Samsung has been in the spotlight for the last couple of months and for good reason. They sell the most Android smartphones by some distance. The Galaxy S2 alone has recently crossed the 20 million mark, and is still selling. It is anticipated that the new Galaxy S3, which was announced two weeks ago, will sell just as well. However, at the end of 2011 another Samsung smartphone hit the market in Europe, and in March it finally came to our shores. I’m talking about the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, of course.
Before I tell you about the device, let’s talk about the Nexus brand name and what it means, as it might start to appear in more manufacturers’ handsets in the years to come. Any Nexus phone you come across from now on will mean that the hardware for the handset was also made in conjunction with Google. In other words, the device and the software were built from the ground up to work together. This is different from other Android devices, as usually the OEM’s (Original Equipment Manufacturer) get a software release from Google, and try to layer that version of Android onto their device. That is the reason why different manufacturer’s devices with the same version of the software on it can look so different. They chopped and diced at the software to work with their device, and usually put their own ‘skin’ on it too, to differentiate it from the others.
This is not the case with Nexus phones. All Nexus phones run ‘stock’ Android, so it will look as it did when Google built and released the software (and also run like it was designed to). Also, since the phone is built from scratch with the synchronisation of hardware and software in mind, the devices are not plagued with the fragmentation problems experienced by many Android smartphones. Because of this, the Nexus devices have always been hailed for their speed and smoothness, as well as their ease of use. Frankly, the Nexus phones are the only Android devices that are just as good as Apple devices, some would argue better, at creating a marriage between hardware and software to give the user the most enjoyable experience possible.
So on to the newest Nexus. Samsung and Google have combined to bring a fresh, interesting package to the fore. Most Android phones are still running version 2.3, Gingerbread, but updates on most devices have started, and the full roll-out of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich is in full swing. The Galaxy Nexus, however, was the first device to release with Ice Cream Sandwich out of the box. While the hardware in the device is certainly nothing to scoff at, it is Ice Cream Sandwich that really steals the show.
Here is a quick summary of the key features:
This latest Google phone will be aimed at the crowd who doesn’t like launchers or UI tweaks as well as the crowd that likes to get the latest OS updates from Google first. In this regard, the smartphone is entirely in a league of its own.
So, is the Samsung Galaxy Nexus a proper flagship for the company until the Galaxy S3 comes along, or is it simply an Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich flag bearer for Google? Let’s find out in this review.
Design and Build
The same curved screen design can be found on the Galaxy Nexus than on its predecessor. Samsung-made Nexus devices are the only handsets with this feature. With measures of 135.5 x 67.9 x 8.9 mm, the smartphone has loads of presence. Thankfully, its slim profile and modest 135 grams of weight bode well for its ability to be carried in a pocket. For a man, that is quite important, and this phone is easily suited to most pockets.
Samsung has designed the phone with merely two hardware buttons. It oozes style and is a celebration of understated design.
The build quality of the Galaxy Nexus is superb. Even though it is very light, it does not feel cheap or ‘plasticy’. Samsung (and other Android phone manufacturers) have been criticized in the past for making handsets that don’t feel good in the palm of your hand because of lazy design or bad materials. I can assure you that is not the case with the new Nexus. It feels planted, like a natural extension of your arm. It wants to be held, and it surely wants to be gawked at!
The 4.65” Super AMOLED screen with HD resolution is nothing short of a thing of beauty, art really. The pixels have been increased and perfectly complement the display. That being said, Samsung screens have always been among the benchmarks for the industry. Its contrast ratio is stunning, and I have not seen a match in any other Android device. The iPhone is the only thing that comes close with its retina display. Yes, the iPhone has more pixels per square inch (which is the new geek-o-meter for how vividly a screen displays), but to the human eye on a screen that size it isn’t noticeable (unlike on the new iPad), though the contrast ratio on the Nexus is superior.
Below the screen, you will find… well, nothing. With no hardware buttons on the front of the device, the screen size can be dramatically increased without actually increasing the size of the whole device. I do hope this becomes a feature on more and more Android phones, because Ice Cream Sandwich does well to run smoothly without the button seen on the Galaxy S2 and also the Galaxy S3. I think it is a pity that they have kept the button for the S3.
The rest of the device is as you would expect, with the earpiece, light and proximity sensors and the front-facing camera above the screen. There isn’t much happening on the top of the Galaxy Nexus, with the volume control on the left and power button on the right side. At the bottom you have the microUSB port, 3.55mm jack and the microphone.
