Editors' note: This review reflects the unlocked GSM version of the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. You can read our full review of the Verizon model here.
Every once in a while, a cell phone comes along that changes the mobile industry forever. Whether it's by design, features, or a combination of both, those rare handsets can stand out far from the pack and give the world something new and something very different. The Samsung Galaxy Nexus is not one of those phones. Sure, it's groundbreaking and will even incite the occasional gasp of awe, but like a gymnast having a bad day, it just misses the high bar.
Now before you click over to your e-mail to write us an angry letter, consider this: Absolutely, Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) does a lot to refine Android and make it come of age. When we first saw Google unveil the seemingly endless feature list last month in Hong Kong, ICS looked sleek, glossy, and fantastic.
Now that we have it in our hands, it is indeed hot, but it's also a hot mess. Without a doubt, the new features are welcome and the interface is pretty, but it also can feel cluttered, disjointed, and overly complicated. So while it pushes Android a big step forward, it doesn't fix all of Android's problems.
Set ICS aside and you're left with an attractive and familiar device, albeit one that offers a stock version of the Android OS. The display is rich and the profile is trim, but students of Samsung's Galaxy device will recognize the design. Likewise, while the features are admirable, nothing outside of ICS blows us away. Thankfully, though, internal performance is excellent so far and call quality over T-Mobile's network was up to par.
A few years ago, we used to joke that Nokia kept building the same phone design while slightly tweaking it for each subsequent model. These days, however, we're more likely to apply that jest to Samsung. Ever since the company started making Galaxy devices last year, many of them have looked a lot alike. Indeed, the Galaxy Nexus has much in common with its predecessors, especially last year's Nexus S (a Galaxy device if not by name).
You'll see the same dark color, tapered edges, and "contour" shape that's supposed to follow the curve of your head. The handset is large (5.33 inches long by 2.67 inches wide) so it may be too much for some users to handle. Samsung, however, squeezed off every inch it could to make it extra thin (0.35 inch).
It's eye-catching yes, but like other Samsung phones before it, the Galaxy Nexus also feels too fragile in the hand, even at 4.76 ounces. Here again we fear that we have to be extra careful not to drop it even once on a hard surface. A case is an option, but that would fatten up the phone. The "hyperskin" material on the back cover adds some texture, but it's not quite the Kevlar material that's on the Motorola Droid Razr.
On the right side you'll find a power control/lock button and three metal contacts that will be used for a future dock accessory. Over on the left side is the volume rocker and on the bottom end are the Micro-USB charge/syncing port and the 3.5mm headset jack. We'd prefer if the jack were in a different place. The camera lens and flash sit on the top end of the back cover.
Display and interface
The display measures 4.65 inches, though on the home screen, only 4 inches of that space is usable given the programmable shortcut tray that sits at the bottom (the tray also shows up on some, but not all, internal screens). Even with that quirk, the display is plenty big for a smartphone, but not quite big enough for ICS. We'll explain in the ICS section.
With a 1,280x720-pixel Super AMOLED resolution, the HD display is wonderfully bright and vivid with eye-popping colors. Everything looks great, from graphics to photos to menu icons, and you can customize the five home screens with the Google Search bar, menu icons, and widgets. ICS brings new folders and new widgets, but we'll get to those later. The main menu shows the traditional icons, and internal menus have the familiar list structure. This is a clean, elegant design that especially shines in the texting and e-mail apps, where it's dead simple to append an attachment, audio, video, and photos. Bravo, Google.
Like other Nexus devices, the Galaxy Nexus has a pure Android interface that's not marred by a manufacturer or carrier skin. It's great for users and developers alike as it lets Android's true glory shine through. Developers also will love the dedicated "Developer options" in the main menu, which offers access to such features as showing CPU usage, setting a background process limit, and activating a visual feedback for the touch screen. Truly, personalization options like these set Android apart.
Though we were hoping that it would be different, the Galaxy Nexus still has that slight laggy effect that we've seen on other Android phones. Indeed, you'll notice it here when scrolling through lists. It is better than we've seen on previous models, so it doesn't ruin the touch interface, but you do notice the difference when switching from an iOS or Windows Phone 7 device. You can change the brightness, backlight time, and font size. The display also has an accelerometer, which you can turn off, a proximity sensor, and a light sensor.
