Samsung Galaxy Nexus Review

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Samsung Galaxy Nexus

“The Galaxy Nexus is one of those few phones that is truly different from what came before it.”
  • New Android Ice Cream Sandwich rocks
  • Fast camera shutter speed
  • Clean, buttonless design
  • Feels great to hold
  • 4G LTE, dual-core, and NFC included
  • Screen is big, but manageable
  • Battery life isn’t great
  • Many apps don't take advantage of swiping
  • Camera gets trigger happy
  • Contacts app still needs improving

We review a lot of phones, tablets, gadgets, and gizmos at Digital Trends, but very few of them are unique. Most of the time, only one or two small features differentiate a new device from all that came before it, if that. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with this, but with the number of device makers in the world, it’s reality. When an idea hits, everybody copies it. Still, devices like the Galaxy Nexus are a good reminder of the progress the industry is making. The new Google and Samsung collaboration is the template for the next generation of Android devices, and we like what we’re seeing.

Design and feel

The Galaxy Nexus looks a lot like a Galaxy S II, but it’s a bit more ergonomic than its AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint predecessors. It has more curves and fits the hand better, despite having a larger screen than almost any smartphone before it (4.65 inches). The rounded ends of the Galaxy Nexus freshen up the square look of the S II, and Samsung has integrated Google’s slightly curved screen design, which makes the new design conform to your face as you hold it, ever so slightly.

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Aiding this rounded design is a complete lack of any navigation buttons. On every Android phone before it, there has always been physical or haptic buttons for back, home, menu, and search, but since the new version of Android has onscreen navigation, it no longer requires these. The Galaxy Nexus may have fewer physical buttons than any device before it. The phone has an almost completely black front, which has an elegance to it. The only disturbances to this are a somewhat visible hole for a front-facing camera, and a small earpiece up top. The notification light is no longer green anymore. It’s now larger and resides on the bottom of the phone, centered beneath the screen, glowing white (and possibly other colors) when you miss a call, text, or email. 

Like all Samsung phones this year, the Galaxy Nexus does have a plastic frame, which is a little unfortunate, but it doesn’t ruin the phone’s premium feeling too much. As with the Sprint Galaxy S II, the camera is rounded and centered at the top of the back, and the battery and SIM are protected by a snap-off plastic backing that has some texture to it, which makes the phone easier to keep a hold of (that’s the theory, anyway). A single Verizon and Samsung logo also adorn the rear, and the bottom has a bit of a hump where the antenna resides as well as a rear speaker grill. Thanks to the rounded nature of the phone, this antenna protrusion isn’t as horribly noticeable as on devices like the Droid Razr.

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Button placement was made with careful consideration to the size of the phone, which is nice. Unlike the Galaxy S II models, the power and volume buttons are well placed on the right and left side of the phone, respectively. They are both located a quarter to a third of the way down the phone, but this design works well due to the somewhat odd way we must hold a phone of this size. The placement makes the size more manageable.

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Finally, there is sadly no microSD card slot on the phone, but the headphone jack and micro USB charge port are both on the bottom. We haven’t seen an audio jack on the bottom of a phone in some time, but it makes sense. We tend to drop our phone in our pocket the way we want to pick it up, which means dropping it upside down. Having a headphone jack on the bottom makes a lot of sense. It’s difficult to say if Samsung and Google actually realize this, or simply had no other practical place to put it.

Specs and Screen

Google’s new phone doesn’t have the absolute highest specs out there, but it’s pretty close to the top rung. The Galaxy Nexus runs on a 1.2GHz dual-core processor, has 32GB of internal storage, and operates with 1GB of RAM. (That’s what the official specs say, at least. We can only account for about 768MB of RAM.) The cameras aren’t overly impressive from a numbers point of view either. The rear camera is 5 megapixels and the front is a 1.3-megapixel.

More impressive than the raw specs are some of the small bonus features Google and Samsung have included. Many of these (accelerometer, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, gyroscope, and digital compass) are fairly standard on high-end phones, but there are some other cool features like a near-field communications chip (NFC) and barometer are pretty cool. We don’t know when we’ll actually use them, especially since Verizon has banned Google Wallet, but if you’re a tech geek, you know it’s better to have a feature than not. If you have any friends with a Galaxy Nexus, you can use the NFC technology to transfer documents, web pages, games, and other content by having the backs of the two phones do a moon landing and touch. Finally, the Nexus also has a wireless charging spot on its side that would allow it to plug into a dock and charge without actually having to plug in. Hopefully such a dock will be released in the future.

