The Samsung Galaxy Nexus. This is the most highly anticipated phone this year, but does it live up to the hype? There is no mistaking that this is an exceptional phone however it is not without its imperfections. The Galaxy Nexus is my personal phone which I’ve been using now for just over 2 weeks and for this reason I’m probably more critical than I would be of a review phone I use for only a few days. There is a lot to like about this phone, but there is also some room for improvement..
- Massive 4.65”, hi-res 1280×720 screen
- Stock Android 4.0, Ice Cream Sandwich
- Light, sleek, thin, unique design
- GSM version has only 16GB onboard storage with no microSD slot
- Camera shots are quick but blurry
- External speaker volume is low
The Galaxy Nexus is a beautiful phone. The build is plastic, consistent with most Samsung phones, but it still has a solid high quality feel and strikes a good balance between quality and weight. It has a unique look unlike any other phone currently available. There is a slight curve towards the bottom end so the microphone is slightly closer to your mouth when talking. There is also a bump on the rear that makes it a bit easier to hold, and it is slightly thicker at the bottom end which makes it evenly weighted when holding it in one hand. My first impression of the phone was that it was uncomfortably large to hold, but now after a few weeks I have no problems with the size at all. Most people consider the Galaxy S II to be a large phone, well the Galaxy Nexus is slightly larger again – 1.8mm wider, 10.2mm taller and 0.4mm thicker. The height of the phone is not really an issue, it’s the width that will determine how easy it is to use the phone one handed. The RAZR, another large phone, is just 1mm wider but I found the Razr uncomfortable in the hand due to its squared corners and sides. The Nexus does not suffer from this at all due to its rounded sides and corners and most people will adjust to its size in a short period.
The front of the phone is all screen with a 4mm bezel on the sides, 13mm bottom and 18mm top at its extremities. There are no buttons on the front, part of the screen is dedicated to the back, home and multitasking buttons when the screen is on and the location changes depending on the orientation of the phone. To the right of the earpiece is the 1.3MP front facing camera and underneath the screen in the middle is the notification LED which is large, bright and multicoloured. The position and size of the notification LED reminds me of the Nexus One trackball.
The microUSB is in the middle of the base of the phone and to the right is the 3.5mm headphone jack. That’s right, the headphone jack is on the bottom right of the phone. As a right-hander I found I didn’t like this position at first as it interrupted my grip, but after a few days I became accustomed to it and now find it actually aids the grip by allowing you to hook a finger around the plug adding to stability. It also gives the phone a cleaner appearance because the headphone cable isn’t protruding from the top of the phone. The sound output from the headphone jack is the clearest and loudest I have experienced, I love it. Unfortunately the external speaker is at the other end of the scale and is so low that I have missed calls even on full volume.
The rear of the phone is plastic with a brushed metal appearance, with the exception of the flimsy battery cover which is textured and grey. The texture again helps to grip the phone, but if you prefer the brushed metal battery cover seen in the pre-production models you can pick one up here (be warned that it doesn’t fit exactly). At the top in the middle is a very bright LED flash and 5MP camera. The Google and Samsung logos are printed on the battery cover.
The Nexus has a unique, clean design. While it looks large it does not feel all that big in your hand due to its rounded sides and corners and light weight. Put it next to any other phone and it really does stand out and look impressive.
For me this is definitely the Nexus’ main feature – the largest screen we have seen on a phone yet and also the highest resolution screen. Bright, crisp, detailed… The screen is magnificent. The 1280×720 resolution is the same we were seeing on 42” plasma televisions not all that long ago – now on a 4.65” super AMOLED. The pixel density measures in at 316 pixels per inch (PPI), which is just over the 300 PPI that some ‘other manufacturers’ have claimed cannot be discerned by the human eye. Prior to the Nexus’ release there was a lot of discussion about the pentile matrix display and whether this would detract from the display. Maybe it would if you studied it under a microscope, but to the naked eye in general use it looks sharp.
Not all apps have been optimized to take advantage of the higher resolution and when using these you may notice some pixilation. But when watching movies, scrolling through the home screen or browsing the web you really appreciate the higher resolution. This is particularly true when watching a 16:9 movie or youtube clip, the soft buttons disappear and utilize the entire screen and it looks fantastic. With a resolution this high you could actually take advantage of 720p HD movies, but unfortunately you are limited somewhat by the 16GB onboard storage.
A dual core 1.2GHz TI OMAP 4460 with PowerVR SGX540 GPU clocked at 300MHz powers the Galaxy Nexus. Overclocked kernels are already available pushing the CPU to 1.4GHz and the GPU to 384MHz, however I suggest waiting until the stability of these mods improves. There was some criticism of the GPU used in the Nexus compared to the SGS II and the iPhone 4, however the Nexus was never really pegged as a ‘gaming phone’ that required a powerhouse GPU. The phone performs very smoothly with the hardware it is running, if you want a phone more suited to gaming then there are other options out there.
