In early 2010, the Nexus One became the yardstick for all future Android handsets and, later that year, the launch vehicle for FroYo. A year ago, the Nexus S introduced us to Gingerbread on the popular Galaxy S platform. Now, a few weeks after being unveiled with much fanfare, we're finally able to sink our teeth into Ice Cream Sandwich with the Galaxy Nexus, arguably the latest addition to Samsung's critically acclaimed Galaxy S II family. So, does this highly anticipated device live up to our expectations? Is the Galaxy Nexus the smartphone to beat? Most importantly, is Ice Cream Sandwich ready to take Android to the next level? In a word, yes. Read on for our full review.
There's absolutely no doubt that the Galaxy Nexus is a big phone. Sure, it's not Galaxy Note large, but it's a smidgen taller (and narrower) than the HTC Titan. As such it dwarfs its predecessor, the Nexus S. While this could be an issue for some folks, we didn't have any trouble fitting the handset in our pockets. Despite its size, the Galaxy Nexus manages to be quite thin (8.94mm / 0.35in) and light (135g / 4.76oz). As a result, it feels wonderful in hand. Design-wise, the Galaxy Nexus looks like what we imagine would happen if we stacked a Nexus S and a Galaxy S II and flattened them with a rolling pin. Last year's shiny black lacquer gives way to a satiny gunmetal gray finish that manages to be at once more refined and more understated. Build quality is typical Samsung — the plastic construction is durable but looks and feels cheap for such a flagship device.
The Galaxy Nexus looks like what we imagine would happen if we stacked a Nexus S and a Galaxy S II and flattened them with a rolling pin.
Considering most Galaxy S II variants are powered by Samsung's in-house Exynos SoC, with some models using Qualcomm's Snapdragon S3 and NVIDIA's Tegra 2, we were surprised to discover that the Galaxy Nexus eschew all of these in favor of TI's OMAP 4460, a dual-core 1.2GHz Cortex A9 CPU with a PowerVR SGX540 GPU, paired here with 1GB of RAM. Our unlocked HSPA+ review unit boasts 16GB of built-in storage (the LTE version comes with 32GB). Unfortunately — and unlike Gingerbread — Ice Cream Sandwich only supports USB Mass Storage on removable media, leaving MTP and PTP as the only options to transfer content to / from the phone via USB.
In terms of radios, you'll find WiFi a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 3.0, GPS / AGPS and NFC. Moreover, the Galaxy Nexus is the first Android device with a pentaband 21Mbps HSPA+ radio (that's 2100, 1700 / AWS, 1900, 900, and 850MHz bands), meaning it's compatible with both T-Mobile and AT&T's 3G / "4G" networks in the US. A quadband EDGE radio provides legacy support. Rounding up the spec list is the usual bevy of sensors — accelerometer, compass, gyroscope, light and proximity — along with a new kid of the block, known as a barometer. Speaking of sensors, we experienced problems with the auto-brightness setting, which would dim the screen too much in low light, while behaving normally in daylight. Hopefully, this will be fixed in a future software update.
Performance and battery life
The Galaxy Nexus is definitely one of the fastest Android handsets we've ever played with. Everything feels snappy, everything looks fluid — Ice Cream Sandwich isn't just a new version of Google's mobile OS, it's what happens when Android hits the gym and becomes lean and mean. That being said, the Galaxy Note, with its dual-core 1.4GHz Exynos processor and optimized build of Samsung's TouchWiz 4.0 UI, still wins in terms of perceived speed. Getting the most performance from Android 4.0 requires a few tweaks. Not all the live wallpapers are fully optimized (for example, Phase Beam is, but Water isn't). Developers have to add a single line of code to their apps to take advantage of 2D hardware acceleration — you're able to enable this as the default for all apps by checking "Force GPU rendering" in the Developer Options.
Ice Cream Sandwich is what happens when Android hits the gym and becomes lean and mean.
Samsung Galaxy Nexus
Samsung Galaxy Note
Motorola Droid RAZR
Linpack Single-thread (MFLOPS)
Linpack Multi-thread (MFLOPS)
Nenamark 1 (fps)
Nenamark 2 (fps)
Would not run
SunSpider 9.1 (ms)
We didn't experience any issues with network performance. Calls sounded loud and clear on both ends (thanks in part, no doubt, to the dual microphone setup), and data speeds on T-Mobile and AT&T matched our expectations for this type of radio, with results as high as 8Mbps down and 1.7Mbps up. Some European owners have documented erratic volume problems when connected to 900MHz GSM networks — something we were unable to reproduce here in the US for lack of compatible bands — but Google's already promised a fix. Audio quality is fine when listening to music. The Galaxy Nexus is able to drive a variety of headphones and earbuds without trouble, and the speaker is surprisingly decent.
Battery life is excellent. While we only managed to squeeze about five hours and 15 minutes from our battery rundown test (where we play a looped video starting from a full charge), it matches what we saw with the Droid RAZR, which features a similar battery and processor. Note that we switched video players since our usual app misbehaves in Ice Cream Sandwich. The 1,750mAh battery fared significantly better in our battery usage test (where we use the device normally until it shuts down), lasting an impressive 28 hours. Other than watching videos, it's unlikely most people will have to worry about running out of juice with the Galaxy Nexus.
