Galaxy Nexus: First Android 4 smartphone triumphs -- almost

A gorgeous screen, business-class security, and Android 4 push this smartphone to a new level. Too bad about the several flaws

At long last, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus is here, the first smartphone to run Google's Android 4 "Ice Cream Sandwich" release. There's no question: When you first get your hands on the Galaxy Nexus, available in a 4G LTE version in the United States on the Verizon Wireless network and in 3G GSM models in Canada and the United Kingdom, you'll likely drool over the huge, bright screen. It makes the 3.5-inch screen of the iPhone feel tiny and cramped, and argues that it's time for Apple to make an iPhone with at least a 4-inch screen.

But spend a bit of time with the Galaxy Nexus, and you start to discover some of the cracks in both the hardware and the Android 4 OS that keep the Galaxy Nexus from topping the iPhone 4S as the best smartphone for business users. It's really too bad that Google and its hardware partners continue to skimp on quality assurance and holistic design, focusing on gloss instead.

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The Galaxy Nexus surpasses in many respects our previous picks among Android smartphones, the previous generation's Motorola Mobility "business-ready" series, such as the Photon 4G and Droid Razr. If you don't want an iPhone 4S, the Galaxy Nexus may be the smartphone for you. But you might want to wait until a few more Android 4 smartphones come on the market before taking the plunge.

Hardware Before looking at the changes brought by Android 4, let's look at the Galaxy Nexus hardware itself. As I mentioned, the screen is huge and vivid, thanks to its 4.65-inch Super AMOLED display, yet it still fits in a shirt pocket. Well, mostly -- it sticks out the top a bit, so be careful when bending forward. It has a typical processor for current-generation devices: a 1.2GHz dual-core ARM chip.

A big reason to wait for more Android 4 competitors to emerge is the Galaxy Nexus's poor battery life. It eats up power quickly, giving you four to six hours of life when using a lot of network access, such as for downloading apps, surfing the Web, and loading information through apps, whether they be social networking or multiuser games. Even when the Galaxy Nexus sits unused (but connected to Wi-Fi), the battery runs down within 36 hours. Except for that small minority of iPhone 4S users who've had battery-life issues, iPhone owners can get a good workday out of their smartphones and several days in standby mode. Complaints about poor Galaxy Nexus battery life are all over the Web, both in formal reviews and user complaints, so the issue appears to be widespread. You can stretch an Android device's battery life by using a third-party utility, but a smartphone should be able to go at least one full workday on its own.

The Galaxy Nexus comes with a 5-megapixel rear camera capable of still and video photography, as well as a flash, with autofocus, panoramic stitching, 1080p video resolution, and low-light image-capture sensors -- par for the course with current smartphones in the $200-and-up contract price range. But it's not as capable as the 8-megapixel, high-precision-optics camera in the iPhone 4S. The front camera is also typical, with 1.3-megapixel resolution.

The fact that the rear camera is centered horizontally does make snapping photos -- especially tight close-ups and bar-code scans -- easier compared to using the iPhone's offset camera. Note that if you use a PIN- or password-protected lock screen -- required by many businesses' Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) security policies, there's no way to take pictures on the Galaxy Nexus without logging in, as the iPhone's iOS 5 allows. You also don't get music playback controls from the lock screen, as on an iPhone. Your notification tray is unavailable as well, which can be annoying but is very secure.

The Verizon version of the Galaxy Nexus comes with 32GB of internal storage, the same as the same-price iPhone 4S ($649 without contract, $299 with two-year contract). And like the iPhone 4S (and unlike some other Android models), the Galaxy Nexus has no SD slot for storage expansion. For most users, 32GB is fine. Do note that the Canadian and British GSM models have just 16GB of internal RAM, which is too skimpy.

 

The Galaxy Nexus's design itself is unremarkable: a dark gray rectangle with rounded top and bottom. You're supposed to notice just the screen, because everything else about the case is nondescript. But you may notice the back, which is covered in a textured plastic material or film, because it feels weird and cheap to the touch. I'd be concerned about it peeling off from the edges at some point, especially in the several areas where the material curves up. Fortunately, the film covers only the snap-off back panel, so some enterprising company could make better-feeling replacements for it.

The Galaxy Nexus has the minimal ports -- MicroUSB and audio -- plus a volume rocker and power/sleep button. The MicroUSB port also supports MHL (Mobile High-Definition Link) cables, which connect to an HDMI device such as a TV to mirror the Galaxy Nexus's screen. That eliminates the need for a separate MiniHDMI port. (The iPhone 4S also supports display mirroring through a dock-to-HDMI cable.) But missing is wireless display support as found on the iPhone 4S; the native apps at least don't support the DLNA (Digital Living Room Network Alliance) wireless streaming technology used by some Android apps and many recent TVs and Blu-ray players.

