So, is Ice Cream Sandwich everything we've been led to believe?
Does it usurp the Galaxy S II as our top Android handset? With the Galaxy S II getting an update to Ice Cream Sandwich, is the Nexus worth the additional premium?
We've been testing the Galaxy Nexus for about a week now and it's time to share our thoughts and findings.
That said, lately Samsung have dominated high-end Gingerbread handsets with their Galaxy S II, so a second pairing with them is no bad thing at all.
It has been a month since the initial announcement of Ice Cream Sandwich and the Galaxy Nexus. This article can be considered both a follow up to that event, scrutinising the promises Google gave us of the future of Android, as well as a review the phone itself. Does Ice Cream Sandwich deliver on those promises to enchant, simplify and make us awesome? :D
The excitement surrounding the launch surprised even us, with large numbers declaring that the Galaxy Nexus was to be their next phone. A Google Experience Device represents two things, hardware designed in partnership with Google and a “pure android experience”, devoid of any manufacturer or carrier customisations. Unlike Apple or Microsoft who provide access to betas for developers and other interested parties, the release of a new GED is also the first time people can get their hands on the latest Android OS, increasing demand, albeit artificially.
Now that the initial launch hype has died down a little and we've had a week with the phone, we feel qualified to impart our findings, good and bad.
The contents of the slender box are pretty standard for a modern smartphone. Aside from the device itself, you'll find the 1750mAh battery, stereo in-ear handsfree, 1m USB cable and charger.
The handsfree is the same in-ear type that shipped with the Galaxy S II. They’re perfectly serviceable but at the same time aren’t going to set the world on fire. Unless the microphone or button are important to you, you’ll find yourself switching them out quite quickly.
The first thing you notice when you get hold of the Galaxy Nexus is its size. Admittedly, it's no Galaxy Note, but it's one of the largest Android devices we've used. With a 4.65” screen it’s even bigger than the 4.3” Galaxy S II which we’d previously considered to be our limit. Thanks to the shape of the back and the relative thinness of the phone at 8.94mm it still sits well, both in your hand and jeans pocket. It’s also incredibly light for a device of its size, at only 135g - 6g heavier than the Nexus S and 5g lighter than the iPhone 4s.
Nexus S, Galaxy Nexus, Galaxy S II
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Aesthetically, the body of the phone is relatively understated. Metallic grey plastic covers most of the exterior with only three buttons, one for power and two for volume. There are three small brass contacts on the right hand side for a Pogo-Pin desktop dock and both headphone and USB ports are located at the base. The back of the phone has a thin plastic cover, similar to the Galaxy S2, which we’ve already learned that despite feeling flimsy is made of particularly hard-wearing and resilient plastic. The bulge we saw along the bottom of the back on the Galaxy S II returns on the Galaxy Nexus, accommodating the speaker and vibration motor.
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Pogo Pins, USB Port, Headphone Jack and Speaker
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In terms of sensors, the Galaxy Nexus contains the usual selection of gyroscope, accelerometer, compass, light sensor and proximity sensor. Samsung are also including a barometer this time around to assist with location positioning, by providing altitude the barometer will help the phone get a more accurate fix quicker.
While we’re not against the idea of having the headphone jack at the bottom as we did with the Nexus S, the placement isn’t ideal. It’s located closer to the back of the phone and as a result part of the side of the headphone jack is exposed. With the stock headset the connection was fine, but proved problematic with the larger plug on a pair of super.fi 5’s. Such plugs aren't uncommon on aftermarket headsets and the extra protruding plastic would ocassionally catch when going into a pocket, interrupting the connection.
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With the supplied headset, with a pair of super.fi 5's
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Turning the phone on for the first time quelled any worries we might have had about the Pentile display. It’s bright, vibrant and providing you’re looking at HD content, ridiculously sharp. The panel only shows very slight inconsistency when the screen dims just before shutting off completely; solid regions of colour may appear slightly noisy or dirty - something a tweak to the brightness settings would eliminate. The 720P resolution, combined with the rich blacks of the AMOLED panel is a real treat to use and better than anything we’ve handled previously.