The Galaxy Nexus has a 5MP ‘zero lag shutter’ camera which was seen by some as a disadvantage due to the SGS II’s 8MP camera, but the quality of a picture is not necessarily determined by the number of megapixels. The camera can be accessed directly from the lock screen allowing you quick access to the camera and the ability to snap a lot of pictures in quick succession. Unfortunately focus is sacrificed for speed and of the 10 photos you snap maybe 2 will be usable. All those blurry photos you’ve seen of bigfoot and UFOs were probably taken with a Nexus.. Thankfully the Nexus takes great quality, sharp pictures when using touch to focus.
The video camera is capable of 1080p recording; 30 seconds at 720p used 30MB and 30 seconds at 1080p used 36MB. This is something to keep in mind considering the relatively limited 16GB of storage space, however it’s going to take 13 minutes at 1080p to use 1GB so there is still a decent amount of room. Video recording quality is excellent, check out a sample below.
At first I found the battery life to be disappointing but the first few days of any new battery tend to be underwhelming until after a few recharge cycles. The Nexus has a 1750mAh which is a little above average in battery capacity, however the screen is the primary battery drainer and with a screen this size the battery needs to be bigger than average. Length of time between charges will depend on your usage but I find that four hours of music, three hours of web and twitter surfing, syncing 4 email accounts and Facebook I have about 10% left by 6pm. Compared to all of my previous phones I consider the battery life to be better than most.
The Galaxy Nexus is a pentaband HSPA phone supporting the 850, 900, 1700, 1900 and 2100 MHz frequencies which means it can be used on ALL Australian networks. I’m using it on Telstra and I found the shipped radio (XXIK6) to give flaky reception and mediocre data speeds. People on other networks have reported the shipped radio to be fine so your mileage may vary. A newer radio, XXKK6 was leaked which I flashed and has given much more reliable reception in weak reception areas and faster data speeds. In North Sydney I was able to pull 9466kbps down and 1027kbps up which is an impressive speed test result. Call quality is crisp and clear, a noticeable improvement over my Atrix which some people claimed was muffled at times. HSDPA download rate is quoted at 21Mbps and HSUPA at 5.76Mbps but you will have a hard time maxing out those rates on our networks. While LTE versions of the phone have been widely discussed it appears at this time that there are 2 distinct versions of the Galaxy Nexus – a GSM/HSPA version and a CDMA/LTE version. We don’t use CDMA in Australia so we’re not going to see an LTE compatible Nexus unless a whole new GSM/HSPA/LTE model surfaces.
The major appeal of a Nexus device is the ‘vanilla’ Google experience – there is no OEM layer or carrier apps over the top of the Android operating system offering extra ‘features’ or chewing up precious system resources. The Galaxy Nexus is the first device to run Android 4.0, also known as Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS), below is a summary of some of the new features of ICS:
The stock launcher features 5 home screens with the third screen being the ‘home’ screen. The number or position of screens cannot be changed on the stock rom. By default the back, home and ‘multitask’ buttons are along the bottom of the screen, the menu button appears to the right of these only when needed. The positioning of the menu button only on the right side is an uncomfortable placement for left handed people who would need to reach all the way across the screen when using the phone with one hand. Luckily mods are available to add the dedicated search button back and also to make the menu buttons functional at all times and on both sides. Novalauncher is also shaping up as a worthy replacement.
Above this bar is the dock which allows you to place your 4 most accessed applications, or more than 4 if you want to use folders. The implemenation of folders is intuitive and works well. Personally I use Handcent, phone, Tweetdeck and browser on the dock bar. Above the dock bar are the homescreens themselves and despite having such a high resolution screen they still only offer 4×4 real estate for widgets. The Google search bar is at the top of every home screen and while it can be disabled you do not regain the real estate. However, once again a mod is available to remove the search bar for 4×5 home screens and more.
A long press on a vacant spot on the home screen no longer allows you to add a widget on the stock launcher, these must be accessed from the app launcher, something that takes a while to get used to. The plus side is that from the app launcher you can see a preview of all your widgets. There are no widgets available in the pull-down notification blind, something you will miss if you have come from a Samsung or HTC phone for example. Luckily you can use Widgetsoid to create your own power widget bar and place it in the notification blind. Despite some small annoyances I prefer the stock launcher over any other third party launcher out there. It looks great and does what I need it to do.
