Samsung Galaxy Nexus review

The Samsung Galaxy Nexus is probably the most anticipated Android device for 2011. Each Nexus is special because it ushers in a new wave of software. In this case it is the launch device for Android 4.0, otherwise known as Ice Cream Sandwich.

It's important to remember that the Nexus line originated as developer phones. If you see an app demo, it's likely to be on a Nexus device. But with every iteration of Android, consumer interest grows in the naked Android experience. The Nexus S proved very popular, and in the Galaxy Nexus, we're looking at a device that perhaps holds more appeal than ever before. But should this be your next Android phone?

Design and build

The Samsung Galaxy Nexus is beautifully designed and we can't help thinking that it is one of the most attractive phone launches of 2011. It is more interesting in looks than the Samsung Galaxy SII, it's more sophisticated than the Motorola Razr, it's more distinctive than the HTC Sensation. Perhaps we like it as much as we do the design of the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S.

The Galaxy Nexus is sculpted to fit into your hand, a gentle curve that sits nicely and presents the display to you. We've seen some devices with big displays that feel too big, so you have to shift them around to use them one-handed. That's not the case with the Galaxy Nexus, although reaching the far corner of the screen with your thumb can be a bit of a stretch. At times you almost forget that the screen is as big as it is. Only when you set this phone alongside something as diminutive as the iPhone 4, do you realise the scale of the thing.

It isn't constructed from metals, but we don't feel that's huge negative and it does mean that there are no signal problems, and this phone is packed with connectivity. The backplate, with it's chequered grippy finish is rather thin and flexible, pushing into place in the back of the phone. If there is anything to criticise about the build, then perhaps the fact that the bottom corner of the backplate never seemed to sit correctly, might be it.

The Galaxy Nexus is light in the hand at 135g, and the measurements 135.5 x 67.94 x 8.94mm don't make it stand out as a brute of a phone. The curvature of the sides make it comfortable and at that weight it doesn't pull in your pocket too much.

Following the layout of previous Samsung phones, the power/standby button is on the right-hand side, which is easier to get to than on the top, as we saw on the HTC Sensation XL. The volume controls are on the left-hand side and the 3.5mm headphone jack and Micro-USB are on the bottom. There are no physical buttons on the front, with Ice Cream Sandwich giving you three touch controls at the bottom of the display, in the System Bar.

The display

The biggest talking point of the Samsung Galaxy Nexus is going to be the 4.65-inch Super AMOLED 1280 x 720 pixel display. At those dimensions you get a pixel density of 315ppi. That puts it close to the pixel density of the iPhone 4S, but obviously spread on a larger canvas, so offers much greater potential for displaying content, especially rich multimedia. The HD label is perhaps less of an important point; the key, is that that Galaxy Nexus will render fine detail sharply, from text to images, and that brings with it a range of benefits.

The biggest point for us is that small text remains perfectly legible. Although the natural assumption is that photos and video will look better, we appreciate the benefits the display brings to daily browsing more. That's because you don't need to zoom as aggressively on websites and everything looks crisp and sharp.

Sure, videos, photos and icons do look very impressive too and everything from YouTube to sideloaded movies look better than ever before. Colours are rich, blacks are deep and Ice Cream Sandwich's sophisticated look is stunning. Supporting the playback of HD video isn't new to Android, but in this case being able to display it is of added benefit and it really is stunning.

But we have a problem with the display. When it dims, it becomes very grubby, as though there is a scattering of pixel grit across everything. It is most prominent in lighter colour blocks and that unfortunately means website backgrounds, the pages of a book, your Twitter stream or the entire People app. Even the default wallpaper looked dirty with a dimmed display.

This problem is exacerbated by the auto brightness feature, which we're usually big fans of, because it's the first step to preserving battery life. On the Galaxy Nexus, we found it dimmed much more than other devices - compared to, say, the HTC Sensation XL - and quality is compromised if it isn't at maximum, or near maximum, brightness. This is a problem, because you're then running a big display, on full brightness, the battery really suffers as a result.

This might be down to the use of a PenTile display (which has fewer sub pixels), but it isn't a problem we've encountered to this degree before. It's difficult for us to photograph or video, due to noise created by a camera or camcorder, but if you are concerned, try to check it out in a store before you part with your cash.

