’ll have to scroll to see more than that. On the other hand, the icons are big and it’s hard to mis-tap on one of the Favorites. Interestingly, it is not possible to add or remove someone from the Favorites list from within the Phone app. Instead, you can do that in the Contacts app which has been redesigned as well. As always, it is possible to drop a “direct dial” link on the home screen, which is the fastest way to call someone.
Web Browsing: The web browser has benefited from a new design as well, and here are the highlights: 1/Accessing the settings and switching from one tab to the next is now done from the upper-right corner. 2/ Bookmarking a page is an option that appears in the tabs selection screen. We find this to be conveniently placed. 3/ There is a “force desktop” mode that probably change the user agent name so that the full version of a site appears. This is very handy because the 1280×720 resolution is sufficient to view the original site with all its functionalities. 4/ The swipe to close tab is faster and more natural than using taps.
Overall, the rendering has stayed the same, and the user interface has been improved. The extra pixels allow for a desktop view, although the small screen prevents a desktop experience.
Flash support: We know that Flash is not going to be supported on mobile anymore, but Flash 11 does indeed work in this release. If you remember, the phone initially hit reviewers without Flash support because Adobe was still working on it. Since then, it has been updated and works normally. Nothing to report here.
Virtual Keyboard (very good): The Ice Cream Sandwich, Android 4.0, virtual keyboard is very good. It is relatively fast and the keyboard size is bigger, thanks to the large screen, which means “less typos”. We also like the clean design, and the fact that suggestions don’t slow down the typing, which is one of the main annoyances on scores of Android phones. Admittedly, the Android 2.3 keyboard as seen in the Nexus S was pretty good, but the reality is that handset makers often stuff the keyboard with options and that’s how they become slow.
Let me say this clearly: slowing down the virtual keyboard is evil. Slow keyboards are terrible to use, and no amount of “spelling suggestions” can make up for a fast and responsive keyboard. Slow keyboards tend to create typos because you expect it to be able to cope with your typing speed.
The Galaxy Nexus does well, but there’s better out there. In terms of responsiveness, the Windows Phone keyboard is still the king of the hill and in terms of features and practicality, the Huawei Android keyboard has become my new point of reference (read my Huawei Honor review). Although it runs on an mid-range hardware platform, the Huawei Honor manages to feature a responsive keyboard with an awesome feature: up/down swipes to access capital letters and special characters. Those gestures are a huge boost in my productivity, and we would like to see every single mobile device use them. We have heard that in select languages (like Spanish) Apple does it too, but we don’t get any of that with the iOS US keyboard.
It may seems bizarre to spend so much time on the keyboard, but text-based application are still critically important to most smartphone users, so we think of it as a critical part of the software that we use many times, every single day.
Email (very good): We are using Microsoft Exchange, and from that standpoint, the user experience is great. It seems like a “duh”, but the emails actually are in your inbox by the time you open the email app. Many Android phones try to save battery life by just checking notifications without downloading emails, but we find it really annoying when they do that. That was one of the few things that bugged me on the Galaxy S2. Motorola phones tend to not do that because they are often targeted at a professional audience that uses emails heavily. We’re glad that the Galaxy Nexus downloads emails as they arrive. That represents a few seconds, and sometime much more, each time we check email.
Spellchecker (awesome): While we are talking about Email, it’s worth nothing that the spellchecker is excellent. Instead of having the keyboard correct (and often “incorrect”) words as we type them, Android underlines them in red, and upon a tap, we get to choose if there is a more appropriate spelling. This is great because you are now in control of spelling, which is particularly important if you use slang, work lingo or juggle between two languages. This is the best way to handle it so far. Good job Google!
Facebook (normal+): The Facebook app on Android looks fairly normal except that it is a bit more comfortable to use on the larger screen and with the 720p resolution. we have to say that those two factors will likely improve the user experience on any app that can scale properly. The extra pixels and display real-estate should not be underestimated. On the LTE version of the Galaxy Nexus, the Facebook app should also benefit from the faster and lower latency network. Facebook apps have been known to gobble a lot of bandwidth. Again, this is great for the user experience — but you may be paying it in battery life. More on that later.
Google Maps (excellent): we find the mapping experience to be much better on Android devices, and that certainly has to do with the fact that Google has been improving its mapping application on its own platform, while leaving other mobile OSes in the cold. It’s not a bad tactic to gain an edge, and the net result is that Android users have been getting steady improvements, while others have mostly stagnated.
First, Android users get free turn-by-turn navigation. This is a big deal as this feature can cost quite a bit of money on other platforms. Secondly, new features like “download map area” are introduced on a regular basis. This one is supposed to let you preload an area the size of a city, this is really cool. Here’s how to enable it:
1/ in Google Map, do Menu>More>Labs>enable pre-cache map area
2/ go to the map, select a place, expand the place’s options and choose “pre-cache map area”
In my case, Google Maps has pre-cached the whole city of San Francisco, and it is going to boost Google Map’s speed.
