Google phones. In a way, every Android phone is a Google phone, but manufacturers tend to prevent the pure Google Android experience from shining through with their own custom interfaces. In turn, there have only ever been two true Google phones: the Nexus One and the Nexus S. Now though, it's time for the third and arguably, the most significant handset to bear the Nexus brand since the first, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. Crafted with the sole purpose of delivering the most bespoke Android 4.0 experience possible, Samsung have endowed their Galaxy Nexus with no physical buttons, a curved design and a large, crisp HD screen.
Curved glass, light high-grade plastic, lattice patterned backing and bottom-heavy weighting. The Samsung Galaxy Nexus comes together in an extremely understated way for a handset with such a large screen.
On the subject of the screen, terms like HD or high definition are banded about left right and centre, but the Galaxy Nexus' 4.65 inch HD Amoled display actually packs in the full 720x1280 pixels the accolade suggests. With a pixel density of 315 ppi, it doesn't compromise on clarity either. Detail is fine with text looking crisp and images displayed on-screen looking pure, rich and dot-free.
The Amazon Kindle app relishes being used with the onboard pin-sharp AMOLED display, particularly in night mode. With the pitch black backdrop and the superfine text, each letter sits like a finely crafted typographic island atop a deep lightless backing. When viewing images, colour reproduction is accurate and vibrant, though more subdued than on Super AMOLED screens we've used in the past, no bad thing, merely worth a mention.
Brightness is good and viewing angles from all sides are fantastic delivering minimal colour and contrast distortion and completing the screen experience beautifully. Add responsiveness into the mix and all the components are in place to ensure the Samsung Galaxy Nexus sets a new standard for AMOLED screens in consumer mobiles.
A lack of buttons means that nothing detracts from the simplicity of the Samsung Galaxy Nexus' design with a volume rocker to the left, a power button to the right. That's it.The smooth, curved fascia is interrupted only by the in-call speaker, while the front facing camera sits under the glass at the top. The headphone jack and the microUSB port lie at the base of the phone, with three, gold dock connectors to the right.
On the reverse is the 5MP camera and LED flash, along with the loud-speaker at the bottom and a Samsung and Google insignia. The back cover has a good feel while on the device, with a lattice pattern contrasting nicely with the smoothness of the rest of the phone, however removing it is a clumsy process. It also feels markedly plastic and while this adds to the lightness of the handset, it is also the key area the Samsung Galaxy Nexus falls short in terms of design. Even though this is still a premium feeling product, when compared to other halo phones such as the Apple iPhone 4S or the Nokia Lumia 800, the solid-factor is missing.
Ice Cream Sandwich may well have more front end changes than any other version of Android before it. Jumping from version 2.3 through to 4.0 on mobile, this is a fundamental update, using Honeycomb as it's foundations with its glowing edged styling and interface-integrated buttons.
The bottom portion of the screen transforms into three touch sensitive buttons when the screen is turned on. From left to right, these are back, home and recent apps. Five icons sit above these, the apps drawer in the centre and two customizable icons either side, replaceable with a long-press. The five home-screens have a fixed Google bar up at the top, making the remainder of the screen available for widgets and shortcuts.
The apps drawer contains some key differences in Ice Cream Sandwich. Thumbing through can be done by scrolling horizontally, with a staggered display of 20 apps on a 4x5 grid at any given time. At the top are links to the market widgets.
Widgets are now re-sizable as per the latest iteration of Honeycomb and while we’ve seen this in launchers for a while now, it’s gratifying to see in a vanilla build, with such personalisation further differentiating the Android experience from iOS and Windows Phone 7. With widgets containing much more of Honeycomb and with most of them being scrollable, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus engages you with widgets in a more compelling way than we’ve seen before in a mobile experience.
Folders are also handled much more intuitively, acting more like ‘piles of apps’ than folders, an evolution of what’s been seen on Sony Ericsson’s Xperia line of late and not all that dissimilar to how folders can be created in iOS.
On board apps are mainly those created by Google, with Books, Earth, Google+, Movie Studio and Music being the out of the ordinary additions to the standard mobile Android line-up. Old favourites, have had a bit of a face lift, with pinch to zoom functionality in the calendar and Gmail looking a lot more Honeycomb.