The default auto-brightness is a little aggressive, as are the screen timeouts. When we’re given such a beautiful display to wonder at, shutting off after only 15 seconds is a tad overenthusiastic. Thankfully this is easily changed from the Settings.
Like the Nexus S, the Galaxy Nexus has a “Contour Display”, which to us mere mortals means the screen is slightly concave along its length. The curvature is a little more subtle this time, but still feels comfortable in use. It’s worth noting that unlike most of the high-end smartphones, Samsung aren’t using Corning Gorilla Glass, nor do they claim what they’re using is superior. We’ve no idea what the reasoning behind this is. There may be cost or fabrication issues making the Contour Displays from such material.
Top to bottom: Nexus S, Galaxy S II, Galaxy Nexus
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Something which will remain unique to the Galaxy Nexus, even once other handsets get their Ice Cream Sandwich upgrades in the coming weeks, is the removal of the familiar capacitive buttons across the bottom of the screen. Taking a leaf out of the Honeycomb handbook, Google has done away with them entirely and instead employ a set of virtual buttons when and wherever they’re needed. They go so far as to call the phone buttonless, which isn’t strictly true, but we get their point. The search button is gone and the menu button appears as a column of three dots when the OS detects its need, leaving 3 standard buttons, back, home and the new Application Switcher. In applications such as Camera the new buttons fade out to to three dots, while apps such as YouTube can toggle to a full-screen view and reclaim the extra space to render video.
As with any change of this nature, things are rarely perfect first time and we’ve experienced a few minor glitches with the new virtual buttons. The first is that certain applications, such as Facebook, aren’t detected as needing the menu button, so it doesn’t appear at all. This makes it impossible to access the settings menu. The second occurs when you lock the device with an app open that uses the menu key. On waking the device with the power button, the menu button is visible from the lock screen. If the device has no security set up this button will unlock the handset when touched but becomes inert if you’re using a code, pattern or face unlock to secure it.
One thing we really missed when we traded the Nexus One for a Nexus S and all its Gingerbread goodness was the notification LED. It didn’t really dawn on us just how big a deal it was until we found ourselves without it. It would appear Google and Samsung agreed. Unlike the Nexus One with its trackball, it’s much more subtle and has been implemented as an RGB LED concealed in the bezel at the bottom of the screen. The subtle indication it provides as to which app is trying to get your attention is really handy, especially in situations where waking a bright screen might not be appropriate. Some of our fave apps such as TweetDeck support it and set appropriate colourful notifications without any additional configuration.
If you’ve already used a Honeycomb tablet, quite a lot of the changes from Gingerbread in Ice Cream Sandwich will already be familiar. Android 4.0 succeeds both 2.x and 3.x and is the first Android release intended for tablet and phone. Gone are the greens and greys of Gingerbread and Honeycomb. They are instead replaced by white and blue UI elements, the new Android font ‘Roboto’ and a number of OS wide gestures and conventions to make the whole experience more consistent.
The lockscreen presents the usual time, date, notification and system icons and adds the ability to access the notification tray if no security has been set up by swiping down from the top as you would in normal use. Tapping on notifications will unlock the device and go straight to the app in question. As with Honeycomb, the device is unlocked by swiping a padlock icon to the edge of a circle which surrounds it, although this time swiping to the right performs a normal unlock while a swipe to the left will unlock and launch the default camera.
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In practice it’s a bit of a novelty and we rarely found ourselves able to use it because of the need to aim the camera to perform an unlock, something that’s not always appropriate to do when you’re out and about. Thankfully face unlock offers a fallback to pin or pattern if the device can’t spot its owner.
Following speculation that face unlock could be defeated with a simple photograph we did try and fool it with a mixture of photographs, prints and images onscreen but weren’t successful. It’s almost certainly possible but we’re not sure if this represents a huge security flaw. If the person breaking in to your phone knows what you look like and has opportunity to take a decent picture to use they’ve probably also had ample opportunity to watch you unlock the phone by PIN or pattern. If your photo is already freely available online due to work or social networking then it stands to reason face unlock probably isn’t suitable, any more than it would be to put your pin code on your blog and use that.