At the very bottom sit three touch controls for moving backward through a menu or feature, returning to the Home screen, and opening your list of recently viewed screens. Yes, you lose the dedicated search button that's on earlier Android phones, but that's a trait that the Galaxy Nexus inherited from Honeycomb (the search field is available in almost every native app and home screen). And as in Honeycomb, these ICS controls will fade in some apps to three points of light, until you tap them again. What's more, the controls rotate 90 degrees when you tip the phone's orientation.
Otherwise there are no physical controls on the front of the phone. Yet, you'll notice a glowing indicator light when you have a call and receive messages, e-mail, or notifications. Besides it being rather soothing, we're just glad it's there since that was a big omission on the Nexus S.
The virtual keyboard takes up the whole width of the display, whether you're using it in portrait or landscape mode. The primary screen has three rows of alphabetic keys with main punctuation just above. On the bottom row there's a huge spacebar smack in the center with a voice-activation key just to the left (when entering an e-mail address an "@" key takes its place). You'll need to click through to the additional keyboard for more punctuation and numbers, but the keyboard is spacious and easy to use. Unfortunately, it does not support Swype. The dial pad shows huge numbers, but tiny text.
The phone book size is limited by the available memory. Each entry holds multiple fields for phone numbers, as well as e-mail and street addresses, a company name and title, an instant-messaging handle, a birthday, a nickname, a URL, and notes. You can pair contacts with a photo and organize them into groups. Unfortunately, pairing individual contacts with one of the 25 polyphonic ringtones is another nonobvious feature. You'll have to open the person's profile "card," then tap into the Menu to set the ringtone or send all calls to voice mail.
Of course, the Galaxy Nexus has all of the other essentials you'd expect from a smartphone, like text and multimedia messaging, e-mail syncing (both Gmail and not), calendar syncing (both Google and not), a calculator, an alarm clock, and a news and weather widget. Also onboard are Bluetooth 2.0 (with A2DP), Wi-Fi (802.11 a/b/g/n), and a download and file manager. We're not pleased, however, that even though ICS supports USB mass storage, the Galaxy Nexus does not. The speaker-independent voice commands let you do just about anything using only your voice. They work fine as long as you speak clearly and use the phone in a place without a lot of background noise.
Google features and apps
Google fans have plenty of Google apps and services to use and explore. The list is no different from the handset's Nexus ancestors, but they're worth repeating. There's Google Talk, YouTube, Google Search (with voice), Google Latitude, Google Places, Google+, Google Maps with Navigation, and Google Messenger.
Maps also gets a little more 3D treatment with ICS. Zoom in far enough (with two fingers) and you'll see the buildings start to get some 3D shape. Glide two fingers up and down the screen to tilt the screen for a better view.
GPS features performed well, though we were a little wary given the GPS issues that have plagued previous Samsung Galaxy devices. On the first try it located us about a block away from CNET's offices, which is normal. On the second try, however, it pinpointed our location precisely. For the best experience, you should activate Wi-Fi and the GPS location feature in the Settings menu. The Galaxy Nexus has a gyroscope and a compass and a big leg up over the iPhone: it supports real-time turn-by-turn voice directions out of the box. The built-in barometer could be partially to thank; its purpose on the Galaxy Nexus is to assist with GPS locking.
With a pure Google experience, you have the freedom to use whichever apps you want through the Android Market. What's more, you can use non-Market titles, as well. Just keep in mind that the unlocked version of the Galaxy Nexus has just 16GB of internal memory (the Verizon version will have 32GB). Yes, that's a lot, but we say "just" because the Galaxy Nexus does not have an external memory card slot.
Camera, video, and music
The main camera has a 5-megapixel resolution, but you also can shoot in 3 megapixels, 1.3 megapixels, QVGA, and VGA. There's also a front-facing 1.3-megapixel camera for photos and video calls.
The shooters come with a fair, but not overwhelming set of editing options while taking the photo (more options are available in the photo gallery). You'll find a digital zoom, face detection, location tagging, four white-balance choices, seven exposure settings, and four "scene" modes (action, night, sunset, and party). The flash on the rear side is powerful to a fault. In dim environments it can wash out the lighter colors. You can set the flash to auto, keep it always on, or turn it off completely.
ICS brings a host of camera improvements, which we'll discuss in more detail below. We'll say here, though, that the lack of shutter lag is remarkable. In fact, when took the first photo, we didn't realize that the shutter had closed. Believe us when we say it's really that quick. Nice work, Google.