Hardware

Sitting under the hood you get a Texas Instruments OMAP4 processor clocked at 1.2GHz, with 1GB RAM sitting in support. This is joined by 16GB of internal memory. Perhaps surprisingly there is no microSD card slot, which for us is a disappointment. As a consumer device that might be a problem, but considering the Nexus' origins as a developer handset, perhaps it was deemed that there wasn't the need. If a modern phone is going to be sold without memory expansion, we'd really want to see iPhone sized capacities available.

Memory aside, the Galaxy Nexus runs very smoothly. There is plenty of power and no sign of lag. Android 4.0 is snappy and slick, opening apps is fast, as is general control of the hardware. Previously we found that things like turning off Wi-Fi took longer than they should, and now it all feels faster.

All the normal connectivity is in place, from Bluetooth 3 to Wi-Fi, GPS and HSPA+, but new to the mix is NFC. NFC enables Android Beam which is basically a method of sharing content device-to-device by touching them together. Naturally you'll need two devices with both Android 4 and NFC hardware. We've seen it working in our demo sessions with the Galaxy Nexus, but haven't had the chance to put it to use again. We suspect it will be a while before there are enough devices in circulation for Android Beam to make a real impact, but we're sure that, come February 2012, we'll have a range phones to choose from and people will be beaming each other all over the place.

Software

The latest version of Android, Ice Cream Sandwich, is of course a huge reason to be interested in the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. We've looked extensively at Ice Cream Sandwich in a separate review, so we're not going to cover every aspect of it here.

What we will say is that choosing the Galaxy Nexus means you'll be first in line for any updates that come along to Android. This is the first device to appear with Ice Cream Sandwich, running how Google wants it to run. It's a beautiful operating system that takes Android a step further. Visually, ICS looks a lot like Honeycomb, and there is an inherent sophistication to Android 4 with its Tron-like blue lines that we love.

Core applications and control have been tightened up. Settings are easier to access and more intuitive than previously; it takes fewer button presses to get to what you want to do. App menus have been redesigned so that common tasks appear on an Action Bar on the screen, rather than hidden in a menu. After a week of playing with Ice Cream Sandwich, you'll begrudge having to step back to pressing a menu button when ever you want to do anything.

The change to those main, on-screen device controls isn't as huge as you might think. The nature of them has changed, offering back, home and recent apps. Only the latter is really new and replaces the long press on the home key to access multitasking; it is more immediate now so feels less like an afterthought. But we've been using devices with capacitive controls for a while so this isn't a huge step change. They work in much the same way as before, but with the added benefit of dimming when you use an app "full screen".

The control icons rotate so they are always the right way up, but they always sit on the "bottom" of the screen, i.e., the short side, on the phone, whereas on tablets they change position based on orientation. We've seen rotating icons before from HTC, so although it's different, it isn't a huge deal.

In being first with anything there is always a caveat: at the time of writing, not all apps are supported and things like Flash haven't yet made an appearance - Adobe has promised Flash before the end of 2011. That means no Flash video and no iPlayer or ITV Player. We've also found the likes of Skifta, our favourite DLNA streaming app, doesn't work. Developers need to update their apps. and this is already happening, but early adopters consider yourselves warned.

The positive point about apps is how good they look. There has been a lot of talk about Android's scalable nature - as opposed to Apple's thousands of apps for iPhone or iPad. Of the apps we've tried, 90 per cent of them look beautifully sharp on the HD display of the Galaxy Nexus. Some, like LinkedIn, could do with increasing the resolution of their intro graphics, but overall we're impressed. Games like BackStab HD or Angry Birds look stunning, an we've found that some sluggish apps, like Facebook, now has a new spring in their step.

There has been the occasional app crash in Gmail or the camera's panorama feature, but they have been few and far between and not critical.

As outlined in our review, ICS isn't perfect, there is still space for improvement in particular areas, but on the whole we feel that in its raw form it will meet the needs of the vast majority of smartphone users. iOS may be more consistent and intuitive in design and control, but Ice Cream Sandwich feels more exciting and edgy. Other manufacturers will bring additional features and niceties, but as it is, Android 4.0 will do everything we want it to once our favourite apps are supported.

Some have reported a volume error - dubbed SAV-Ghost - which sometimes sees the volume changing of its own accord, but we've not experienced this problem ourselves during normal testing with the phone. 

However, we've continued to try and replicate this problem and there does seem to be a connection with 2G handsets, as we managed to get the volume to twitch down using a BlackBerry Curve, but only by holding it right next to the Galaxy Nexus, and nothing like the extreme twitching we've seen in videos on YouTube.

We also found that we didn't get the problem in testing if we turned off NFC, but given that we didn't have an extreme reaction in the first place, this might just have been a coincidence.