As stated before, the Galaxy Nexus was the first phone released with Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS). If you have ever worked on Android 3.0 Honeycomb, which was built especially for tablets, you will notice plenty of similarities, but also many differences where ICS has been revamped to work both on tablets and phones.
Let’s look at a couple of features of the UI, and start with the lock screen. You unlock the screen by pressing the padlock in the middle and sliding to one of two positions. Slide to the right, and you unlock to the home screen. Slide to the left and you unlock directly to the camera, which is a handy feature. There is no dedicated camera button on the device.
ICS also brings the option to use a new feature, Face Unlock. There were concerns that it is not the most secure of features, as people noticed that it can be unlocked by simply holding a photograph of the person to the front-facing camera. That bug has been fixed though, and Face Unlock now features blink detection, to make sure it is the actual person in front of the phone. Most people probably won’t use it, but it’s a nice-to-have in any case.
Once unlocked, the homescreen is very different to previous versions of Android. The biggest change, of course, is that the interface is completely free of hardware buttons. Three on-screen buttons appear in a row at the bottom of the interface, the Back, Home and Recent Apps buttons. The row of buttons is always visible, and never changes position on the screen. It will rotate the icons when needed to match the screen orientation, but will always remain on that side of the screen.
Above this row is your favourites tray, which has four slots for shortcuts with the app drawer shortcut in the middle. It can also be customized to your heart’s desire. You can drag them like any other shortcut on the 5 home screens. You can even dock entire folders there. The only other fixture across home screens is the Google search bar at the top of the screen. I’ll remain quietly reserved about the notifications bar, which you open by swiping down from the top of the screen. It is too much like the iPhone for my liking.
Folders are easy to reorganize, and even edit. As many shortcuts can be put into a folder as can be displayed on the screen. You create a folder by dropping one shortcut on top of another, where ICS will then automatically create a folder named ‘Unnamed folder’, which can then easily be changed. Widgets, which are mini apps displayed on the homescreen, can be resized by pressing and holding the side of the widget, and the four handles will appear on its sides. You can then resize it in any direction.
The app drawer is very simple to use. It features two tabs, Apps and Widgets, and also has a market shortcut in the corner. To add a widget or app shortcut onto the screen, you press and hold to grab it, and then position it where you choose on the homescreen.
Viewing recent apps and closing them is very simple. Select the Recent Apps button on the lower right corner of the screen. They appear in a vertical list, which can be scrolled up and down. You can dismiss apps by simply swiping it to either side of the screen. It’s a simple, but beautiful enhancement.
Good news for ICS is that the phonebook has also been redesigned, making it much easier to view any relevant information regarding any contact. Sideway swipes allow you to change between the three tabs, starting with the one in the middle, which contains all contacts. Naturally, the contacts can be sorted in different ways. You have a scroll bar that you can grab to go straight to contacts that start with a specific letter, but it does include a regular search function as well.
Editing, adding and removing contacts has never been so easy. You can star favourite contacts and it also shows frequently contacted people, whether you have contacted them by phoning, SMS/MMS, Gmail, or even third party apps like WhatsApp and Facebook, which is very impressive.
The camera shipped with this device is a 5MP that takes photos with a maximum resolution of 2592×1944 pixels and is partnered with a LED flash. The interface works very nicely, although it is not the best I have ever seen. You have a camera mode switch button, which is used for switching between still camera, video camera and panorama (more on that later).
All controls are on the right of the viewfinder. You have the virtual digital zoom slider, settings shortcut and front/back camera toggle. This is handy for people who like to take self-portraits for Facebook and the like. The setting shortcut has some interesting options to control, with the flash obviously being one of them. Also, exposure compensation and white balance can be modified. You also have photo resolution settings and scene settings to your exposal.
Tap focus is available for people wanting to get creative with framing, and face detection is also included in the well thought out package. Sharing shots that have just been taken is very easy and all apps that might use this functionality are shown as options when hitting the share icon.
All in all, the Galaxy Nexus takes really good photographs. Some people might bemoan the fact that it ships with ‘only’ a 5MP camera, but those who are really interested in taking some nice snaps know that the pixels are not as important as some other characteristics. These include light sensitivity, colour sensors and algorithms, noise reduction etc. In all these areas the camera performs admirably, among the best available in recently released handsets. The latest cameras included in smartphones are usually around 8MP.
