Review: Samsung Galaxy Nexus

The Galaxy Nexus successfully combines a superb screen, great software and excellent hardware

After months of rumours, a delayed unveiling out of respect for Steve Jobs, and a launch that could be best described as chaotic, Google and Samsung have finally released the Galaxy Nexus — the first smartphone to run the latest 4.0 "Ice Cream Sandwich" version of Android. The Galaxy Nexus successfully combines a superb screen, great software and excellent hardware to produce what we think is the best Android phone ever.

Where can you buy the Galaxy Nexus?
A first look at the Galaxy Nexus
A word on the Galaxy Nexus: Battery life

Galaxy Nexus: Design and display

There are a few reasons why we think the Galaxy Nexus is the best Android phone on the market, but the most apparent is its strikingly large 4.65in Super AMOLED HD display. The HD denotes a high definition resolution of 1280x720, and the Galaxy Nexus displays an ultra sharp and crisp image. Its bright, vivid and clear and text is crisp and smooth with minimal visible aberrations: if we were being picky we'd say that the iPhone 4S still displays slightly crisper text, but the difference is very small and won't be immediately noticeable to a casual user.

The large size of the screen naturally makes the Galaxy Nexus great for video playback but Web browsing is the main beneficiary — the clarity of the screen makes reading Web pages and books an impressive experience. Our only complaint involves the automatic brightness feature: its often erratic and most of the time is either set a little too bright, or too dim. We suspect this is an issue that could and should be corrected by a software update.

The Galaxy Nexus is a large phone but the big screen doesn't make it uncomfortably large to handle. The unit has on-screen controls rather than capacitive keys that were previously standard on Android phones, so the Galaxy Nexus isn't too much bigger than the popular Samsung Galaxy S II. Aiding the look and feel is a curved screen and a body that has a teardrop profile — this means the Galaxy Nexus is thicker at the top and slightly wider towards the bottom. The curvature makes the Galaxy Nexus feel natural to hold and therefore comfortable to use.

Unfortunately, the Galaxy Nexus' battery cover is way too fiddly and difficult to put back on once its removed. It's only a minor issue but the fit and finish is a step behind many of its rivals including the iPhone 4S and the HTC Sensation XE — the plastic feels durable but it doesn't look or feel as sturdy as a premium device should. We also dropped our review unit and it left a noticeable chip and multiple scuffs on the plastic surface, while there is a small spot on the edge of the cover that moves when you press it, suggesting its not clicked into place properly. We love the teardrop design and the the non-slip grip that the back of the Galaxy Nexus provides, but we wish Samsung paid more attention to detail.

Two more minor issues — we hate the headphone jack on the bottom of phones and the Galaxy Nexus is no exception. It feels out of place and requires you to turn the phone around when you pull it out of your pocket. We also found the volume buttons on the Galaxy Nexus too easy to accidentally press when the phone is in your pocket, which is annoying when you're listening to music.

Galaxy Nexus: Ice Cream Sandwich UI

The hardware of the Galaxy Nexus is only half of the story. Google's latest Android software, Ice Cream Sandwich, is the real star of the Galaxy Nexus show and the changes are both exhausting and impressive.

Right from the moment you switch on the Galaxy Nexus for the first time, it's clear that the entire user experience has been improved. The interface has been refreshed to create a more uniform look and feel. There's a new typeface called Roboto. The software is faster and slicker than any previous versions of Android and is an improvement over any manufacturer UI skin that we've seen on any other device. The Galaxy Nexus feels consistent and is easier to use than any other Android phone we've ever tested.

There are too many changes to list, but there are a few key elements that make the Galaxy Nexus a pleasure to use. The first is consistency. Google has changed almost every part of the interface and the result is a phone that is easier to use. Android 4.0 still isn't as simple as iOS or as elegant as Windows Phone 7.5, but its fast, effective and easier on the eye than any previous versions of the software. In a full week of use, the Galaxy Nexus did not crash or stutter: performance is consistently excellent.

On the lock screen, you can swipe right to get to the home screen or left to jump straight into the camera. You can now access notifications from the lock screen and you can swipe individual notifications away rather than having to clear all notifications. You can also quickly access the settings menu from the notification drop down, create folders on the home screen by dragging one app on top of another, and access widgets by swiping through the app draw. We also liked the link to the Android Market in the top right corner of the app draw — a small but very appreciated touch — along with the fact that the Google search widget is now a permanent fixture at the top of every home screen. It can not only be used to search the Web, but can perform a phone-wide search, too.

As previously mentioned, Ice Cream Sandwich no longer uses hardware shortcut keys. Instead, three on-screen buttons appear (back, home, multitasking) on most screens. In some apps, further settings can be accessed when three small dots appear in the lower right hand corner of the screen. This can be a little confusing and its often easy to accidentally bump the home or back buttons, but the navigation is something we quickly got used to. We also found multitasking quite intuitive: pressing the multitasking buttons brings up a vertical, scrolling list of your most recently used apps. Tapping on an app will switch to it, while swiping an app off the screen will close it. Its the same multitasking method used on Google's Honeycomb software for tablets, but it feels far more natural and intuitive on a phone.

