Review

Samsung Galaxy Nexus Review, Hands-On

January 5, 2012 at 1:11 am

Samsung Galaxy Nexus

The latest and greatest in Android, Samsung’s Galaxy Nexus, is one amazing piece of tech. It’s rare that I get overly-attached to any device I review, but this one is the exception. It will be a sad day when I send this one back to Verizon. It’s one of the most hotly-anticipated devices of 2011, and with good reason. Not only does it have a gorgeous 4.65″ 720p Super AMOLED display, but also the debut of Ice Cream Sandwich, an NFC chip, and a camera design that borders on superb. Beyond the obvious, however, the spec sheet is slightly under par for what you’d expect from Google’s new flagship. That’s not to say that it doesn’t use what it has well, because it does. Let’s run through the specs.

  • 4.65″ Super AMOLED display
  • 1GB RAM
  • 32GB Storage
  • 1.2GHz dual core processor
  • 5MP rear camera with LED flash and zero-lag shutter
  • 1.3MP front-facing webcam
  • 4G LTE connection from Verizon
  • 5.1 oz (150g); 15g heavier than the HSPA+ model
  • 9.47mm thick

Hardware:

Though there are more powerful spec sheets on the market right now, the Nexus still fares very well. And with the optimization made in Ice Cream Sandwich, the device is a bit more adept at managing the resources, resulting in some excellent performance. My first reaction when I unboxed it was, “Wow! This is huge!”. The display is slightly larger than anything else out there (Galaxy Note aside), but what really makes it seem larger is the lack of hardware keys. The virtual buttons give you more screen real estate to work with, and just the look of the buttonless front side makes this device seem like something right out of a sci-fi show.

Front

It’s also very light at only 5.1 oz. However, you’ll also notice that the device is a little slippery. Even though it has a textured back, the plastic is slick and it will easily slide out of your hand if you’re not careful. That raises another concern with the build quality. It’s plastic. I’m sure they made the choice for light weight and to make it easy to snap the back off, but if you’re putting out so much money for a device it really should feel more durable.

Back

Strike one against the Verizon version is the Verizon branding. A Nexus device should never have a carrier branding. Ever. The “pure” Google experience should simply demand that carriers not brand a device.

Micro USB and Charging Port

On the bottom you’ll find the micro USB port, which doubles as the charger port. However, there’s not USB mass storage mode, which is strike 2 against it. Instead, you’ll have to rely on other ways to transfer files. Fortunately, we had AirDroid, which proves again that this app is a must-have for Android users.

Side with Volume Rocker

One one side you’ll find the volume rocker, on the other the power/lock button. The rest of it is unadorned with any buttons, including a lack of a dedicated camera button. However, you can quick access the camera from the lock screen if you so choose.

Nexus and G2X Stacked

For comparison, we stacked up the Nexus and G2X. The slight curve in the Nexus design gives the impression that it’s about the same thickness. It’s actually slightly slimmer, and certainly much lighter.

Nexus and G2X Side-by-Side

A side-by-side comparison makes it rather obvious that this device is also much larger. Harder to notice is the 3-color LED that’s well-hidden on the bottom of the Nexus, which is a great notification light.

There’s been some debate about the display. Namely, it’s a pentile matrix. While some will claim that it doesn’t offer enough color, or has an effective lower resolution, in my opinion you’ll never notice. The display is bright, it’s gorgeous, and the viewing angles are superb. Viewing HD videos is a treat, and HD gaming is top-notch. You can also view desktop web pages with ease, if you’ve got the eyesight to handle it.

Software:

About Screen

The real attraction here is Ice Cream Sandwich. Google’s newest revamp of Android is by far the best I’ve ever seen. I’ve been through a lot of Android device running everything from 1.6-3.2. ICS really brings Android together in a way that Google has never done before. The look is fresh and appealing, the performance is better than any previous version, and the feature set combines the best of the old and the new. ICS has taken some of the best features of Honeycomb for tablets, and married them with the best of Gingerbread to create an OS that feels familiar, yet completely new. One huge plus, the only bloatware is VZW Backup Assistant, and My Verizon Account.