This feature was displayed, unsuccessfully, at the Google launch event and my experience with the feature has been pretty consistent with theirs. The face unlock feature is more of a gimmick than a serious security feature, in fact when enabling it on the phone you are warned that it is ‘less secure than a pattern, PIN or password’. The theory is that the phone uses the front facing camera to identify your face and if it matches the phone will unlock. The accuracy very much depends upon the initial picture, if you take it in low light then it doesn’t have many features to match your face on and it is very unreliable. But if you take the initial picture in good light you will have the best results since it has more of your facial features to match. A few weeks ago the Ausdroid team tested face unlock with Phil Tann’s face and a picture of his face on a Galaxy Note, the Nexus was fooled by the photo on the Note. The face unlock feature is fine as long as you understand that it is a gimmick as opposed to a serious security measure.
Android beam uses the phones’ NFC chip to share content with another phone that supports Android beam, at the moment this is only the Galaxy Nexus. Apparently you can ‘Share contacts, web pages, YouTube videos, directions, and apps — just by touching two NFC-enabled Android phones back to back’. I tested this feature with a friend who also owns a Galaxy Nexus and we were able to share a web page but that’s it; the phone did not recognise a contact, photo or app as shareable content. It is quite possible that we weren’t holding it right, but it really should be easier to use. Perhaps a future firmware update will improve its usability.
The stock browser is very fast and is an improvement over the stock browser in earlier versions, I still prefer stock over any other third party browser. Something I noticed straight away is that the bookmarks shortcut no longer appears next to the address bar at the top of the browser screen. To get to bookmarks you have to press menu, windows, bookmarks. A workaround is to hold the back button to bring up history, then click the next tab up the top to go to bookmarks. Considering bookmarks are used very frequently when browsing the web I have no idea why they decided to bury it under 3 button presses, hopefully this will be addressed in a future update. A positive of the browser is the ability to turn off the address bar at the top and have a shortcut bar accessible via swiping from the side of the screen. This is enabled via settings, labs, and makes the most of the screen size. The higher resolution also means most webpages fit comfortably on the screen and text is crisp even when zoomed out. Adobe Flash player is not currently available for ICS although there are plans to make it available in the future. I never thought I used Flash all that often but you never notice how much you use something until it’s gone.
The ability to take screenshots is built into the phone by holding power and volume down, a useful feature which is becoming more common in android phones. The LED notification is fully customizable via Trackball Alert Pro or Light Flow LED control which gives you the ability to assign different colours to different notifications. Unlocking the bootloader and rooting to apply modifications is incredibly easy, as you would expect on a Nexus device. If you intend to unlock the bootloader I suggest doing it immediately since the process completely wipes the phone and it takes a while to set it up again exactly how you like it.
Another unique feature of the Nexus is that it does not support USB Mass Storage. When you plug the phone into a computer there is no need to mount the SD card, the device is automatically mounted as MTP and you immediately have access to your media folders etc. I found this to be much easier than having to constantly mount and unmount the device as with previous phones but I hear it could pose some issues for OSX users.
As we all know a benchmark score is not always representative of real world performance, however it is the best method we have to compare phones. The Nexus scored 2632 on Quadrant, which is less than the Atrix even though I would say the Nexus is far smoother out of the box than the Atrix ever was. Unfortunately Neocore is not yet compatible with Android 4.0 so I couldn’t provide a score.
|Neocore (Frames/sec)||Quadrant (Higher = better)|
|Galaxy S II||59.8||3428|
The Galaxy Nexus is a great device but it is not for everyone. It appeals to a certain group of people – those who value a vanilla android experience, simply must have the latest updates, and love to be involved in the modding scene. If you aren’t one of these people you will probably look at the spec sheet of the Nexus and wonder what all the fuss is about – only a 5MP camera, pentile screen, relatively underpowered GPU.. I know a lot of SGS II owners don’t see the need to upgrade to the Galaxy Nexus and are instead holding out for the SGS III which is probably going to suit them better anyway. But the Nexus isn’t about the specs it’s about the pure Google experience which is something you just can’t get from any other device. If you’ve owned a Nexus before you were probably counting down the days until this phone’s release and I can guarantee you won’t be disappointed.
Despite some of the minor annoyances highlighted above I still consider this to be the best phone available right now. This opinion isn’t based purely on the hardware specs, some of which I would definitely improve if I could, but on the device experience as a whole. Sure, some aspects of this phone are a compromise, but I would gladly give up some features for a vanilla Android experience and the best dev community support you can get. The Galaxy Nexus is the most exciting device to be released in a long time and will only improve further with the dev community behind it.
So where can you get yourself a Galaxy Nexus? Well in contrast to just a week ago there are many options to pick up this device – outright at Mobicity, Handtec, Clove or via contract at Telstra, Vodafone, Optus or soon Virgin. I picked mine up from Mobicity and use it on Telstra prepaid, but if I had to go on contract I would choose Telstra’s $69 Freedom Connect plan ($59 plan + $10 handset repayments) as a worthy premium for the network coverage and data speeds.
I’m not the only member of the Ausdroid team to own a Galaxy Nexus, here is how the phone scored out of 5 with the rest of the team: