Well, it's finally here. Google's official developer phone for Ice Cream Sandwich has reached American shores with Verizon as its official launch partner, for better or worse. Like the two Nexus phones before it, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus will set the bar for Android smartphones over the next year. The only question is, how high will that bar be?
The build quality on the Galaxy Nexus is at or just above the Galaxy S 2 family, and rightly so, as most of the hardware is quite similar. That is to say, it isn't the best - the DROID RAZR and HTC Rezound feel like more solid phones - but it's way above average. Samsung’s typical combination of light and sturdy is in full effect. Despite its large screen size, it doesn't feel excessively bulky or hard to handle, at least in my average-sized hands.
And the performance is hard to argue with. The Galaxy Nexus is smoother and faster than any Android phone I've ever tested, bar none. A large part of that is the software, since Ice Cream Sandwich was built from the ground up on this phone, and there's (almost) no extras to degrade the experience. The dual-core 1.2Ghz CPU and 1GB RAM combo is par for the course, and well below the Galaxy S 2 Skyrocket, but I believe that the Nexus has a better graphics processor. Even with a huge resolution and a much more complicated and powerful OS, the Galaxy Nexus is now the gold standard for performance - for experience, if not in actual numbers. While the phone isn't as big a leap forward as the original Nexus One, it's in a far more competitive position than the Nexus S last year in terms of raw power.
The Galaxy Nexus continues Samsung's trend of specialty curved phones, though the degree of that curve is just barely detectable from the front. But the gentle bulge on the back makes it rest in your hand naturally, not unlike the neck on old-school landline phones. The phone's slim but not emaciated profile is eye-catching without being overly ostentatious, though again, it feels a little light for my tastes. There is one downside: the phone's huge screen, curvy construction and the slick plastic that ring the display make it extremely slippery. I've dropped the phone on more than one occasion, simply because I was using the same level of grip on the smaller DROID X with its soft plastic coating. Be mindful of its tendency to escape you grasp until you've become familiar with the bendy shape's quirks.
Many are upset that Google/Samsung didn't include a MicroSD card slot with the Galaxy Nexus. Speaking as someone who has never gotten close to filling up a 16GB MicroSD card, the 32GB of included storage on the Verizon model is more than enough. What bothers me more is the MTP connection standard inherited from Honeycomb tablets, adding extra time for Windows users and some serious headaches for Apple fans. Lack of MTP support is technically OS X's fault, but that doesn't excuse Google from failing to take a large group of users into consideration.
The screen is amazing. Samsung continues to reign supreme with its Super AMOLED panels, and the 720p resolution negates any downside to the Pentile display technology. It's downright impossible to see where one pixel ends and the other begins. The brightness, black levels and saturation are amazing, without sacrificing outdoor performance. I think 720p resolution is overkill at this size and qHD would have been just fine, but that doesn't negate that I just love using the screen. At this moment, it's simply the best visual experience on any smartphone.
Ice Cream Sandwich combines the best of Gingerbread and Honeycomb with a level of polish that's stunning to use. The subtle enhancements found in Gingerbread are expanded and refined, making for an Android smartphone experience that's far beyond anything else available at retail. If you love Android, you want Ice Cream Sandwich - it's just a matter of whether you're willing (or forced by contract) to wait for it to arrive on your own device, or want to upgrade now.
The core UI is a radical shift for those who haven't used a Honeycomb tablet, but the design of the tiles, colors and animations make for a more, well, human experience. Even after installing my 30-odd standard apps, it's fast and smooth, despite a low Quadrant score that we're chocking up to a ton of new, demanding OS changes. The browser deserves particular recognition: the addition of automatic Chrome book mark syncing, a new tab manager and (finally!) desktop and full-screen modes makes the ICS default browser the first one I've used more than Dolphin Browser HD in over two years.
Most of the changes to Android are great... but not all. Virtual navigation buttons are a logical addition, but removing the search button entirely has seriously messed with my normal usage pattens. One-tap voice search is no longer possible from anywhere, just the launcher and Search apps - a real negative. Honeycomb-style changes, like the more complicated settings menu, aren't helping. Not every application has been updated, and it shows the flaws in the shiny new veneer. A setting to re-enable standard search and menu buttons would have gone a long way towards fixing that. An iPhone-using friend of mine who upgraded as well couldn't figure out how to use some basic apps, because too many of the sub-functions are still in a non-obvious long press menu.
