Here’s the thing about the Galaxy Nexus: It is the best Android phone available now by such a huge margin that I am prepared to say that shoppers should either buy it or steer clear of Android entirely. And that has nothing to do with its hardware.
I am putting forth a call to arms: Let us not care so much about hardware, Android friends. Let us not pay mind to mobile processor clock speed, to millimeters of body thickness, to HDMI-out ports and docking stations and removable batteries. The Galaxy Nexus is the best Android phone because its software was designed for humans. More than any other ‘Droid previous, using the Galaxy Nexus just makes sense. And for that we can thank its stock install of something called Ice Cream Sandwich.
The Nexus line is Google’s “reference line” of Android phones—each one (this is the third) is the first phone to carry the new version of Android, completely unencumbered by the custom interfaces tacked on by most other manufacturers. They’re intended to be the purest version of Android of their generation. The Galaxy Nexus is the first with Android 4.0, called “Ice Cream Sandwich,” or ICS (Android code names use alphabetical dessert names—Cupcake, Donut, Eclair, Froyo, etc). More phones with ICS will come, and soon—and they will have skins, like HTC’s Sense UI. But this is the phone Google wants us to think of when we think of ICS.
Ice Cream Sandwich is easily the biggest update to the smartphone version of Android since the original Droid’s Android 2.0. A lot has changed—too much to cover everything in detail. But sticking to the highlights:
The look of Android is quite different from before: it’s now cool and blue, with spare lines and black backgrounds. There’s a new, custom-made font. There are friendly animations. The buttons are completely different—instead of the traditional four Android buttons (Home, Menu, Search, and Back), there are…well, technically, there are none. The buttons have been moved to the screen itself, and shrunk to three: Home, Back, and Recent Apps. The camera app has been overhauled. All of the first-party apps, like Gmail and Maps, are new. Icons and folders are more three-dimensional. The keyboard is new. Google Plus is heavily integrated. The list could go on, but it won’t, because it’s long enough already.
Click to launch a tour of the Galaxy Nexus and Ice Cream Sandwich.
Just about everything listed in the section above is a good change. But more importantly, Ice Cream Sandwich comes very close, dangerously close, to the ethereal goal of “just working.” It is fast and responsive as all hell. That is impressive technologically, but for humans, it’s more important as an element of a phone that feels like it’s working with you, not against you. There’s no lag: when you swipe, it moves. This is not as easy as it sounds; I’ve always felt Android had a distinct lag between your finger and what was happening on screen, and throughout most of the Galaxy Nexus, that’s now gone.
The new buttons are great; they save space, but they’re also very functional, rotating when you want to rotate the screen, adding a menu button when you’re using an app that needs one, disappearing when you’re playing a game or watching a video.
Apple stole Android’s swipe-down notifications shade in iOS5, and while Apple’s is prettier, Ice Cream Sandwich seems to say “oh yeah? Enjoy the first generation. Here’s what we’ve done with years of practice.” There’s an embedded settings button in the shade, so you can jump in there and turn Wi-Fi or Bluetooth on and off, or change your brightness, or whatever, in one tap. You can swipe notifications away one by one—just tap and toss them off the phone.
This animation comes from Matias Duarte, the user interface genius behind the beloved and now-extinct Palm Pre, who is now a design bigwig at Google. It is the perfect way to deal with things you don’t want: it’s like grabbing an unwanted piece of junk mail and pushing it off your desk. Now your desk is clean! That same UI trick pops up in a few other places, and it never fails to make your phone feel simultaneously intuitive and transparent, which is not an easy trick.
All the new apps are great; Android’s biggest strength, I always thought, was its Google apps. Maps on Android is in a different league than anywhere else, as is Gmail. The browser has been redesigned, smartly. Tabs can be swiped-to-close, just like notifications or open apps. Pages are rendered very nicely (though I found the tap-to-zoom-in-on-text, as well as pinch-to-zoom, to be less reliable and natural than on the iPhone 4S). There’s a mode to request the desktop, rather than mobile, version of a site—ideal for the sites that, frustratingly, don’t provide such links for you. There’s a “save for offline reading” mode so you can read longer stories later, even when you’ve got no wireless signal. Mobile Flash, recently shuttered by Adobe, is not currently available on ICS—it may come later, but I didn’t miss it, even though it was occasionally nice to have the option.
The keyboard is great. I’ve used Android for a long time, with many different devices, and this is the first time I did not immediately download a better keyboard app from the Market. It’s the right amount of sensitive, autocorrect is unobtrusive and helpful, and it gets what you’re trying to say. Job well done, Android keyboard developers.
There are lots of nice little features, which you’ll discover as you go, ranging from NFC to a new unlock mode that recognizes your face to a new People app that collects info from all your friends. There are tons of goodies in here which you’ll discover as you use it.
Is mediocre. Please, guys, no more cheap-feeling, lightweight plastic phones. The Galaxy Nexus is made by Samsung, and feels like the Galaxy S, or the Focus, or any other modern Samsung phone. It’s wildly thin (maybe a hair thinner than the iPhone 4S at its thinnest point), but it’s still light and plastic-y. It is not impossible to make great-looking and great-feeling phones that aren’t the iPhone—just ask Nokia—but the Galaxy Nexus is just, you know, fine. When I reviewed the Nokia Lumia 800, I kept trying to get other people to hold it. “Feel how great it feels to feel!” I’d sputter. No such illiterate enthusiasm here. It’s not bad either, just nothing special.