For the more hardcore Android fan there is also a developer option in the settings giving you a range of handy advanced settings out of the box such as finger tracking and visualised pointer. There is also an Easter egg if you multi-tap and Android 4.0 version number multiple times as well as a range of charming, characteristic animations that should please any Android fan:
Overall, the interface packs in enough new stuff to keep even the most seasoned Android user playing for days. It’s smooth 99% of the time and the additions are intuitive and add value. We did find the camera module force-closed a couple of times, so don’t expect a totally bug free handset, though a couple of updates down the line and it should go from good to great in terms of stability.
The first standout point of this camera is it’s fast, very fast. As you can see from the shots, quality is pretty on-point too. Even in mediocre lighting, the 5-megapixels gives you plenty of detail across the board. It isn’t without its shortcomings, with less than impressive low light performance and the speed of snapping meaning the picture can be taken before the camera has a chance to focus.
With good exposure levels, metering and well saturated colours, image quality looks to be up there with the big players when it comes to outdoor lighting. Detail is strong and should dispel doubts about 5MP being enough in terms of detail. Macro shots also look great and are definitely sharable on screen or printable 6x4 or 7x5.
The panorama mode is also a really nice touch as you can see from our example above.
After a glowing array of images taken at the outdoor market in our preview of the Samsung Galaxy Nexus’ camera, we thought we’d test the handset further with an evening market for our full review. The results are good in dusk, less so at night. While far from bad, there is definitely more grain than we would hope to see on such a high-end phone even with the LED flash helping brighten things up. Check out the samples and decide for yourself.
Video capture and playback
Video is captured up to a maximum resolution of 1080p with performance being comparable to photos - detailing is good, colour is accurate and frame-rate is smooth. There is slight under-contrasting even in daytime video and night-time shooting is riddled with noise. Continuous focus works well in good lighting, but when darkness overwhelms the scene it struggles. We’ve uploaded three clips to highlight all the quirks of the camera below.
Viewing video content on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus is comparable to the best screen experiences we've had on a phone. The AMOLED display plays HD video content with rich colours, deep blacks and smooth, silky playback.
With a fraction of the Google music experience pre-loaded on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus in the form of the application, there’s a competent music handler delivering an attractive UI and music management. For those of you lucky enough to be Stateside, Android Market cloud integration will also be on-board.
Audio quality through the 3.5mm headphone jack is decent with nice, rounded sound, though the loudspeaker is a bit quiet when compared to other high end phones.
With our model, the UK release packing 16GB of non expandable memory, we have a similar gripe with the Galaxy Nexus as we do with the HTC Sensation XL That said, where the Nexus excels above the XL is in the lack of partitioning. What this means is that all your memory can be used for media and/or apps as you see fit.
The dual-core 1.2GHz processor powering the Samsung Galaxy Nexus is well up to the task of ensuring Ice Cream Sandwich is void of any lumps. Transitions are fluid and overall performance is fast, with benchmark scores putting the Galaxy Nexus above even the GS2.
Battery life on the handset is markedly average. If you're reckless, it won't get you through a day, if you're careful, you can squeeze a day and a half out of it. The killer function that seems to sap battery is synchronisation so if you know you're not going to get to re-juice for some time, uncheck that box.
Google is becoming more and more focused on integrating their connected services across devices. Along with the usual Wi-Fi, 2G, 3G, Bluetooth and GPS, NFC is also on board making the Samsung Galaxy Nexus Google Wallet friendly when it's rolled out.
The web browser is fantastic, faster than any we've used on a mobile device to date. It is due Flash support in December, so that's worth bearing in mind, but on the whole we have little cause for complaint with smooth browsing and tabbed integration proving more intuitive than ever before. Another highlight is the labs function. As with Honeycomb, there is the option to drag in a range of browsing options from the left or right corner as illustrated in the image, clearing up the screen for 4.65 inches of pure web.
There have been an overwhelming number of reports of a volume dropping bug that's plagued handsets, affecting calls and in some cases making the phone functionality verging on impossible. Our handset didn't suffer from this but if you're concerned, check out our post for more information. In our experience using the phone, call quality on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus was exemplary, with clear audible sound on both ends.
Purpose built for Ice Cream Sandwich, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus works harmoniously with its operating system. The button-less OS is showcased by its curved, smooth fascia. With its large HD Super AMOLED screen the form complements the engaging new Ice Cream Sandwich widgets and with the slightly lower resolution camera, takes pictures astoundingly quickly. Despite a volume dropping issue facing specific handsets, we can comfortably say we’re impressed. We would have liked to see a camera better able to handle low-light, a chassis with a bit more oomph and a completely bug free experience, but as it stands the Samsung Galaxy nexus is still one of the best handsets on the market, and if you’re an Android fan, perhaps the best.