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Samsung Galaxy Nexus Expert Review

Samsung Galaxy Nexus

Rating: ★★★★☆

There are some gadgets in geek-world that are announced and we just cannot wait to touch. Nokia’s N95, the original iPhone, the T-Mobile G1 and Palm’s first Pre. And the Galaxy Nexus fits firmly in that category.

The big selling point here is not so much the handset – it’s what powers the Galaxy Nexus. Google has redrawn its Android OS in probably the biggest overhaul since it launched exactly three years ago.

Ice Cream Sandwich fuses together last year’s Gingerbread OS for phones and Honeycomb for tablets and gives us a whole new, futuristic Android device to get to grips with.

On top of that, the specs include a fantastic Super AMOLED HD screen, Dual-Core 1.2GHz processor, HSDPA, 5MP camera and NFC support, to name a few.

The Nexus itself is fairly big. With dimensions of 135.5 x 67.9 x 8.9mm, it’s marginally bigger than Samsung’s other flagship handset, the Galaxy S2. It’s also a little bit heavier at 135g compared to the latter’s 116g. Not that it feels larger although you can tell you are not using an iPhone 4S.

The front is probably as minimalist as you can get. All black with no buttons at all (we’ll explain more in the interface section about that.)

In fact, all you have on the front is the screen, front facing camera and the brightness sensor plus a cheeky little light beneath the screen that you don’t even know exists until you get an email and it begins to pulsate.

Samsung galaxy nexus review   Samsung galaxy nexus review

The sides are fairly unremarkable with power/standby on the right, volume on the left along with three charging pins (for a dock accessory), nothing up top and the bottom housing the charge/sync socket and headphone jack.

The whole handset has a curved shape we last encountered on the Galaxy S but it’s not too severe.

The rear takes its design cues from the S2 with a snap on cover that feels slightly coarse to give a good grip. It has both Google and Samsung branding on.

You won’t find an SD slot on the outside. Or indeed, the inside. Ridiculously, this – the flagship Google handset which is so set up as a media device – has been crippled by having NO expandable memory. Words fail us. And they may fail you when you realise that 16GB internal storage is your lot.

But the screen, when lit up, looks fantastic. Its 4.65-inches with a resolution of 720 x 1280, giving a ppi of 316. It really is super sharp. We would have expected nothing less with Samsung’s mobile displays among the best out there but it’s cracking for internet and video.

There is no doubt about it – this is a premium handset and is up there with the iPhone 4S and Nokia Lumia 800 in terms of marketing position.

If you want one, you’ll have to spend the cash and commit to upwards of £41 a month to bag a handset with no upfront charge. Sim-free will set you back around £520 though at the time of writing, the launch of unsubsidised models had been pushed back until the start of December.

Interface

The Galaxy Nexus is like nothing you’ll have seen before from Android. It is a complete redesign and although some bits are the same as they were, on the whole, even long-term Android users like us had to spend a few moments figuring out where things now are.

That’s not to say it’s hard to use – it’s highly intuitive, especially to new users – but you just have to put your old ideas to bed here. It’s also snappy and we encountered zero lags, even when trying to slow it down with every app open.

One thing we did notice and like was the welcome we got from Google on setting the handset up. Google works out you have just activated a Galaxy Nexus on your associated account and actually makes a point of emailing you to congratulate you and providing you with instructions. It’s a nice touch.

Homescreen

Navigation is no longer provided via a home button and various keys beneath the screen. There are no buttons on the front. Zilch. Nada.

Three soft keys are now provided within the OS at the bottom of the screen: back, home and multitasking. The beauty here is that when they’re not needed, the OS disposes of them and gives you more screen space to enjoy your pleasures. Icons have been refreshed and look sharper and clearer too… overall, it’s a much more polished experience to take on the gloss of Windows Phone and iOS.

But we noticed one annoying quirk straight away. When you set up the Galaxy Nexus for the first time, it asks if you’d like to restore from your Google Account.

Nothing new there, and we duly tapped ‘yes’ before putting the handset down for a moment. When we picked it up, our apps had installed alright – but all on the homescreens.

And you can only remove them one by one which is a right drag. It’s odd that they just don’t quietly go in to the app drawer like they have in the past.

The Galaxy Nexus ships with several new live wallpapers and all look very futuristic. You can see that the whole design here is more Honeycomb than Gingerbread. It’s dark and moody but also very aesthetically pleasing.

Homescreens are limited to five and there is no option to extend this. We’d have hoped for at least seven which is now the standard across Android. We also found we missed the options shortcut button.

