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Tested: Life with the Samsung Galaxy Nexus Smartphone

By Ryan Whitwam

What we think of Google's new flagship Android device on Verizon's LTE network.

The Galaxy Nexus is the third device in Google’s Nexus line of flagship phones. Nexus has always been a platform for showing off what Android truly is. There are no OEM interfaces, no locked bootloaders, and no compromises on updates. We’ve been spending some quality time with the Verizon Galaxy Nexus since it launched last week, and have gotten to know it quite well.

Unlike last year’s Nexus, this device is on top of the hardware heap, at least for now. Can the software make this the best Nexus yet? Stick around to find out.

The Hardware

Let’s start where your eyes will be glued most of the time; with that massive screen. The Galaxy Nexus has a 4.65-inch Super AMOLED HD panel at a staggering 1280x720 resolution. Much has been made about how Samsung got to that number. Recent AMOLEDs from the company have employed traditional RGB sub-pixel arrangements instead of the oft maligned PenTile. Well, the Galaxy Nexus goes back to PenTile in order to hit 720p.

If you were worried about the PenTile blurriness ruining that 720p screen, don’t. This screen is absolutely beautiful. It turns out that when you get to the point where the sub-pixels are this small, you simply cannot see them in enough detail to pick out that characteristic PenTile crosshatch. All the text and even the smallest UI elements look amazing on this screen.

That said, there is one issue with Super AMOLED in general that is on display here. With the backlight turned all the way down, there is visible banding on the screen. You only notice it with solid-colored backdrops, particularly greys. There is also a subtle reddish tint common on AMOLEDs. For most users, this won’t be a deal breaker. If you’re very picky, though, it might bother you.

Inside, the Galaxy Nexus is packing a dual-core TI OMAP 4460 at 1.2GHz per core. This SoC uses the PowerVR SGX540 GPU clocked at nearly 400MHz. The chip seems to be completely capable of pushing pixels around and crunching bits as needed. There is a marked improvement in game performance over single-core parts, and just moving around the UI is very responsive. The Galaxy Nexus also has 1GB of RAM, which allows more applications to remain in memory.

For storage, users will find 32GB internally (16GB for the HSPA+ version), and no SD card. There was no SD card in the Nexus S either, and we’re still bummed Google isn’t adding external storage in the Nexus line. What is new here, is that there is only one internal partition for data and app storage. Because of this, Google had to do away with USB mass storage.

Now the Nexus uses MTP or PTP to make a computer think that it's a media player, or camera. On Windows PCs, this works automatically, but Macs need additional software to access the device. In general, we’re not thrilled with the change. It’s nice to only have one partition to deal with, but MTP is buggy. Sometimes the device stops responding during large transfers. Other times it’s just slow to copy files from a PC.

This is the 4G LTE Nexus, and you might be wondering how the radio performance is. The unsatisfying answer is: it depends. In areas of moderate or good 4G reception, the phone is screaming-fast. Unnecessarily fast, even. Speedtests are coming up as fast as 20Mbps down, and 15Mbps up with 3-4 bars. More common speeds are around 12-14Mbps both down and up.

Like other Verizon LTE devices, there are problems with switching between 3G and 4G. Sometimes it hangs, and we are forced to move to a spot with better reception, or toggle airplane mode to get it going again. Big Red claims to be aware of the issue, but it’s probably a network-level problem. It might be fixed at some point, but in the meantime, users will have to put up with a little annoyance. If you’re in a solid service area, you should have no issues, though.

Bucking the trend of 8MP rear cameras on phones, the Galaxy Nexus rocks a 5MP sensor instead. It’s still possible for a 5MP camera to perform just fine; see the iPhone 4 for proof of that. Unfortunately, the camera in this case is just okay. It does well in bright conditions with very little noise and good color reproduction. In less than ideal light, the Nexus produces images with too much grain and muted colors. The pictures are slightly better than the Nexus S, but a year on, we expected more.

Since we’ve been using the Nexus for a few days, we can give you a solid estimate on battery life. Frankly, it’s mediocre. Under heavy use, the LTE Nexus will hit the 15% warning in about 9 hours. For your further information, heavy use for us consists of about 4 hours of audio playback, moderate 4G web browsing, a handful of voice calls, some SMS, and fairly frequent Twitter and Google push updates. You can do worse on a 4G device, but heavy users should have a wall socket or spare battery handy for a night on the town. If your phone lives in your pocket most of the day, making it through a day with juice to spare is possible.

Lastly, there is the device build quality. Samsung phones don’t have a reputation for top-tier feel. Samsung uses a lot of plastic, but we will grant that the company chooses plastic very well these days. The Galaxy Nexus feels solid despite its plastic shell. There is no flex to speak of, and it's good that the super-glossy fingerprint-magnet finish from the Nexus S is gone. The absurdly-named “Hyper Skin” back plate is really just a flimsy bit of plastic. This is by far the most worrisome part of the build.

Despite its imposing dimensions, the phone feels very good in the hand. It’s just short of 9mm thick, and about 150g. It curves in the right places, and the buttons are conveniently placed for your fingers. The Nexus has more subtle design-sense than a device like the Droid Razr, which works to be as thin as possible with little regard for anything else.

The Software

Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) is the real star of the show. The Nexus program exists mainly to show off the new software and get a stock experience into people’s hands. Last year’s update to version 2.3 Gingerbread was a fairly minor update, coming just 6 months after Froyo. ICS, on the other hand, is a massive change with more features than you would ever guess.