More interesting and useful in our eyes is the full suite of built-in editing tools in the photo gallery: cropping, red-eye reduction, face glow, straightening, rotating, flipping, and sharpening. There are also effects you can add like warmth, saturation, and sepia tones. In total, there are 16 color and style effects, and another four options for adjusting lighting. Google could have easily stopped short and continued to let the manufacturers add their own filters, but onboard editing makes the Android OS that much stronger on its own.
The camcorder shoots clips in three resolutions: 1080p HD, 720p HD, and 480p.You can adjust the white balance, you can use the flash as a recording light, and ICS added zooming while recording and several time-lapse intervals, from 1.5 seconds up to 10 seconds. Exactly how much you can record will depend on the available memory.
If you really want to get creative, the camcorder has several effects that will add some zaniness to your videos. Some of the options are nothing but fun--the sunset, disco, and space effects will add a background to your clips--but others are weird and pretty freaky. For example, a "big nose" effect will give your subject an enormous honker, "big mouth" will do the same for the smackers, and "big eyes" will give your friend vaguely disturbing bug eyes straight out of a Lady Gaga video.
Photo quality was mostly satisfying, but color accuracy was uneven. In some shots the brighter hues were faded, while in other pictures, we had too much saturation. There was also some questionable focusing from time to time. You can see some comparison shots with the iPhone 4S, Samsung Skyrocket, and HTC Vivid.
Videos were a mixed bag. HD clips were crisp and bright, though quick motions were blurry. Lower-res clips are usable in a pinch, but nothing appropriate for your wedding. The Galaxy Nexus also has an integrated Movie Studio app for creating your own video projects.
When you're not using the camera, the Galaxy Nexus has a Slacker radio app and a music player (MP3 and AAC files) that's linked in with the new Google Music. Features aren't extensive, but it's easy to use, and loading music on the phone is a seamless process, either wirelessly or using a USB cable. We'll explore Google Music in a future post.
We love the new video rental store that operates through the Android Market. We haven't plowed through the store completely, but the selection appears to be broad and the prices ($3.99 for a standard title and $4.99 for HD) are fair. In any case, an easy way to get videos is something Android has badly needed for a long time. Google Books also gives you access to plenty of titles.
The basic shell of the Web browser is the same, though ICS adds "Request desktop site," which opens the full version of a Web site and syncs with your bookmarks. You also can save Web pages offline, view your browsing history, share a page, and find text on a page, and use up to 16 tabs. And in true Android fashion, you can change the browser's settings down to the smallest detail. All of this adds up to make a useful and powerful mobile browser that's very much like one you'd use on a computer.
Another new feature is an "incognito" mode that allows you to browse pages without them appearing on your history or search bar and without leaving traces like cookies. Third-party apps have done this before, but now Google has baked it right into the browser.
Even with all the new features, the browser user experience doesn't feel too different. The interface isn't cluttered and it doesn't involve a learning curve. Both mobile and full versions of Web pages look great. There's pinch-to-zoom multitouch, you can change the text size, and you can change how far you'd like to zoom when you double-tap.
Ice Cream Sandwich
By all accounts, Ice Cream Sandwich is the Galaxy Nexus' star attraction. More a full-on revamp than update, an OS bump this deep and broad brings with it a truckload of new goodies that (as we've said before) make Android 2.3 Gingerbread look like a stale cookie. However, Google has somehow missed the cherry on top. But more on that later.
Ice Cream Sandwich is so packed with such a laundry list of detailed changes that it's easy to drown in the minutiae. As a result, we're going to keep this review focused on the bigger-picture features that are new to ICS, including that crowd-pleasing favorite, Face Unlock. Later, we'll expand the review after some more time getting to know the OS more fully. As for the rest of the additions and enhancements--of which there are many--we think the pictures in the screenshots gallery will be worth several thousand words.
New look and feel: Say goodbye to the Android you thought you knew. Google has all but transformed the visuals, leaving almost no screen as it was before. Instead, it blends many Android Honeycomb tablet sensibilities--the navigation buttons, tabs for recent apps, darker colors, and a more assertive look--with reworked Android flair.
Google's goal is to unify the smartphone and tablet designs, so that Android looks like Android on any screen size. From a features standpoint, it seems to work. From a design position, much of the new look is simple, elegant, grown-up, and, dare we say, sexy. Just look to the new menu button and menu lists, the redesigned notifications pull-down, the highly organized settings menu, and the photo-editing Gallery app for examples.
Yet, there's also a side of Ice Cream Sandwich that suffers from conflicting design ideologies, like a Honeycomb Mini that's also trying to make sense as a smartphone OS.