I’ve been a proud iPhone user for coming up on four years now, and have felt consistently secure in that pride as I reviewed those years’ competing devices; the iPhone is as much a part of my tech life as my laptop, desktop, and TV, and though I’ve used and reviewed perhaps 30 competing phones since my first days with the iPhone 3G, there’s never been the slightest temptation to make a switch.
The new Galaxy Nexus SCH-i515 from Samsung is Google’s current flagship phone for 2012, the latest in the Nexus family of pure-Android handsets promoted as the best of the best. And it is to this device that my iPhone can direct its first pings of jealousy. The Galaxy Nexus is the best Android phone I’ve used, and for the first time since the Android OS became available, the first to give this iPhone devotee serious gadget envy.
Put simply, if you’re in the market for an Android phone, this is the one to get.
The Samsung Galaxy Nexus is a phone of many firsts. It’s the first (and currently only) phone to run Android 4.0, aka Ice Cream Sandwich. It’s also the first U.S. smartphone powered by the TI OMAP 4460 dual-core 1.2GHz SoC processor. And it’s the first smartphone to feature a 4.65-inch HD Super AMOLED touchscreen display.
Other features include 1GB of DDR2 RAM, 32GB of onboard flash storage, USB 3.0 support, 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 3.0, NFC, a 5MP camera with 1080p HD video capture, a front-facing 1.3MP camera, GPS, EV-DO 3G and LTE "4G" data support, and an 1850mAh removable Li-Ion battery.
Slim and light, the Galaxy Nexus measures 5.33" x 2.67" x 0.35" and weighs just over 4.7-ounces. The device has a black, slightly-curved face with a gray backpiece and sides; the back and sides are plastic, one of the few features that isn’t tops on the handset, but the textured backing does reduce slipping.
Hardware controls are few: a power-mode button on the right side and a volume rocker on the left. There’s a microUSB port on the bottom edge, along with a 3.5mm audio jack. The speaker is in the rear. The four Android control buttons normally found beneath the screen are now part of the OS, and have been reduced to three (the menu button is a fleeting thing in Android 4).
There are three metal contacts on the right side of the phone, presumably charging contacts for docking.
I’ve used phones that had more solid-feeling metal or glass exteriors, but the simple elegance of the Galaxy Nexus is a winner all the way around. It’s beautiful.
You can’t discuss the Galaxy Nexus without talking about Android 4, Ice Cream Sandwich, which makes its first appearance here. Android 4 is essentially a merging of Android OS 2.3, found on Android modern smartphones, and Android OS 3.x, which is solely for tablets. And it is this new OS that lends the Galaxy Nexus much of its strong appeal.
The OS just works, and does so looking very, very good. From simple changes like screen transitions, animations and improved fonts, to more meaty improvements like thumbnail navigation of recently used apps and a new OS-wide voice input engine, Android 4 is a huge advancement beyond Android 2.3.
And Android 4 looks better, too, as it takes away some of the geeky-Linux plainness that has plagued Android since its first days. There’s a much cleaner feel to the UI, and little changes (like being able to group icons on home screens) makes it easier to use and far less jumbled. Android has come of age, and it’s a refreshing thing to see.
You can get a complete overview of new features in Ice Cream Sandwich here.
There’s not much in the way of software outside the new OS other than Verizon’s add-ons like My Verizon Mobile and VZ Backup. Of course, you can install thousands of apps from the Android Market, the Amazon Android Appstore, and third-party APK installers.
The TI OMAP 4460 dual-core 1.2GHz processor, in concert with the PowerVR SGX540 GPU, make the Galaxy Nexus scream, and there’s nothing to complain about when it comes to performance. Menus are smooth, screen transitions beautiful and lag-free, and apps run seemingly without effort. Even installing new apps seems faster than on other Android phones. It’s the fastest, best performing smartphone I’ve ever used.
Web browsing is as close to a desktop experience as you’ll find on a smartphone, thanks in part to its large screen, but also because of the underlying hardware. If you’re connected to Wi-Fi or LTE, pages load almost instantly; zoom function is also fast and smooth. On 3G things are a bit more sluggish, but still a pleasure.
Battery life, as is so often the case on high-end smartphones with LTE, is a mixed bag. With LTE off, you’ll get about six hours of general use per charge; with LTE on, things get sticky. Luckily, there’s an extended battery available for the Galaxy Nexus which should improve things. If you’re lucky enough to live in an LTE area, you’ll want to keep a charger close at hand, but that’s nothing new.
Phone performance was equally impressive, as the Galaxy Nexus is one of the best sounding smartphones ever released. Voices are clear and crisp with no artifacts or echoing. Even with relatively low signal, call quality remained high.
Talk time is rated at 12 hours, but while I never talked that long, I doubt you’d be able to reach this length of use. But talking cumulatively maybe an hour or two a day, and using the phone for data and general tasks througout, the Galaxy Nexus always made it through the day without requiring a recharge.
The Galaxy Nexus employs a large 4.65-inch 720 x 1280 AMOLED display, one of the first truly HD phone screens. The screen is beautiful, with a high PPI of 316, which is just a hair shy of the iPhone 4 and 4S’s PPI. There’s absolutely no screen-door effect.
The screen is also highly responsive and protected by Gorilla Glass.
One interesting aspect of the display is that it’s not flat; it’s slightly curved, which doesn’t really change how you use it, but does make the device look different than other boring slabs.
Video playback on the Galaxy Nexus looks amazing. From Netflix to locally played video files, you won’t be disappointed.
Music playback on the device itself is largely unchanged from previous versions of Android, but the Music app has been updated to support Google Music, a service I have quickly grown to love. Google Music performance on the Galaxy Nexus is top-notch.
The camera takes reasonably good photos, but isn’t up the standards of the iPhone 4S. It does have fantastic response time, though, with no shudder lag between photos; you can tap-tap-tap to take photos quickly with no waiting. Low light performance is lackluster, but one aspect of the camera that is greatly appreciated is its excellent, sharp photos of documents at close range. This is particularly useful if you use your smartphone to "scan" documents, something I do quite often.
Video capture is equally average in quality, though there is continuous autofocus. Movement in video is captured well, and movement of the phone itself while shooting video results in very smooth video, even when those movements are fast, with little or no ghosting or trailing.
Unfortunately, all of your media will have to be stored on the device’s 32GB of internal memory; there’s no memory expansion.
While The Galaxy Nexus does have NFC technology built in, you can’t use Google Wallet; Verizon has disabled this, which is pretty shocking given that the handset is in the Nexus family. Rumors suggest that Verizon has taken this choice away from its users in favor of its own NFC payment system currently in the works. If you search for Google Wallet in the Marketplace, you won’t find the app listed; this type of tinkering drives me crazy, but it’s certainly within Verizon’s SOP.
The Galaxy Nexus is the best Android experience yet – end of story. I highly recommend it.
The only reasons I can see for choosing another Verizon Android handset would be if you need to be able to expand the phone’s storage via microSD, or if you’re a serious phone-photographer, since there are better smartphone cameras out there.
Verizon’s direct price for the Galaxy Nexus is $299 with a two-year contract. If you’re already a Verizon customer looking to upgrade, you can beat that price by $50-$100 (depending on the day) with third-party sellers, but if you’re making the switch to Verizon from another carrier, you can pick up the Galaxy Nexus for $99 at Amazon.com.
M. Nichols, Products Editor