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The screen of the Galaxy Nexus is also causing a commotion. While the HTC Rezound was the first phone released to feature a full 720p resolution (1280 x 720 pixels), the Galaxy Nexus is the first screen to utilize that real estate for good. Google’s new interface is built around the HD resolution and it shows. The Nexus also one-ups HTC’s screen a bit, since it features a Super AMOLED instead of LCD display. The difference here is that Super AMOLED can display much deeper blacks (the screen actually turns off when black is present) than LCD. This saves battery life and looks better. Since Android 4.0 uses a lot more black, Super AMOLED is our choice.

We’ve seen some complaints about the PenTile screen technology and issues with solid colors, but we haven’t yet encountered anything that drives us crazy. Compared to many of Motorola’s pre-Razr devices this year, the screen is simply stunning. Overall, it seems on par with some of the better screens on the market and has no obvious flaws.

Operating System

This is the first phone to run Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich), and we couldn’t be happier with Google’s effort. With ICS, Google has improved the look, feel, and operation of its Android operating system considerably. Every major Google app has been updated to fit the feel of the new OS and the OS also remains compatible with most older apps.

The new look of Android 4.0 seems to borrow heavily from the Android 3.0 (Honeycomb), which was a tablet-only OS, and Microsoft’s beautiful and awesome Windows Phone interface. There is a lot more black, blue, and other solid colors filling the screen and many icons and apps have a simpler feel to them. The heavy use of swiping in WebOS and Windows Phone has been integrated into ICS as well. You can now swipe away notifications and old tasks in the new multitasking menu (one of the three onscreen navigation buttons along with back and home). Like iOS, you can now make folders of icons on the desktop, name them, and easily take them apart. We love this functionality.

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Most of the new widgets and visual concepts come from Android 3.0. Since Android 4.0 will be the first version of Android to run on both tablets and phones (and probably laptops), the way Google has melded the two form factors is quite nice. It doesn’t feel like a sacrifice to run ICS on a small phone. In fact, it feels a lot more pleasant than Honeycomb is on tablets.

Google has also reworked the settings menu, reorganizing it into more logical categories and adding things like data-usage tracking and better battery and app management. You can now uninstall apps right from the apps menu. Simply hold down an app as if you were putting it on the desktop, but then drag it to the “uninstall” trash can up top. Advanced users will enjoy the ability to disable any app, even ones that cannot be uninstalled. Wisely, Verizon has not cluttered the Galaxy Nexus with many of its own apps (just My Verizon and Verizon Backup Assistant), but future ICS phones will likely have tons of preloaded apps. The ability to disable them is nice.

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Overall, we love what Google has done with Ice Cream Sandwich. It has taken the Android OS and pumped some life into it for the first time. Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) was beginning to look and feel rather antiquated compared to iOS 5 and Windows Phone 7.5, but the Galaxy Nexus changes all that and puts Google back on a level playing field, if not slightly ahead. After all, what other OS would let you put folders in its quick launch tray? You can do that here.

It isn’t perfect, however. Though we love the swiping gestures Google has integrated, no apps in the market yet take advantage of this and even Google’s redesigned apps (like Gmail) fail to use many of ICS new touch features. In Windows Phone, almost everything works consistently and utilizes the same method of interaction. Google still has a ways to go to catch up to Microsoft and Apple in this regard. We hope that future upgrades to apps will add more swiping (we want to swipe away our email) and continue to make the interface more consistent and interactive. We’re tired of simply tapping on everything.

Still, as someone who recently left Android for Windows Phone, the Galaxy Nexus may have won me back. If Ice Cream Sandwich is the taste of things to come, we like it.

Camera

The camera on the Galaxy Nexus is a bit of an enigma. In some ways it’s one of the best cameras we’ve used on a smartphone, but it often misses its mark. As of late, all phone manufacturers want to have the fastest autofocus and shutter speed on the market. In a sea of phones that look the same, cameras have become a key differentiator. Well, the Galaxy Nexus doesn’t really need a differentiator, but its camera, though only 5 megapixels, is quite good. It has the fastest shutter speed we’ve seen. When you hit the shutter button the picture is taken. There’s no wait. It’s quite strange. And while you’re preparing to take a picture, the camera quietly and continuously refocuses itself as you adjust your shot.

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The problem here is that if you get trigger happy, the Galaxy Nexus will sometimes take a picture without fully autofocusing. The way it decides whether or not to use flash is also a bit puzzling every so often, though the flash is quite bright and the software tidies up the washed-out flash pictures quite nicely.