Everyone chuckled a bit when Google’s Matias Duarte led into the ICS announcement with the new font, Roboto. We feel a little bad about that now, because Roboto sets the tone for the entire OS. There are more clean lines and everything looks “flatter.” You'll see a snazzy tile-based UI in places like the Gallery and People app too. Google has pulled together a cohesive aesthetic and color palate to make ICS a very attractive operating system. Even less important apps like the dialer got prettied up.

Starting with the lock screen, we’re very happy with the improvements Google has made. It looks sharper and more polished, like so much of the OS. The addition of the camera shortcut is welcome, as is the ability to open the notification shade from the lock screen. Face Unlock is a flashy feature, and it works well-enough, but it’s not really secure, and the camera takes about a second to spin up before it can even get a look at you. Overall, it’s too slow for daily use. You can still use it to wow your friends, though.

This is the first time we haven’t felt any desire to drop LauncherPro on a device.

Android’s new home screen is one of our favorite parts of ICS. This is the first time we haven’t felt any desire to drop LauncherPro on a device. Scrolling from screen to screen is completely smooth, as are the scrolling animations on the new widgets for Gmail, Calendar, and others. By adopting iOS-style folders, Google makes it easier to organize the home screen. You don’t even need to worry about losing apps in a folder because they are always accessible from the new app drawer.

Speaking of the app drawer, it works as expected, but the horizontal scrolling isn't really an improvement for us. The side to side gesture is prevalent in the OS, and we understand the rationale, but it takes longer to get around. The new widget list is in the drawer now, and this change much appreciated. Older versions of Android have a long list of widgets with little information on just what they look like. ICS shows you the size, and can preview the appearance of ICS-compatible widgets.

The decision to go with on-screen buttons was a little controversial, but don't fret, they are just fine. It’s not all that different from using capacitive buttons, but they feel a little more responsive than some of the separate buttons out there. That might be a good or bad thing, depending on how you hold the phone while playing games.

The multitasking button brings up recent apps in a scrollable list of thumbnails. This looks very good, and removing apps is handled with a simple swipe. However, this is also where we’re seeing the clearest example of lag in ICS. When you get a fair number of apps piled up in the background, there is a noticeable delay between when you tap the button, and when the apps come up.

A consequence of the on-screen button system is the removal of the dedicated menu button. Developers are now encouraged to use the action bar for accessing settings and other options. It takes a little getting used to, but you will eventually be able to spot that little 3-dot icon from a mile away. It would help if only the location were standardized. Instead, it is sometimes at the bottom, and other times at the top.

The keyboard itself doesn’t feel terribly different to us, but the key spacing is improved. The real improvements in text input are two-fold. First, selection and correction are worlds better. Android is much more sensible about figuring out what word you meant to type. It can tell if you missed a space, or if you accidentally hit space too soon. There is no more guessing what will happen when you select text either. Long-press or double tap to select a word. A button pops up letting you replace it if you want, but you also get an action bar across the top of the screen with copy, cut and paste options. Non-dictionary terms are underlined, and tapping on them pulls up suggestions. This is a marvelous feature.

The other big step forward is in the realm of voice input. Starting in ICS, voice input is real time. Hit the microphone on the keyboard, and start talking. Android will fill in words as you go instead of waiting until you stop, then uploading everything at once. You can pause and fix typos, then pick right back up without restarting the voice interface. When you are done, the voice print will be rechecked for errors in the traditional way. We have found it to not only be faster, but considerably more accurate.

One of the most important parts of any smartphone is the browser, and Android 4.0 brings the most significant browser update the platform has ever seen. This is one of the features we were most excited about, and it lives up to our hopes and dreams. Page rendering speeds are excellent, and scrolling is super-smooth. Zooming is a tad bit sluggish on very heavy sites, but it’s overall good. Sadly, Google removed the +/- buttons for one-handed zooming.

The browser’s new incognito mode works as advertised, as does the ‘request desktop site’ toggle. If you use Chrome, you can sync your browser data to Android. There is a handy account tab in the bookmarks for links imported from your PC. Tab management here is moddled after the multitasking interface, and it works very well. Unlike the multitasking button, there is no hesitation pulling this up.

While the image sensor itself is fairly middle-of-the-road, the camera app is much better. It has the famed zero shutter lag, but there is also touch to focus, panorama mode, and face detection. You might not get the absolute best images, but thanks to a much-improved app, you will at least get to take the shot.

These are the main points in ICS, but there are a few smaller features as well. Quick Responses are canned SMS messages you can send to a rejected caller. We’ve been using these a lot (sorry, everyone), and they’re great. Android Beam is really useful if you’ve got more than one Nexus on hand. We’ve given this a shot too, and it makes sharing content very easy. It will be nice when more phones support it. Other welcome additions to Android also include native screenshot capture, and a data usage monitor.

Is this the Android you’re looking for?

If you are an Android user, this is the best phone you can buy. The screen is spectacular, the internals are solidly top of line for now, and the software is awesome. The Nexus is on the large size, but its efficient design makes it feel smaller in the hand than expected. The original Evo feels bigger. Google has said that it will be handling the updates for the Galaxy Nexus, so expect it to get similar treatment to the GSM phones of the past. Verizon’s LTE network has its foibles, but it works as expected most of the time, and it is blazing fast.

Google has worked hard to make its Android OS easier to grasp, and has been mostly successful.

Even smartphone buyers that aren’t accustomed to Android should take a look at the Nexus. Google has worked to make the OS easier to grasp, and has been mostly successful in that. There is still a lot of complexity under the surface, but the things you need are more accessible. More superficially, Android is just more attractive than it used to be.

The Galaxy Nexus is selling at Verizon Wireless stores for $299 on a 2-year contract. Steep, but in line with other high-end LTE handsets. When you compare the Galaxy Nexus to the Razrs and Rezounds it’s sitting next to, there’s no contest.