Name: Samsung Galaxy Nexus
Type: Android Smartphone
Specifications: Click here for full specs
Price: £40 per month on The One Plan from Three
As the flagship Ice Cream Sandwich Android phone, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus has a lot riding on it. Can both hardware and software come together tidily enough to shake Apple’s iPhone 4S from the top of the smartphone pile? Read on to find out!
Though much of the focus of the Samsung Galaxy Nexus will be its use of the Ice Cream Sandwich version of Android, we’ve got to take our hats off to Samsung when it comes to the hardware design of the smartphone. It’s an absolutely gorgeous design, with slight curves and lightweight feel in the hand.
Measuring 135.5 x 67.9 x 8.9mm, it’s a tad bigger than a Galaxy S II, and a little heavier at 135g. An entirely black front houses just the front-facing camera and a light sensor. There are now touch buttons on the Galaxy Nexus, just the screen, which is a feature specification of Ice Cream Sandwhich we’ll go into more detail on in the next section.
The edges of the phone also have few buttons. There’s a volume rocker on the left edge, a 3.5mm headphone jack on the bottom alongside a micro USB/charger port, and on the right just the power button and three inset pins for use with docking products.
Flip it over and you find the 5MP camera sensor, and the textured backplate that hides the battery and SIM compartments. The grip on the rear is nice, but replacing the backplate itself was actually a little fiddly. It’s quite a long phone, but it’s very cleanly designed overall.
Inside the phone is a speedy 1.2 GHz processor, HSDPA connectivity and NFC tech, among a whole host of other sensors. NFC isn’t really much use at the moment, but this is a future proofing tech that will come into its own later in the year once more devices become compatible with the Android Beam NFC feature. From a virtual wallet to a digital business card, it’ll let you swap all manner of data very soon, just by placing the device next to another NFC enabled gadget.
There’s no storage expansion option though. Without microSD support, you’re left with just 16GB of built-in storage, which may not be enough for those who like to load their phones up with rich media.
However, most praise most be showered on the 4.65 inch Super AMOLED HD touchscreen. Running at a resolution of 720 x 1280, it’s got a ppi of 316, making it pin sharp, with superbly vibrant colours and brightness levels too. It makes the phone feel like a truly premium device, but is a killer drain on the battery. You’re going to want to charge the Galaxy Nexus long before the sun has set on the day.
Interface and apps
If you’re picking up a Samsung Galaxy Nexus, it’s likely because you want to be among the first to have Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS), the latest release of Google’s Android mobile OS, on your smartphone. As with all versions of Android, it taps into your Google accounts, grabbing contact info and Gmail details from the off, as well as giving you instant access to Google products like Docs and Maps, with all your settings synced automatically. If Honeycomb and Gingerbread were bridging steps, ICS finally feels like Android is catching Apple’s iOS in terms of slickness. Keep in mind that this is the vanilla version of ICS too; as more companies take on the new build, they’ll tweak it with their own skins and features too.
Though it retains many familiar Android elements, ICS can still feel a slightly jarring departure on first use. As we mentioned earlier, there are no buttons below the screen here; everything is controlled by context-sensitive onscreen buttons that adapt depending on the scenario à la Honeycomb. For the most part they sit as three soft keys at the bottom of the screen: back, home and multitasking. Note that we say three and not four, as once was the case with Android mobiles. The options button is now gone, which often doesn’t make a difference, but can mean a little extra menu-digging in apps, and a few extra presses when customising your homescreens with widgets and app shortcuts. In a neat touch, the soft buttons disappear when they’re not needed, giving you more of that gorgeous screen to gawk at.
The notifications bar has also been given an overhaul. It still drags down from the top of the screen, but it’s now slightly transparent, and gives quick access to settings, such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, storage, display brightness and more. There’s also a clever Data Usage monitor, which will be handy if you’re using this smartphone on a tight data plan. Mutlitasking management is also made easier thanks to the updated notifactions bar; you’ll now get a scrolling preview view of all the apps you’ve got open, showing what’s going on on those screens at present. Tapping them opens them, swiping them clears them away. This also works with notifications like SMS messages, Facebook updates and emails.
The apps view, or Apps Drawer as it’s often known, has been changed too, scrolling from left to right rather than down. Though buttons at the top let you jump from an Apps to a Widgets view, scroll right past all your apps and you’ll hit the Widgets area anyway. Having a dedicated widgets preview area is great too; you know longer have to long-press on a widget to get a grasp of how it will look on your screen. Many widgets can also be re-sized too, though not all of them, like some third-party apps allow for. With such simple customisation improvements, it’s a shame then that you only get access to five homescreens, and that the exploded pinch-accessed helicopter view is missing.
Another big selling point of ICS is the facial recognition unlock, with the phone taking a snap of your mug, and then using it as a reference, allowing you to access your phone just by popping your head in-front of the front-facing camera. It works flawlessly, even when we tried to confuse it with a contorted face or a look-a-like pal. We still wouldn’t recommend using it as your sole security method though, with a pin being a more fool-proof method.
If we’ve got one major fault with ICS, it’s the lack of built-in social support. We understand that this is a “pure Google” product, but it would be nice to see Twitter and Facebook now be part of the core Android experience. Of course, other manufacturers, like HTC with their incredible Sense UI, will add these features a ta later date with re-skinning efforts. But if Apple’s iOS can do it with Twitter, we can’t see why Google can’t open up too.