One of the best features of the camera, and certainly my favourite, is its ability to take panoramic photographs. Taking these photos is extremely simple. You hit the shutter button and start panning from left to right and the phone does the rest. You don’t even need to move it at the same pace, so you can keep still for a while without it affecting your photo. It does warn you, however, when you are moving too fast. The software stitches the image together seamlessly, giving you a nice view of up to 180 degrees.
The video camera recording is on par with anything you would expect to see these days. What makes it more impressive is the fact that it manages to do 1080p video at the back and 720p at the front, despite having a 5MP camera.
Nice features of the video camera include using the very effective digital zoom while recording and real-time effects that can modify faces for comedic effect. You can also create a time-lapse video, with shots taken every 1 to 10 seconds, depending on your setting. One of the most useful is the ability to take full resolution photographs while actually recording video. You simply tap on the screen while recording. It is another small enhancement that makes a big difference to an already special package.
The Galaxy Nexus feels sharp and responsive. The top of the line dual-core processor is the last before the newest Samsung flagships use the new Enyxos chips, and what a last hoorah it is. It is always quick and fluent, never suffering from any software lag. Flicking the screens from one side to the other is a joy, with animations that are beautiful and well designed.
The battery life is what you would expect from a smartphone with this kind of performance specifications, giving about 30 hours of battery life with moderate use. With sparse use you could easily get away with two days before a recharge. Heavy users, who play a lot of games, watch videos, browse and message frequently will need to recharge after about 16 hours.
Something else to notice is that the browser included is brilliant. It draws from Google’s knowledge that makes Chrome the success it is today. ICS waits for the whole page to be loaded, before rendering it all in one go, rather than piece by piece like most browsers. Fast scrolling shows no jerkiness that you might expect to find on a mobile device.
Something that is startling though, as the folks over at T3 showed with their benchmark tests, is that the Galaxy Nexus scored twice as highly as the Galaxy S2 despite running the same processor. This just shows the effect that Ice Cream Sandwich has on the handset, and it is definitely one of the most powerful smartphones around.
The Little Things
It is fair to say that there are many phones that can level the performance of the Galaxy Nexus and quad-core devices that are on the way, many that will ship with Ice Cream Sandwich and some with a better camera. Plus, the Galaxy S3 is just around the corner. So there seems to be many a reason not to go for this device. But what makes this device stand out in the very crowded mobile environment, is stock Android and the little touches that come with it.
The way you interact with the device and it with you is something to behold. Also, the Google voice search works better than anything on the market (even if you don’t use an American accent).
The live wallpapers that come with the device are great and there are many more apps on the Google Play store that offer new ones. You will notice from my screenshot that the background does not look the same throughout. The streaking bars of different colours are fun and whenever you touch the screen another four bars move from the point of contact to the four sides of the screen. These are actually the Nexus colours.
When the phone is locked, the animation looks like an old TV switching off, like a cathode ray tube TV might have done, shutting down to the middle of the screen.
These are all small things that just make you smile. I’m not going to list all these little nuances and gimmicks that make you sit up and say, “Damn, that is cool”. I feel that is something every person must experience for him or herself. And that is, in essence, what makes the device so special – the great hardware plus all these little features that combine to make it an enjoyable experience.
Google didn’t disappoint with Ice Cream Sandwich, and in conjunction with Samsung they did an excellent job of wrapping the software together with good hardware and good performance.
The Samsung Galaxy Nexus is the first globally available Android phone with a 720p screen, and what a screen it is! The 316 pixels per square inch pixel density deliver amazing image sharpness. Some might say the camera is a let-down, but I have still managed to take plenty of striking photos and videos.
Overall, it is the best Android smartphone available in South Africa at present. It is the only handset that can compete with the iPhone4S. Samsung devices are already out-selling the iPhone. For people who use a lot of Google services, it is the obvious way to go. I even think this phone could tempt a lot of Apple customers to sway the way of Samsung and Google (and I know some who have), if only the marketing on this amazing product was better. It is one of the only handsets that offers the fluid experience of software and hardware in perfect harmony, and has added connectivity that the iPhone doesn’t (you have to be logged into iTunes to do anything).
It was first made available through Vodacom, and other carriers have already received the handsets and are testing it on their systems or are getting it soon. Otherwise, you can purchase it cash for R6999, which is exactly the same price as the RSP for the Galaxy S2. The S2’s price has started to drop, and it will do so further when the Galaxy S3 is released, as will the Galaxy Nexus.
I actually think it will be the best Android smartphone for some time, even though the new generation quad-core devices are starting to hit the market now. They might just edge the Galaxy Nexus when they are released, but probably only until the new Nexus is released at the end of the year.