Skype works just as expected and the only thing that is noticeably different is that video calls are not displayed in full-screen. We suspect that the Skype app needs a little update to cope with the larger window size (in pixels) introduced by the 1280×720 display. Overall, the video quality is good (for a mobile) and on par with the best Android handsets on the market. Google Hangouts could be a very interesting replacement for Skype. Again, this assume that your contacts use Google+, but if they do, it is possible to have a multi-way audio/video conference which Skype does not support on mobile devices, and which is a paid service on desktop.
Google+ Messenger: this seems to be a promising app that can be used as an IM or SMS replacement. What’s cool about it is that you can send messages and have a group conversation with a Google+ circle. We can imagine that it would be very handy in places like a trade show, or a meet-up with friends, assuming that everyone is on G+, which is a big “if”.
The integration is not as seamless as iMessage which is completely transparent with SMS messages, but G+ Messenger does not have the inherent SMS limitations. Basically, you are trading off compatibility (iMessage works with everyone via SMS) for added functionalities.
Photo and video capture and sharing (very good)
Zero shutter lag: One of the big improvement in Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0) is the zero shutter lag. Shutter lag describes the delay between when you touch the screen to capture a photo, and when the photo is actually taken. The shorter the lag, and the more intuitive photography is. Android phones had been plagued at various degrees with shutter lag, and although chip makers like Qualcomm have worked on a reduced lag before, this is really close to zero lag. Of course, the shutter press still has to wait for the auto-focus, which has been greatly improved as well. It’s not instantaneous, but we find the whole shutter experience to be much better than on most Android phones, and on-par with the iPhone 4S.
In terms of photo quality, the Galaxy Nexus S is good, but overall, we think that the Galaxy S2 may be slightly better, and the iPhone 4S remains the top phone at the moment. In broad day light, the Galaxy Nexus does well. One may argue about the exposure settings, but it is clearly very close to the iPhone 4S, which tends to over-expose.
In dim lighting, the iPhone 4S clearly wins if we look at the full-size photos. The web-sized photos are comparable. This means that if you snap pictures for Facebook, Twitter, or your own blog, the Galaxy Nexus offers very good images. However, if you want to use photos in their full resolution, the quality is noticeably inferior to the iPhone 4S. We have uploaded the full-resolution images to our Ubergizmo Flickr account, if you are interested.
Photo sharing: Android offers many sharing options* , and that’s great. But we sure wish that we could disable or re-organize the order in which they appear. For example, Bluetooth appears as the first option, while it is likely to be the least useful. Email and Facebook are down the list, which means that one more tap is required for those who use these two options frequently. Still, it is fast to share a photo to Facebook from Android or Windows Phone since you can do it directly from the gallery.
Entertainment (very good)
Movie playback (excellent): Movie playback is a breeze and all my usual MP4 files played without any problems, whether they were created for PSP, PC or home-made. Of course, not every file format and codec is supported, but you should be able to find additional video formats support with 3rd party apps — which may decode videos using the CPU instead of dedicated hardware, which means that it would use more battery life.
Gaming (good): The Galaxy Nexus is a decent gaming smartphone and should be able to play games like Shadowgun at 30FPS. However the ASUS Transformer Price has clearly shown that upcoming handsets will easily display Shadowgun at 60FPS. In terms of raw performance, the Galaxy Nexus isn’t so different from the Galaxy S2, and it is even inferior in some ways. There’s not really anything new on this front.
Music (very good): Android users have a lot of options when it comes to music. With content available in the store and with many 3rd party apps, we don’t consider that Apple as an edge in the content access anymore. It’s easy and you can store track on Google Music, Amazon Player or Box.net, so the cloud is definitely an option, especially for home use, over Wi-Fi.
Speaker (average-): unfortunately, the external speaker doesn’t impress at all. The sound is soft, and you can easily compare it with other video reviews that we’ve done in the past. The iPhone 4/4S, the LG Optimus 2X or many of the Motorola Android phones can easily surpass this level of sound, both in terms of volume and in terms of audio quality. The audio quality is definitely not on par with the display. My advice: get some headphones.
System performance (very good)
When talking about the performance of a consumer electronics device, we always try to separate the “measured” and “perceived” performance. Measured metrics are obtained by running synthetic (not always life-like) benchmarks to stress specific parts of the system.
On the other hand, “perceived” performance is the user observation and perception of performance. Although they should correlate, we would always place perceived performance as the most important thing. After all, what is performance good for if you can’t tell the difference?
Both Antutu* and Nenamark 2** show that despite its fresh launch, the Galaxy Nexus has performances equivalent to the Samsung Galaxy S2 that was presented at Mobile World Congress in February, and shipped in Europe in May 2011. It is even a little bit slower because Samsung used a Texas Instrument OMAP4 processor instead of the Samsung Exynos dual-core present in the original Samsung Galaxy S2.