On previous Android iterations, you would press this on the homescreen and be given shortcuts to actions like changing wallpapers, Google search, editing homescreens, adding widgets etc.

Now simple options require delving into the settings menu and going the long way round which feels like a backwards step. Also, the ability to pinch in to show an overview of all homescreens appears to have been taken away.

Speaking of settings, you now access that section through the notifications bar which, thankfully, Google has kept. It’s redesigned and is now semi-transparent but the gist of it remains the same – although there are now pictures of your friends when they message you, and a simple swipe will get rid of any unwanted notifications.

Multitasking is also easily taken care of with that new, on-screen shortcut key. It brings up a list of cards for you to swipe through with page impressions of each app.

To close one, it’s a simple matter of swiping it to the side though we would expect ICS’s power management options to take care of closing unwanted apps as Gingerbread’s did.

App Drawer and Widgets

The App Drawer looks similar to what we had before with a grid system offering four columns and five rows.

You no longer scroll down through your apps but across and then get your apps shooting at you from behind in an odd animation, which feels a little in your face.

There are tabs within the app drawer – Apps and Widgets. The Widgets tab is a godsend for Android users – allowing you to preview all of your widgets here and then just select which you want to install on your homescreen.

It saves so much time compared to the old way where you’d have to plonk each individually on the screen just to see what it looked like. Widgets can be resized on your homescreen, though this is only applicable to certain ones – unlike some third party launchers which allow you to resize any widget.

You can also create groups of apps in categories in the same way iOS users can although it’s not as efficient. We couldn’t figure out how to do it within the app drawer because holding down on an app icon just brings it to the homescreen ready for a shortcut (as Android always has done.)

On previous handsets (e.g. the Galaxy S2), users could hit the options button to bring up an edit menu and create folders that way but of course, that option button has bitten the digital dust.

The upshot of it is that you can create folders but only on the home screens and not within the app drawer. Once you’ve mastered that skill, then creating folders is as easy as pie – but takes a little getting used to.

Security

One of the biggest provider of audible gasps at the Galaxy Nexus launch in Hong Kong was the new facial recognition unlock. It’s a pretty simple idea in principle – the front facing camera takes a look at you and then decides if it’ll let you in or not.

Since the launch, there have been various claims it doesn’t work or can be fooled by a photo. Perhaps that’s why Google gives you a warning that it is not the most secure method when you set it up, but either way, it is without doubt the most fun.

We let it take a snapshot of our ugly mug and then every time we unlocked the phone, it worked flawlessly. We even tried to knock it off kilter by pulling a series of remarkably stupid faces. Only one (the screwed up nose and eyes all over the place one) actually fooled the Galaxy Nexus – every other attempt was seen through and the phone unlocked.

We did try to fool it with a photo and for us, it didn’t work. We also went through the obligatory, highly scientific test of getting our mates to try it. Again, that didn’t work. All in all, it’s a little bit novelty but for personal use, it’s fine. If it’s not good enough though, the usual Android offerings of PIN and pattern are always there too.

You can also set a backup pattern so that others can use the phone with your permission without having to bring your head on a stick if the rest of you can’t be there.

Contacts and Calling

Like the rest of the UI, Contacts has been rewritten and we are massive fans of the new look. The older one was looking really dated and the black colour scheme was hardly imaginative. The new People app is light (white and blue) and feels so much more elegant.

People

Names are presented in alphabetical order with photos on the right hand side. Up top, shortcuts let you navigate to favourites and groups whilst down below, you can search or add contacts with just one tap. All very straightforward.

One of the things we love about it is that each contact card now has a fairly large picture in it when you call them up at the top. And when you actually phone them, the Galaxy Nexus gives you (almost) full screen caller photos.

However, the phone also places a band across the top with their details which means that some of your contacts may appear to have their heads chopped off.

Contacts themselves are synchronised with Google in the cloud as they always have been and there is ample room for any information or field you’d care to chuck in its direction. They’re accessed through the phone book or dedicated People shortcuts that you can easily place on the homescreens.

Getting into the contacts app is as simple as tapping the contacts button which is, by default, placed on a dock at the bottom of the homescreens.

Unfortunately, Google has missed a trick here as it doesn’t seem to have been too keen on implementing a proper social networking solution.

We hoped to find some kind of automatic Facebook integration, for example, but none was forthcoming other than Google Talk. This is an area HTC has got spot on with its Sense handsets and others could benefit learning from.

Yes, we know this is a vanilla phone and the Galaxy Nexus is “pure Google” – we get that. But it would be nice if “pure Google” supported social networking integration.

However, all is not lost because when Ice Cream Sandwich is rolled out to others, hopefully the likes of Motorola, HTC, Samsung etc. will make sure it is sorted out on their handsets.

Call history is brought up by going into the phone app – again, provided on the dock at the bottom of the screen. It’s pretty much what you’d expect and displays outgoing and incoming calls in a nice list with pictures.

There is a tab here to bring your favourites up too and when you click on it, you’ll definitely know about it. That’s because it displays them by large thumbnails – and we mean large (four to a screen.) Looks great if your pics are high-res but ours were just pixelated thumbnails which looked a bit naff.

Calling

Making calls is a real pleasure. The phone-pad looks amazing in electric blue and really fits well with the ICS colour scheme.

Call quality is top notch too. There’s no option to turn any noise-reduction settings on or off but frankly, they’re not needed anyway as our signal quality was flawless as was the quality on both our end and other callers’.

One neat UI element is that when you get a call, you now have a button that you drag onto the relevant option: so you drag it on to ‘answer’, ‘ignore’ or SMS caller. Nice touch.

The speakerphone is also incredibly loud and clear. In fact, you don’t even need it on. We found that with the volume turned up, we could hear voices pretty clearly blaring through the earpiece from a good distance.

When in the phone app, you can search for numbers by tapping the magnifying glass at the bottom. We expected to see some kind of smart dialling which was notable by its absence when we started tapping out numbers on the phone-pad, but its not a big deal since there are so many other options in Android to get to your person of choice, as we’ve detailed above.

Messaging

As an Android device, messaging really is one of the Galaxy Nexus’ fortes and this is handled with aplomb.

Firstly, texting has been redesigned to fit in with the whole look of Ice Cream Sandwich. It’s fairly basic. White background, black headers, but it does the job well. It’s very much separate from the other messaging forms – there is no BlackBerry-style unified inbox here.

The real change you’ll notice is with Gmail. The old app was fairly good – supporting labels and deep search. But with ICS comes a new look Gmail experience (it even gets a spruced up icon) and we love it.

Samsung galaxy nexus review   Samsung galaxy nexus review

Composing an email is as simple as hitting the new email shortcut and very straightforward. You can also do this via a particular contact’s address book entry if that suits better.

Options are all laid out at the bottom of the screen now in the inbox view to save going through menus and when within emails, the whole look of it just seems so much more elegant.

You swipe left and right to move between messages and there is a multitude of settings for you to customise the experience to your heart’s content.

HTML emails are still displayed well although we do wish Google would sort out this issue regarding fitting them on the screen properly. Whereas Apple gives you a full screen overview of an HTML email allowing you to zoom in like a web-page, Android just fills the screen and you have to pan around to read. You can’t tap or pinch to zoom out. It’s a real annoyance.

This problem is also present in the secondary email application that Google has provided on the Galaxy Nexus for non-Gmail users. It’s a client designed for everything from POP3 to IMAP to Exchange and can be set to receive push emails where supported, poll every few minutes or be set for a manual connection.

Aside from the icon and the obvious dedicated benefits like labels etc., the client is the same as the Gmail one. It looks the same and options etc tend to be in the same place.

The beauty of Android is that you can add further messaging options within seconds via the Android Market. Everything from MSN to Yahoo to ICQ, WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and Ping. The list goes on and on. The Galaxy Nexus can be as sociable (or antisocial) as you wish it to be.

We were impressed with the keyboard. It’s an updated version of the Gingerbread keyboard which we initially weren’t that enamoured with. However, although keys felt a little small for our large fingers, the way the predictive text works, it was actually eerily accurate.

We expected typing messages to take far longer than was actually the case. There’s also a really satisfying haptic feedback when you tap keys – not too strong, not too faint but just right – which we liked.

If you don’t like the keyboard though, you can download a third party alternative – there are lots available on the Market that work in a number of ways.

Or you can go for the voice dictation option. If you’re patient. We found it gave poor results. It looks nice – the actual design of the app is spot on.

But it just can’t cope well with British accents. Maybe it learns gradually but we ended up shouting at it. One nice touch is that you can dictate whole messages. Say a sentence and it will type it out for you and then listen for another, so you don’t have to constantly tap the microphone.

But we spent that long correcting its mistakes, we were losing the will to live by the end of it. If Google has any intention of taking on Siri here, it needs to get its act together.

Internet

Early adopters always seem to draw the short straw. We pay inflated prices and then find bits and pieces don’t work yet because the product is so new. Case in point here with the Galaxy Nexus.

This phone runs the latest Google OS – and compared to the internet experiences of both Gingerbread and Honeycomb, we were expecting perfection. But there was one huge omission on our review handset. Flash. Yes, you read that correctly. Flash is NOT on there.