Virtual Keys:

The virtual keys are a great place to start. This feature was present in Honeycomb, and to see it come to Android phones is just awesome. Aside from the extra screen space it gives, it also lends a really futuristic look to the device. It’s also really helpful, as the keys hide themselves when you’re playing a game or running apps. They shrink to little blue dots that are still visible, but utterly unobtrusive. You’ll immediately notice, if you’re used to previous Android phones, is that there’s no more menu key. You’ve probably grown used to the 4 standard keys: Home, Back, Search and Menu. Now, there’s only a Home, Back, and the app switcher. However, once you’re in an app there is a small menu key that appears in the corner, represented by 3 vertical dots.

Another welcome addition from Honeycomb is the apps switcher, or recently-used-app switcher. This feature is fantastic, allowing quick switches between apps you’ve recently run. You can also swipe away individual apps from the menu if you no longer want them around.

Folders:

Above the virtual keys you’ll find the usual dock that we’re all used to. What makes this slightly different is the addition of easy folder creation. Grouping apps together isn’t anything new in Android. It’s been done through a variety of third-party apps. Folder creation is baked-in now, though and super easy to do. It’s akin to Circle Launcher, one of my favorite grouping apps. However, it’s even easier than that. Just drag and drop icons on top of one another to create folders, and then name them if you want to. The Nexus comes with a pre-created Google folder that hosts all the Google apps. It only took me a few seconds to create a few more, like a “Communications” folder with my phone app and messaging, a video folder with YouTube and Netflix, and a “Tools” folder with things like Speed Test, Settings, File Manager, Quadrant, etc. So why should folders make the dock any different? Perhaps that’s just me, but I found the dock much more useful for hosting folders full of the apps that I use the most.

Google Folder

Another big plus with ICS is how integrated all the sharing options are. Unlike iOS, which has Twitter integration, ICS shares with all your favorite services from Linked-In to Google+, Twitter, Picasa, DropBox, Evernote and lots more. The big missing link here is Facebook sharing, but that’s not so much Android’s fault as it is Facebook’s and Google’s inability to come to a compromise on sharing. This becomes even more apparent when using the People app.

People:

The People App

The contacts list has been replaced by the People App. This app brings together all your contact data from your saved contacts and social networks, and puts them all in one place. You can then view, not only contact info, but also status updates from Linked-In, Twitter, Google + shares, etc.

Data Manager:

Data Usage

Also new with Ice Cream Sandwich is the Data Manager. If you’re on a limited data plan, and you are if you have Verizon, then this app is great for keeping track of your usage. You can also set limits on mobile data use, so you can make sure you don’t go over. If you set a limit, it will automatically shut off your data connection once that limit is reached, unless you tell it otherwise.

Copy/Paste and Error Correction:

A minor feature that’s been added in Ice Cream Sandwich, that may get little notice, is actually one of the most welcome features. Copy and paste functionality, and error correction got a big overhaul. Unlike in previous versions, where you had a little slider that you had to maneuver into place to fix misspellings, you now have a new option. Tap where you want to change, and a menu pops up with suggestions of correct spellings and alternate words. Copy and paste works a little differently too. You can now drag and drop words to other locations.

Lock Screen:

Lock Screen

The lock screen is pretty much the same. You can now quick-access the camera from it, though. Then there’s the face-unlock feature. In Google’s demo it didn’t work too well. In practice, I didn’t have much luck with it either. 3 out of 5 attempts failed to recognize me, even after I tried to set it under different lighting conditions. This feature is really more of a novelty than an actual security feature, unfortunately, and there’s just too many ways it can mess up or be fooled to make it worth using.

Google Wallet:

Another strike against this device is Verizon’s choice not to include Google Wallet. It’s a Google device, and Wallet is a Google service that’s supposed to take advantage of the NFC chip. However, it’s not here. But that didn’t stop me. I went ahead and side-loaded Google Wallet, signed up, and was given a $10 Google gift card to use. It wasn’t long before I tried to put it to use at a couple of different places. Unfortunately, it’s not quite ready. The first place I tried, my phone said that the transaction had been completed. The retailer’s system showed it hadn’t, and sure enough no money had been taken off my card. Another try got the same result. Not to be discouraged, I tried it elsewhere. It worked there just fine, but the process was still a slower than just handing over my debit card. Wallet still needs some work. It might be, arguably, more secure than swiping your plastic, but the process needs some refinement and needs to be faster.

