Before I begin, a warning: In this review I’ll gloss over the Nexus’s specs — they’ve been covered countless times in other reviews, not to mention the widely publicized spec sheet put out by Samsung/Google. Rather, I’ll devote the bulk of the review to my thoughts and opinions about the Galaxy Nexus, which are those of a long-time Android user and self-described power user.
But first, some backstory: My experience with Android began way back in October of 2008, when the initial T-Mobile G1 (known internationally as the HTC Dream) was released. It wasn’t my first smartphone, but it was well beyond the Windows Mobile 6.1 and Nokia Symbian OS devices I had used prior to it. I knew what I wanted from a smartphone, and I decided that Android could get me most of that. Although the iPhone had been out for some time, I never found it to my liking and felt that it wouldn’t satisfy my needs. After the G1, which I rooted and reflashed, I switched to an HTC Incredible on Verizon and am still on that device — and I’ve given it the same root-and-reflash treatment. I also picked up a Motorola Xoom around summer of last year. But enough about me…
My first thought when I laid eyes on the Galaxy Nexus, still in the box, was wow, that’s big! I had my much-smaller HTC Incredible in my hand, which is almost exactly the same size as an iPhone 4/4S, and it looked comically tiny in comparison. Needless to say, I was worried about how the device would feel.
I was pleasantly surprised when I picked up the Nexus, though. Although it was obviously large, it didn’t feel obnoxious in my hand. The thin profile of the phone allows one to hold it quite comfortably, actually. The other thing the device has going for it is that although it has a massive 4.65-inch display, it’s not much wider than many other Android phones on the market. In fact, it’s quite similar in width to phones with smaller, 4.3-inch displays.
The Galaxy Nexus gets its larger display by being taller. That means that certain elements on the display are even further away from the user’s thumb, forcing him to use his second hand. While it’s possible to reach almost any point on the display with a single hand, it’s definitely not comfortable to reach, say, the top-most section, and I’d recommend against it lest you lose your grip of the phone, resulting in a costly drop.
Having said that, most tasks can be accomplished by just one decent-size hand. For example, once an app has been launched — the phone dialer, for example — the elements and controls specific to that app will most likely be reachable by the thumb on the hand holding the phone. People with smaller hands will have a harder time.
The only physical buttons on the Nexus are the volume rocker on the left and the power button on the right. Typically I prefer the power button to be on the top of a phone, but the Galaxy Nexus’s side placement is much more appropriate because, again, reaching the top of the phone with just one hand is quite awkward.
The feel of the phone is just okay. To be honest, I didn’t have high hopes for the Nexus, and I’ve never been especially fond of how Samsung devices feel in my hand. The Nexus didn’t do a lot to change that opinion. Although the hollow plastic feel of the Nexus S is no longer an issue, the latest Nexus still doesn’t feel as nice as my almost-two-year-old HTC Incredible. That said, it’s acceptable, and there isn’t much wrong with its build quality — but there isn’t much that’s impressive or enticing about it, either. For a device that costs this much and is meant to be top-of-the-line, the Nexus is disappointing.
Speaking of disappointing, the phone’s simply not loud enough. Although one might expect video consumption to be a show-stopper judging by the beautiful display (discussed later), the lack of a decent speaker makes viewing videos without headphones underwhelming and a bit annoying. The speaker could also pose an issue during video chatting. If, for example, there’s a TV on in the background, hearing the other party could prove difficult. Admittedly, my testing was done in a quiet location, so I can’t report any issues.
As an amateur photographer, a decent on-board camera is very important to me, so you can imagine my excitement when I got my hands on a Galaxy Nexus. I’d heard talk about the upgraded camera app, and I hoped that that software focus carried over to the actual hardware. Again, though, I was slightly disappointed. Although the camera is not bad by any means, it failed to impress. For most users, the Nexus’s camera will probably be adequate, but if you’re keen on photography, like me, then the quality of its pictures leaves something to be desired.
The big marketing point for the Nexus’s camera is its “zero shutter lag” performance, but it too was lost on me. I rarely, if ever, need to be able to take pictures at a moment’s notice, or taken a dozen action shots in a row. I would much rather a “normal shutter lag” camera that takes better-quality pictures.