To be fair to Samsung and Google, sometimes on a new phone, you do have to go into the Market to download the plugin. The problem is that the plugin isn’t compatible. Ice Cream Sandwich is SO new that Adobe hasn’t updated it yet.

Samsung galaxy nexus review   Samsung galaxy nexus review

In fairness, we’d put our life-savings (about a tenner) on this being sorted soon but it did mean we weren’t able to get the best out of the handset we had.

And also there’s the issue of how long Flash video has left. With Adobe dropping its mobile devlopment, Flash will become obsolete in the next few years, perhaps in the lifetime of this device. But the fact is a large portion of the web is still Flash enabled, so it’s still a desirable feature on phones.

Having said that, Flash aside, the browsing experience on the Galaxy Nexus is what you would expect. It’s brilliant. Pages load incredibly fast over Wi-Fi and very fast over HSDPA.

We navigated to the TechRadar site and it took just three seconds to give us a full overview of the page. It was six seconds before the loading bar disappeared but the last three seconds didn’t stop us from exploring or moving on.

Doing the same test over 3G added an extra two seconds. Some Galaxy Nexus models will be 4G LTE enabled but since we haven’t got that yet here (aside from a few lucky enough to be on an O2 trial in London), we’ll not rue the loss too much.

Pages are initially displayed full screen zoomed out and you can even choose a default zoom level from the menu to personalise this. Tap to zoom works well as does pinching to enlarge or shrink pages. Text reflows well on sites that our other Samsung, the Galaxy S2, failed to alter.

You can also save pages for offline viewing later which negates the need for the likes of Instapaper or Read-It-Later.

What Android appears to do here is store a large picture of the page you have saved because when we then put our Galaxy Nexus into offline mode and tried to click on links to see what it would say, we realised that links were no longer links but just text and touching it doesn’t allow you to click on it or even highlight it for copying and pasting.

Bookmarks are displayed through a tab at the top and can be added easily. You can also view several open windows, which are displayed in a card-style – the same as the one we get in the multi-tasking menu.

The browser is fantastic and aside from the (presumably temporary) lack of Flash, we had no complaints. However, we appreciate that Android’s browser is not necessarily to everybody’s taste and if this is the case, you can easily download a third party one from the Market.

There are dozens available with the likes of Dolphin HD and Firefox being very credible alternatives.

Media

The size of the Galaxy Nexus, the quality of its screen and its weight make this an ideal PMP and we really enjoyed using it as such. It’s a real shame, however, that you are stuck with a finite amount of storage as it makes you really selective about what music and videos you load on in case you run out of space.

Music

The music player has been redesigned. The icon is now the same as that of Google’s new Google Music service and we wondered initially if that was linked in but it wasn’t. The service is only live in the US at the moment – but should hit the UK sometime soon (ish).

When you’re in, it’s very similar to what you’ve used before as the changes are mainly cosmetic. The most adventurous thing you can do with it is play around with the equaliser settings, bass boost and 3D effect.

The latter two require headphones to be plugged in and although they do make some difference, don’t be expecting something like Beats Audio on the HTC Sensation XE.

There is also a basic music widget that allows you to control playback and when the screen is locked, you can easily access music controls to change the song in a similar fashion to iOS. Very handy when driving.

We’re also fans of the way it handles searches. For example, holding your finger down on the song title as it plays allows you to search for others on Amazon MP3, do a Google search on it, scan YouTube for videos etc.

It’s a competent music player and does exactly what you’d expect. We had no issues with the major obvious file types, such as MP3, WAV or AAC. But it’s hardly adventurous. Thankfully, there are many free and paid for alternatives out there that do a much, much better job so we’d encourage you to explore.

Unfortunately, there is no FM radio bundled on the Galaxy Nexus. You can always download the excellent TuneInRadio app but it would have been nice to have an old fashioned radio to save eating into the data allowance.

Video

Watching movies is a more than pleasant affair on the Galaxy Nexus. It is a basic player in that when you start playing one of your flicks, there aren’t dozens of options that you can wade through, tweaking this and tweaking that.

There is literally play and pause and that’s it (apart from a scrubber at the bottom so you can move ahead or back to a chosen point.) Playing audio over the included speaker is OK in a moderately quiet room but you’ll need headphones should you want to watch videos anywhere remotely noisy.

Samsung galaxy nexus review

Luckily, the Galaxy Nexus is fairly easy to hold and your hands aren’t likely to get tired unless you’re really scrawny. Because of its shape though, it’s not the kind of phone that will prop up and stay up so if you’re watching a movie on a train, for example, you’ll either have to hold it for the duration or come up with some elaborate way of making a stand for it to stay upright in.