Google + Hangouts:

We’ve all seen the commercial by now, touting Google + Hangouts on the Nexus. Well, the commercial has it almost right. I had the chance to do some Hangouts with the guys over at Rootzwiki, and while the experience was mostly fun, there is a hitch. The video quality was great, and the LTE network efficient and in sync. The problem was with the audio. The sound for Hangouts on the Nexus just doesn’t work that well. One of the other guys was also on a Nexus so I got to experience the problem from both ends. Everyone complained that we sounded tinny and far away, even when we held the mic right in front of our faces. I can confirm that on my end it was the same. The other Nexus user was barely audible, and when he was the sound quality was pretty terrible. Oddly enough, I didn’t encounter this issue using Google Talk’s video chat. To keep up with the Hangout, I eventually had to go to my PC and put on my headset so people could hear me.

Google + Hangouts with the Rootzwiki News Team

Google + Hangouts with the Rootzwiki News Team

Google + Hangouts with the Rootzwiki News Team

Camera:

Camera App

When the Galaxy Nexus was announced, Google centered quite a bit on the camera with good reason. Even though it’s a 5MP shooter, the camera performs very admirably. Shots are clear and colors are good, though it’s no replacement for your high-end digital camera. It’s almost as good as the iPhone 4S camera, but the iPhone seems to have richer colors. The built-in editor in the gallery is also a nice touch, and allows a lot of basic editing functions. Take a look at some of the indoor and outdoor shots I’ve posted below, as well as a panorama shot.

Indoor Shot

Indoor Shot

Indoor Shot

Outdoor Shot

Panorama Shot

Camera Shot of Moto Droid Xyboard

Overall, Ice Cream Sandwich performs very admirably. There was a small update to download on unboxing it, and I never encountered any stability issues, random reboots or force closes. This version is definitely the best Android we’ve seen yet, and I have faith that Google will only make it better. I certainly can’t wait to get it on my A500 and G2X.

Performance:

Overall performance of the Nexus is pretty top-notch. It’s very fast at doing everything from launching apps, to snapping pictures, to playing games or browsing the web. Part of that’s due to the hardware, but a lot of that is also ICS. The changes to Android make it much better at managing memory and allocating resources where they need to be used. The biggest disappointment, as you’d expect, is the battery. The LTE radio is still a big battery drain, but it does fare better than the HTC Rezound, Droid Bionic, or Droid RAZR. Using it regularly throughout the day for texting, browsing, games, email, and social networking, it averaged about 6-7 hours of use. If you’re on standby most of the day it should give you no problems, however, heavy use will leave it drained pretty quickly.

Verizon LTE is still as fast as ever, but I could never get the usual speeds that I’ve come to love out of their network. Speed tests ranged from 5Mbps – almost 10Mbps, which is still pretty quick. However, previous Verizon devices I’ve tested have gone as high as 30Mbps, and seem to average more around 12-17Mbps. Fortunately, I rarely encountered the lack of 4G signal that I had with the RAZR and Droid Xyboard.

Speed Test

Something else to note, though it’s a more minor concern, is that the volume on the Nexus is terribly low. Even at full crank it’s barely audible in a quiet room. It does come packaged with a set of headphones, though. They’re not anything like the Beats Audio headphones on the Rezound, but they make a good companion.

Conclusions:

If you’re in the market for your next upgrade, you need to give the Nexus your attention. It’s a spectacular device, and hands-down the best Android phone out there right now. If you can stand to wait a while, you might be more interested in some of the quad core offerings on tap over the coming months. However, bear in mind that Nexus phones are flagships for Google’s latest advances. That means that you’ll be the first to see new services, new updates, and new features. Whether it really deserves the Nexus moniker is up for debate. There’s simply too many things withheld or altered on the device to really make it a true Nexus phone, however, that certainly shouldn’t deter you from taking a look. It’s a pricey piece of kit, but it’s certainly going to be worth having over the next year or two. It’s really impossible not to recommend this phone. If your budget can afford it, it’s worth it.

Pros:

  • Fast
  • Huge screen
  • Sharp display
  • Great camera
  • Developer phone
  • Ice Cream Sandwich
  • light weight, thin design
  • LTE speeds
  • Low on bloatware

Cons:

  • Mediocre battery life
  • High price
  • Verizon branding and lack of Google Wallet skews the Nexus brand
  • Spec sheet could be more powerful
If you’re looking to root this device, we’ll tell you how here.
If you’re interested in some known issues and fixes, you can find out about them here.
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