The Galaxy Nexus also supports near-field communications (NFC), a very short-range wireless technology that lets the smartphone share data with other NFC-equipped Android 4 devices in a way similar to Bluetooth file sharing. I could not test the NFC sharing feature as I had no other NFC devices available.

Finally, the Verizon Wireless version of the Galaxy Nexus that I tested supports LTE 4G cellular networks, which promise faster throughput than the common 3G networks. The Galaxy Nexus uses 3G networks when 4G is not available -- a good thing, as 4G deployments are still relatively scarce and concentrated in major urban areas. My informal testing in San Francisco, where LTE service is very recent, shows that 4G service is faster than 3G when the signal strengths are equivalent. But I typically had two 4G bars available for the Galaxy Nexus, while in the same locations for a Verizon iPhone 4, I had three 3G bars. The network performance of two 4G bars was equivalent to three 3G bars, so the Galaxy Nexus did not have better real-world performance in my test areas. If you're in a city with better 4G coverage, you should see the 4G speed difference more often.

All in all, what distinguishes the Galaxy Nexus's hardware from competing Android smartphones is its huge screen, 4G network support, and NFC support (which account for its high score in the Hardware category; see the scorecard) and poor battery life (which lowers its score for Usability). It's not quite the flagship I expected, but falls squarely on the advanced side. The rest of the Galaxy Nexus experience comes from the Android 4 OS itself, which Samsung hasn't messed up with any sort of UI "enhancement" or by larding it up with apps.

Email, calendars, and contacts Android 4 has made improvements across the core business apps, though most are minor.

Email. The Email app now provides a combined view of your various accounts, which Android 2.x smartphones didn't do. That makes it easier to work with multiple accounts (emails are color-coded by account). It's a very welcome change, except when you want to search; Android 4's Email app can search only when you are viewing a single account, unlike iOS.

But the Email app continues to lack support for rich text, such as applying boldface, a capability Motorola Mobility added to its Android 2.x smartphones earlier this year. And although Email can show folder hierarchies for Exchange accounts, it doesn't preserve folder hierarchies in IMAP accounts. Seeing folders at all continues to require more steps than in iOS. There's also no message threading. And unfortunately, the Gmail app remains separate from the Email app used for all other types of email accounts.

Android 4 gets rid of the hard-to-read white-on-black message display of Android 2.2 "Froyo" and 2.3 "Gingerbread"; lets you create email groups (unlike iOS); and adds per-attachment controls within emails -- all imported from Android 3.x "Honeycomb." (Many Android 4 changes for smartphones in fact come from simply adopting what "Honeycomb" already provided to Android tablets.) But there's something amiss in the display of your message list: The From line overlaps the text in the Subject line -- no matter what setting your text size in either the Mail app itself or as the Android default. Someone forget to do the quality control work here.

Another positive change in Android 4 is an expanded viewer for attachments. With Android devices, you can now view Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files, in addition to graphics, text-only, and HTML attachments. You no longer need a separate reader such as the basic version of Quickoffice bundled by many Android devices; in fact, Quickoffice is not bundled with the Galaxy Nexus.

Android 4 adds a dictation function in Email, where you can speak your message. Although Android has nothing like the iPhone 4S's Siri voice-controlled virtual assistant, it has voice recognition capabilities in several apps, including Email, Navigation, and Search. Unfortunately, the dictation in Email is highly inaccurate, even when you speak slowly and distinctly. At least the voice recognition in Navigation and Search are more reliable.

The improved widgets in Android 4 let you add home screen windows to show recent emails, appointments, and the like. These are great ways to see quickly what's new. They also overcome the limits in Android's notification tray, which does not list individual messages (unlike iOS 5's notifications) and tells you only how many new messages you have.

Calendar. The new Android 4 Calendar app lets you swipe among day, list, week, and month views with scroll gestures -- a simple approach that I wish were more common in the menu-oriented Android OS. The Android Calendar also has adopted several options iOS 5 users are familiar with, including home-time-zone appointment view, the ability to set a universal default reminder time, and the ability to set the time zone for each new event independently. It can also show appointments from Google Calendar (which iOS has long supported). But Android 4 continues Google's cloud-only approach to synchronization, so you can't sync with local calendars (or contacts) on your PC or Mac.

Contacts. Android 4's Contact app has been renamed People. It's now expanded to pull in Twitter followers and other social networking contacts, in addition to traditional contacts such as in Exchange and Gmail. But little has changed in the contacts themselves. As before, you can designate people as favorites, set custom ringtones (but not custom vibrations as in iOS 5), have specified contacts' phone calls be sent to voicemail, search for contacts, and quickly scroll through them, which also displays a faster slider mechanism. A nice addition (for smartphone users) in Android 4 is the abillity to create groups (unlike iOS), with a better  group-creation mechanism than that in the tablet-oriented Android 3 "Honeycomb." The UI has also been cleaned up a bit.