No Flash? NO FLASH? It’s one of Android’s best selling points over Apple’s mobile products, but quite staggeringly, it’s not pre-installed on the Galaxy Nexus. Initially not compatible with ICS, as a result any buyers of the Galaxy Nexus will have to manually install the plug-in through the Android market, which is quite annoying.
Other than that, the Galaxy Nexus offers a very pleasant browsing experience, once Adobe’s kit is squeezed in. Over either Wi-Fi or HSDPA pages load at a brisk pace, and swiping around the pages causes no problems with lag thanks to the strong processing abilities.
All the regular multi-touch and tap-to-zoom features are present, and text re-flow, pushing long lines of text onto the screen so you don’t have to slide through paragraphs, works very well. A Read-It Later option saves pages for offline viewing, turning pages into flat screens that lack the same interaction as their online counterparts. That’s a fine concession for offline reading.
Bookmarks sit in a card-like interface, similar to that seen when multitasking, which can be accessed and changed from a tab at the top of the screen.
All in, the Galaxy Nexus, once updated with Flash, makes for a marvellous browsing device.
Calling and Messaging
As with the rest of the UI, the Contacts and Dialler areas get a fresh lick of paint with ICS. A lighter mix of blues and whites, the Contacts view lists alphabetically all your pals, with a little thumbnail image of each person next to their names. Hit their name and you open up their contact card, with deeper details such as their placement in your groups, and their email address. Each contact card has a big picture attached to it too, though an annoyingly placed blue bar with their name and the option to favourite them can obscure it slightly. Paired with the new electric blue dialler, it’s all very tidy and unified, with top notch call quality from both ends with the mics and speakers.
Messaging, be it SMS or email, is handled just as well. Fortunate, considering the afore-mentioned lack of built in social networking.
SMS gets a basic update, with black headers on a white background added to the conversation view, with your contact’s picture also shown in a thumbnail. Gmail gets a more drastic update though. Options are now laid out on the bottom of the screen in the inbox view, which saves digging through some menu screens. Swiping left or right once in an email moves on to the next or previous message. POP , IMAP and Exchange mail is handled with a near-identical app, bar support for labels and other Gmail-specific features. You can also send an email direct from one of the contact cards described earlier.
The keyboard will feel very familiar to Gingerbread users, as it’s a slight upgrade from that version. Keys still feel a little bunched up for our tastes, but excellent predictive text often smooths over any stray letter taps, with satisfying haptic feedback for each tap. There’s still the option to use voice dictation, but it was too inconsistent to be of much use.
Android’s stock music player gets a slight revamp. Apart from a few stylistic changes, you get new equaliser settings, such as a 3D effect and a basic playback control widget. We didn’t encounter any audio files that wouldn’t work, though the lack of an FM radio was a disappointment.
Though the video playback app is simple at best, watching videos on the handset is great. The screen is sharp, with deep blacks thanks to the improved contrast ratio that Super AMOLED displays allow for. The speaker is loud too, making it comfortable to watch a show in bed without the need for headphones. All major video file types (baring Apple’s .mov) worked flawlessly, including MPEG4 and DivX. If you’re looking for new things to watch, the app does however give you the option of jumping into the Google video store, which is well priced and well stocked. DLNA sharing is supported, but you’ll need a third party app to get sharing videos and music between devices.
The big problem is storage space. With just 16GB of storage space and no option for microSD expansion, you may struggle to justify the handset as a true PMP replacement. That’s a damn shame, considering the quality of the screen on offer.
Still Camera and Video
Coming off the back of the superb cameras on the Samsung Galaxy S II, the Galaxy Nexus is quite a let down.
For starters, the sensor maxes out at 5MP images, but that’s not the only problem. Low light performance is terrible, there’s no macro mode, and trying to focus on a moving target is near-impossible. The camera seems to constantly be looking for an autofocus point, leading to many blurred images. If you’re taking still photos on a bright day, the results can be rather nice, but the camera has too many limitations to heartily recommend.
Even nice little extras like the ability to take a panorama photo are hindered by the sensor, as it’s too slow to smoothly take the elongated snaps. Even stitching the photos together took the best part of a minute. There are also few image tweaking settings or filters when compared to rivals.
Video fares far better, offering smooth, stutter-free recording of 1080p clips. The quality of the sound capture is great, and the light sensor also handles sudden changes in brightness well too. For some strange reason, Samsung have opted to put more “crazy” filters in the video mode than with the camera, many of which are useless. The “space” video filter was a particularly trippy affair.
Samsung’s Galaxy Nexus has loads going for it. It offers a mouth-watering taste of Ice Cream Sandwich, has a superb screen, great media playback options, smart Google account integration, future-proofed NFC features and a lovely industrial design.
But it suffers from a fair few things holding it back from getting full marks in our review. Battery life is just not good enough here; if the screen is going to be such a drain, the battery must match it. If it means a few extra millimetres thickness, so be it; I’d rather have my pockets filled with marginally bigger phones than charging cables. The storage space offered here, at 16GB, is paltry for a premium priced phone too, especially one with a screen that tempts the user to fill it up with HD video. Likewise, the camera was very disappointing, particularly given the quality of the imaging systems in the Galaxy S II.
Yet, as a showcase for Ice Cream Sandwich, it’s a job well done. It’s placed the slickness of Android right alongside Apple’s iOS, meaning the next year’s worth of smartphone battles should be very interesting indeed.
By Gerald Lynch | February 24th, 2012