All the major file types are supported apart from Apple’s .mov format where videos would transfer but then just not show up on the phone at all.

And the experience is mesmeric – the sharpness and the improved contrast ratios over LCD are there for all to see, even on low-grade video, and we were massively impressed with the mixture of resolution and screen size. This is next generation stuff right here.

One of the big plusses here is that if you get bored of your own videos and you don’t fancy YouTube (by the way, a YouTube app IS present on the Galaxy Nexus), then you can download more from Google.

It’s recently started offering rentals of movies via the Android Market but on Ice Cream Sandwich, this is hardwired into the Videos app. Recent releases are there and reasonably priced. For a new service, it’s actually very well stocked.

Photos are accessed via the Gallery (both the ones you’ve taken on the Galaxy Nexus and your Picassa albums) and are laid out in neat thumbnails.

You can edit them within the app itself and do basic stuff like cropping or use the included Photo Studio app to do a little more. It’s still the more basic end of the spectrum (changing brightness etc) but is admirable and does the job.

Of course, there are also apps like Photoshop and PicSayPro which do the same tasks and more detail and are available via the Android Market.

For streaming, DLNA is supported although you wouldn’t know it since there is no obvious app included to show it off. The hardware is there but you have to download third party software from the Market to fully realise this.

Final thoughts

The Galaxy Nexus is a brave foray into the mobile world with a stonking new OS that delivers in a lot of ways. But Google and Samsung have spent so much time on the aesthetics and the look, that in some places, they’ve taken an eye off attention to detail – mostly on the hardware.

We liked

There’s something great about having a ‘pure Google’ phone and the show-off factor is here since few will be able to get their hands on this. It’s got a fantastic screen, a superb new OS and extra elements like Android Beam for sharing photos, contacts or (in the future) connecting to peripherals.

And as a smartphone or even mini computer, it’s a great size with a nice weight that doesn’t feel too cumbersome to carry or use.

Multitasking and improved widget management make this a much improved option for Android fans and we cannot fault call quality which, as always, is the basis of any phone experience.

We disliked

But this is a premium handset – and you’ll pay through the nose for it initially. So with that in mind, we are completely dumbfounded to see no option to expand the memory which ultimately means you don’t get the best out of what could be an incredible handset.

We also found an issue with the battery: sure, it’s much bigger at 1750mAh, but that larger screen and high performance processor saw a much larger battery drain than we’d expected from a flasgship device, sometimes not even lasting the day.

Those who buy it now will also find they come down with a dose of early-adopters-itis which could render basic apps and elements like Flash video – which you expect to work immediately – useless.

Plus, for a PMP as well a phone, we’d have liked to have seen a better camera – this one has very limited options despite taking some excellent snaps (which we’ll bring you shortly once we’ve completed our in-depth test).

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Pros

  • Contacts integration is excellent
  • Refreshed Gmail app is even better than before
  • Keyboard and internet both fantastic
  • Future-proofed with NFC

Cons

  • Only five homescreens limits customisation options
  • Other UIs offer better social networking
  • HTML email needs fixing
  • Voice dictation is a step behind Siri
  • No FM radio or SD card slot
  • Battery life needs to be improved

Verdict

We had real high hopes for the Galaxy Nexus and genuinely expected it to take the place of best smartphone on the market today. But it hasn’t.

That is not to say it’s not a good handset because it is a fantastic piece of kit. But if you were to take away Ice Cream Sandwich, hardware-wise, you’d not have much to write home about compared to what else is out there.

ICS does bring a lot of new stuff to the Android table and we are genuinely impressed with the way it looks. It feels savvy, futuristic and both competent and confident.

But it just doesn’t bowl us over and give us that ‘wow’ factor in the hand the way it did when we handled it for a few minutes at Google HQ.

The fact of the matter is that we think it still lags behind the Samsung Galaxy S2 – albeit not by a massive margin. But this will also be a lot more expensive than the S2 at launch for the simple reason that it’s Google’s latest device (and being plugged heavily could lead to stock shortages).

Put it this way, if we were to find one wrapped under the tree on Christmas morning, we wouldn’t berate Santa. But unless you’re a massive ‘Pure Google’ fan, we’d suggest your call St Nick up on Boxing Day, ask if he had the receipt still, point out you’d been exceptionally good this year, then go swap it for a Galaxy S2 – or wait
to see what the rest of the manufacturers manage when their creative bods get cracking with Ice Cream Sandwich.

Samsung Galaxy Nexus

 


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