The stock launcher in Ice Cream Sandwich is a hybrid of the ones we’re familiar with from Honeycomb and Gingerbread with a few new features thrown in for good measure. Google have added a search box directly below the status bar which behaves in the same way as the old search widget. Directly below it is the usual 4x4 grid for icons and widgets and and the lower bar which held the 3 icons for phone, the application tray and browser now holds a total of 5 icons, adding the People app and the SMS client. Apps dragged to the desktop can now be grouped in folders.
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As with Honeycomb, installing applications will now add their icon to the first page of the launcher providing there’s room, it’s a useful way to remind you what you’ve just installed but can leave the home screen cluttered quite quickly. All of the stock widgets have had some kind of overhaul and many are resizable.
Android 4.0 adds a couple of neat enhancements to the notification tray. Toward the top of the pane there’s an icon to access Settings directly and it’s now possible to dismiss individual notifications by swiping them sideways. Users of the default Google Music player will find that the notification tray will also now display album art, track details and play controls whilst listening to content.
The application tray is very similar to that of Honeycomb, with two tabs for applications and widgets. A long press on either will fade the app tray out and allow you to place apps or widgets on the pages of the launcher. In the top-right corner an icon has been added to go directly to Android Market. Third party apps can be uninstalled directly from the application tray by long-pressing and then dragging the app in question up to an ‘uninstall’ option which slides down from the top of the screen.
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A new People app replaces the old contacts functionality and deserves special mention. In addition to managing your address book it aggregates updates by your contacts from a number of other accounts and sources including Google Talk. It will also include status updates from services such as Twitter but requires the installation of the official app. Once set up though you’ll get status updates and presence beans both on your contacts pages and through People widgets providing you link your contacts correctly. When we look at the new People app it's difficult not to mention the People tiles in Windows Phone 7. For once Microsoft got it right first and it’s great to see that Google provide comparable functionality with an Android twist.
Updated Google Apps
All of the core Google apps have had some kind of overhaul, a mixture of visual changes to match the new styling of the new OS and functional additions. GMail has a new row of icons across the bottom of the screen and the Calendar app finally supports multi-touch to pinch and zoom your way to scheduled greatness. Google Plus is now built-in.
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Calendar, Gmail and Google +
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An Improved Browser
The Android browser on the other hand has seen significant reworking both cosmetically and under the hood and is absolutely fantastic.
Native bookmark sync via your Google Account as seen in Honeycomb is now supported. Additional windows are accessible via a button to the right of the address bar and it’s possible to request the full desktop version of the site with two taps.
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Performance and compliance have both improved significantly, as you can see from the scores below:
Currently, the only thing missing is Flash support as the existing Market download isn't compatible. While Adobe have announced that they're pulling out of mobile flash in favor of HTML5 we're told an Ice Cream Sandwich compatible release will be available through the Android Market before Christmas. We're not convinced that once Flash arrives we'll be installing it though, we've not really missed it or the resource drain it brings in tow.
As with Honeycomb, most Gingerbread apps run flawlessly on the new OS. The only big exceptions we’re aware of are Facebook whose settings menu isn’t accessible, TweetDeck which has some layout issues on a 720p display and Andchat, which is unusable due to stability issues.
Apps such as Facebook will get a fix in due course. In the interim we’ve a fix providing you’re willing to root your handset, available here or in the Galaxy Nexus ROM kitchen. Tweetdeck is a different matter entirely, since acquisition by Twitter the only thing they’ve done is withdraw features. Thankfully Paul has stepped in and produced a fixed version of the app which resolves most of the layout problems.
Gingerbread apps are only part of the picture though, Ice Cream Sandwich also has the ability to install Honeycomb apps and the situation there is pretty different. Presumably because of the simple logic that 4.0 > 3.0, market allows the installation of apps intended for Android 3.0 (i.e. tablets) and it can have some interesting results.
TweetComb was one of the better Twitter clients for Honeycomb and demonstrates well what happens when Honeycomb apps are installed on ICS. While the app does install, it insists on running in landscape orientation and just doesn’t fit the screen.
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This could be deemed a poor test as many developers who wrote Honeycomb apps never anticipated that their code would end up installed on a phone. However, it is possible for users to do so and some inevitably will, resulting in the usual selection of unhelpful comments when the apps don’t behave as they are expected.
