Nov. 28, 2011 at 8:10 PM ET
By Mark Spoonauer
The Samsung Galaxy Nexus' screen is huge, but the software is a much bigger deal. As the first Android phone running Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, the Nexus gives users a completely made-over version of Google's operating system. The OS is just as customizable and versatile as before, but Android 4.0 seeks to make the user experience friendlier, more refined, and more socially connected.
Yes, there's some impressive hardware here — a 720p Super AMOLED screen, dual-core processor, and lightning-fast camera — but Google is out to prove that it can deliver lots of power without being intimidating. No Android skin required. Does this superphone succeed in that mission?
Editors' Note: We tested an unlocked version of the Galaxy Nexus. The Verizon Wireless version should be on sale in early December.
WHAT WE LIKE
High-def display: The Samsung Galaxy Nexus' display is big and beautiful, offering Super AMOLED Plus technology for fantastic contrast and a super-sharp 720p resolution (1,280 x 720 pixels). When we fired up a trailer for "The Amazing Spider-Man" in HD, the 4.7-inch screen delivered superb detail and very wide viewing angles. When surfing the Web, we could make out more text versus the iPhone 4 without having to zoom in.
Sleeker, smarter interface: The new Roboto font for Google’s makeover of Android is very crisp and tight, a perfect match for the Galaxy Nexus' 720p display. And Google has done a lot of work to deliver a more polished and elegant UI while minimizing tapping and menu digging. For example, you can access the Android Market from within the Apps menu, and access settings from the Notification area.
As with iOS, you can group similar apps together just by dragging and dropping them on top of each other, but you'll need to name the folders yourself.
Mighty multitasker: The new Recent Apps button in Android 4.0 really puts Google's software ahead of iOS and Windows Phone in terms of multitasking. Pressing this option displays a list of thumbnail previews of the apps with their icons inset, and you can close apps with a sideways swipe.
Very fast performance: On our tests, the Galaxy Nexus was super smooth and responsive. Featuring a 1.2-GHz dual-core processor, the phone instantly launched the App menu and let us jump between apps (such as the browser and "Fruit Ninja") in a second. The Galaxy Nexus also delivered excellent graphics performance when we played "Riptide GP." The action never stuttered, and we could make out detailed reflections in the rippling water.
New People App: The new People App in Android 4.0 is more inviting than your typical address book, providing a large profile photo for each contact along with social networking integration. We liked being able to swipe to the right while viewing a contact to see Google+ and Twitter updates from that person in a single stream. Too bad Google hasn't added Facebook to its People app yet.
Beefed up browser: Android 4.0 offers an enhanced browser that lets you save pages for offline reading and request full desktop versions of sites. Users can keep up to 16 tabs open. The only thing missing is Flash support, which Adobe says is coming by the end of the year.
WHAT WE DON'T LIKE
Light but plasticky design: Samsung deserves serious credit for making a mammoth 4.7-inch screen not feel like overkill. That's because the Galaxy Nexus' HD display is housed inside a body that weighs a fairly light 5.3 ounces and measures 0.4 inches thick. However, the textured back cover felt flimsy when we took it off. The Droid RAZR's Kevlar-infused design feels more durable.
So-so audio: We wouldn't call the back-mounted speaker on the Galaxy Nexus weak, but it's not as powerful as the Motorola Droid RAZR's or the HTC Rezound's. When we streamed Incubus' "Promises, Promises" on Slacker, the sound was fairly clean, but we had to crank it up to the max. Both the RAZR and Rezound got much louder. Same thing goes for the speakerphone during calls.
Camera too fast? The Galaxy Nexus's 5-megapixel camera is so speedy it's almost scary. As a result, though, some pics appeared blurry because it didn't seem like there was time for autofocus to kick in. Outdoor photos had good color saturation, but didn't deliver as much detail as the 8-MP cameras on the iPhone 4S and the Galaxy S II. Indoors, the camera flash often added a yellow-orange tinge to images.
On the plus side, the Galaxy Nexus comes with a ton of editing tools, from auto-fix and cropping to a wide range of special effects and tweaks.
Search button banished: The biggest difference between Ice Cream Sandwich and phones running earlier versions of Android is that there are no physical buttons beneath the screen. It’s all integrated into the software. You'll find the traditional Home and Back keys and a Recent Apps button in a persistent System Bar at the bottom of the screen. The Menu button and Search buttons are integrated elsewhere in the software. We actually missed having a dedicated Search button always in the same location.
The Galaxy Nexus isn't just a new Android flavor of the week. Android Ice Cream Sandwich represents a big step forward for the OS in terms of usability and polish. The physical design itself may be too big for some, but Samsung has done a nice job keeping the weight and thickness down to counterbalance the big and beautiful 720p screen. The Galaxy Nexus beats the iPhone 4S when it comes to multitasking. What we'd like to see is Facebook integrated into the People app.
Is the Galaxy Nexus the best Android phone yet? We prefer the slimmer and sturdier design of the Motorola Droid RAZR, but overall the Nexus offers the best combination of hardware and software. Once you add Verizon's 4G LTE speeds to this device, the Galaxy Nexus will be the Google phone to beat.
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