Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0)
The U.S. launch of the Samsung Galaxy Nexus may have smacked face-first into a wall of delays, but that hasn't stopped me from spending the last three weeks smearing my thumbprints all over the unlocked version of the first phone to get Google's red-hot Android Ice Cream Sandwich operating system.
Now, between the phone and the Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) operating system, there's a lot of minutiae, more than most people will really want to read regarding the scads of cosmetic and substantive changes to each function or app. As a result, I'm aiming for the broad view. In the three weeks since I got the phone, I've answered many of your ICS and Galaxy Nexus questions, tested the camera, stumbled onto a lot of hidden features, and explored Android Beam using another Galaxy Nexus phone (more on this below).
Using ICS on the Galaxy Nexus has been a positive experience, and as with many phones, the Galaxy Nexus grew on me even more. It has an open design and appealing shape, a comfortable "hyperskin" soft-touch back cover, and a great screen. ICS adds snappy graphics and a laundry list of new features.
That said, I experienced no drastic changes of heart. The handset itself still feels a little light and flimsy (proven in battle scars from when it toppled accidentally off a 6-foot shelf), the curved face is neat but doesn't substantially contribute, and the 5-megapixel camera still underperforms for a superpremium phone.
In addition, the phone continues to get most of its character from ICS, which, while a very valuable and powerful new addition with strong features and thought-out tidbits, still has a learning curve and a few warts.
Galaxy Nexus high points
- 4.65-inch Super AMOLED HD display
- Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich OS
- 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera
- 1.2GHz dual-core processor
- NFC (near field communications) support
Galaxy Nexus low points
- Body should feel and look more premium for a superphone
- 5-megapixel camera not as good as others
- 16GB storage limit for unlocked (32GB for Verizon model), with no expandable memory
- No mass USB storage mode (though there are camera and multimedia modes)
The phone is just a phone
In our original review, CNET Section Editor Kent German and I said that without Ice Cream Sandwich, the phone is just a phone. It's important to separate the hardware of the Galaxy Nexus (which bears Samsung's mark) from the ICS operating system, even though the two overlap to create one unified experience.
Yes, as a flagship phone and the first to debut ICS, there are some elements that will just work better with ICS the way that Google envisioned it. However, the singularity of the Galaxy Nexus will fade when existing and future smartphones get ICS with all their various skins and flavors--phones with equally excellent screens, smaller price tags, and better cameras. Manufacturers are eyeing early 2012.
So while the Galaxy Nexus itself is a very good specimen overall, I probably wouldn't expect it to sweep the Android battle if it ran Gingerbread instead of Ice Cream Sandwich.
Jumping back to the operating system, ICS is, without a doubt, a major improvement over Gingerbread, and the kind of visual overhaul we've been expecting. In fact, the bulk of the changes you're bound to notice most are cosmetic and organizational. There's still plenty of new functionality, however, which I really appreciate. Two quick examples are the new photo-editing tools in the camera gallery and being able to drag and drop icons on top of one another to create home screen folders.
So why did I originally call it "chaotic"? ICS' main demerits here are twofold. There's the learning curve, which is still steep in a variety of facets, including gestures you can do in several apps and shortcuts you can press if you know about them. If you don't, you'll need to either discover them or live without them.
There's also a niggle I have with mixed visual metaphors, and I find the look of the home screen (for example) disjointed from the new look of the calling screens. None of this will get in the way of using the phone, but I got the distinct impression that the Android team designed pieces separately and then stitched them together. It could sometimes be jarring switching from one phone function to another. I'd expect more cohesion in an otherwise polished OS, and you should too.
I also got a chance to try out Android Beam, the NFC feature that lets you share Web pages, YouTube videos, maps, apps, contacts, and so on between compatible phones. It's a blast to see it work, but beyond the thrill of making NFC do your bidding, it's a time-saving feature that can save you from copying, pasting, and e-mailing links.
Android Beam for Ice Cream Sandwich
Should you buy it?
If you're already leaning toward the Galaxy Nexus, awaiting its arrival with hungry eyes, then yes. You won't be disappointed. While we haven't been able to test the Verizon version, Samsung and Google have together created a powerful, usable smartphone that heralds the direction we're going with Android.
However, not everyone will love Android's bold new direction, and not everyone will rush to get the Galaxy Nexus over other high-end Android phones. If you're not concerned about being the first at the New Year's Eve party to show off Android Beam, or you place a premium on getting the best smartphone camera money can buy, then I'd advise you to wait and watch. Now excuse me while I make little green androids fly across my screen.
Update, Thursday at 3:15 p.m. PT: Changed to clarify the phone's storage space in gigabytes.