The screen warrants some talk. It’s sized at 4.65-inches, which is just insanity. 4.3 inches has become the accepted size of a “big” phone, so I was positive a 4.65-incher would be unusable, but in fact the Galaxy Nexus as a whole is just slightly larger than a 4.3-inch phone like the Droid Bionic (pictured). Partly that’s because a portion of the screen is devoted to the new “buttons,” and partly it’s because the phone has a pretty small bezel. It’s still a little too big, I think—I’d have preferred a Nexus with a 4.3-inch screen that physically is much smaller—but aside from a couple stretches to tap something in the upper-left corner of the screen, I can proclaim the Galaxy Nexus usable for people with average-to-large hands. The extra space is nice for watching videos or reading Kindle books (suddenly a pleasant experience on a phone), and the screen itself is great: ICS mandates a true 720p resolution, and the Super AMOLED display is very clear, with some of the deepest blacks I’ve seen.
The camera’s speed is unparalleled—it’s very fast to shoot and then ready itself for the next shot, even faster than the iPhone 4S. But the sensor in the Galaxy Nexus itself is surprisingly bad. It’s a 5MP shooter, and compared to photos from the iPhone 4S or even other Android phones like the Samsung Galaxy S II, I found the Nexus’s shots washed out, fuzzy, and without detail. That’s a hardware issue, I suppose. Bummer, though. Future Ice Cream Sandwich phones will hopefully use better sensors.
The Galaxy Nexus will be released on Verizon’s network here in the States, and it’ll boast 4G LTE, which is pretty killer. My review unit is on T-Mobile’s HSPA+ network, so I can’t make any judgment about the Nexus’s 4G speeds or battery life (a constant concern with 4G phones). It won’t have a slot for expandable memory (most Android phones do) and rumors indicate it’ll probably have 32GB of internal storage on Verizon. Call quality on today’s phones usually has more to do with the network than the phone itself, but the Galaxy Nexus I tested delivered stellar-sounding calls on T-Mobile.
Android is still not as streamlined as iOS or Windows Phone. Perhaps Android phone fans don’t want it to be. Ice Cream Sandwich is a big step forward, but there are still elements that feel redundant or messy. Having three ways to do something doesn’t make it easier to use; it makes it harder to learn the rules of the operating system, harder to understand why certain things work certain ways and thus harder to perform new actions for the first time, since you’re not sure how it’ll respond. Some apps require a menu button, which will pop up next to the Recent Apps button at the bottom right of the screen. Some don’t need one. Some do, but you’ll find it in the upper right corner instead. Ugh.
Sometimes you scroll through things vertically starting at the bottom (like in the Recent Apps list or browser tabs). Sometimes you scroll through things vertically starting at the top (like every other app ever, including contacts and music). But then the app drawer scrolls horizontally. Every single time I opened the app drawer, I tried to swipe it up, the way non-Samsung Android phones have always worked. Why, Google? Why change that?
The home screen is my least favorite part of the entire OS: it not only permits messiness, it encourages it. There are still five home screens, and you can’t change that number. I never saw the need for more than one or two; the complete list of apps is one tap away, so why do you need to litter five homescreens with widgets and multiple redundant shortcuts?
Android is powerful and flexible, yes. You can do all kinds of crazy things! But that’s like saying a huge buffet is always better than a carefully composed dish from a chef. I don’t want to make Android something it’s not, and there are definitely times when it’s thrilling to be able to make my phone look just the way I want it to, but some consistency and limits might help here.
And once you get away from the warm blue glow of Google’s first-party apps, performance takes a hit. Scrolling is noticeably jerkier and less natural in non-Google apps. The app selection is still not very cohesive; it sounds like an unfair claim, but the majority of Android apps are not as pretty or as fun to use as those on Windows Phone or iOS. Functional, sure, and there are an awful lot of apps in the Market. But mostly they are not as good. (Examples: Rdio, Twitter, IMDb, Hulu Plus.) The Music app is still disappointing; I’m not sure what the problem is there, but Android’s default music player has always been curiously ugly and un-fun to use to me. There are lots of replacements in the Market, luckily (I recommend Winamp, although the official Music app is the only one that integrates with Google Music’s cloud-streaming storage feature).
None of the principal folks involved with the Galaxy Nexus (that’d be Google, Samsung, and Verizon) have announced price or availability in the States. Good bet would be soon, though.
The Galaxy Nexus is the best Android phone I’ve ever used, heads and tails above anything else on the market. The speed, the new sleek blue-and-grayscale look, the new Google apps, the new and easier ways to manage what’s happening on your phone—there’s no contest. With Verizon’s 4G, presuming the 4G doesn’t reduce the Nexus’s battery life to zero in a few hours, it’ll be a damn fine phone, and not just for dedicated Androiders.
I love the direction Ice Cream Sandwich is going: toward a more consistent, simpler, more fun experience, while retaining that tinkerer’s ability to do anything. Finding that balance is as hard as balancing an egg on its end; it may turn out to be impossible to please everyone. But I have no hesitation in recommending the Nexus if you’re leaning toward or curious about Android. It makes other Android phones feel much older than their age, and I mean that in the best way.