Two variants of the Galaxy Nexus are available, a pentaband HSPA+ model, which is the unit we’ve been using and an LTE variant that Verizon are going to begin selling in the US before Christmas. With the exception of their radios the only other way in which they differ is thickness, the LTE model being slightly heavier set to accommodate the radio and a higher-capacity battery.
Both units support 802.11 b/g/n (both 2.4 and 5GHz), have a Bluetooth 3.0 radio and NFC with the antenna located in the battery.
Most of our testing was conducted on O2 and T Mobile; performance overall has been great. Typical transfer rates on O2 were around 6Mb down, 1.5Mb up.
If you’ve been following recent tech news coverage you’ll likely have seen reports of volume issues on handsets whilst connected to 900mHz networks when they fall back to 2G operation due to signal or coverage. Google have already acknowledged the bug and we’re told that they have a fix in testing which will be released OTA in the near future to resolve the issue.
While this didn’t occur during normal testing, we were eventually able to replicate the bug and Paul already has a fix available here.
When we finally got around to making voice calls on the Galaxy Nexus we were pleasantly surprised with the call quality, although the loudspeaker is slightly weedier than we'd like.
Ice Cream Sandwich has seen several changes which impact the way it behaves over USB when compared to Gingerbread. Prior to Honeycomb, the internal storage of a device was partitioned off and mounted as a virtual SDCard, allowing Android to present it as removable storage when connected via USB. The problem with doing that has always been that this kind of block-level access requires exclusive use of the partition and means that the phone has to relinquish access to it temporarily. This can have some unpredictable and/or unpleasant consequences for applications that are still attempting to run on the phone. The other issue with this approach is that it unnecessarily limits the amount of storage allocated to other purposes, such as installing apps. This is why a handset sold with 16GB internal storage will report 2GB (or less) for your apps straight out of the box.
Google moved away from this structure in Honeycomb by merging these partitions into a single volume that the OS could have exclusive access to. The consequence of this change is that it’s no longer possible to present the on-device storage as USB Mass Storage. Instead when the phone is connected it presents itself as a media player via MTP and can be manually switched to PTP operation for machines which don’t support it.
The matter is exacerbated somewhat by the lack of a microSD slot on the Galaxy Nexus. Ice Cream Sandwich will present storage cards as USB Mass Storage when connected to a computer in the same way Honeycomb did. Without one, MTP/PTP are your only options across a cable, short of resorting to tomfoolery with ADB.
From the way some folk have reacted to the news this may seem like a big deal, in real-world use it didn’t create any showstopping problems. Media transferred from a PC fine, although these days our preference is to use Google Music. Pictures transferred from Mac and PC without issue (we used PTP on the Mac so as to be able to use Image Capture) and other file transfers could be initiated from the phone. For the most part the change appears to be for the better, letting users utilise more of their device storage in the ways they want to, albeit with a slight shift in the way they get data on or off the handset.
In fact, the only place we can foresee any issue is with devices such as car stereos that don’t support MTP. While quite a lot of modern in-car audio will happily support it (devices such as iPods have never presented mass storage, for example) there are going to be a few units out there they won’t play nicely with MTP. It’s worth checking that yours isn’t on that list if playing music from your phone through your car stereo via USB is essential.
Like the Galaxy S II, the Galaxy Nexus supports HDMI across the micro USB port, by way of MHL or Mobile High-Definition Link.
We used the Samsung MHL Adapter for our Galaxy S II to hook the Galaxy Nexus up to a plasma TV and it worked without issue. Ice Cream Sandwich behaves slightly differently over HDMI than the Gingerbread did on the S II though, going into horizontal orientation and ignoring the gyroscope. In practice this makes perfect sense; portrait operation over HDMI left a lot of wasted space on each side.
Two cameras are installed in the Galaxy Nexus. A 5MP with LED flash adorns the rear and a 1.3MP is up front to the right of the earpiece for video calling.
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Google went to great lengths during the launch to emphasize the speed and responsiveness of the Nexus when taking photos, claiming the handset had zero shutter lag. We’ve taken hundreds of photos in the past week and have to agree it’s very quick indeed.