We're just going to come right out and say it. The five megapixel autofocus camera on the Galaxy Nexus is underwhelming, and to be clear, we're not referring to the specs, but to the actual pictures. In the year since the introduction of the Nexus S, we've witnessed significant improvements in camera performance, first with Samsung's Galaxy S II, then with HTC's myTouch 4G Slide, and more recently, with Apple's iPhone 4S. Each of these handsets combines an eight megapixel backside-illuminated sensor with a fast wide-angle autofocus lens, and takes wonderful shots. It's not clear why Google passed on using Samsung's flagship camera module, but it's a real shame. While the Galaxy Nexus shooter is extremely fast and introduces plenty of new features, it provides little (if any) improvement in picture quality over the Nexus S.
While the Galaxy Nexus shooter is extremely fast, it provides little improvement in picture quality over the Nexus S.
The new camera app is incredibly quick and borrows a lot of functionality from existing third-party Android shooters, such as touch-to-focus, continuous autofocus, face tracking, zero shutter lag and panorama. It's easy to take several shots per second by repeatedly tapping the on-screen shutter key. Google clearly put a lot of effort into revamping the camera app. It's simple and intuitive, with three primary modes of operation — video, stills, and panorama. Video recording now supports 1080p capture (720p using the front-facing sensor), real-time effects (think Photo Booth with face tracking) and time lapse (a feature we're particularly fond of). While there's no dedicated two-stage camera button, holding the on-screen shutter key locks focus and exposure, and releasing it snaps the picture. Sadly, the volume rocker doesn't double as a zoom control, but there's an on-screen slider.
Most of the time, it's possible to coax the Galaxy Nexus camera into taking reasonably nice shots. Color balance is quite good, but exposure is sometimes off due to the sensor's narrow dynamic range. We also noticed that bright images exhibit some haze. Pictures snapped in low light suffer from significant noise and loss of detail. The Galaxy Nexus captures 1080p video with mono audio (despite the dual microphone setup). While the frame rate maxes out at 24fps, the camera supports continuous autofocus. Ice Cream Sandwich features a comprehensive photo editor within the Gallery app (complete with Instagram-like filters) and a dedicated video editor called Movie Studio.
Sure, the Galaxy Nexus is a beautiful and powerful piece of hardware, but that's only part of the story. More significantly, it's the launch device for Google's highly anticipated new version of Android — Ice Cream Sandwich — the company's most significant mobile OS update yet, with a laundry list of improvements. As such, we approached the new software with lofty expectations, and while we weren't disappointed, we were surprised by the extent of the changes, to the point where we found ourselves having to undo years of old Android habits.
There's a definite learning curve to Ice Cream Sandwich that's ultimately rewarded with a more attractive design and a more coherent user experience. Gingerbread's lime green-on-black color scheme gives way to a more subtle light blue-on-gray motif, and for the first time, we're getting a better sense for where Android is headed — a clearer identity, which is fantastic news. That being said, we're not convinced that Android 4.0 will be more intuitive for first-time users — it still feels geared towards people like us: the nerdy, tech-savvy, geeky and power-hungry set. Let's dive into the details.
With Ice Cream Sandwich we're getting a better sense for where Android is headed.
We're happy to report that Android 4.0 provides much improved text input and a consistent, system-wide clipboard. The keyboard is now significantly more accurate, with better word prediction and a spell checker that underlines mistyped words in red — just touch any mistyped word to see a list of suggestions. Continuous voice input is now supported in any input field and displays spoken text in near-real-time. Long-pressing any text selects the current word, and brings up the selection carets along with a clipboard bar with buttons for select all, cut, copy and paste.
Google also fitted Ice Cream Sandwich with a comprehensive and intuitive set of tools to manage data usage. You're able to monitor total data usage and per-app data usage with separate counters for mobile networks and for WiFi. Better yet, it's possible to set a warning threshold as well as a hard limit beyond which the phone will stop using data over mobile networks altogether — something sure to come in handy for anyone with one of those pesky tiered data plans. There's also a way to turn off background data for individual apps, forcing them to use WiFi instead.
Most of Android's core apps have been revamped as well, and feature a more intuitive layout. The Gmail app gains multiple text sizes, the calendar adds a neat pinch-to-zoom feature, and — as we mentioned above — the Web browser is much improved, especially in terms of performance. Expect a full-blown review of every intricate Ice Cream Sandwich detail in the days ahead.
Let's not beat around the bush. The Galaxy Nexus is definitely the best Android phone available today — it's possibly even the best phone available today, period. Sure, it's not perfect — we're disappointed that the camera doesn't deliver the same wow factor as the rest of the handset. It's an alright shooter, but it's just no match for the state-of-the-art. There's also room for improvement in terms of build and materials quality. Still, there's no denying the satisfying look and feel, the stunning display, the impressive performance, the excellent battery life — the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts.
Ice Cream Sandwich is phenomenal — it represents a giant leap forward for Android and brings a whole new level of style and substance to Google's mobile OS. Still, while the design is more refined and the user experience more polished, we're not sure it's intuitive enough for first-time users. At the core, it's clear that Android remains targeted squarely at tech-savvy, power-hungry folks like us. No matter — the Galaxy Nexus is proof that we can have our Ice Cream Sandwich and eat it too.
Dana Wollman contributed to this report.