Cameras

There is a 5-megapixel autofocus camera on the rear and a 1.3-megapixel camera on the front of the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. Some will bemoan the pixel count but we'd urge them not to: judge the camera on its results, rather than the numbers. That said, we're sure the next Samsung Galaxy phone to be announced will offer more pixels on the sensor, providing an avenue for differentiation.

The camera interface in Ice Cream Sandwich isn't the most sophisticated. We prefer the interface on just about every other Android skin, but it is functional and easy to use. Touch autofocusing is offered and the thing that's most notable in operation is the speed of capture. Press that button and there is no messing around: the shot is taken and you're ready to take the next one.

We were blessed with good conditions when testing the Galaxy Nexus and got some cracking results out of it. It isn't the best camera out there, but it's good enough and that's the important point. It struggles where other phone cameras struggle, blowing out highlights and introducing a degree of fringing along high contrast edges, but this is to be expected.

There is an LED flash on the back that provides a modicum of illumination in lower light conditions. As with all such flashes, it throws an ugly colour cast over your subject and really lacks the power to be a reliable shooter in darkness. Stick to your real camera if that's what you want to do.

A new panoramic mode is offered, which will quickly stitch together your vista as you sweep the phone across the scene. It works well enough, but our most impressive captures were lost thanks to the phone failing to save them. A restart solved the problem, but it's something to look out for.

In terms of video capture you get a wide range of additional options, including a range of silly faces and backgrounds that can be applied. All are a little odd and we've strung together a compilation of the silly faces, all captured using the front facing camera and stitched together using the movie maker, which is very simple to use. You also get time lapse options, but the problem is keeping the phone still for long enough to make this effective: you'll need some sort of mount for the best results.

Otherwise, video capture runs up to 1920 x 1080 pixels, so gets the “Full HD” stamp. The results are pretty good too, better than we've seen from some rivals. If you move the camera too much you do get the familiar wobble, but we're impressed with how well it captured the detail in the wings of the swarming birds in one of our test videos.

During video capture you get continuous autofocus to keep things sharp: you can't control the focus as touching the screen captures a still image. Overall the camera experience could be better, but we can't really complain about the results, which we found to be great.

Multimedia

We won't dwell too long on media handling as this is dealt with in our review of Ice Cream Sandwich, but you do now get a new look Music player. This incorporates Google Music, if you're lucky enough to have access and also brings with it an equaliser to change to the audio to your liking. We tested it with a pair of iBeats headphones and were impressed.

Music controls also appear in the notification bar and on the lock screen, so control is never far away.

Video playback, as we've said, looks fantastic. Without the benefit of being able to throw content onto a microSD card, you'll have to sideload it onto the device. This is much easier now that Android doesn't insist you mount the drive to access it. File format support isn't comprehensive, but it will play Full HD content, although in truth SD video looks fantastic too.

Calling and battery

Calling on the Galaxy Nexus is very comfortable. The design of the phone makes it a really nice phone to make calls on and it feels much more natural than a phone like the HTC Sensation XL. The calling quality was great, although be aware that some have reported the volume problem affecting their calls and although it we haven't been able to trigger it, it seems to be affecting a number of users. The external speaker is of reasonable quality too.

As we mentioned previously, the screen quality falters when dimmed, so you're left with something of a compromise when it comes to battery life. To get the best out of the 1,750mAh battery you have to accept that muddy display, otherwise you'll be trimming time off your battery life. We found that the Galaxy Nexus scraped through a day in light use, so this isn't a phone that likes to be far from a charger.

Verdict

If you're looking for a pure Android experience, then you've probably already decided to opt for the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. It's a competitive device from a hardware point of view, with a distinct advantage of being Google's baby when it comes to software updates. Early adopters will have to accept that some apps won't work and there will be a delay whilst developers update their apps.

But as a consumer device there are compromises. The screen dimming seems wrong, although potentially can be corrected by a software update. But we're concerned that as the screen brightness drops, the screen looks poor. It's a shame considering the screen is otherwise so very capable.

We also know that the lack of microSD card will deter some. Being able to expand the memory, at will, is important for a lot of users and this is one point that you can't really step around.

The volume issue does exist, although we didn't experience that problem when actually using the phone in the real world, only when we tried to force the error, but it's something to be mindful of, as there have been reports of extreme volume problems.

The Samsung Galaxy Nexus offers an excellent Android experience that's hugely impressive, but we really believe it will be surpassed by others, like Samsung themselves, within the next few months.