The new camera software in Ice Cream Sandwich is excellent. Face detection works well and the tap-to-focus is usually spot on. Once you’ve snapped your picture, sharing has been made even easier, requiring as little as two taps to open and push the picture to the last service used.
Panoramas have been added to the new camera app and providing the scene is lit evenly can produce pretty good results. Rather than take several photos and overlay their edges the phone achieves this through continuous shooting. Starting at the left edge of your panorama tap the shutter, slowly and evenly pan the camera to the right watching the guide below the picture which will warn if the device is moving too quickly. Tap the button again at the end and the phone processes the result.
We experienced a few issues with panorama shots that included a strong change in lighting, resulting in very obvious vertical banding as can be seen in the samples below. This is very likely to be something that Google can fix in software in a subsequent update.
We’re in two minds about the decision to go with a 5MP sensor though when there are devices that have been on the market for 6 months or more with an 8MP module. It may be that the decision was influenced by a need for speed that this particular sensor offered (the bigger the frame the slower the transfer) but if that’s the case then maybe the tech wasn’t quite ready. While the photos taken in normal light are passable, the snaps we took in low light and duller conditions were decidedly underwhelming.
Note: We’re aware of the framing differences between the test shots, the lens in the Galaxy S2 is slightly wider-angle and we opted to shoot from the same position rather than reposition and potentially skew the lighting.
The rear camera is capable of 1080P at 30fps and takes reasonable video. Google have included some novelty filters to distort the subjects and replace the background, similar to Photo Booth on Mac OS X. They’re fairly impressive as they detect the location of the subject to apply the effect rather than relying on them to be in the center of the frame.
At the front, the camera is capable of 720p and is also adequate, although we noticed from testing that the orientation was slightly off. Holding a handset such as the Galaxy S II level to our faces oriented in portrait we’re framed perfectly, whereas the Galaxy Nexus looks slightly over your right hand shoulder. We're still investigating whether this is a manufacturing error or whether the orientation is simply incorrect.
Testing the battery life on new hardware is usually tricky. It typically requires re-running tests on both the unit you’re examining and your reference unit simply because of the elevated use any new device will see during its initial evaluation.
However, in the case of the Galaxy Nexus and its stock 1750mAh battery, it has fared exceptionally well in daily use. Even with the extended Anker battery installed, our Galaxy S II is usually buzzing away to inform us that it's low on juice before the day is over. The Galaxy Nexus seems happy to do 20 hours+ on a single charge and has done so consistently over the past week.
Overall, the Galaxy Nexus is an incredibly impressive piece of kit. We’ve found a few minor points but the good far outweighs them. There's no doubt in our minds that it's the top Android handset available on the market today.
No phone is perfect, particularly at release. Most flagship devices that launch with a new OS are swarmed with issues and with the exception of the 900MHz bug which has affected a handful of users we’re just not seeing it here. Google have responded quickly with a fix. It’s a long way from the radio crash of the Nexus S or the iPhone 4 with its death grip and there are already fixes available for many of those points.
Google and Samsung have together produced a handset which is in some ways even bigger then the iPAQs we used to carry around half a decade ago but is as comfortable to use and carry around as any of the other smartphones we currently sat on our desks. The enhancements Ice Cream Sandwich brings to Android elevates the OS to a new high and will now also hit many of the key points important to users who may have typically gone for more ‘aesthetically focused’ devices.
Android is growing up, Ice Cream Sandwich is exactly what Google promised us, albeit with a couple of very minor rough edges that they’ll no doubt file away with the next couple of minor releases.
We’re still not sold on Google’s approach of holding back the release of the new OS, even developer previews until after a device ships. That in part has always been the selling point of a GED and we really think they’re missing a trick. If nothing else, it might have meant some of the glitches with apps that we’ve mentioned above could have been avoided. But that’s the topic for an editorial piece on another day.
- Best release of Android yet
- Big beautiful HD screen
- Great browser
- Really fast
- Excellent battery life
- 5MP sensor is pretty weak
- Front camera alignment seems a little off
- Panoramas could be better
- No Micro-SD slot
- Headphone jack placement
- 5MP sensor is pretty weak