While the Galaxy Nexus does not impress, it still stands today among the best Android smartphones available. That said, We have added some numbers gathered during our Asus Transformer Prime review to give you a taste of what’s coming. With its NVIDIA Tegra 3 processor, the Transformer Prime has no difficulty taking the lead here.
Of course, it’s not fair to compare a tablet to handsets because tablets can have slightly higher frequency (GHz) and better thermal dissipation. Yet, our 2011 tablet reviews have shown us that tablet and smartphone performance is often similar, and you can be sure that Tegra 3 handsets will run very fast. Although it as a lead, NVIDIA is not the only player, and both Samsung and Qualcomm are working hard to bring their chips to the market. We expect Samsung to reveal the Galaxy S3 in March at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.
*Antutu is a benchmark that measures overall system performance, and has an emphasis on CPU and memory. **Nenamark 2 tries to measure graphics performance.
Perceived performance (excellent)
When it comes to perceived performance, the Galaxy Nexus performs admirably. Everything is smooth, and the phone is almost always very responsive. This is a testament to the updated Operating System, which has been evolving very nicely since it came out just a few years ago.
Battery Life (below-average on the LTE version)
The battery life of this phone is one of the few downsides, if not the only downside of this handset. Unfortunately, we can report that leaving the phone overnight (8hrs) yields a battery depletion of 25%, which is a high power consumption by any standards (WiFi, LTE & push-email are ON). Of course, you should really charge your phone overnight, but the depletion test shows us something very important: that’s the “best case scenario” and represents what your phone does most of the time: almost nothing. When the phone is actually used (a bit), the display quickly becomes the main power drain (the price of HD = more pixels). Here’s Hubert’s Wednesday afternoon:
12:00pm : 99% battery. I (Hubert) left the office at noon with a fully-charged Galaxy Nexus, and went out for a work lunch. On my way out, I turned WiFi OFF because I had no WiFi access outside. Anything helps.
01:00pm: As the meeting went on, I checked my email a few times, but didn’t reply to anyone. Then I called someone for 2mn and used Google Maps for 1mn before heading back to the office.
02:00pm: 86% battery. At 2pm, the phone had gone down to 86% of battery. At that point, I turned WiFi back on to avoid LTE connectivity.
04:30pm: 70% battery. I have not done much with the phone, maybe check emails a few times, that’s about it.
In the grand scheme of things, we think that with the usage described in the Context section, we could get through a normal day of work without running out of battery, but you have to admit that in the example above, Hubert did not do a whole lot with the phone on that afternoon.
It’s fair to say that a heavier user may easily get into trouble before the end of the work day. At the moment, this is the price to pay for having an LTE radio, but I think that the Motorola RAZR has an edge over the Galaxy Nexus because it can shut LTE down as soon as the phone is on WiFi, and the Galaxy Nexus cannot.
A short-term solution may simply lie in a “Switch to 3G (or 2G)” widget that would let most people use slower connectivity for email etc, and switch to 4G LTE when necessary, but we don’t know of such widget at the moment. We don’t know if the HSPA+ Galaxy Nexus perform much better, but we would assume so. At this point, we do not have an HSPA+ device in the office.
Conclusion (very good)
We really like the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, and we find almost everything about it to be neat. The design is terrific and the Android 4.0 Operating System works great. Some did complain about crashes and reboots, but we experienced none of that. Others say that Android 4.0 is not as “polished” as iOS. This is absolutely wrong. For the usage described earlier in this review, we think that Android 4.0 is as good, if not better than iOS. Now, it’s really about the apps availability and quality.
Beyond the OS, the industrial design is great, and it’s impossible not to love that 4.65” 720p display. There is no question that the extra sharpness and size make the phone much more comfortable to use than a 3.5” one.
But there’s one thing that prevents this Galaxy Nexus from being “excellent” (vs. very good)… it’s the battery life. Frankly, the stand-by battery depletion is too quick, and once the display and processor kicks in, you can probably see the battery gauge go down. We suspect that the HSPA+ version does better, but we have not had a chance to try it… Samsung should really add a “switch LTE OFF” widget, or something like Motorola’s Smart Actions.
Fortunately, the battery life woes do bring a decisive advantage: while it still has power left, the Galaxy Nexus LTE is a formidable connected device. It’s fast, comfortable and beautiful. If you are willing to baby-sit the battery, the Galaxy Nexus LTE is an awesome phone. If you’re unsure, wait for CES. New smartphones will be announced there.
We hope that this review gave you a good sense for how it feels to use a Galaxy Nexus (LTE). If there is something that we have not covered, please leave a comment and we will try to address it as soon as we can. If you found this review useful, Like it, Share it and comment on it. We’re here to help. We continue to cover the this handset, so check the latest Galaxy Nexus stories.