ApplicationsMessaging alone isn't what smartphones these days are used for. They're also surrogate computers and game players, and such use has been long one of Android's aims to satisfy.

Apps. The apps bundled with Android 4 are essentially the same as in previous Android versions: Books, Browser, Calculator, Calendar, Camera, Clock, Earth, Email, Gallery, Gmail, Google+, Maps, Market, Messaging, Movie Studio, Music, Navigation, News & Weather, People, Phone, Places, Search, Talk, Videos, and YouTube. The Photo app adds an editing mode very much like the facility in iOS's Camera app and Photo Booth app to straighten and crop images, as well as apply color and silly special effects. The Maps app provides simulated 3D views of buildings when you zoom in, and the Videos app supports 1080p HD-resolution movies rentable from Google.

The calculator has no scientific version as in iOS, nor is there a task-management or note-taking app as in iOS 5. There's no document-syncing protocol like iCloud either, nor are there the same rich business and creative apps as available for iOS. However, business users can work with moderately capable apps like Quickoffice and Documents to Go from the Android Market to do word processing, spreadsheet editing, and light presentation touchup. Avoid the Google Docs app -- it's only able to edit plain text in an awkward interface, and it's no better than using the limited Google Docs mobile service on the Web.

But many Android apps have rich sharing capabilities, with a Share menu that offers many more options (depending on what apps you have installed) for dispersing URLs, photos, and other contents. iOS 5's equivalent is restricted to email, Twitter, and messaging. Note: Getting to the Share menu, if it's available, varies from application to application. Sometimes it's accessed via an icon button and sometimes via the Other or Menu button's popup menu.

Android 4's notifications facility is essentially unchanged, though you can now dismiss individual items from the tray. And Android 4 finally introduces the ability to take screenshots on the device -- you no longer have to do so from the developers' SDK on your Mac or PC. Simultaneously press the reduce-volume rocker switch and power/sleep button. Screenshots are stored in the Screenshots album in the Gallery app, whose Windows Phone 7-like tile UI is a bit confusing to use, given its non-Androidness. (The People app also has the Windows Phone 7 look.)

App management. On smartphones, Android 4 brings a scrollable set of app tiles that shows not only the apps that are running (as in iOS 5) but live previews of their current state (unlike iOS 5). This is a smartphone-optimized version of the similar facility in Android 3 for tablets.

Android 4 now lets you create app folders, using the same technique pioneered in iOS: Drag one app onto another. Unlike iOS, Android has a very nice widgets capability that lets you not only position widgets -- from clocks to new-email lists -- on the home screens but (new to Android 4) also resize compatible widgets as desired. In addition, Android 4 lets you add apps to an apps tray visible on every home screen -- a clear clone of a similar iOS feature.

Location support. Android 4 hasn't done much to improve its location capabilities -- just cleaned up the UI in the Navigation app a bit. So, you get a maps app similar to that in iOS and Windows Phone, plus the Navigation app that provides while-you-drive directions that costs extra in iOS.

The good and the bad of Android 4:Left: The resizable widgets and permanent quick-access app bar are nice additions. Center: The lines of text in the Email app's mail list overlap. Right: The browser has trouble accurately rendering layouts on some websites (note the blank column), and many websites can't distinguish Android 4 smartphones from tablets. (Click any image to see the full-size version in a new window.)

Web and Internet The Android 4 browser has a new option to request a desktop version of websites that display downsized pages to mobile devices, a nice choice when you don't want the often inferior mobile version of the site. But the browser doesn't always render websites accurately, especially those that have multiple columns (the InfoWorld.com website is one it misrenders). It also doesn't always handle mail links that include variables such as Subject fields correctly.

Google's user agent string for Android makes it hard for websites to differentiate between smartphones and Android 4 tablets. Rather than have a clear label such as "smartphone" or "tablet" in addition to the "Android 4" label, it lists the specific model for each device, forcing webmasters to keep a log of which items should get a mobile-optimized smartphone version and which can stick with the standard desktop-oriented site. My random check of websites showed that most saw the Galaxy Nexus as a tablet, not a smartphone. Thus, many websites will be hard to use on the Galaxy Nexus, at least until website developers figure out how to identify Android 4 smartphones.

The Android 4 browser supports more HTML5 capabilities than prior versions of Android. In the HTML5Test.com benchmarks, it scores 230 (out of 450 points), versus 222 for Android 3, 184 for Android 2.3, 230 for BlackBerry OS 7, and 141 for Windows Phone 7.5. But iOS 5 far outperforms Android 4, scoring 296.

Google has also borrowed some capabilities from Apple's iOS in the Android 4 version of its mobile browser: You can now search within a Web page and you can now add a Web page as an app-like icon to your home screen.