Because of Microsoft’s inclusion of camera buttons on every Windows Phone and the ability to take pictures without unlocking your phone, Apple and Google have had to up their game. The iPhone 4S takes damn good pictures, and may currently be the benchmark for a camera phone, but the Galaxy Nexus is a good step forward for Android. The unlock screen alone now has two white icons, one for camera and another for accessing the phone, meaning you can more quickly access the camera. It’s still not as fast as Windows Phone, and opening the camera app takes a few seconds, but it’s a good step forward.

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Still, these aren’t the absolute best pictures. Some HTC phones and the iPhone 4S are probably a bit better. They’re not as fast, mind you, but produce better pictures. Still, the Galaxy Nexus camera is good enough for now. Hopefully a future software update can fix some of the issues.

The 1080p video capture is nice. We’ve included a test video in this review. It’s not going to blow you away, but it gets the job done.

Call quality and data speed

We should note that the dialing interface and phonebook have been upgraded with ICS. They look a lot more pleasant now. Android still has the annoying problem of having double and triple contacts for some people on your list, but everything else seems to have improved. (“Joining” contacts is possible but it’s a messy and confusing process that doesn’t seem to work).

Call quality seems good. We had a few random issues with people not being able to hear us the day we picked t up, but it could have been due to the fact that the phone was activated that afternoon. These issues seem to have subsided. Speakerphone is just as crappy as ever, but no crappier than any other phone. The Nexus currently has two microphones on it. One on the bottom and one on the top rear, so sound captures nicely in videos as well.

It’s nice to be on Verizon’s LTE network. We’ve seen some random bar activity, but Verizon’s 4G seems fairly stable in Manhattan, New York. The 4G LTE Galaxy Nexus is currently averaging between 5 and 8 mbps (megabits per second) downloads and about 5 mbps uploads. This is fast and about what Verizon advertises. Some of you likely don’t achieve these speeds on your Wi-Fi at home. Now, if only we could get the carrier to up its 2GB data cap. We’ve already surpassed 2GB in less than a day and it wasn’t hard. Luckily, Google’s new OS will let you set data limits and warn you when you approach your monthly allotment so you can avoid overages.

Lastly, we’re not sure if this is related to data usage, but it sure seems to be. The Galaxy Nexus does get a bit hot when you’re downloading a lot of things. Not burning hot, but warm your hands in the cold hot, definitely.

Battery life

Google and Samsung have been quiet about battery life on the Galaxy Nexus. That’s because it’s not that great. In a matter of about 2.5 or 3 hours, we went from full battery to half, and that was simply by downloading apps and messing around with email and such. We did not stream video or do anything particularly crazy. We’ve only had the phone for a day, so long-term tests haven’t been done, but the phone does not appear to make any revolutionary leaps forward in battery life. We suspect that you could make it through a day on this battery, but not much longer than that. Samsung must know it’s a problem as the company is selling a $50 extended battery to those who want some extra juice. We recommend it and will be picking one up soon.

Conclusion

The Galaxy Nexus is one of those few phones that is truly different from what came before it. Next year, the market will fill with phones like this, but this will remain the best phone to have for a while for one good reason: it’s a Nexus device. This means that every time Google issues an important system update (which is every few months), you’ll get it immediately. Most Android phones are lucky to get any updates in two years. In addition, it runs a clean version of Android 4.0, meaning it’s not stuffed with bloatware from wireless carriers and no handset manufacturer has tinkered and tooled with the phone’s interface. While older versions of Android needed a facelift, Android 4.0 looks great as it is, though we suspect most manufacturers will alter it anyway, if only for the sake of looking different.

This phone has NFC, dual-core processing, high-speed 4G LTE, and an awesome brand new interface. It’s also a fantastic-looking phone with a solid camera. This is not a potshot at any other phone, but we can think of no good reason to buy any other high-end Verizon phone this holiday if the Galaxy Nexus is available near you. The Galaxy Nexus costs $300 with a two-year contract.

Highs

  • New Android Ice Cream Sandwich rocks
  • Fast camera shutter speed
  • Clean, buttonless design
  • Feels great to hold
  • 4G LTE, dual-core, and NFC included
  • Screen is big, but manageable

Lows

  • Battery life isn’t great
  • Many apps don’t take advantage of swiping
  • Camera gets trigger happy
  • Contacts app still needs improving

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