But for the most part, ICS is an excellent upgrade. The app disable feature, which lets you remove any system app you don't want without modding (including any Verizon or even Google apps) is awesome, and something that's been needed for a long time. Built-in data managing is a great idea and one that’s very important, thanks to the carriers’ insistence on tiered data plans. The upgraded launcher and camera apps stand out, but I could do without the tile interface for contacts - most of mine don't have pretty photos set up. The voice input is approaching science fiction levels of performance, and it makes real dictation of longer documents and emails possible.
Phone and media
Video and music performance is stellar, owing a lot to the Galaxy Nexus' high-end hardware. The speaker is a little quiet, but I managed to get it to an acceptable level using a 3rd party app. Streaming video is great, and a joy to watch on the screen. Playing a 720p Tekzilla podcast in pixel-perfect resolution was nothing short of joyous. There's no problems with Bluetooth, like some of Samsung's original Galaxy S phones. I'm not a fan of the MTP connection standard that Google chose for file transfer (and it's a real pain if you use a Mac) but on the plus side, you can finally access files on the phone storage from the device and your computer at the same time. There's also some subtle security enhancements that come with the standard.
The 5MP camera is extremely fast, but unfortunately, just not as clear as the GS2 or HTC Amaze 4G camera. It's nowhere near the level of fidelity that Google promised in the Hong Kong event. The camera isn't bad, it's just not as good as we've come to expect from high-end phones. It's a shame and a puzzle that Samsung couldn't get an 8 megapixel sensor in the phone, no matter what they say.
Phone calls, even in a low signal area, are great - as good as any Verizon phone I've ever used. I've got absolutely no complaints on the voice end of things. But the data coverage is another matter. Speeds are as good as other 3G and 4G Verizon phones, but the coverage, unfortunately, sucks. All of us at Android Community have experiences extremely poor coverage, much poorer than other Verizon phones in the same location.
Signal is low. Handoffs from 4G LTE to 3G CDMA take forever. I've often sat and watched my phone take five to ten minutes to complete a data connection after starting up. Based on over a hundred responses to our story on the subject, this is not an isolated issue. But it looks like it's restricted to Verizon's LTE version, and perhaps only those phones that have updated to Ice Cream Sandwich 4.0.2. If the latest software is indeed the problem, it may be fixed very soon, as Google should be able to isolate the problem easily.
The battery is the Achilles heel of the Galaxy Nexus. It's not just bad, it's awful. I struggle to get six hours of heavy use and ten hours of mostly dormant use out of the phone. I'm getting roughly half the battery I've come to expect from high-powered Android phones. According to ICS' expanded battery manager, a huge amount of this is coming from the OS process itself. Based on some initial research that's backed up by forum posts all over the Internet, this is being caused by the OS failing to enter a sleep state. Essentially, the processor and RAM are at full power even when the phone's screen is turned off.
This is not the way Android is supposed to run, and since it's also happening on Nexus S phones that have installed the official version of Ice Cream Sandwich, it's almost certainly a flaw that's been overlooked. It may be fixed with the next timely update, and in fact it probably will, but in the meantime it makes using the phone for any extended period away from a charger a very frustrating experience.
The Galaxy Nexus is the best Android device available, hands-down. For power, comfort and flexibility it's outstanding, and it will be the standard for performance and UI going forward. Unfortunately, critical flaws keep it from being the best Android phone, at least right now. Poor signal and horrible battery life will keep you chained to a charger far more than you'd like.
Given these critical flaws and Verizon's crazy build up, it's hard not to feel disappointed. If and when the battery and signal are addressed, the Galaxy Nexus will be absolutely the best all around Android phone on the market... and in our admittedly biased opinion the best phone, period. For the true Android fan with enough disposable income and available Verizon service, there's simply no other option, but then you didn't need to read this review to know that. I hope the fixes come sooner rather than later, and make a complete package that turns out to be worth the wait.
If and when you pick up a Galaxy Nexus, you'll probably want some accessories, and definitely want an extended battery. Check out our hands-on video below:
Cory Gunther contributed to this review.