User interfaceThe Android 4 UI is smoother and feels more consistent. As previously noted, Google has improved the widgets and home screen interface, making them more useful and flexible.

Operational UI. But there are plenty of cracks and mismatches, an unfortunate signature of Google's development approach. For example, apps place their menus in different locations, and some use icons, where others use menus for the same basic features; you can't rely on the equivalent of motor memory. Some of the revamped apps have adopted the Windows Phone 7 tiles look, while others are menu-heavy, almost in a retro way that seems odd for a touch-savvy device. Perhaps this conservatism and look to Microsoft reflect caution given the heated legal battle with Apple over design patents. But it means a lot of mental mode shifting for users.

The bright AMOLED screen in the Galaxy Nexus is quite appealing, but you need to be careful with screen brightness -- text is easily "blown out" and made fuzzy if the screen is set to high brightness. Fortunately, a handy widget lets you quickly switch brightness levels, so you can have it superintense for games and cartoons, then a bit subdued for text and movies.

But the biggest usability issue for the Galaxy Nexus is poor battery life, one shared by other Samsung Galaxy smartphones. This flaw explains why the Galaxy Nexus's Test Center usability score is below that of Motorola's Android smartphones, even though the latter group uses an older version of Android.

Text selection and copying. As is common with Google's products, the interface favors small text difficult for those in their 40s and older to read. Fortunately, Android 4 has added controls to increase the text size, which helps notably. The new text-correction interface, in which multiple suggested corrections appear beneath the text as you type, is inspired -- and much better than Apple's approach. Text selection and cursor positioning are also easier, as the text cursor is now more responsive as you tap into text.

Security and management A big change for smartphone users with Android 4 is the inclusion of Android 3's security and management capabilities, such as support for on-device encryption, for VPNs, and for more EAS policies (including failed-attempt lockout and password histories). Exchange's remote lock and remote wipe capabilities are also supported, as in Android 2.x. Unfortunately, Android 4 continues the Android 3 approach of requiring users to turn on device encryption -- it's not automatic -- then wait for an hour or more for the initial encryption to be applied. Fortunately, that's a one-time activity.

Unfortnately, the VPN settings are buried in the network settings' More submenu, and the options are certain to scare most users away, as you get a list of incomprehensible acronyms to choose from when setting up. I could not get the Galaxy Nexus to work on my company's IPSec network, as none of the IPSec options had options for entering the group ID, just its preshared key. I tried various permutations hoping one might work, but no such luck. The problem seems to be that Android 4, like its predecessors, doesn't support Cisco's IPSec, which my company uses. Of course, I had no such issues on an iPhone or BlackBerry.

Android 4 also fails to fix a flaw in previous Android versions that prevent devices from connecting to Wi-Fi networks using the PEAP security protocol due to a problem in handling its corresponding certificates. You won't find this flaw in other mobile OSes.

These security changes mean that Android 4 smartphones are now on par with Android 3 (and 4) tablets, and closer to the level of iOS devices when it comes to meeting common business security needs. And Android 4, again like Android 3 but unlike iOS, lets you know exactly what controls your EAS administrator is imposing.

Android 4 introduces a lock mechanism based on facial recognition, which is easily defeated by using a photo of a person. But the good news for IT is that if you enable a PIN or password requirement on a Galaxy Nexus or other Android 4 device via EAS, this facial recognition unlock is disabled.

A flagship Android that doesn't quite meet expectations When I first got the Galaxy Nexus to test, I was smitten. That gorgeous, big screen made my iPhone 4 look puny by comparison. The enhanced widgets capability and text correction mechanism both showed me that Apple doesn't own the whole town when it comes to good UI.

But the more I used the Galaxy Nexus, the more I was bothered by the mélange of interface approaches, the inconsistencies in common UI elements, the unfaithful rendering of the Android browser, the poor battery life, and the generally more limited capabilities of most core apps. I know the Android fanboys don't want to hear it, but the Galaxy Nexus is no iPhone-killer, and Android 4 -- which honestly is cleaned-up, enriched, smartphone-resized Android 3 -- doesn't beat iOS 5, much less the iCloud/iTunes/iOS ecosystem.

Still, there's a lot of good in both the Galaxy Nexus and Android 4, and the combination should be on the short list of anyone looking for an Android smartphone. In many respects, the Galaxy Nexus beats the previous Android champs, Motorola Mobility's smartphone family, but the poor battery life prevents me from declaring the Galaxy Nexus as the undisputed new champ. If the Galaxy Nexus intrigues you, hold off and see if one of the inevitable flood of new Android 4 smartphones offers the same luscious screen with better battery life.

This article, "Galaxy Nexus: First Android 4 smartphone triumphs -- almost," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in mobile computing, read Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog at InfoWorld.com, follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter, and follow InfoWorld on Twitter.

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