One bit lived up to the hype, though: The camera app is very nice, and I like the simplified look and feel. More importantly, I like how easily you can view and change the camera settings. The digital zoom, front/back camera swap, and settings menu buttons are all laid out in a circular, intuitive fashion surrounding the “take picture” button. Upon touching the settings icon, the circle rotates and the settings themselves move onto that circle. Once that happens, the settings can be quickly accessed. Switching between the still, video and panorama modes is equally easy and is accomplished by clicking on the appropriate icon below the circle.
The phone’s display does a lot to redeem the Nexus. In fact, if it weren’t for the sizeable display, I probably would have written off the Nexus. But the Samsung’s 4.65-inch screen didn’t guarantee a good experience, either. With such a massive display, any faults would have been magnified and made all the more glaring. Lucky, then, that I didn’t find any.
The Nexus’s Super AMOLED HD screen is thoroughly impressive. Despite its large size, the display has a surprisingly high resolution (1280×720), which delivers incredibly sharp images and text. It’s not only pretty, it’s functional, too. For instance, the screen allowed me to take in full desktop websites at a glance, without the need to scroll around. And I could even make out some of the sites’ text while fully zoomed out, which made navigation a cinch.
Among the Galaxy Nexus’s selling points is, of course, the new-and-improved Android 4.0 OS, otherwise known as Ice Cream Sandwich, or ICS for short. But I’m reviewing the Nexus, not Android, so I’ll mention just a few standouts and move on:
- Roboto font. This is probably the most subtle of the changes in ICS, but one that I feel has made a profound impact on the entire OS. Some might not even notice the new look, but I, for one, appreciate it. It offers a very clean feel that reduces eye strain, to boot.
- OS control buttons as on-screen soft keys instead of capacitive keys or physical buttons. ICS ditches the typical Home, Back, Menu, and Search keys beneath the display in favor of on-screen controls. The primary controls are now “Back”, “Home” and “App Switch,” and they’re usually found at the bottom of the display. However, because they’re soft keys, they can be either dimmed or removed completely, which comes in handy when you’re browsing a picture gallery (the buttons get replaced by dimmed dots) or viewing a full-screen video (the keys are removed completely, allowing for a true full-screen viewing experience). I really liked this change and had a hard time going back.
- Use of horizontal swipe gestures. In ICS, the simple swipe gesture makes easy a number of tasks, including:
- Dismissing notifications. Those using Cyanogenmod might already be familiar with this, but ICS’s take is much better, thanks to its fluidity and reliability.
- Removing specific apps from the recent apps list. Although this doesn’t close the app, it makes navigating the recent apps list more efficient.
- Switching between different messages. It just feels natural to swipe forward or backward from a message list.
- Face unlock. After encountering complaints about ICS’s face unlock feature, which uses facial-recognition technology and the phone’s front-facing camera to unlock the phone for its user, I figured it was likely a half-baked gimmick. Well, I was pleasantly surprised to find out how useful it really is. The phone was able to pick up my face in even dimly lit conditions, and the speed with which the feature could unlock and access the OS impressed me. How fast? In ideal lighting conditions, it took less than a second. All I had to do was press the power button and look at the phone like I normally would while using it, and bam, the phone was unlocked. It even looked past my varying facial hair.
I won’t sugarcoat it: The Samsung Galaxy Nexus was underwhelming and unimpressive, and this is coming from a long-time Android user who has a contract-renewal credit waiting to be applied (I use Verizon, which offers the Galaxy Nexus). That’s not to say the Galaxy Nexus has no strong points. Positives include the unfiltered version of Android 4.0 ICS, the ability to receive Android OS updates in a timely fashion, and the amazing display.
Unfortunately, I expect more from a phone that would set me back a few hundred dollars and follow me around for two years. As much as I enjoyed ICS and look forward to having it on a future phone, I can’t overlook some of the Galaxy Nexus’s hardware issues. Until they’re sorted on a later device, I’ll get my ICS fix from my Motorola Xoom tablet and modified HTC Incredible.