Next page: Keyboard, camera, Web browser, battery life and more

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Galaxy Nexus: Keyboard, Browser and more

Perhaps the best feature of Ice Cream Sandwich is the on-screen keyboard: it's the best we've ever used on an Android phone, with accurate word correction and an excellent layout. If you're coming from an iPhone, you should have no problems adjusting to the Galaxy Nexus, as the keyboard is easily on par with iOS.

The Browser on the Galaxy Nexus is also superb. It's the fastest browser we've ever used on a smartphone (yes, even slightly faster than the iPhone 4S). It's smooth to scroll and zoom and although it doesn't support Flash right now (that is coming in a future update from Adobe) it loaded most pages without an issue. Our only complaint is that when using the on screen keyboard to type in text fields, such as posting on a forum, the keyboard loses its auto correction abilities.

We love most of the changes that Google has made to Ice Cream Sandwich, but Face Unlock isn't one of them. Its largely a gimmick feature in the first place, but we found it a hit and miss affair. Sometimes it worked flawlessly, but other times the front facing camera was affected by a lack of light (especially if used it indoors) and didn't work.

We also found an annoying issue in the new People app. The interface and layout is excellent but the images the app pulls from your contacts end up looking distorted and pixelated. Though its ultimately a minor issue, this takes some gloss of what should be a great looking feature. You can get around this by replacing your contact images with ones taken with the Galaxy Nexus' camera, but even then, the image inside the contact menu is blown up and looks blurry.

We also discovered some apps in the Android Market aren't compatible with the new Ice Cream Sandwich software. Some apps like Facebook will work but are missing the ability to access the options menu due to the on-screen keys replacing the hardware buttons. Others, like RemindMe don't work at all. This is an issue that will be resolved over time as developers update their apps to support Ice Cream Sandwich, but it remains a stumbling block for early adopters.

Galaxy Nexus: Camera and other features

The Samsung Galaxy Nexus has a 5-megapixel camera with single-LED flash that also doubles as a full HD 1080p video recorder. The best feature of the camera is its speed: it takes photos with virtually zero shutter lag. You can easily capture a whole heap of images in a matter of seconds, as the picture is taken the moment you press the on-screen shutter key. The Galaxy Nexus also has a 1.3-megapixel front facing camera will handle video calls and also record 720p HD video: a nifty addition for those who like to record themselves.

While we loved the fact that there is virtually zero shutter lag on the Galaxy Nexus, it often results in images that aren't well focused. The quality of images isn't as good as some other camera phones we've reviewed this year. The Galaxy Nexus is by no means a bad camera: in many instances it produces pretty natural looking photos, and macro performance is excellent. However, images tend to lack detail and have a fair bit of noise, and shots taken in low light aren't exposed very well.

Perhaps the most annoying aspect of the Galaxy Nexus is the volume of the external speaker: its not loud enough so ring tones and notification tones can be difficult to hear when the phone is in your pocket. We tried downloading an equaliser app from the Android Market to boost the volume but even with a slight boost this still remained a significant issue. We can only hope Samsung might be able to fix this with a software update, but its likely hardware that's the issue.

The Galaxy Nexus also lacks a microSD card slot, so you'll have to be content with the 16GB of internal memory. Samsung promised a 32GB model at launch, but as yet this model hasn't been released anywhere in the world, so it may not ever see the light of day.

The Galaxy Nexus supports a wide range of video and music files and doesn't require software to get music and video files onto it. You can simply plug the Galaxy Nexus into a PC via a USB port and drag and drop files onto the device. On a Windows PC the Galaxy Nexus appears in the control panel as a "portable device", but on a Mac or Linux computer you will need to download the Android File Transfer application in order to move files to and from the phone.

Galaxy Nexus: Battery life and availability

The Galaxy Nexus has average battery life. For light users, it should last a full day, but heavy users will more than likely need an injection of power before the end of the day. The best we managed to squeeze out of the Galaxy Nexus was almost 19 and a half hours: this was on a day with light to moderate use.

The biggest battery killer on the Galaxy Nexus is the screen: it often accounted for over 50 per cent of battery life on a heavy day, and around 30 per cent on a light to moderate day. Unlike many other Android phones, using the Internet and synchronising applications in the background (like Gmail, Twitter and Facebook) doesn't seem to be a huge battery drain. A good example is the fact that the Browser accounted for less than 8 per cent of the battery drain in most instances.

The Samsung Galaxy Nexus isn't officially available in Australia through a carrier just let, but can be purchased online though mobile phone retailer MobiCity.